An Introduction to the Sociology of the Work of Art

March 17, 2009

Marius D. Carlos Jr.

The application of sociological concepts in the examination of art, both as an historical, cultural artifact and as a whole field situated within a larger system of production can be more easily understood if some basic concepts of sociology are employed. The following are some of the basic concepts that can be used to understand the possible meaning of a work of art, and its relationship with culture and everyday life.

Key concepts

1.   Object- the object is the large environment or system where individuals are situated. The object can be studied for its sub-systems, codes, laws and effects on the individual itself.
2.    Subject– the subject is the agent within a larger operating structure. The agent or individual is an individual to the state-structure when it is ‘hailed’ or constituted as a subject of the state. From thereon, a person is a state-person, and becomes a member of state-structure, if only to prolong its scope of power.
3.    Objectivism- objectivism is a particular trend in the social sciences wherein the objective structure is given emphasis; the individual is viewed as mostly powerless, overtaken by dominant material practices and unable to move away from these practices and motivations, as a result of being constituted by a large apparatus of coercion/power/violence.
4.    Subjectivism- subjectivism is the anti-thesis of objectivism, though both trends make use of similar concepts. Usually, the focus of subjectivism is to find out how exactly an individual is constituted in the larger objective structure, and how a person can resist these structures. The reason for resisting varies from one critic/theorist/person. Judith Butler, a late-modern French feminist, makes use of subjective performativity to undermine popular, sexualized notions of what the woman should be. In Butler’s most popular works, she takes off from Simone de Beauvoir and other earlier feminists in an effort to map out just how a woman is sexualized and rendered inferior within a phallogocentric male order. She also makes of Lacan, Freud and the occasional Marx to make sense of the current world order and its implications to the performance of gender.
5.  Discourse- according to Michel Foucault, all hitherto existing knowledge are accumulations or discursive formations that have been rationalized by society through time. The selectivity of human knowledge reveals that knowledge is only knowledge if it is sanctioned and approved by the status quo. It becomes heretical or insane once it is rejected.
6.    Ideology- simply put, ideologies are sets of material practices that exist in political practice, religious worship, cultural activity and other practical planes. These practices are the result of long, bloody histories and often, is historicized and appropriated by the state.
7.    Capitalism– the most recent stage of human civilization. In capitalism, the means and forces of production are relegated to a handful of people (the capitalists), to the detriment of the rest of society. This is where the contradiction between capital (money) and labour (human labour, un-abstracted) begins.
8.    Practice- according to Pierre Bourdieu, are the very stuff of human life. These are the activities that we take for granted day by day, but have huge implications in the way we deal with other people and with society. The simply act of saying “We the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of almighty God” is already a manifestation of the state, and banal nationalism. Banal nationalism is how the nation-state is inscribed into the minds of its citizens; it is reflected in practice, and these practices are repetitive and often meaningless already to the ones doing them. Yet they constantly remind people to whom they pledge their allegiance to.
9.    Capital– capital in the modern re-formulation are composed of different species; but all lead back to the larger frame, which is capitalist production. Capital can be money, the family’s political affiliations and connections, etc.
10. Habitus– or simply, the socialization of the individual. The habitus is formed at childhood and continues until adulthood. The socialization of a person varies depending on the educational level of the family, the direct environment, the education of the person and the dominant exclusionary and inclusionary practices that a person is subjected for most of his life. The offspring of the owner of a shopping mall will not find shopping malls strange, nor will the offspring think that they are actually doing in any harm. Habitus is differentiated from ideology as so for as its main theorists focus more on the ordinary lives of people rather than on formulation complex theories of how socialization, language and nations are formed. Which would explain why Bourdieu would always look at how a person survives a particular historical period rather than go back to a pure abstraction of human political and cultural life.
11.    Hexis– hexis is the embodiment of the various strains of political mythology that operate within a given society. These political mythologies may be part of a residual set of material practices, prolonged by ignorance, or worse, conformity or may be newer appropriations of old practices. In gender studies, the traditional roles of the women apply in the home, but erode outside. The erosion of these traditional roles is due to a stronger ideology- that of the international division of labour.
12.    Field– the social field is society itself; in Bourdieu’s theorization, the social field is the whole of society, which is divided into inter-dependent sub-fields of production and administration. Similar to what Adorno saw in Holocaust Germany, modern society for Bourdieu was a little more than a sophisticated assembly line of commodities and opportunists, ready to abandon everyone for the next “big thing”.
13.    An easy way to remember Bourdieu’s theorization of human practice is through the formula FIELD X CAPITAL = PRACTICE. This simply means that a person can only penetrate a given field of production based on his or her capital. When inside a particular field of production, the person will be limited by his or her knowledge, capital and position inside the field. This is what is known as practice.

