sociology of art

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sociology of art

an area of sociological analysis which includes with in its compass a concern with exploring the visual arts and sometimes also music, theatre, cinema, and literature. As such, the potential range of concepts and theories is diverse. Influential theoretical approaches have included Marxist and neo-Marxist – including STRUCTURALISM – as well as more conventionally sociological perspectives.

In the US, mainstream sociologists such as Coser (1978) and BECKER (1982) have focused on organizational and institutional analysis of the agencies involved in artistic and cultural production and their relations with audiences.

Whereas at one time Marxist approaches sought to analyse artistic products reductionistically, in terms of the metaphor of BASE AND SUPERSTRUCTURE, Marxists are today at the forefront of an emphasis on the importance of analysis of internal features of the artistic object or the text (see also HERMENEUTICS). Structuralist approaches, including SEMIOTIC analysis, exploring the complex codes involved in artistic products, have also been widely employed in recent years. Ultimately, however, it is a combination of an understanding of artistic production in its own terms and an account of its wider socioeconomic location and implications which continues to demarcate the sociology of art from more conventional non-sociological approaches to its analysis, such as literary criticism or art history. This said, it must also be recognized that much seminal work in the sociology of art has been interdisciplinary rather than narrowly sociological. See also AESTHETICS, SOCIOLOGY OF MASS COMMUNICATIONS, MODERNISM, LEISURE, CULTURAL STUDIES, BENJAMIN.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sociology of Art


an area of study jointly explored by sociology and art studies (including literary theory and criticism) and concerned with the social functions of art and the effect of social influences on art.

In the broad sense the sociology of art is the study of the interdependence of society as a whole (or of its social institutions) and art as a specific socially significant activity. In the narrow sense it is a branch of sociology that uses the methods of sociological research to study the effect of art on its audience, the social means by which works of art are distributed or circulated, the artistic taste of the public, differences in taste, and the influence of public taste on artistic production. As a branch of scholarship, the sociology of art should be treated in both of the above-mentioned senses.

In its broad sense the sociology of art has an ancient tradition. It was expressed in the “social criticism of art” introduced by Plato and further developed by St. Augustine, Savonarola, Rousseau, and Tolstoy. The interdependence of art and the state and of art and politics was a tenet of various trends of social and philosophical thought. Important thinkers of the French Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Diderot) and of the German Enlightenment (Winckelmann, Lessing) posited the interconnection between art and political liberty. F. von Schiller carried the ideas of the German Enlightenment further by making the development of art dependent on the total self-realization of the individual, a conception that was given a more specific sociological interpretation by Hegel and, later, by the German “true socialists,” who linked the future of art with the prospect of revolution (R. Wagner). The young Marx stressed that the flowering of art was dependent on overcoming the “alienation of labor” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844).

French and English scholars who studied art “from the point of view of sociology” in the 19th century gave a more concrete presentation of the problem. Mme. de Staël linked changes in society with the evolution of various social types in tragedy and comedy, and Taine related the content of a work of art to various social factors, such as the prevailing moods in society and surrounding circumstances. J. M. Guyon maintained that art reflected the degree of social integration in a society.

In the 20th century the Western conception of the sociology of art has developed on the basis of functionalism and other theoretical and methodological approaches, the theory of social action, the theory of cultural-historical types, and interactionism. However, this sociological approach cannot explain the universal significance of works of art from the past; in other words, it cannot explain why works of art, as Marx put it, “continue to provide us with artistic pleasure” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 12, p. 737). Recognizing this weakness, the sociology of art attempted to define the object of its investigation more exactly. A distinction was drawn between aesthetic and nonaesthetic factors in the emergence and development of art, and the object of study became the social milieu, as well as various psychological and aesthetic factors that are generally the subjects of investigation of other scholarly disciplines and branches of knowledge (C. Lalo and A. Hauser).

Another trend in the development of the sociology of art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries broke down the area of study into a number of disciplines that specifically analyzed the link between various types of art and social life. The sociology of literature has developed, which investigates the relationship between the writer and his work and public. It also studies changes of interpretation as a result of the changing taste of writers and critics (R. Escarpit and L. Goldman), as well as the reflection in literature of the values, stereotypes, and prejudices of the readers (B. Berelson and L. Loewenthal). In the mid-20th century the sociology of music (T. Adorno) emerged as an independent discipline, as did the sociology of the theater (J. Duvignaud), the sociology of film-making, and the sociology of television.

