An Introduction to Sociological Art Theories

If I am being completely honest, I have put off writing this post for almost a month because it seems so overwhelming. Anyone who has ever read sociological theory knows that it is dense! That being said, I feel the need to get it out on 'paper', as a reference for myself and maybe a helpful reference to someone else who stumbles across this in the future.  

As an introduction to this topic, I read Hans van Maanen's How to Study Art Worlds: On the Societal Functioning of Aesthetic Values.  While about half the book is the author's own work, the first part serves as an introduction to the the main sociologists and their contributions to the field of art sociology. Using How to Study Art Worlds, and some outside references, I'll do my best to introduce the basic theories here, particularly how they relate to my field, which is classical and contemporary classical music.

One could ask, 'what is art sociology'? Or, 'what can sociologists contribute to the understanding of art'? Sociologists of art sometimes lack a formal artistic education, something they are often criticized for, and 'theories' often get a bad rap for being too general and non-applicable/non-helpful to practical situations, artistic or otherwise. While there is some element of truth in both these statements, and I had these impressions sometimes as I was working my way through this book, I do think that sociologists and philosophers (the early sociologists) have tools at their disposal that artists and art educators do not, in terms of having the framework to understand societal and cultural functioning at a meta-level and the desire to analyze mechanisms of social order. Whether we like it or not, western classical art music (and most other art too) relies on some sort of system to enable both art production and sustainability. And I mean a system larger than a music school or a symphony orchestra. That system, frequently referred to as an 'art world' or 'field', is the main focus of most art sociologists - identifying and defining this 'world' and the relationships that exist within it. This includes not only production and distribution of the actual artistic good, but also the process of how we define 'the system', what aesthetic values are considered, why they are, and how this value is acted upon. In essence, "how the organization of art worlds serve the arts to fulfill their functions" (Van Maanen 2009: 125).

ARTHUR DANTO - the idea of an art world

Danto (1924-2013) addressed the concept of an 'art world' in 1964 because he was looking for a way to understand the conceptual and abstract art of the 1950s and 1960s. What is the distinction between an everyday object and an art object of Marcel Duchamp? What is represented in pure abstract art? The changes that took place in art aesthetics made him realize more clearly than ever that "to see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry - an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an art world" (Danto 1964: 577).  An art world, for Danto, was literally that which makes it possible to define and view something as a work of art, focusing predominately on the visual arts. This ideology "deliberately aimed to shift the attention of art historians, critics and other professionals from the tradition idea that artworks have intrinsic value and typical features that make them art, to the view that works become art on the basis of their position in the (historical) context", i.e. position in the art world (Van Maanen 2009: 19). Danto's idea of an 'Art world' has since been replaced by the notion that "works can be identified as artworks because of their specific values and functions" (Van Maanen 2009: 9). This idea of value and function and the resulting 'art world' scheme can then, in theory, be applied to any art form.

GEORGE DICKIE - the institutional approach

While Danto was concerned primarily with what an artwork represents, George Dickie (b. 1926) is concerned with the "space between art and not-art" (Van Maanen 2009: 21). He explored this between 1964-1989 as institutional theory: "an attempt to sketch an account of the specific institutional structure within which works have their being" (Dickie 1984: 27). Dickie did not believe that what art works were 'about' determined their definition as an 'artwork'. And he believed that art could be defined by more than its intrinsic properties. He became determined to distinguish between 'art' (i.e. "this is art") and a 'work of art', or 'art work', and classifying the meaning of 'art work' became the entire basis of institutional theory.

The importance of 'artifactual' art was paramount for Dickie, defining an artwork to be the product of human activity, and generating this heavily used definition: "A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the art world) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation" (Dickie 1971: 101). Dickie considered that the art work, presence of an art world, and the general 'receiving' public all part of his institutional approach. This framework, and the rules for those occupying it, clarified the "significance of conventions in making the art world system operate" (Van Maanen 2009: 28). He was also one of the first to place the public within his system. Dickie acknowledged that his institutional approach does give room to theorize about what artworks do. Furthermore, his theory does not make suggestions about how art functions in society, nor how the art world produce art. What Dickie did, however, provide a theoretical definition of art that removed considerations of essence, value and function, separating the institutional and functional approaches.

