PROPOSAL FOR A THESIS IN SOCIOLOGY
Sandeep Bhatt, ’97
In her Aesthetics and the Sociology of Art, Janet Wolff claimed that her dual purpose in the book had been “to insist on the relevance of sociology for the aesthetic, and to defend aesthetics from sociological reductionism.” (Wolff (1992) p. 105) That is, she defended the relevance of sociological analysis for understanding artistic practices — situating those practices historically, economically, and organizationally, for example — while still maintaining a notion of aesthetic quality and of aesthetic value as more than historical, economic, and organizational epiphenomenons. The purpose of this proposed thesis would be to consider what such a sociology of art, and by extension what such a sociologically informed aesthetic, might look like.
The sociology of art has traditionalIy held a marginal place among the subdisciplines of sociology, particularly in the United States. Nevertheless, the subject has received attention in the works of such sociologists as Weber, Simmel, and Adorno, and it has also been the focus of the work of such social thinkers and critics as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, Walter Benjamin, John-Dewey, and Herbert Read. One difficulty in considering this work, however, is that there is little consistency, either in theory or in methodology, among the works of these thinkers. Even among those working in the Marxist tradition, a tradition which has been notable for the consideration it has given to issues of art and aesthetics, there is much difference between the works of Eagleton and Bourdieu, Lukacs and Bakhtin. Then, too, there is the work of art historians and critics such as Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro, and Robert Hughes. Their work has crossed the boundary between art commentary and social commentary, and has done so deliberately. The same could be said for the work of many modern and contemporary artists; Jeff Koons, Lucy Lippard, Sherrie Levine, and Keith Haring come immediately to mind. And art institutions such as the Whitney Museum have felt it important to consider their social role/social function just as government institutions such as the NEA have come under fire for ignoring their social responsibilities. The mass of all this work, contradictory and inconsistent as it may be at times, nevertheless demonstrates the viability of analyzing the social character of art. If anything, the sheer breadth of the material indicates how large and complex a thorough sociology of art must be. But there is, I feel, a more important argument for developing a sociology of art than the simple viability of the task.
This argument rests with the second part of Wolff’s project, the defense of aesthetic quality and aesthetic value. What, in fact, Wolff is defending by attempting to preserve these two concepts is the notion of discernment, the notion of a viable process of judgement. That is, while accepting (and indeed, lauding) the advances of contemporary cultural theories in questioning systems of judgement from the point of view of gender, race, and class, she refuses to refute the notion of aesthetic judgement. Contemporary cultural theories demonstrate how such judgement is bounded, how it is socially embedded, but that does not deny its existence or its validity.
It is, I believe, this defense of value, of judgement, which makes the sociology of art (as Wolff envisions it) an important discipline for study. The question of values goes right to the heart of the debate over whether sociology can ever truly be value-free, or even if it should try to be. It also serves as a response to much recent postmodern theory, which at its most extreme collapses values and systems of judgement to functions of power, or which seeks to reveal values and judgements as completely arbitrary and groundless. These debates, of course, extend far beyond the defense of judgement with respect to art, to the defense of judgement in any form of activity.
Essentially, I believe that the study of the sociology of art necessarily means a study of these questions of value and judgement, questions which are, in some ways, at the heart of the sociological practice. I believe that the authors mentioned above, among many others, have grappled with these questions to varying degrees, and that the evaluation of their work from the viewpoint of developing a coherent sociology of art is a vital first step in developing the type of aesthetically respectful sociology of art Wolff describes. Furthermore, by pursuing the type of sociology of art Wolff outlines, a sociology of art which is able to respect the place of aesthetic value, by attempting to determine if such a project is even possible, I believe that I would be tackling questions whose relevance extends not into other realms of sociology, but into the realm of contemporary cultural debate as well.
As a senior thesis for the 1996-97 school year, therefore, I would like to undertake the project of constructing a sociology of art along the lines of Wolff’s vision. By considering the work of the authors mentioned above, among others, I would like to attempt to describe what a sociology which is respectful of the aesthetic might look like, how it might approach its subject matter, and what sorts of insights it could offer into the nature of artistic activity. In turn, I would like to consider what insights a sociologically informed aesthetics could offer to the sociology of art.