Published by: American Sociological Association

Art As Collective Action
Author(s): Howard S. Becker
Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Dec., 1974), pp. 767-776
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Northwestern University
American Sociological Review 1974, Vol. 39 (December): 767-776
Art works can be conceived as the product of the cooperative activity of many people. Some of
these people are customarily defined as artists, others as support personnel. The artist’s
dependence on support personnel constrains the range of artistic possibilities available to him.
Cooperation is mediated by the use of artistic conventions, whose existence both makes the
production of work easier and innovation more difficult. Artistic innovations occur when artists
discover alternate means of assembling the resources necessary. This conception of an art world
made up of personnel cooperating via conventions has implications for the sociological analysis
of social organization.
A distinguished sociological tradition holds
that art is social in character, this being a
specific instance of the more general
proposition that knowledge and cultural
products are social in character or have a
social base. A variety of language has been
used to describe the relations between art
works and their social context. Studies have
ranged from those that attempted to correlate
various artistic styles and the cultural
emphases of the societies they were found in
to those that investigated the circumstances
surrounding the production of particular
works. Both social scientists and humanistic
scholars have contributed to this literature. (A
representative sample of work can be found in
Albrecht, Barnett and Griff, 1970).
Much sociological writing speaks of orga-
nizations or systems without reference to the
people whose collective actions constitute the
organization or system. Much of the literature
on art as a social product does the same,
demonstrating correlations or congruences
without reference to the collective activities
by which they came about, or speaking of
social structures without reference to the
actions of people doing things together which
create those structures. My admittedly scat-
tered reading of materials on the arts, the
available sociological literature, (especially
Blumer, 1966, and Strauss et al., 1964) and
personal experience and participation in
several art worlds have led me to a conception
of art as a form of collective action.
In arriving at this conception, I have relied
on earlier work by social scientists and
humanists in the traditions I have just
criticized. Neither the examples I use nor the
specific points are novel; but I do not believe
they have been used in connection with the
conception of collective activity here pro-
posed. None of the examples stands as
evidence for the theory. Rather, they
illustrate the kinds of materials a theory about
this area of human life must take account of.
Applying such a conception to the area of art
generates some broader ideas about social
organization in general, which I consider in
conclusion. They are evidence that a theory of
the kind proposed is necessary.
Think, with respect to any work of
art, of all the activities that must be
carried on for that work to appear as it
finally does. For a symphony orchestra to
give a concert, for instance, instruments
must have been invented, manufactured
and maintained, a notation must have
been devised and music composed using that
notation, people must have learned to play
the notated notes on the instruments, times
and places for rehearsal must have been
provided, ads for the concert must have been
placed, publicity arranged and tickets sold,
and an audience capable of listening to and in
some way understanding and responding to
the performance must have been recruited. A
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similar list can be compiled for any of the
performing arts. With minor variations (sub-
stitute materials for instruments and exhibi-
tion for performance), the list applies to the
visual and (substituting language and print for
materials and publication for exhibition)
literary arts. Generally speaking, the necessary
activities typically include conceiving the idea
for the work, making the necessary physical
artifacts, creating a conventional language of
expression, training artistic personnel and
audiences to use the conventional language to
create and experience, and providing the
necessary mixture of those ingredients for a
particular work or performance.
Imagine, as an extreme case, one person
who did all these things: made everything,
invented everything, performed, created and
experienced the result, all without the
assistance or cooperation of anyone else. In
fact, we can barely imagine such a thing, for
all the arts we know about involve elaborate
networks of cooperation. A division of the
labor required takes place. Typically, many
people participate in the work without which
the performance or artifact could not be
produced. A sociological analysis of any art
therefore looks for that division of labor. How
are the various tasks divided among the people
who do them?
Nothing in the technology of any art
makes one division of tasks more “natural”
than another. Consider the relations between
the composition and performance of music. In
conventional symphonic and chamber music,
the two activities occur separately; although
many composers perform, and many per-
formers compose, we recognize no necessary
connection between the two and see them as
two separate roles which may occasionally
coincide in one person. In jazz, composition is
not important, the standard tune merely
furnishing a framework on which the
performer builds the improvisation listeners
consider important. In contemporary rock
music, the performer ideally composes his
own music; rock groups who play other
people’s music (Bennett, 1972) carry the
derogatory title of “copy bands.” Similarly,
some art photographers always make their
own prints; others seldom do. Poets writing in
the Western tradition do not think it
necessary to incorporate their handwriting
into the work, leaving it to printers to put the
material in readable form, but Oriental
calligraphers count the actual writing an
integral part of the poetry. In no case does the
character of the art impose a natural division
of labor; the division always results from a
consensual definition of the situation. Once
that has been achieved, of course, participants
in the world of art’ regard it as natural and
resist attempts to change it as unnatural,
unwise or immoral.
Participants in an art world regard some of
the activities necessary to the production of
that form of art as “artistic,” requiring the
special gift or sensibility of an artist. The
remaining activities seem to them a matter of
craft, business acumen or some other ability
less rare, less characteristic of art, less
necessary to the success of the work, and less
worthy of respect. They define the people
who perform these special activities as artists,
and everyone else as (to borrow a military
term) support personnel. Art worlds differ in
how they allocate the honorific title of artist
and in the mechanisms by which they choose
who gets it and who doesn’t. At one extreme,
a guild or academy (Pevsner, 1940) may
require long apprenticeship and prevent those
it does not license from practicing. At the
other, the choice may be left to the lay public
that consumes the work, wh oever they accept
being ipso facto an artist. An activity’s status
as art or non-art may change, in either
direction. Kealy (1974) notes that the
recording engineer has, when new technical
possibilities arose that artists could use
expressively, been regarded as something of an
artist. When the effects he can produce
become commonplace, capable of being
produced on demand by any competent
worker, he loses that status.