MONROE BEARDSLEYthe essentialist

While Van Maanen only refers to Beardsley (1915-1985) in relation to the other theorists, I did want to add him to this list, briefly, because I feel that his philosophies on aesthetics are important to the development sociological art theory. His 1956 Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism is universally acknowledged by philosophers as one of the most important books in the 20th century addressing analytic aesthetics. Aesthetics focuses on literature, music and art, and Beardsley was quite interested in distinguishing between various forms an 'art work': an artifact, its production, a particular performance and a particular presentation (this perspective applies best to performing arts like dance, theater, and music). While he avoided defining art in Aesthetics, especially avoiding the term 'art work', in The Aesthetic Point of View, he said that art is “either an arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character or (incidentally) an arrangement belonging to a class or type of arrangements that is typically intended to have this capacity” (1982: 299). Unlike Dickie, Beardsley was concerned more with what the arts do, not what they are: "there is a function that is essential to human culture (...) and that work of art fulfill, or at least aspire or purport to fulfill" (1976: 209). Beardsley was also one of the first to write against intentionalism; he did not believe that art was defined (or its aesthetic function was defined) by what an artist intended, nor did he believe that the artists intention is relevant to its interpretation. 

HOWARD BECKER - the interactional approach

Sociologist Howard Becker (b. 1928) only addressed art in one book, Art Worlds (1982), and yet he has come to be viewed as a leading voice in the development of art sociology. It seems to me that Becker felt the institutional approaches of Dickie and Danto were 'first steps', from which he tried to expand and explain the 'art world' system using sociological analysis, rather than aesthetic theory, seeking a theorized system that answered questions 'who', 'what', 'how much' and 'how many'. He understood the art world to be a cooperation of participants, even if consensus amongst participants is impossible. Becker came from the 'Chicago School of Symbolic Interactionism', which was a school of social psychology that was concerned with how humans exist/struggle/react to the existing social structures in which they live. This thinking motivated Becker to look at the relationship between participants and the institutions of the art world.

By art world, Becker means "the network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joined knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that art world is noted for" (Becker 1982: X). This means, first, that there are multiple art worlds, depending on the 'kind of art work' produced therein. Becker established what he called collective activity, which drew together seven activities that Becker found necessary for making art: developing an idea, executing the idea, manufacturing the materials needed for execution, distributing, supporting activities, reception and response, and "creating and maintaining the rationale", of which there is no hierarchy (Van Maanen 2009: 35). Not only are artists not independent, but all participants are equally important for creating and sustaining the art world. Further, this means that artistic product is dependent on domains of distribution and reception: "artists make what distribution institutions can assimilate and what audiences appreciate" (Van Maanen 2009: 38). Becker proposes an economic model for the art world system:

(1) [E]ffective demand is generated by people who will spend money for art. (2) What they demand is what they have learned to enjoy and want, and that is a result of their education and experience. (3) Price varies with demand and quality. (4) The works the system handles are those it can distribute effectively enough to stay in operation. (5) Enough artistic will produce works the system can effectively distribute that it can continue to operate. (6) Artists whose work the distribution systems cannot or will not handle find other means of distribution; alternatively, their work achieves minimal or no distribution. (1982: 107)

While this seems very capitalist, very 'supply and demand', there is always the option for artists (true artists, according to Becker) to avoid this conventional system of distribution, either through self support, patronage, or a state subsidy (government support). The result, though, of being 'too' experimental/outside the norm, will be that the work will not be staged, published or exhibited (Van Maanen 2009: 40). And no matter what, Becker says, "artworks always bear the marks of the system which distributes them" (1982: 94). I, myself, wonder what this means for a field like contemporary music. While I do not believe in as cut and dry a system as Becker outlines, with only true artists breaking conventions but never being received, I wonder if its possible to quantify institutional effects on an artwork. There is a lot of new music, in Finland and in the US, which is created within the institution of academia, and it would be interesting to see if differences exist between 'academic' new music and independent new music (or if there is such thing as 'independent music'...).

