One way to think about intellectual life is as a musical composition where each new book adds to the chorus by bringing in the rhythms, tonalities, and hooks that give shape to the overall melody. Every now and then, however, a book comes that changes the tune altogether. Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, which now celebrates its 40th birthday, is one of those books.
It is hardly an overstatement to say that the publication of Art Worlds in 1982 changed forever how sociologists study art. Art Worlds created a seismic change. It demonstrated that the sociological study of art need not be engulfed in trying to solve highfalutin aesthetic questions (e.g., What is art? How do we distinguish it from non-art? What is an author?) and could instead focus on studying the collective practices through which artworks are realized.
Art Worlds offered a sharp contrast to the scholarship that had dominated the study of art up to that point. The two decades before its publication had been characterized by an all-out assault on the central ideas of modern aesthetics. In France, for example, the idea of the author had been demolished by poststructuralist authors like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (there’s an irony somewhere there). Meanwhile, in Italy, Umberto Eco celebrated the iconoclastic emergence of popular culture and how it upended the old hierarchies that thinkers of an earlier generation, most notably Theodor Adorno, had sought to defend. In England, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, along with the rest of the Birmingham School, laid bare the inner workings of cultural hegemony, while John Berger introduced British public television’s mass audiences to a new way of seeing art as an apparatus of symbolic domination. Even the heavily fortified citadels of art history and aesthetics were not immune; schools of thought such as the institutional theory of art, feminist art history, and Marxist aesthetics mounted internal rebellions against long-held ideals about the purity and universality of art. Meanwhile, art itself was going through similar convulsions, with movements like pop art, land art, performance art, Fluxus, feminist art, and institutional criticism, not to mention the myriad of art collectives in Latin American and Eastern Europe, defying the modern canon and institutions that had defined art up to that point.
Sociology, Becker’s intellectual home, was “all in” in the mutiny against modern aesthetics. The 1960s and ’70s were a time in which trenchant critique, bordering on philistinism, dominated the sociology of art. Text after text adopted what we might call a Scooby-Doo research model: taking a seemingly good character (art) and proceeding to unmask it as the bad guy (ideology). Thus, while authors such as Arnold Hauser and Pierre Francastel sought to expose seemingly inert, formal elements of artworks as projections propelled by “real social forces,” others like Raymonde Moulin revealed that art was not a pure and autonomous field of activity but an activity guided by market forces. Still others, like Pierre Bourdieu, revealed that love for art was little more than a bourgeois conceit for social reproduction.
In a time in which doing a sociology of art seemed to require deploying sociology against art, the genius of Art Worlds was radically simple: it just studied art as something that people do together. In so doing, Becker took a potentially controversial idea—that art is a form of collective action—and presented it in a disarmingly common-sense way. If we study how art is produced, Becker argued, we soon realize that this process is rarely, if ever, an individual one. Artists always depend on others to obtain materials to produce their works, as well as to exhibit, play, publish, and distribute them. Art, it follows, is a process that requires collaboration and coordination among different people. In this sense, it is no different from any other social activity, which means that we need to study it as we do any other type of social process: by focusing on what people do. This meant studying not only artists but also critics, curators, editors, art materials suppliers, administrators, and audiences, to name just a few, along with the standards, conventions, and technologies that allowed them to coordinate their actions and produce an artwork.
Becker opened an entirely different empirical research program in the sociological study of art, one that moved the attention from ontological and epistemological questions that had dominated traditional aesthetics, such as “What is art?” and “How do we know and experience art?”, to the pragmatic question “How is art done?” Thus, facing a painting like, say, Picasso’s Guernica, Becker invited us not simply to focus on decoding its symbolism and formal composition or on trying to decipher Picasso’s artistic intent and reveal its underlying meaning, but to ask ourselves how such an artwork could be done. This approach employed a new arsenal of empirical queries, such as: What were the networks of collaboration and cooperation that helped Picasso paint this work? What materials did he use, where did he get them, who provided them? What conventions did he follow (or break)? What institutions supported him? In short, what kind of “world” and collective effort had to be in place so that Picasso could create and display this masterpiece?
Art is a collective practice.
As I was preparing this short essay, I was curious to see what contemporary readers make of this now 40-year-old book. So I indulged in that most peculiar ritual of our age: reading online reviews. The overwhelming majority were positive, effusively praising the clarity and richness of Becker’s descriptions. The negative were almost unanimous in their criticism: Art Worlds lacks any “real” theory and is filled with trivially obvious observations about how the art world works. Such criticisms did not surprise me, as they mirror those I have heard leveled in graduate seminars over the years. Students in search of a “theory fix” typically fault Art Worlds for being a perfect example of why sociology has a bad press as a “science of the obvious.”
These types of critiques forget that the obvious is often what is most easily missed—and dismissed. If Art Worlds was and remains important, it is precisely because it reminds us of the obvious: that art is a collective practice. Somehow, this seemingly platitudinous observation had been missing from most art analysis, thereby reducing art history to a narrative about individuals and their heroic feats of creativity. By inviting us to remember that art is always a form of collective action, Art Worlds widened our attention to include all those agents, practices, and technologies that had typically remained invisible and barely made it into the hegemonic narratives of art, but without which art would be simply impossible.
In so doing, Art Worlds reminded those studying art to be humble in their descriptions and pay attention to the perfectly banal, yet crucial facts that compose the social worlds we inhabit. Photography needs film, digital files, and cameras; consequently, you really cannot understand the transformation of photography without understanding the corporations that produce photographic material that shapes what artists can and cannot do. Sometimes the absence of an artist’s work in a museum is not necessarily for ideological or aesthetic reasons, but simply because the artworks were “too big to go through the museum’s doors and too heavy for its floors to support.”
But unlike the mad king in Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” story, who sought to create a map that was a perfect representation of his empire, Becker offered in Art Worlds an incomplete map. This inconclusiveness was not a bug but a carefully designed feature of the sociological tradition he had inherited from his mentor, Everett Hughes. The tradition was firmly anchored in the belief that any attempt at providing a definitive account, let alone a conclusive theoretical model, of any social world is fated to fail because these worlds are continually changing. This is why Art Worlds, to the desperation of some, does not offer any theoretical model. It is also why Art Worlds contains no pretensions to having provided a final account of what art worlds are or how they work. Instead, the book is constructed around carefully curated, open-ended, and inconclusive lists. Paragraph after paragraph, we are told that “sometimes” artists do this, while “other times” they do that, and yet “other times” they do something else. The result is a book that reads not as a closed treatise or model but as a compendium of researchable empirical questions that invite the reader to continue exploring them.
If there is something that defines Art Worlds, it is this dogmatic antidogmatism—a complete refusal to have the last word. This antidogmatism and open-endedness are precisely what make Art Worlds a fresh and necessary read even today. Unlike classics now sunk by the weight of their theoretical models, Art Worlds still reads as an object lesson for anyone writing in academesque for a living. At a moment in which oppositional and antagonistic writing seems to dominate the conversation, Art Worlds never tries to convince, demonstrate, or conclude, just to invite us to a conversation. The book does not require anything from the reader, such as prior knowledge of controversies in some subfield or being well-versed in concepts, theories, or debates. Art Worlds offers a leveled playing field on which the author never imposes himself upon the reader, because there is no battle to be won, just a conversation to be had. This is, for me, the indelible value of this book as a perennial reminder that writing can take the form of an open-ended invitation to think together.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.