Evidence of the particularization of the sociology of art was the analysis of art in terms of its reflection of specific social processes, for example, cultural integration. Of particular interest were the functions of the artist within social institutions, the interrelationship of government organizations and associations of artists, and the role of censorship and publishing enterprises in the artistic process. Among the most important topics in the contemporary sociology of art is the relationship between art and the mass media (the expression of taste in the choice of television and radio programs, entertainment by particular forms of art, and the special problems of listening to music over the radio and in recordings). Another topic is the role of a work of art as a document of sociological analysis for the purpose of identifying new standards and values.

Critical self-limitation and particularization make it possible for the sociology of art to define its subject matter more precisely—the study of art as a means by which a society, estate, class, or social group influences an individual. The sociology of art takes as its starting point the effect of art on society and regards its basic sphere of interest to be the perception and use of art, through which the attitude of various social groups and classes toward art is expressed. Hence, the sociology of art deliberately deviates from the multifunctional nature of art (its aesthetic, cognitive, creative, and other functions). It is precisely here that the line is drawn between the sociology of art and aesthetics, art studies, and the psychology of creativity.

The contemporary Western conception of the sociology of art may be divided into two trends whose common theoretical ground is either neo-Marxism or structural functionalism, which at present are the two dominant sociological orientations. Neo-Marxism and structural functionalism include elements of phenomenology and/or structuralism.

A new page in the history of the sociology of art was turned in the late 19th century by the interpretation of art from the Marxist point of view. Marx and Engels analyzed a number of the sociological problems of the artistic process: its dependence on the state and the market and the hostility of bourgeois production to art in general. Combining the great breadth of their world view and the depth of their methodological analysis with the concrete-ness and acuteness of the sociological presentation of the problem, Marx and Engels revealed the ideological aspect of art, that is, the connection of art with class interests and the use of art as a weapon in the struggle for political domination. Continuing along these lines, V. I. Lenin developed his ideas about the class spirit and the party spirit of art and about the two cultures that exist within each national culture.

At the same time, the founders of the Marxist sociology of art, continuing the tradition of classical German aesthetics, viewed art as the product of free spiritual creation, something not limited to its ideological aspect but serving as a vehicle for general human ideals, including the ideal of the fully rounded development of the individual. From roughly the 1880’s to 1905, G. V. Plekhanov, F. Mehring, and P. Lafargue used Marxism as a basis for arriving at a number of ideas that were applied in the sociological study of art. As a result of their work, historical materialism had an important influence on European art criticism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (for example, the works of E. Grosse).

However, the Marxist understanding of art led to a certain degree of vulgarization, since only one aspect of arts, its class-ideological function, was being emphasized. Such vulgar sociologism in the Marxist sociology of art (for example, in the works of V. M. Friche, V. F. Pereverzev, and A. A. Bogdanov) was countered by another trend, whose proponents—above all, A. V. Lunacharskii—based themselves on the Leninist theory of reflection and showed that the “class genetics” point of view was one-sided, emphasizing instead the other aspect of the Marxist interpretation of art, that is, of art as a means of perceiving truth and the wholeness of social life. The traditions of the Marxist sociology of art were continued in studies on mass culture (A. Gramsci) and of various literary genres (R. Fox, G. Lukács, V. Grib. and C. Caudwell).

In the 1960’s it became quite obvious, especially under the negative influence of the experience of left-radical sociology in the West, that the main source of vulgar sociological mistakes was the extrapolation of the methods of sociology beyond the bounds of the sociological aspect of the phenomena under investigation, especially art phenomena. The task of the sociology of art is only to answer the question of the “functional nature” of the objects of its investigation; it is not concerned with the problems of truthfulness and artistic quality. It is called upon to reveal an artistic work’s degree of “effectiveness” in a particular historical context and setting. Therefore, the most important task of the sociology of art in the 1960’s was to distinguish the sociological aspect of the study of art and to make a distinction between the sociology of art, on the one hand, and aesthetics, art studies, the psychology of art, and similar fields, on the other. Only to the extent that this distinction was made successfully did the empirical studies in the sociology of art prove fruitful—studies of the audience, the public, and the reading tastes of various social groups.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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