While Becker provides a great deal more analytic tools than Dickie and Danto, without attempting inclusion of any sort of aesthetic theory, it proves impossible for him to explain further the who, what, why, etc., of art itself. He also cannot rectify his sense that artist have a higher place within the art world (importance, prestige, etc) within the system he has proposed. He also believes that true artists break conventions, which is not compatible in a system that excludes aesthetic value from the artistic world, and also one that views the art world as a fixed system within society (Van Maanen 2009: 42). 

PAUL DIMAGGIO - new institutionalism

Paul DiMaggio (b. 1951) is categorized as a 'new institutionalist', because he, with Walter Powell, co wrote that "institutions begin as conventions, which, because they are based on coincidence of interest, are vulnerable to defection, renegotiation, and free riding" (DiMaggio and Powell 1991: 24).  Institutions have the power to form and sustain social relationships, but they also are subject to change with peoples' interests. DiMaggio is included here because he applied his new institutionalist theories to the art world, and in a quite analytic way. His well known study, "Why Do Some theatres Innovate More than Others. An Empirical Analysis" (Poetics 1985), co written with Kristen Stenberg, concluded that "artistic innovation depends on the behavior of formal organizations" and in order to "understand art, we must understand the dynamics of such organizations and the principals that govern their relationship to their economic and social environment" (1985: 121). DiMaggio and Stenberg thought that too often artists are viewed as the sole innovators, when really, the institutions/fields/organizations within which they work control, to a greater extent, the level of innovativeness.  This notion is especially relevant to my research, in particular the orchestra reports, which reveal trends of orchestral programming and show the amount of contemporary music orchestras play (which is often considered a benchmark for innovation).  

The second important point of the 1985 study was the move away from Max Weber's "Iron Cage" metaphor (humanity is imprisoned in an iron cage of bureaucracy and rational order) and to the view that bureaucracy and rational order are actually the result of 'organizational fields' (formerly identified as institutions). Unlike Becker, who was concerned with interactions between the people in a given 'field', DiMaggio and Stenberg examined the field as a whole and how the field acted upon its members. They did, however, use more traditional institutionalizing methods to define their fields, with a process of four steps based on DiMaggio, 1983: 1) "an increase in the extent of interaction among organizations", 2) "The emergence of inter organizational structures of domination and patterns of coalition", 3) "An increase in the information load with which organizations in a field must contend", and 4) "the development of mutual awareness among participants in a set of organizations that they are involved in a common enterprise" (Van Maanen 2009: 47). These steps will be useful in comparison to Bourdieu's steps below. Further, DiMaggio and Powell identified twelve factors that determine the processes within and structure of a field, two of which are particularly important for art study (1983: 76-77):

The greater the extent to which an organizational field is dependent upon a single (or several similar) source(s) of support for vital resources, the higher the level of isomorphism.
The greater the extent to which organizations in a field transact with agencies of the state, the greater the extent of isomorphism in the field as a whole.

This can be applied to a contemporary music study, not only to use the 4-step processes to determine the relationship between the contemporary music and classical music fields, but also how financial support sources, and whether they are through state agencies, shape the structure of the contemporary music field, and similarities between different contemporary music fields.

PIERRE BOURDIEU - field theory

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) is the most well-known and influential art sociologist of the late twentieth century and his work focused predominantly on the dynamics of power within a society, particularly on cultural, social and symbolic forms of power. For the purposes of his study, Van Maanen focuses on Bourdieu's development of field theory, which was in many ways a direct rebuttal to Howard Becker's 'art world'. Rather than understanding works of art as the result of all the interacting activities of an 'art world', Bourdieu tried "to build a theoretical construct of concepts through which the working of a field can be analyzed" (Van Maanen 2009: 55). His result was -

An artistic field is a structure of relations between positions, which, with the help of several forms of capital, on the one hand, and based on joint illusio and their own doxa, on the other, struggle for specific symbolic capital (prestige). The positions are occupied by agents, who take these positions on the basis of their habitus. (Van Maanen 2009: 55)

To explain further, Bourdieu's position is one that is tied to the type of art produced, or artistic genre. These genres can be quite specific (21st century American musical theater or 1960s krautrock), or more general.  There is also a presumed hierarchy between agents in a given field, and even between the positions themselves within the field, as determined by the division of capital.  Like DiMaggio, Bourdieu establishes a set of 'laws', four defining how fields function and three which address how a field can be identified (Van Maanen 2009: 61-62):

