New Directions in the Sociology of Art

[Given at the ESA colloque in Paris, April 2003]

It’s customary to call for “new directions” in the study of this or that, as though the old directions had failed us, as though we were stuck and not getting anywhere. In this case, I don’t accept that premise. We have a number of old directions that seem very serviceable to me, still capable of orienting people toward excellent pieces of research. Nevertheless, the conveners of this colloque wanted “New Directions” and I’ll do my best to please them.

So I’ll propose a “new direction,” which is a genetic approach to the sociological study of art works and art worlds. Such an approach encompasses two sorts of research. The first is the study, upstream, of how some artistic phenomenon-- a work, a style, a genre, an entire art world--comes into being, step by step; all the things that are done, in the order they are done by the people who do them, in the course of the object of study (which I’ll from now on speak of as a “work,” this being understood as encompassing the variety of things I just mentioned) coming to be what it is. I suggested, in Art Worlds, that it is interesting to think about this part of a work’s history, from the point of view of the artist, as editing (in the sense that photographers give that word and idea), looking at all the decisions, conscious and otherwise, that the artist makes that make the work (or genre, etc., I won’t repeat this from now on) what it is. In the case of multi-artist works, where no one is quite sure, or where it isn’t agreed, who the artist is--you would naturally study the decisions of the several people or groups involved and how disputes among them are settled. In the case of a genre or a style, you would include all the people whose work and ideas contributed to that development, including among them, naturally, the aestheticians and historians who gave a collection of tendencies such a name and pedigree.

On the other hand, moving downstream from the work, you would study its continuing history, what happened to it after whatever date you decide is appropriate to consider it “done,” for which an extended version of the technique of tracing a provenance is an apt metaphor. That is, after “it” is done, what happens to it?

A few preliminary remarks. First of all, I don’t propose that this is a unique and original idea. Far from it. I have made use of the ideas and researches of many others in arriving at this position, as will become clear, and have already said many of these things myself.

But, though there is nothing new under the sun, it is often helpful to put ideas into a provisional framework that indicates their relationships and similarities. We can then profit from the novel juxtapositions systematic comparison confronts us with, using them to see processes and phenomena we are ordinarily too accustomed to notice, and to learn from them about new dimensions of the things we are interested in.

A second point. It is not obvious where upstream stops and downstream begins. The history of any work or style or genre starts--where? Wherever we choose to begin we can always find something that came before that is relevant to the story we are going to tell, and there is something that came still later that could equally well be regarded as an appropriate starting point. We can, of course, regard the present minute as the place where the downstream stops for analytic purpose. This is not to counsel despair but simply to recognize that the choice is arbitrary, dictated by our questions and the available data and time, but not by anything inherent in the events we are studying. (This is like the question of periodization in history.)

What can the outcome of this exercise reasonably be expected to be? I don’t think it will produce startling new results or a new Grand Theory of Art and Society. What I hope for, rather, is to suggest some typical trajectories, typical stages we may find in our investigation of a new empirical area--not a “law” about how genres necessarily develop from an authentic expression of something to a commercialized version of it, for instance, but the description of how that sort of process works when and where it occurs.


Starting with the material to be analyzed, we can look back at the steps that produced it. A good way to do this is to think of everything that happens to the work, and is then incorporated into it, as a choice somebody (or somebodies) made, even though often enough the choice is not conscious and deliberate but instead the use of a material or technique or idea that is so conventional as to be almost “unconscious” (if I can use that word without any heavy psychological overtones creeping in).

It is axiomatic, in the sociological study of work processes, that the most fruitful moments for the sociologist are those where the participants disagree, quarrel, fight. Because at these moments some agreement, whether it existed in fact or was only hoped for, has broken down. When people say to each other, “I expected you to do X [be able to play the notes my score calls for or, alternatively, to write notes I can play]” an underlying expectation on which interaction had been so securely premised that it did not come up for discussion, and which had very likely been “unconscious,” is revealed for our analysis.

