American Sociological Review: Art As Collective Action
- a distinguished tradition hold sthat art is social in character,this being a
specific instance of the more general proposition that cultural products have
a social base.
- Much literature on art aas a social product doesn’t reference the collective
activities, or reference the action of people doing things together which
- Howard Becker experiences and participation in several art worlds has led
him to the conception of art as a form of collective action
- Think with respect to any work of art, all the activities that must be carried
on for the work to appear as it finally does. For a symphony orchestra to give
a concert, intruments must be invents, manufactured, maintained, a notation
must be devised and music composed, people have to learn to play these
instruments, times and place of rehersal must be provides, tickets need to be
arranged and sold etc.
- A similar list can be compiled for any performing arts.
- Generally speaking, the necessary activities typically include conceiving the
idea for the work, making the necessary physical artifacts, creating
conventional language of expression, training artistic personnel and audience
to use the conventional language to create and experience and providing
necessary mixture of those ingredients for a particular work or performance.
- All the arts we know involve elaborate networks of cooperation. A division of
labour required takes place. Typically many people participate in the work
without which the performance or artifact could not be produced. A
sociological analysis therefore looks for the division of labour. How are the
various tasks divided among the people who do them?
- Nothing in the technology of any art makes on division of tasks more natural
than another. Consider the relations between the composition and
performance of music. We recognize no necessary connection between the
two and see them as two separate roles which may occasionally coincide in
- In no case does the character of the art impose a natural division of labour
the division of labour. The division of always results from a consensual
definition of the situation. Once that has been achieved of course participants
in the world of art regard it as natural and resist attempts to change it as
- Participants in art would regard some of the activities that is necessary to
the production of art as requiring some special gift and the remaining
activities as business acusment or some other ability that is less rare or less
necessary to the success of the work. They define these people who do these
special activities as support personnel.
- How little of the activity necessary for the art can a a person do and still
claim the title of artist? - The amount the composer contribute to the material contained in final work
has varied greatly
- Artists need not handle the materials from which the art work is made to
remain artists, architects seldom build what they design. The same practice
raises questions, however when sculptors construct a piece by sending a set
of specification to a machine shop, and many people balk at awarding the
title of artist to authors of conceptual works consisting of specification which
never actually embodied in an artifact.
- Marcel Duschamp outraged many people by insisting that he created valid art
work when he signed commercially produced snowshovel or signed a
reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache drawn on it, thus classifying
Leonardo as support personel along with the snowshovel designer and
manufacturer. Outrageous as it sound something like it is standard in making
collages, in which the entire work may be constructed of things made by
- The point of these example is that what is taken, in any world of art, to be
quintessential artistic act, the act of whose performance marks one as an
artist, is a matter of a consensual definition.
- Whatever the artist does not do himself must be done by someone else. The
artist thus works in the centre of a large network of cooperating people, all of
who’s work is essential to the final outcome. It creates a link, people who the
artist cooperates with may share in every particular idea of how their work is
to be done. This consensus is likely when everyone involved can perform any
necessary activity so that the division of labour exits and no specialized
functional groups develop. This situation might occur in simple communally
shared art forms like the square dance or in segments of society whose
ordinary members are trained in artistic activities.
- When specialized professional groups take over the performance of the
activities necessary to an art work’s production, however their memebers
tend to develop specialized aesthetic, financial and career interests which
differ substantially from the artist’s. Ochestral musicsion, for instance are
notoriously more concerned with the how they sound in a performance
rather than the success of particular work.
- Aesthetic conflict between support personnel and the artists also occur.
- Specialized support groups develop their own standard and interest. For
instance a guy went to printing company to print his designs. But when
printing solid colour area, it was going to leave roller marks. Although the
designer was okay with this the printing company said they wouldn’t allow it
to leave their shop because it was a sign of poor craftsmenship. This
individual was at the mercy of the printing company because he didn’t know
how to print lithographs himself.
- His experience exemplified the choice that faces the artist at every
cooperative link. He can do things the way established gourps of support
personnel are prepared to do them, he can try make them do it his way, he
can train others to do it his way, or he can do it himself. Any choice but the
first requires additional investment of time and energy to do what could be done less expensively if done the standard way. The artist’s involvement with
and dependence on cooperative links thus constrains the kind of art he can
- Similar examples can be found in any field of art, eg. Cummings had trouble
getting his first book of poetry published because printers were afraid to set
his bizarre layouts. Producing a motion picture involves multiple difficulties
of this kind: actors who will only be photographed in flattering ways, writers
who don’t want to change a word in their scripts, cameraman who will not
use unfamiliar processes.
- When artists go beyond the capacities of existing institutions, their works are
not exhibited or performed: that reminds us that most artists make
sculptures that are not too big or heavy for existing museums, they compose
music with a comfortable number of players and write plays which run a
reasonable lenth of time.
- By accommodating their conceptions to available resources, conventional
artist accept the constraints arising from their dependence on the
cooperation of members of existing art world. Wherever the artist depend on
others for some necessary component he must either accept the constraints
they impose or expend the time and energy necessary to provide it some
- However, although artist must have the cooperation of others for the art
work to occur as it finally does, does not mean that he cannot work without
cooperation. Although a poet depends on printers and publishers once can
still produce poetry without them. The poetry does not circulate in
conventional print because the artist would not accept the censorship or
rewriting imposed by those who would publish the work. The poet either has
to reproduce and circular his work himself or not have it circulate. But still
he can write poetry. This argument thus differs from a functionalism that
asserts that the artist must have cooperation, ignoring the possibility that the
cooperation can be foregone, however at a price.
