Belinda Reich

Limitations of Sociological Interpretation

The purpose of this post is to analyze a chapter of sociological interpretation of art, and assess the strengths and limitations of sociological interpretation of art, based on this example.

The chapter that I have chosen to analyze and assess is A Post-Bourdieusian Sociology Of Valuation And Evaluation For The Field Of Cultural Production. This chapter is from the recently published book Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Art and Culture, which aims to extend the arguments of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu worked during the last half of the twentieth century and addressed issues such as social capital, cultural capital, financial capital, and symbolic capital.

In 1979 his most influential book was published in France (translated into English in 1984), called Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. This examined cultural capital and how class shapes the reception of art and culture.

To analyze this chapter, I will first examine the argument put forth by the authors of the chapter. The 'valuation and evaluation' of the title refers to a cultural sociology field which has seen a large increase in research in the past decade or two, and which critiques and builds on the pioneering work of Bourdieu. The authors of the chapter examine the recent literature within this field and demonstrate three “important types of constraints that are exercised on (e)valuation.” I will examine these three criteria, along with the authors recommendations for interdisciplinary research going forward, followed by assessing the strengths and limitations of using these ideas in the interpretation of art.

The authors of the chapter – Stefan Beljean, Phillipa Chong, Michèle Lamont–have conducted a literature review of recent advances in the cultural sociology field called 'valuation and evaluations,' which consists of American and European stances on such factors as qualification, commensuration, standardisation, or classification within cultural processes. The authors state that contemporary researchers  “owe much to Bourdieu and the profound influence he has had on sociology through his inquiries into cultural production and consumption in symbolic and cultural fields (art, science, culture, knowledge, fashion and more…).”

Seeing this area as fruitful and to encourage further research within this area, the authors have identified a framework for consideration consisting of 1. the criteria of evaluation; 2. the self-concepts of evaluators; and 3. the roles of object and non-human supports.

First, the criteria of evaluation refers to the challenge to Bourdieu’s “opposition between economic and aesthetic criteria of evaluation.” Using case studies and empirical findings to paint a more nuanced, less dualistic picture between ‘art for money’ and ‘art for art's sake,' the researchers are seeking new directions for “comprehensive understanding of how cultural products are evaluated.” The hope is to find more avenues to evaluate cultural output that is not purely in terms of its economic or aesthetic market distinctions.

Secondly, the self-concepts of evaluators are explored. Self-concepts are defined here as the narratives that an individual tells themselves, and those around them, about themselves. This is an important aspect of the research as people charged with assessing cultural output all tell narratives about themselves and the world that may or may not go unchallenged by those surrounding them. These narratives matter “insofar as they contribute to actors’ intersubjective construction of reality and shape their evaluative practices.”

Research into self-concepts of evaluators have moved beyond Bourdieu’s identification of self-interest and looks to constructing frameworks using empirical analysis that needs to “move beyond considerations of self-interest to examine neglected aspects of evaluation, including how evaluators understand their role and the emotional consequences of their work.”

Understanding the implications of self-concepts, and working to systematically encourage self-concepts of fair mindedness for individuals and institutions is seen as the goal, and the hope is that this leads to a larger range of evaluation points that is deemed more inclusive than the Bourdieuian dichotomy of economic and aesthetic.

Thirdly, the roles of object and non-human supports examines “how to meaningfully incorporate art objects into social analysis rather than just reducing them to mere proxies for other ‘social variables.’ The goal is to recognize not only how art objects are shaped by society, but also what forms of agentic power and distinctive properties they wield (while still eschewing ‘charismatic’ ideologies about art or artists).” This is the theory where cultural objects and evaluators (within the broader context of society, not specifically a professional evaluator) are co-producing the object via a socio-material process.

Further research in this area would focus on how taste and cultural discernment can lead to inequality, but conversely, also open ways to teaching and learning about cultural output in a deeper process of participation with it, free of ideas that practice should not “return to a view of art as having inherent or charismatic value.”

