New Directions in the Research of the Art World

Project EATS, founded by artist Linda Goode Bryant, is a network of urban food systems that uses empty lots and rooftops in partnership with landowners and long-term renters throughout New York City to create community-based farms to sustainably grow organic food that is distributed to communities that experience food inequality. The project provides jobs and programs to the same communities. The artist chose this path instead of making documentaries because she believed it would be a more efficient way to fight food inequality.

Guerrilla Girls, Guerrilla Girls Demand a Return to Traditional Values on Abortion, 1992. Copyright © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy: guerrillagirls.com.
Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? 1989. Copyright © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy: guerrillagirls.com.

Art activist group Guerrilla Girls posted the first image of a 1992 action on their site as a message to the Supreme Court after it decided to overturn Americans’ constitutional right to abortion in June this year. The other iconic image from 1989 protests gender bias in the arts. Since 1985 the Guerrilla Girls have been consistently masking themselves as gorillas when carrying out their actions to expose gender, racial, and ethnic bias and inequality in the art world and society. They have maintained their anonymity ever since.

Liberate Tate, Human Cost, Tate Britain Performance (87 minutes), charcoal and sunflower oil 20 April 2011 – First anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Still from the video.

Liberate Tate artist group performed this unannounced action in Tate Britain in 2011, to protest British Petrol’s sponsorship of the museum. This performance took place a year after the largest oil spill in human history, caused by an explosion on a BP-operated drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Tate finally severed ties with BP in 2016.

Through their work and direct actions, GULF Labor artists express their conviction that as members of the art world they have special responsibilities toward people exploited by the art institutional system. Through several actions and guerilla projections, they have been drawing attention to the abuse of foreign construction workers at the construction sites of Guggenheim and Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

What intrigues me about these art activist projects is that they represent instances when a mainstream understanding of art, and a whole institutional system that is built on it – and by institutions, I don’t mean only museums or art programs, but the institution of the ‘canon,’ the institution of the ‘curator’ – collide with art activist practices. These collisions interest me from a sociological point of view.

Art higher education, as it has been established and transformed throughout its history has been built around the individual ‘genius’ artist. The curriculum in most art programs is still developed along this idea and serves the purpose to help students find their individual voices and style. It is also meant to encourage competition, self-promotion, and more recently an ‘entrepreneurial mindset.’ Even the critique, or as it is often called the ‘crit,’[1] is developed in a way that encourages students evaluating each other’s work to present a competitive, individualized perspective, and promote their own thoughts.

As Lise Soskolne points out, the art school is the first step in constructing the artist ‘self.’ Through the artist archetypes art students are molded into – the bohemian, the rebel, the theorist, etc. – art education constitutes them as perfectly atomized and thus easily exploitable. Even students who are trained in critical theory, Marxist, feminist, or decolonial theory build these discourses into their individualized voices to remain relevant in the art market, losing the potential to turn these ideas into collective action.[2]

Later through marketization and due to the demands of the international art industry, artists are further shaped into ‘hyper-individuated artistic subjects.’ Both the non-profit and for-profit art worlds are organized around the individual artist – the ‘brand’ that can be sold, the name that can be exhibited and attracts audiences and can be included in the canon. Art history writing is also centered around individual achievements, and the artistic canon by default only incorporates artworks and objects created by ‘singular’ individuals. Artists even brand political dissent and turn it into an “extension of their aesthetic practices” in order to remain visible[3] – a perfect example of how capitalism incorporates critical voices through art.

The larger institutional system, galleries, collectors, and often the artists themselves consider the artwork too as something that is unique that cannot be added to or changed – a sole revelation that must be preserved as is, frozen in time. We need not look further than conservation regimes, also discussed in this issue of Mezosfera.

According to Soskolne, the risk of giving up individualization for collectivization is very high. And thus this extreme individualization, which is deeply embedded in visual arts, becomes one of the biggest obstacles to solidarity, collective action, and collective articulation of interests and labor demands.[4]

Activist artists, however, reject the conventions of the art world, and art activism goes against the way the mainstream art world understands and constantly reconstructs art. In collaborative art activist projects, the author is often the whole collective – as we saw in the examples above. While the art world expects some kind of outcome of an art project – an artwork, or at least documentation that can be exhibited or sold – art activists focus on what makes a project transformative for the communities involved. The collective actions, the performances, and the art objects are not the end products but means to an end. When artists become activists, the institutions of the art world no longer seem to be relevant to them, they don’t need the acknowledgment or the approval of agents of the art world.

Besides direct actions, many activist artists and organizers also actively aim to create alternatives to official art institutions – alternative organizations and ‘alternative economies’ or as they are more often called now ‘solidarity economies.’ Many of their efforts transgress the boundaries of the art world and focus on local communities. What connects all these initiatives and actions are the ideals of collaboration, voluntariness, non-monetary exchanges, as well as community and solidarity building in face of an alienating, individualistic, and competitive art world.