  1. The structure of a field is a certain state of power relationships between agents or, in other words, the state of the distribution of the specific capital that has accumulated in earlier conflicts.
  2. Agents with a complete monopoly on the specific capital tend to use conservative strategies, defending orthodoxy, whereas newcomers are inclined to use subversive strategies, to heresy, bring in heterodox positions.
  3. Each field only functions if people are ready to play the game and are provided with the appropriate habitus, which implies knowledge and recognition of the immanent field laws and of what is at stake in the field.
  4. Behind all antagonisms in a field hides an objective complicity, based on a shared interest in the existence of the field and in what is at stake and worth fighting for within the field: 
    1. Newcomers have to buy a right of admittance in the form of recognition of the value of the game and in the form of knowledge of the working principles of it.
    2. One of the factors that protect a game from a total revolution, is the very investment in time and effort necessary to enter the game.
  5. One of the most reliable indications that a field has been constituted is the origin of biographers, art and literature historians, all people who 'make out a case for the preservation of what is produced in the field, who have an interest in that preservation, preserving that all, in self-preservation'.
  6. A second indication of the functioning of a field is the 'trace of history of that field' in the work and life of the agents.
  7. Finally, there is a field effect as soon as a work and the value of it cannot be understood without knowledge of the history of the production field of the work.

This lists bears resemblance to both the work of DiMaggio and Danto. The identification qualifications are surprisingly specific, and I wonder how they might be applied to contemporary music study. First, how can contemporary music be subdivided into subfields, for comparison sake. Can they be divided geographically, for instance a Finnish contemporary music field and an American music contemporary field? A Finnish contemporary music field would probably be possible, with this criteria, but I think an American contemporary music field would be much more difficult to identify and define.

Bourdieu also discusses cultural capital, derived strongly from Marx's theory of value, as a value that is the result of accumulated labor, no different than economic and social capital.  Symbolic in nature, both social and cultural capital can only function if they are not explicitly recognized as capital (the way economic capital is). For cultural capital, this means it exists "as a form of knowledge that equips the social gent with appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and artefacts", and it is symbolic because the act of acquiring it is mostly invisible (Van Maanen 2009: 59). According to Bourdieu, cultural capital can be turned into material objects, which can then be transferred as economic goods (i.e., a painting), but this is only part of 'the story'. Cultural capital exists in three forms, embodied/incorporated (cultural knowledge acquired by the agent), objectified (material goods), or institutionalized. In this third form, cultural capital is confirmed by some sort of institution (university, government, artistic organization, etc), meaning that a persons cultural capital is both confirmed officially, regardless of a persons embodiment of cultural capital at any given moment, and also the official certification carries with it an economic value, guaranteeing perhaps a higher paid position within the field. Bourdieu says that these states of cultural capital, in conjunction with social capital, create hierarchy and competition between artists within an artistic field. 

In The Rules of Art (1996), Bourdieu discusses at length the relationships between different fields and different types of capital. Lack of economic capital with more cultural capital results with in more autonomy (for example, small scale production and avant-garde art forms), while economic capital without (or with less) cultural capital creates the more heteronomous art (like musicals and Hollywood cinema). Van Maanen argues that aspects of Bourdieu's model do not necessarily hold for all art fields across all periods of time. For instance, the state has played an increasing role in providing economic support that is separate from Bourdieu/Marxist capitalist economic capital. And it is possible for autonomous art fields to attract economic capital (though no example is provided). What came to my mind is that most artistic production is quite economically demanding, therefore there must be some (likely more than some) economic capital present to produce art, especially avant-garde art. It would be interesting to try and apply Bourdieu's field theory and make an actual field map for aspects of my project, like American academic contemporary art, or Finnish contemporary music 1975-1990. While his writings do not define art aesthetically, and come off quite cynically, his analysis of cultural capital especially in relation to economic and political fields warrant further discussion (in another post...).

