On the Margins of Art Worlds

On the Margins of Art Worlds

On the Margins of Art Worlds

On the Margins of Art Worlds


"The concept of the art world confronts and undermines the romantic ideology of art and artists that is still dominant in Western societies. By treating the production of art as work and artists as workers and examining the conditions under which these activities take place, this sociological perspective illuminates much that remains obscured by romantic individualism. The art worlds analysis represented in this collection of original studies questions the social arrangements that determine the recruitment and training of artists, the institutional mechanisms that govern distribution and influence success, the processes of innovation within art worlds, and the emergence of new formations around new media or new players. These studies share a focus on borderline cases and questions - on actions, transactions, and transitions at the margins of art worlds. Controversies and critical incidents expose many of the otherwise invisible rules and procedures that determine art world practices. Examining transitions across the border into art worlds has much to tell us about aesthetic values and biases obscured by the romantic ideology of artistic genius. Looking at art worlds organized around marginal media - amateur photography, video, graffiti - reveals patterns of interaction and evaluation strikingly reminiscent of those found in the fine art mainstream." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved


During the late 1980s, the near-worship of artistic genius produced auction sales of works by Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso for tens of millions of dollars, over $15 million for a painting by Jasper Johns, and record prices for works by many other deceased and even living masters. At the same time, it was no longer controversial in academic and intellectual circles to maintain that art works are the products of what Howard Becker has termed collective activity carried out within loosely defined art worlds:

Works of art, from this point of view, are not the products of individual makers, "artists" who possess a rare and special gift. They are, rather, joint products of all the people who cooperate via an art world's characteristic conventions to bring works like that into existence. Artists are some sub-group of the world's participants who, by common agreement, possess a special gift, therefore make a unique and indispensable contribution to the work, and thereby make it art. (1982: 35)

The concept of the art world--with its central focus on the collective, social, and conventional nature of artistic production, distribution, and appreciation--confronts and potentially undermines the romantic ideology of art and artists still dominant in Western societies.

In contrast to this romantic image, the sociological art world perspective emphasizes similarities rather than distinctions between artistic and other activities. As Becker's pioneering work showed, there is enormous explanatory power to be gained by this approach. It is not necessary to deny that artworks are in some ways special and are different from other products of human activity nor to argue that artists are in no significant sense different from other workers who produce goods and services. But treating the production of art as work and artists as workers and examining the conditions under which these activities take place illuminates much that is obscured by the dictates of romantic individualism.

We might also ask what happens if we consider the arts from within the framework of communication theory; after all, the arts are generally assumed to be forms of communication. We might say that artists are the "sources" who "encode" works of art (i.e., "messages") that are "decoded" by audiences. But this terminological exercise leaves many questions unanswered: Who is permitted or required to be an artist? Which objects or events are considered to be works of art? Who is eligible to be among the audiences for these works? And what do the processes of creation and appreciation consist of?. These questions may be approached from many perspectives--psychological, historical, and sociological . . .

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