It seems that art activism forces us to rethink the traditional relations within the art world that are the cornerstones of the conventional understanding of art. As we will see the most influential social theorists of art have also considered these conventional relations and institutions as given when they developed their theoretical frameworks.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Pierre Bourdieu’s grand theory is still one of the most influential sociological theories of the art world. It gained popularity not only in sociology but among art professionals as well in the 1990s and 2000s. It provides a complex understanding that takes into consideration not only the power relations within the art world, and the larger social structures that determine these relations, but also how the individual is shaped by these structures and then as a consequence reproduces them. It has also been popular because it provides a theoretical framework for the whole art world as a system. Can his theoretical framework explain art activism?

Bourdieu’s theory fits among the institutional theories. Institutional theories in sociology explain social behavior through how institutions create and shape individuals, their choices, and values, and in turn how members of institutions recreate social reality by following rules, internalizing ideologies, and legitimizing the power of the institutions. Institutional theories of art and culture posit that institutions create and maintain culture and art, through these complex processes. Paul DiMaggio, one pioneer of institutional theory of the arts, for example, explains how Boston elites in the second half of the 19th century founded cultural institutions to create distinction between themselves and other social groups through art. These cultural institutions then developed the American version of high and popular art.[5]

Probably the core of institutional theories of art lies already in Arthur C. Danto’s revelation about contemporary art in 1964, that in order to see something as art there needs to be an ‘art world’ around it.[6] Danto’s ‘art world’ refers to the aesthetic theories and history of art – a certain context. The Brillo boxes are artworks because they say something about the difference between art and reality. They are artworks because by making their own existence the subject of discourse, they are referring and contributing to a long history of art, and aesthetic discourses. Social theorists like DiMaggio and Bourdieu, however, turn attention away from the artwork altogether to the institutional context of artworks, and they find the ‘art world’ in the institutions.

Bourdieu explains the entire field of art through the power struggles played out within it. In The Field of Cultural Production,[7] he describes the cultural field as a space of positions and at the same time as a space of position-takings (artistic manifestos, political statements, even artworks, etc.). Every position in any one moment of time is dependent on and actually determined very much by all the other positions in the field. Some positions are dominant, others are dominated. The structure of the field is the structure of the distribution of the symbolic capital that is necessary to gain external (economic) or ‘field specific’ (artistic prestige) profits. The artistic field is a field of struggles for conserving or transforming the field and its power relations, in which struggle the strategy used by the different agents depends on their positions in those power relations. According to Bourdieu, the “monopoly of legitimate discourse,” the monopoly to decide what is a work of art, is ultimately at stake. Those who have the monopoly – powerful institutional agents, successful, established artists – use conservative strategies and try to defend orthodoxy – the standards and norms established and maintained by them. Newcomers – young artists, artists with a background in previously underrepresented groups – often use subversive strategies, and promote deviation from the previously accepted artistic norms. The dynamics of these constant conflicts between positions can explain the ever-changing artistic field, for example, the emergence of the avant-garde in the early 20th century, and its rising to the canon. But even if the dominant positions are constantly challenged, Bourdieu emphasizes, everyone in the field knows and accepts the rules and the stakes, and latently everyone is interested in the existence of the field and agrees that the stakes are worth fighting for. The effort and time actors sacrifice to become part of the field prevents a real revolution from happening.

Bourdieu also emphasizes that for artists it is not that much the training or any kind of licensure that legitimizes them as artists, but the consecration process by the ‘creators of the creator’ – institutional agents, like art dealers, publishers, critics, and curators -, because without them “discovering” and legitimizing the artwork through publishing, exhibiting, staging, etc., the work remains a “mere natural resource.” Art professionals are also “cultural bankers,” who invest all their symbolic capital, the prestige they have accumulated in the artists they consecrate. Their authority and their prestige on the other hand exist only in relation to the whole field of production, in relation to all the other participants (artists, art dealers, critics, and audience). Therefore, reputation is created by the whole field as a result of the struggles for the monopoly of the power to consecrate.[8]

Within the art field, avant-garde or experimental art creates its own, autonomous subfield in Bourdieu’s theoretical framework. While in part of the field economic success (number and price of artworks sold, size of the audience, etc.) is the desired capital, the avant-guard subfield managed to develop autonomy from economic power, according to Bourdieu. The only thing that matters in this subfield is artistic prestige – artists produce for other artists, thus the only aim is the acknowledgment of peers. Consequently, artists are indifferent toward economic profit or success, thus growing popularity and monetary gains lead to a decrease in artistic prestige.

According to Bourdieu, the work of art is an object of belief, a fetish that “exists as such only by virtue of the (collective) belief which knows and acknowledges it as a work of art.”[9] At the same time, the work of art is a manifestation of the struggles, power relations, structure, and inherent determinism of the field. In this regard, not only the material production but the value production, that is, the symbolic production of a work becomes important as well.

While Bourdieu developed this framework based on the 19th-century French literary field, his insights are considered accurate more generally too, and even in the contemporary art field. Nevertheless, I argue that the problem with Bourdieu’s institutional theory is, on the one hand, that it strips the artwork of historicity, denies art’s intellectual contribution, and posits it as an arbitrary product at the whims and interests of actors in dominant positions within the field of art. In this framework art is what institutional actors consecrate as art – and thus the argument becomes circular.