Finally, the authors take a broader approach and identify areas of further study outside of the sociology of art and culture. They see a corollary between that and emerging research in economic and organizational sociology, which has not originated from Bourdieu’s work, but from economics and business studies. Some of the strands that the authors deem of use to pursue further include organizational categorization and identity, how cultural products are evaluated in markets for symbolic goods, and the correction in the bias to ‘high culture’.

To look at some of the strengths of this chapter as it relates to art, we should look at what is at stake. According to Janet Wolff, questions of dominance and power are in play between different groups of people, and ideology plays a part in that battle within the cultural production sphere, of which art is a part. Ideology is formed out of the theory which ”states that the ideas and beliefs people have are systematically related to their actual and material conditions of existence.”

Ideology is formed, and contracts and expands in far more complex ways than in the past (due to both acknowledging new research, and to the much more complex societies we live in today). This chapter is a pragmatic attempt at negotiate the ideology present within the participants, audiences and institutions of art. It establishes that we must identify the checks and balances within the artistic and cultural activities that are needed, using evidence-based decision making.

Within Australia the material conditions - in which a large part of cultural production is created - is funded by the varying levels of government using tax payer funds, and ventures toward evidence-based decision making. Drawing on the research of evaluation seems like a fair and reasonable approach. In fact, this is how it works in Australia to a large extent, with the Australia Council for the Arts, as an example.

The criteria for evaluation at the Australia Council is thorough and complex, which requires evidence and is assessed by peers, and creates avenues to participate beyond purely aesthetic and economic factors. The Council provides grants to individuals and organisations to create cultural and artistic output for Australian citizens to reflect upon and enjoy. While there is no clear evidence about the nature of the self-concepts of the peer reviewers, the selection methods, and having several peers on a panel presumably creates an environment of challenged self-concepts and creates checks and balances for a fairer outcome for artists. From this perspective, the Australia Council for the Arts policy making appears to be influenced by developments in the evaluation field, as per the analysis of the chapter outlined above.

There is much to commend in government agencies that strive to provide a transparent, inclusive and evidence-based system for the arts. The evaluation ideas outlined in the chapter are not perfect but pragmatically acceptable. The evaluation process, though, is not immune from government interference, or bureaucrats who administer the agencies, or grouping of peers. This is a limitation of the evaluations approach; as logical and fair as it may seem, it does not stem the ideological power struggle nor produce art that is not a reflection of this struggle.

One the one hand, we can see government interference when the Attorney General George Brandis announced - in the 2015 Australian federal government budget - that he would be reallocating 27.7% of the Australia Council budget to a new Arts funding program which was to be administered by his department (about a third of the cut funds were eventually returned to Australia Council), and in which Brandis would have final say over the funding. This was largely seen as an ideological attack on the evaluation process and the kind of art that is funded by the Australia Council. The resulting funding body has since announced that it will prioritize art that is designed to strengthen diplomatic ties with targeted countries, further arousing suspicion that the move was designed to move the country’s artistic output towards state preferred output for nation building purposes.

On the other side of the ideological fence - and can be seen as problematic for artists - is the selection criteria that is used is vulnerable to a similar ideological ‘high jacking’ within the Australia Council et al, which has the potential to lead to conformity, and lacking different view points. This might be a justification by Brandis for his approach to the Australia Council funding.

This idea has also lead the artist John Kelly to submit a proposal to the Australia Council that is specifically critical of the Council, and how they shape the arts and culture in Australia using their cultural and economic capital, daring them to fund their own ‘exposé.'

As demonstrated in the philosophical discussion about ‘what is art?’ we can say ‘anything is art.' When we bring in a sociological framework to art, we begin to get a more pragmatic depiction of what art is, and the role of ideology in shaping what we see and come to identify as art.

While the evaluation approach and research cannot fully provide checks and balances from the inevitable ideological push and pull, it is necessary to try to diffuse power centralizing, and the approach goes a long way to achieving that. Whatever it’s limitations are, it still gives us a sound approach to identifying the problems, and tools to help build an inclusive and progressive arts.

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