Where do such moments of conflict typically occur? They often arise at the social margin between two groups--for instance, in the interaction of professionals of various kinds in the production of art works: between suppliers of materials and artists, between artists and lay people, between artists and people who deal with the finances of the artistic enterprise. What is characteristic here is that each such group brings to the encounter an established set of ideas about how things are to be done, who gives the orders, how the money is divided and distributed, and so on about all the things that participants in a joint art enterprise expect of one another.

For each such margin, where conflict is possible and even likely, we can suppose that there are characteristic patterns of fighting and resolution and that there will often be an historical process by which a fight turns into a set of customary procedures that will last for a while. So we can look for the process that will eventually produce a customary solution to the current fights over the division of income from an art work that have been engendered by the rise of computers and their associated practices: marketing via the internet, widespread ability to easily copy works, or the issue of ‘sampling” musical works to create new ones. Just as earlier quarrels produced a set of arrangements about copyrights, royalties, droits d'auteur, etc.

Such an area is in itself tremendously complicated and I will only refer here to the wonderful work of Richard Caves, the economist, who has brought the full armament of economic theory to bear fruitfully on a variety of problems that arise here, as well as to Pierre-Michel Menger’s analyses of the labor market for artists.


We can begin with Latour’s well-known remark: “the fate of what we say and make is in later users” hands.” (Science in Action, p. 29) He is talking about scientific facts, but the remark is equally applicable to works of art. Once we pass the point we have chosen as the pivot between upstream and downstream--a common and good place to put that point is when the work leaves the hands of the one conventionally identified as the creator--we can choose a later point as the other end of the trajectory we want to study. And then we can do an extended version of what art historians do when they construct a provenance for a painting. They try to account for the picture’s whereabouts at all times, to show an unbroken chain of ownership and physical possession: who got it from who under what circumstances. 

I became aware of this as a possible technique for social scientists when I came across Hans Haacke’s inventive use of it to show how a painting by Manet had moved through a number of owners, including some well-to-do and scholarly Jewish families, eventually to be purchased by the Friends of the Cologne Art Museum, whose chairman had been a highly placed Nazi during those years. Haacke did not do this to establish the authenticity of the painting, which is the usual aim of an art historian’s provenance. He used the technique as part of his larger project of showing the morally shaky ground on which the financial well-being of major art world institutions rested.

We can generalize Haacke’s procedure a little by suggesting it as a method for studying the financial bases of art world institutions: checking out the history of ownership of objects, looking for the key moments at which the object changed hands, at which we might expect shifts in valuations and aesthetic judgments will show themselves very clearly.

Another typical sequence occurs in the development of certain genres, with a shift in audiences and in an associated moral judgment of the work. Here I refer to the kind of research done by Richard Peterson and David Grazian on the problem of the authenticity, in a different sense than the art-historical, of some kinds of “folk” musics, country and Western music in Peterson’s case, and blues in Grazian’s . Here the music is thought to be the authentic reflection or product of a way of life that is ethnically distinct or somehow closely related to the life conditions of the people who play it, sing it, dance to it, listen to it. Part of the pleasure the music produces is the audience’s knowledge that it is “the real thing,” unaffected by commercial pressures, a real window into another way of life. But, because people who do not live that life want to see this “real thing,” it becomes possible to sell it to them. 

And so a process begins in which musicians, singers, and composers begin to create versions of the originally authentic music for an audience which only knows of it through recordings. In the paradoxical case studied by Grazian, people come from all over the world to hear “authentic” Chicago blues. They know what that is because they have the recordings they bought. And they come to Chicago in search of what is on their records, played by real blues musicians in real blues clubs, in which all the other customers are the “real people” of whose lives this music was the authentic expression. As you can imagine, this leads to the clubs being filled with such seekers from all over the world, driving the people who formerly went there out, and boring the musicians by insisting that they play exactly what is on the recordings that brought them there. And the club is thus no longer authentic and no longer of interest to the people who have thus destroyed it. A similar process has occurred with respect to “authentic African art,” “authentic pre-Columbian art,” and with respect to many other kinds of art.