BRUNO LATOUR - poststructuralist thinking

While Latour (b. 1947) mostly worked in the field of science and scientific knowledge, his anthropological/sociological/philosophical writings We Have Never Been Modern (1991/1993 in English) and Reassembling the Social (2005), focus on societal structure and agency. Van Maanen writes, "Becker, coming from an interactionist tradition, stresses that human beings make their own history, his European counterpart [Latour], coming from a structuralist tradition, bases his research especially on the given circumstances with which human beings are confronted" (2009: 34). Latour considered that society, from the sociological perspective, consists of all social elements between humans and social structures dictate human behavior. He is best known, within art sociology, for his Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), "which emphasizes the continuous processes of change in what is going on between actors" (Van Maanen 2009: 84). ANT proposes to be better equipped to analyze 'atomizing culture' than conventional sociology (atomism/social atomism is the theory that individuals are the most basic and universal tool for analyzing all social and societal functions). ANT is anti-essentialist, like Weiss and Dickie, but Latour insisted it was non-theoretical, but rather an analytical tool with the goal "to check what are the new institutions, procedures, concepts able to collect and to reconnect the social" (Latour 2005: 11). He proposes following and studying the actors, the individuals, to understand what they do, as well as how and why they do it. ANT was later expanded upon by French sociologist Nathalie Heinich (b. 1955).

NIKLAS LUHMANN - the important of artistic communications

Finally, Van Maanen includes German philosopher Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), who focused on questions of how art is different from other experiences, how works of art communicate, and 'what they do', questions also posed by Beardsley and Latour (Van Maanen 2009: 106). Like Becker, he only published one book concerning the art world, Art as a Social System (translated to English in 2000, originally in German Die Kunst der Gesellschaft (1995)), which approaches the topic from the perspective of a social philosopher more than an aesthetic or sociological theorist. Like Van Maanen, Luhmann felt it was impossible to study the art world without trying to understand the aesthetic values of art. Unlike the 'networks', 'fields', and 'worlds' proposed by the other sociologists, Luhmann's 'systems' consist of the relationships of communications within, not relationships of peopleagents or actors

In Luhmann's art system, only aesthetic expressions can be considered communications. These utterances are inherent characteristics of a given work of art, and the communications that result, like speaking about a work of art, or writing about a work of art, can also be considered part of the art system. This group of communications maintain cohesion and mark the boundaries of the system, keeping it closed and contained. As so many reactions to art rely on perception, Luhmann posits that unlike a religious system, "the art system realizes this possibility [...], with the result that playing with perceptible forms is central to the way in which works of art deal with reality" (Van Mannen 2009: 118). This hypothesis give a whole lot of credit to artists for thinking ahead and implies that they are alway conscious of (and caring about) the way their works are perceived. For music, however, the idea of playing with expectation and perception is very applicable to the work of many composers, through the entire history of western classical art music.

Luhmann's most important contribution to the field of art sociology is his proposal that a system is a "socially structured set of communications", rather than a system of organizations or people (Van Maanen 2009: 120). However, the internal nature of artistic communications, especially those that people think inside their heads and the thoughts of the artists who produce the works, make it apply the system to an analytic sociological study of an artistic system. I would be curious if Luhmann would consider music, an aural communication in many respects, a communication in his system. Regardless, the communication that art causes amongst people is a very important effect that is often left out of the conversation when discussing aesthetic value. However, it is as difficult to assess analytically as what people think about art, which is why, I think, aesthetic value is left out of so many sociological art studies.


Beardsley, M. (1982) The Aesthetic Point of View. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

--. (1976) 'Is Art Essentially Institutionalist' in: L. Agaard-Morgensen (ed.) Culture and Art. Atlantic Highlands: Humanity Press.

Becker, H.S. (1982) Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Danto, A. (2003 [1964]) 'The Artworld' in C. Korsmeijer (ed.) Aesthestics: The Big Questions. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp 33-43.

Dickie, G. (1971) Aesthetics, an Introduction. Indianapolis: Pegasus.

--. (1984) The Art Circle: A Theory of Art. New York: Haven.

DiMaggio, P.J. and W. Powell (1991 [1983]) 'The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality' in Powell and DiMaggio (1991), pp 63-82.

DiMaggio, P.J. and K. Stenberg (1985) 'Why Do Some Theaters Innovate More Than Others. An Empirical Analysis" in: Poetics no 14, pp 107-122.

Latour, B, (2005) Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Maanen, H. (2009) How to Study Art Worlds: On the Societal Functioning of Aesthetic Values. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Lucy Abrams