Althusser’s ISAs and RSAs

No other post-Marx theory would be better known than Louis Althusser’s essay on ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In a nutshell, Althusser’s essay tackled how a capitalist-driven state can sustain itself through the reproduction of all the means and forces of production. One way of keeping everyone in line was securing power through the ideological state apparatuses and the repressive state apparatuses. ISAs are societal institutions that progressively interpellate an individual into being a person of a state. From the family ISA to the trade union ISA, these social formations and institutions allow people to move with a certain degree of freedom, so long as they do  not contradict in any way the various irrational rationalities of capitalist society. The ISAs maintain the status quo by literally constituting people as state subjects with roles, functions, wants and needs. Even desire is manipulated and dictated depending on the political and historical precedents of a particular state formation. In case the ISAs fail, the RSAs step in to make sure that no armed conflict will arise. This is how capitalist states are maintained and preserved. And this is how power is reproduced over a wide field, over a striated, heterogeneous space.

To extend this, Althusser’s student Michel Foucault rebelled against Althusser by literally excavating through human knowledge, showing that agency exists if we can deal with the networks of coercion and power. The subject or agent is located in specific time periods where some networks of power are still in their infancy; therefore, resistance is relative to the historical period. The postmodern re-assessment of events transpiring, filling homogenous empty time is questioned by post-Marxist and postmodern critiques of grand narratives, challenging the validity of ideologies such as Marxism itself. Jean Francois Lyotard himself would question Marxism for its basic failure in defending the very class it was supposed to put to power. Lyotard’s main argument was that no matter how grand a narrative is, it cannot possibly put to words everything that had transpired dialectically as human history, and therefore, it can never truthfully position itself as a source of truth. Of course, critics like Aijaz Ahmad are on the vanguard, refuting the “lies” of Lyotard and other postmodernists.

Basic Concepts in Marxism

Since the real focus is Bourdieu’s theory of art, distinction and taste, a few concepts from the Marxist constellation of concepts would be helpful in later analyzing the relationship of art (as object), artist (as subject of a field) and the understanding of art (historicization of art versus the universal aesthetic).

1.  Ideology- according to Marx, the inverted illusions of society that serve to mask the historically determined, materially-based social relations between individuals in society. An example that would be quickly understood is the relationship between a buyer (person A) and the a worker in a shoe factory (person B). The loyalty of the buyer is to the brand, the corporation but never to the worker. The worker is a spectral entity that hovers between darkness and light- present, but never visible enough to be recognized for what they are. Representations of people in popular media can also be viewed as ideology in action; the smiling workers of Happee toothpaste factories serve to inform people that the company is running a happy bunch of workers.
2.    Commodity– a commodity is the product of alienated labour. A worker produces something with his labour, and yet within the capitalist framework the product of his labour transforms into a commodity. A hostile force in itself, the commodity has power over the worker, but never the other way around. The commodity is also a fetish, since it’s viewed for merely its uses and never for its historically-determined position among all the produce of modern capitalist society.
3.    Reification- reification is the process of rendering a discourse/pseudo-knowledge/condition “natural” by all standards, dehistoricizing the mode of becoming of such. When a person states that everything is “falling into its rightful place”, then that individual is reproducing reified knowledge.

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu is a French Marxist anthropologist, sociologist and philosopher. Outspoken about his political views, he held the view that sociology should be viewed as a combative sport to question and critique societies many inequities and shortcomings. Bourdieu’s lecture The Essence of Neoliberalism is a significant contribution to the study of globalization and the exploitative neoliberal policies of the United States.

The Sociology of Art

The Rules of Art

To understand Bourdieu’s perspective regarding the historical production of art, we must understand that what art is to a particular society, at a particular period in time is defined by institutions. These institutions utilize experts; experts that have aligned themselves more or less to the objectives of the larger societal formation. These individuals include semiologists, philosophers, linguists and art historians. From a certain angle, the presence of these individuals might be construed as harmless; but they represent  the power of the state itself, as it asserts itself through meaning-production and knowledge-production. The “art world” itself is a product of society; it is not an organic entity that had been formed naturally because art and artists exist side by side. Rather, the art world is a very structured, systematic environment where cultural artifacts are consecrated, and eventually, bought and sold like shoes or nails.

According to Bourdieu, art has the primal function of not having any function. Art cannot be useful, otherwise, it cannot be art. A toilet bowl inside a museum can be regarded as avant-garde art, but a toilet bowl that people sit on in a public restroom in San Miguel, Bulacan cannot be art. It can be constituted as art, if someone snaps a picture, and that someone has enough cultural capital to declare that such and such is art. Art then becomes an abstract category, and has little to do with the object (art) itself. Bourdieu also mentions “disinterested interestedness”, where people appreciate a work of art for its formal qualities (using the universal gaze of aesthetic perception and understanding) but never for its historical becoming. In literature, this can be seen in the way Harry Potter is consumed. Harry Potter is the source of knowledge, of sadness and adventure, and people do not ask whether the appropriation of “magic” or the Sphinx are truthful or not. For a literary work that has such a large following, Harry Potter engages only the reader on a very superfluous level. This is precisely how cultural commodities are meant to be consumed. This means that the historicity of Harry Potter will not matter, nor will it ever matter to the readers. Readers turn to other things for truth and depressing truth; but literature? Most of the time, no. This approach to the consumption of literature gives rise to art/literature as a transhistoric norm. This simply means that these objects have always existed and have never been reflections or criticisms of the age that gave birth to them. The Mona Lisa of Da Vinci will forever be the graceful, mysterious smile, but never just one product of a prodigious artist from a small town, that made use of different media to express one of the more insightful reflections of contemporary life (at least in his time).