On the other hand, Bourdieu’s grand theory cannot explain art activism either. As I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, many activist artists don’t seem to be interested in the ‘game’ of the art world. They are not interested in becoming consecrated by institutional agents or becoming part of the canon. Neither economic success nor the acknowledgment of their artist peers motivates them as much as the acknowledgment of the community they represent, often people from outside of the art world. Many of them don’t believe art has ever been autonomous either in the Greenbergian sense[10] or in the Bourdieusian way – autonomous from economic power.[11] They see that even the non-profit sphere, where the more experimental art traditionally finds support, is highly intertwined with economic and market interests, especially in the US.[12] Art activists question and contest almost every element of the institutional system of the art world. They aim to transform, or altogether deconstruct the art world as we know it.

Nevertheless, art activism has remained invisible to institutional theorists, even though it is not a new phenomenon. Institutional theorists tend to build their theoretical frameworks on mainstream institutions of the art world, logically making it impossible to see as art anything that isn’t part of this system. The narrow definition of art as something that is consecrated by an institutional actor doesn’t help either. They accept the mainstream art world’s definitions of art as their own subject of study, even though they claim to critically evaluate the power struggles in the art world.

Art activists have been working outside of the conventionally visible part of the institutions of the art world, and intentionally so. They have been part of what artist writer and activist Gregory Sholette called the ‘dark matter’ of the art world. The dark matter generally consists of the “shadow practitioners” who cannot live off their art in a winner-takes-it-all art world, and therefore are invisible to the established art world, but on whose activities the art world depends: they are the educators of the next generations of artists, they are the art administrators, art fabricators, art movers, assistants, museum educators, and the audience and members of art institutions. He argued that the dark matter includes many art activists who self-consciously work outside, and even against the conventions of the mainstream art world, for reasons of social and political critique.[13] Since the Occupy Wall Street movement, many of these dark matter practitioners (re)turned to the art world with the aim of deconstructing the art institutional system.

To better understand the economic relations of this conventionally invisible realm of the art world – where art activists also work -, Kuba Szreder and Kathrin Böhm borrow J.K. Gibson-Graham’s metaphor and economic model of the iceberg of feminine labor and apply it to the art world’s economy.[14] They argue that only the tip of the iceberg – representing paid wage labor, artistic production for the art market, and the hyper-visible commodities of the art world – is visible, and its reflection on the water blocks out the enormous underwater section, the everyday unwaged labor that underpins and upholds the art circulation and institutional system (for example, self-employment, or moonlighting of artists who even have to install their own exhibitions without any compensation and appear on discussion panels without honorarium – my own reference to the findings of W.A.G.E.).[15]

Acknowledging this blind spot in the theories of the art world, there are several productive directions sociological theory can take from here. One is to study how the gradually more significant activist tendencies change our understanding of art and what we know about the institutional system of the art world. Another is to explore how art activists deal with the tension between the traditional art training they received described at the beginning of this essay, and the very different attitude that art activism requires.

The age of grand theories is arguably over in the social sciences, but acknowledging the existence of this growing force from a systemic perspective is important because what we probably see happening is the emergence of a new understanding of art that disillusioned and precarious artists establish through art activism and organizing, while they also find a new use of their artistic skills by offering them as direct service to communities, and creating model communities and institutions for a more equitable future – circumventing the art institutions altogether.


[1] A staple pedagogical tool of the American art education the crit is a more formal group discussion of each students’ presented finished work among peers and teachers, where everyone is encouraged to interpret, analyze, critically evaluate, contextualize each other’s work.

[2] Lise Soskolne, “Made in Art School,” in Not Working: Reader, eds. Maurin Dietrich, Gloria Hasnay (Kunstverein München and Archive Books, 2020), 86-91.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Dimaggio, “Cultural entrepreneurship in nineteenth-century Boston: the creation of an organizational base for high culture in America,” Media, Culture & Society, 1982 4, 33-50, https://doi.org/10.1177/016344378200400104.

[6] Arthur C. Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 61, No. 19, American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Sixty-First Annual Meeting (Oct. 15, 1964), pp. 571-584.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, edited by Randal Johnson, Columbia University Press, 1993.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 35.

[10] Clement Greenberg in his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting” argued that truly avant-garde art, in order to establish its autonomous field of expertise, has been focusing on analyzing and criticizing its own unique area of competence.

[11] A good demonstration of this can be found in Andrea Fraser’s 2011 essay, L’1% c’est moi.

[12] Lise Soskolne, “Made in Art School,” in Not Working: Reader, eds. Maurin Dietrich, Gloria Hasnay (Kunstverein München and Archive Books, 2020).

[13] Gregory Scholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, New York: Pluto Press, 2010.

[14] Kuba Szreder, “The Political Economy of Icebergs: (In)Visible Labor and Contemporary Art,” Effects, undated, https://effects-journal.com/archive/the-political-economy-of-icebergs.

[15] W.A.G.E., “2010 W.A.G.E. Survey,” 2012, https://wageforwork.com/work/2010-w-a-g-e-survey#top.

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