- Producing art works requires elaborate modes of cooperation among
- How do these people arrive at the terms on which they will cooperate?
- People who cooperate to produce a work of art do not decide things afresh.
Instead they reply on earlier agreements now become customary,
agreements that have become part of a conventional way of doing things in
- Artistic conventions cover all the decisions that must be made with respect
to works produced in a given art world, even though a particular convention
may be revised for a given work. Thus conventions dictate materials to be
used as when musicians agree to base their music on the notes contained in a
set of modes. Conventions also dictate the abstractions to be sued to convey
particular ideas or experiences, as when painters use the laws of perspective
to convey illusion of three dimensions or photographs use black, white and
shades of gray to convey interplay of light and colour. Conventions suggest the appropriate dimensions of a work, the proper length for a musical or
dramatic event, the proper size and shape of painting a sculpture.
Conventions regulate the relations between artists and audience, specifying
the rights and obligations of both.
- Humanistic scholars found that artistic conventions have an ability to
produce an emotional response in audiences. By using such a conventional
organization of tones as a scale, the composer can create and manipulate the
listener’s expectations of what is to follow. Only because artist and audience
share knowledge of and experience with the conventions invoked does the
art work produce emotional effect. There are also visual conventions artists
use to create the illusion for viewers that they are seeing a realistic depiction
of some aspect of the world.
- In all these cases, the possibility of artistic experience arises from the
existence of a body of conventions that artists and audiences can refer to in
making sense of the work.
- Conventions make art possible in another sense. Because decisions can be
made quickly, because plans can be made simply by referring to a
conventional way of doing things, artists can devote more time to actually
doing their work. Conventions thus make possible the easy and efficient
coordination of activity among artists and support personnel.
- Ivins for instance shows how, by using a conventionalized scheme for
rendering shadows and other effects artists could collaborate in producing a
single plate. The same convention provides made it possible for viewers to
read what the marks and shadowing and modeling.
- The concept of convention provides a point of contact between humanist and
sociologists, being interchangeable with such familiar sociological ideas as
norm, rule, shared understanding, custom or folkway, all referring to one
way or another to the ideas and understandings people hold in common
through which they effect cooperative activity. For instance musicians who
are total strangers can play all night with only the mention of a title and
count of beats to give tempo.
- Though standardized, conventions are seldom rigid and unchanging. They do
not specify and inviolate set of rules everyone must refer to in settling
questions of what to do. A tradition of performance practice, often codified in
book form, tells performers how to interpret the musical scored or dramatic
scripts they perform. Performers read their music in the light of all these
customary styles of interpretation and thus were able to coordinate their
- Even where customary interpretations of conventions exist, having become
conventions themselves, artists can agree to do things differently negotiating,
making change possible.
- Conventions place strong constraints on the artist. They are particularly
constraining because they do not exist in isolation, but come in complexity
interdependent systems, so that making one small change often requires
making changes in a variety of other activities. - A system of convention gets embodied in equipment , materials, training
available facilities and site, system of notation and the like, all of which must
be changed if any one segment is.
- Consider if musical scale of twelve tones change to one including forty-two
tones between the octaves entails. Then you would have to produce new
instruments, train players how to play them and learn how to read it, it
requires more work, time, effort and resources.
- Similarly, conventions specifying what a good photograph should look like
are embodied not only in an aesthetic more or less accepted in the world of
art, but also in acceptance of constraints built into the neatly interwoven
complex of standardized equipment and materials made by the
manufacturers. Such as lenses, camera bodies, shutter speeds, apertures,
films and printing paper that can be used to produce acceptable prints.
- The limitations of conventional practice clearly are not total. One can always
do things differently if they are prepared to pay the price in increase effort or
decreased circulation of one’s work. However at the same time it increases
the artist’s freedom to choose unconventional alternatives and to depart
substantially from customary practice. For example Ives who experimented
with polytonality and polyrhythms and was told that his the instruments
could not make that sound, but he continued to make such music anyways.
- If this is true we can understand any work as the product of a choice between
conventional ease and success, and unconventional trouble and lack of
recognition, looking for the experience and situational and structural
elements that dispose an artist in one direction or the other.
- Although sometimes art experience stasis doesn’t mean there is not change
or innovation occurs. Small innovations occur constantly, as conventional
means of creating expectations and delaying their satisfaction becomes so
well know as to become conventional expectations in their own right. For
instance at one time string players didn’t use vibrato, however introducing it
on rare occasions as a deviation from convention created emotional
responses because of its rarity.
- An attack on convention does not merely mean an attack on the particular
item to be change. Every convention carries with it an aesthetic, according to
which what is conventional becomes the standard by which artistic beauty
and effectiveness is judged A play which violate classic unities is not merely
different it is distasteful, barbaric and ugly to those whom classical unities
represent a fixed criterion of dramatic worth. Therefore an attack on a
convention because an attack on their aesthetic beliefs, which is viewed as
natural, proper and moral to them.
- If we focus on a specific art work, it proves useful to think of social
organization as a network organization as a network of people who
cooperate to produce that work. WE see that the same people often
cooperate repeatedly, even routinely, in similar ways to produce similar
work ways to produce similar works. They organize their cooperation by
referring to the conventions current among those who participate in the
production and consumption of such works. - Conventions make collective action s