The Historical Genesis of the Pure Aesthetic

Another important point made by Bourdieu is that if we are to fruitfully and meaningfully study art, we cannot separate aesthetics from history. One cannot simply say, “I prefer the beautiful than the sociological” and pretend to be truthful about art at the same time. Because production of art and the perception of it (the universal aesthetic gaze) cannot be separated. They exist side by side, they develop side by side. Shifts in the terrain of Philippine paintings define which approach is sophisticated, and which is granular already or kitsch.

The Field of Art

As we have mentioned earlier, the larger social field is composed of smaller, ‘independent’ fields of production. Some of these fields are existent specifically for cultural production. This includes of course, the art field. What do we have to remember regarding the field of art? First, the artist does not create the artistic field. Rather, an inverse logic is at work here- the artist is formed as a subject by the artistic field. You cannot be an artist if you have not been recognized and consecrated as such by the artistic field. It is only upon recognition can the artist be an artist. This is applicable also to art itself. Art cannot be a work of art if the artistic field has not recognized it. A painting will only be a painting in the most common sense of the word only if it has been exhibited and scrutinized by representatives of the artistic field. These representatives are either experts or functionaries; in either case, they hail a work of art as art.

How is meaning produced? How do we know what to feel or what to say when we see an Amorsolo painting? Truth is, not everyone can appreciate an Amorsolo painting, because not everyone has the same degree of education. Education, in the broadest sense of the word, is also part of a person’s socialization and cultivation of what is constituted as culture, art, literature, science, logic, etc. Meaning is produced when there is harmony between the field of art and the socialization of individuals, which brings to the fore why the educational apparatus exists. Education reproduces the knowledges that are necessary for surviving in hostile territory.

The artistic field’s relationship to the field of power

According to Bourdieu, the field of art is subsumed under a larger field of power (the social field) which in turn is constituted by other fields of production. The artistic field specifically creates an illusion of independence from other fields of production. This is done through the symbolic rejection of indices of commercial success of other fields of production (the artistic field does not care that Nike shoes are produces in the thousands; an Amorsolo painting is rare and therefore more expensive even if it the material it is painted on can easily be burned and turned to ashes). Nonetheless, we must understand that the artistic field will always be in a dominated position. It has its own market, and therefore, it has to create its own indices of what is valuable, what is not valuable, what is art, and what is not art.

The value of a work of art can be determined also by looking at its audience. Who thinks that the work of art is indeed priceless? A menial worker that says that the Mona Lisa is beautiful or ugly will not matter to the world of art. But when a bureaucrat from a formal discipline says that indeed, the painting is beautiful, everyone believes it and deems the artwork priceless.

Distinction and the Judgment of Taste

Bourdieu clarifies that the economy of cultural goods that we now see have specific logics- but these logics are never far from the larger logic of capitalist production. He reminds us that all the things that we crave for in life are a direct result of one’s upbringing and one’s education in the world. A person who has lived all his life in the mountains will not want to use Friendster, unless the technology is taught to that person, and the need is created. And by then, there would be no proof that the person would be as dependent on such a thing any more than the ordinary thirteen year old who was had been brought up on Disney movies and speaks English with an American accent.

The consumption of cultural goods are dependent on a person’s knowledge and education too- because consumption in this sense is actually the act of decoding. Decoding presupposes the existence of a prior knowledge- the code itself. Without the code, a work of art would not make sense. A painting would only be a jumble of colors and lines. How is ‘intention’ approached in this manner? The intention of the artist is to of course produce something that would be ruled by him, and given meaning by him and his aims in life. The artists tends to reject whatever is said about his work of art, but he cannot help but accept in the end the judgment of the institutions regarding his work.


Althusser, Louis. Lenin and philosophy and other essays. Trans. by Ben Brewster New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The rules of art: genesis and structure of the literary field trans. by Susan Emanuel Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996.

_______, _____. Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste trans. by Richard Nice Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Foucault, Michel. The archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. by M. Sheridan Smith London: Routledge, 2002.

Jenkins, Richard. Pierre Bourdieu. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Leitch, Vincent. ed. Jean Francois Lyotard The Norton anthology of theory and criticism. New York: Norton, 2001.

Marx, Karl. The portable Karl Marx, sel. & trans. by Eugene Kamenka Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1983.

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