A third typical downstream moment occurs when an object is disposed of. “Lasting” is often a criterion of great art but, more prosaically, lasting in a physical sense is a contingency that affects all works. Whether something lasts physically, and therefore aesthetically as well, depends on a great number of choices made by a wide variety of people. First of all, art work is often destroyed. Perhaps as a result of political decisions: examples abound, such as the destruction of churches and their associated art works in England or Spain at various times, or in Afghanistan not long ago. Ray Bradbury made the problem vivid in Fahrenheit °451with the burning of books and their salvation through people who memorized them

Beyond that, there is the unavoidable process of storage. All of us have faced the moment when it became necessary to get rid of things, to make choices of which books or recordings to keep when we move, for instance. It’s a problem that confronts museums and libraries. Either they keep growing forever to accommodate the endless number of new things or they “deaccession” some things to make room for the new. This is a place where there are surely moments when the established ways of doing that become uncomfortable and cause trouble, as when museums are discovered to have gotten rid of things that were given to them to be held in trust forever, but which are no longer thought to be as good as they once were thought. Worse yet when, as so often happens, fifty or a hundred years later, tastes and judgments having shifted again, what had been gotten rid of is now just what is wanted.

A key role can be played here, as Gladys and Kurt Lang showed, by key players who become entrepreneurs devoted to keeping the work, the memory, and the reputation of an artist alive. In their case, it was the wives of a generation of English etchers who did the job, preserving the work, persuading repositories to accept it, and publicizing it when possible. Similarly, “revivals” of the reputation of a work or artist or genre are usually the result of someone deciding to revive the item in question. It is not a matter of quality finally showing through, but rather of an enterprising conductor or player or publisher or director or critic or curator deciding to revive something, for whatever reasons seem pertinent.

More generally, the movement of reputations goes on relentlessly, down, back up again, back down,, as Natalie Heinich has shown in the case of van Gogh and Barbara Herrnstein Smith has described for Shakespeare’s sonnets (we can also mention Francis Haskell’s Rediscoveries in Art).

Finally . . . .

What I have suggested here is not really a “new direction.” But what might be new about it is that I mean to employ relentlessly, and without exception, an analytic perspective that is processual and that takes into account all the players in the drama of art.

By “processual,” I mean, first, that everything in the social world, and art is no exception, changes constantly. Material things change physically: they deteriorate, are destroyed, are redone. Works that are performed are subject to multiple interpretations, occur in different venues, are rewritten by their authors or others. So we can’t talk about a work of art as a stable thing. There is a written score, perhaps, that we can call Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin”--though even there we have to specify whether we mean the six piano pieces or the four he scored for orchestra--but it will not be the same piece performed by different pianists, and will not sound the same in different concert halls nor on recordings played on different equipment. We nevertheless can and do talk about this work as though it were a stable thing. But only because we agree, more or less implicitly, to ignore these differences. Otherwise we would have to specify which performance of the work by which pianist on which piano recorded how . . . . 

Another way to put this is to recognize, as suggested earlier, that the choice of the point from which we reckon “upstream” and “downstream” is arbitrary. 

“Processual” also refers us, as I suggested earlier, to the idea of choice, as expressed in the term “editing” which I have borrowed from photographic practice--the choices made, in the case of a musical work, for instance, of versions, tempi, interpretation of expressive marks, and so on. But that is only the beginning of a very long list, whose contents have, in every case, to be discovered empirically.

Thinking about editing leads to the second point, the large number and variety of people involved in a work’s history. This is a point I have argued at length in Art Worlds. I’ll only remind you here of the list of credits at the end of a film. That list is conventional in film, but similar lists are not conventional in other arts, though they could of course be made. The choice of who, among all the people who might be included in such a list, should be included is somewhat arbitrary. somewhat” because clearly some of the actors are more influential than others. But, on the other hand, it’s important to recognize that this is a multiplicative kind of function. Everyone is important as can be recognized when any one of the actors does not do their job as expected. Then everyone has to adjust to that absence and the work will be different than it would have been had everyone done the expected.

These are things that I think most sociologists of art would say “Of course!” to. But there is a difference between “Of course” and strictly following the guidelines that issue from this position. Following them strictly might be, finally, a New Direction.