How little of the activity necessary for the
art can a person do and still claim the title of
artist? The amount the composer contributes
to the material contained in the final work has
varied greatly. Virtuoso performers from the
Renaissance through the nineteenth century
embellished and improvised on the score the
composer provided (Dart, 1967, and Reese,
1959), so it is not unprecedented for
‘The concept of an art world has recently been
used as a central idea in the analysis of key issues in
aesthetics. (See Dickie, 1971, Danto, 1964, and
Blizek, n.d.). I have used the term in a relatively
unanalyzed way here, letting its meaning become
clear in context, but intend a fuller analysis in
another paper.
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contemporary composers to prepare scores
which give only the sketchiest directions to
the performer (though the counter-tendency,
for composers to restrict the interpretative
freedom of the performer by giving increas-
ingly detailed directions, has until recently
been more prominent). John Cage and
Karlheinz Stockhausen (Worner, 1973) are
regarded as composers in the world of
contemporary music, though many of their
scores leave much of the material to be played
to the decision of the player. Artists need not
handle the materials from which the art work
is made to remain artists; architects seldom
build what they design. The same practice
raises questions, however, when sculptors
construct a piece by sending a set of
specifications to a machine shop; and many
people balk at awarding the title of artist to
authors of conceptual works consisting of
specifications which are never actually em-
bodied in an artifact. Marcel Duchamp
outraged many people by insisting that he
created a valid work of art when he signed a
commercially produced snowshovel or signed
a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on which he
had drawn a mustache, thus classifying
Leonardo as support personnel along with the
snowshovel’s designer and manufacturer. Out-
rageous as that idea may seem, something like
it is standard in making collages, in which the
entire work may be constructed of things
made by other people. The point of these
examples is that what is taken, in any world
of art, to be the quintessential artistic act, the
act whose performance marks one as an artist,
is a matter of consensual definition.
Whatever the artist, so defined, does not do
himself must be done by someone else. The
artist thus works in the center of a large
network of cooperating people, all of whose
work is essential to the final outcome.
Wherever he depends on others, a cooperative
link exists. The people with whom he
cooperates may share in every particular his
idea of how their work is to be done. This
consensus is likely when everyone involved
can perform any of the necessary activities, so
that while a division of labor exists, no
specialized functional groups develop. This
situation might occur in simple communally
shared art forms like the square dance or in
segments of a society whose ordinary
members are trained in artistic activities. A
well-bred nineteenth century American, for
instance, knew enough music to take part in
performing the parlor songs of Stephen Foster
just as his Renaissance counterpart could
participate in performing madrigal. In such
cases, cooperation occurs simply and readily.
When specialized professional groups take
over the performance of the activities
necessary to an art work’s production,
however, their members tend to develop
specialized aesthetic, financial and career
interests which differ substantially from the
artist’s. Orchestral musicians, for instance, are
notoriously more concerned with how they
sound in performance than with the success of
a particular work; with good reason, for their
own success depends in part on impressing
those who hire them with their competence
(Faulkner, 1973 a, 1973b). They may sabotage
a new work which can make them sound bad
because of its difficulty, their career interests
lying at cross-purposes to the composer’s.
Aesthetic conflicts between support per-
sonnel and the artist also occur. A sculptor
friend of mine was invited to use the services
of a group of master lithographic printers.
Knowing little of the technique of lithog-
raphy, he was glad to have these. master
craftsmen do the actual printing, this division
of labor being customary and having gen-
erated a highly specialized craft of printing.
He drew designs containing large areas of solid
colors, thinking to simplify the printer’s job.
Instead, he made it more difficult. When the
printer rolls ink onto the stone, a large area
will require more than one rolling to be fully
inked and may thus exhibit roller marks. The
printers, who prided themselves on being the
greatest in the world, explained to my friend
that while they could print his designs, the
areas of solid color could cause difficulty with
roller marks. He had not known about roller
marks and talked of using them as part of his
design. The printers said, no, he could not do
that, because roller marks were an obvious
sign (to other printers) of poor craftsmanship
and no print exhibiting roller marks was
allowed to leave their shop. His artistic
curiosity fell victim to the printers’ craft
standards, a neat example of how specialized
support groups develop their own standards
and interests.2
My friend was at the mercy of the printers
2The arrangements between artists, printers and
publishers are described in Kase (1973).
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because he did not know how to print
lithographs himself. His experience exem-
plified the choice that faces the artist at every
cooperative link. He can do things the way
established groups of support personnel are
prepared to do them; he can try to make them
do it his way: he can train others to do it
his way; or he can do it himself. Any choice
but the first requires an additional investment
of time and energy to do what could be done
less expensively if done the standard way. The
artist’s involvement with and dependence on
cooperative links thus constrains the kind of
art he can produce.
Similar examples can be found in any field
of art. e.e. cummings had trouble getting his
first book of poetry published because
printers were afraid to set his bizarre layouts
(Norman, 1958). Producing a motion picture
involves multiple difficulties of this kind:
actors who will only be photographed in
flattering ways, writers who don’t want a
word changed, cameramen who will not use
unfamiliar processes.
Artists often create works which existing
facilities for production or exhibition cannot
accommodate. Sculptors build constructions
too large and heavy for existing museums.
Composers write music which requires more
performers than existing organizations can
furnish. Playwrights write plays too long for
their audience’s taste. When they go beyond
the capacities of existing institutions, their
works are not exhibited or performed: that
reminds us that most artists make sculptures
which are not too big or heavy, compose
music which uses a comfortable number of
players, or write plays which run a reasonable
length of time. By accommodating their
conceptions to available resources, conven-
tional artists accept the constraints arising
from their dependence on the cooperation of
members of the existing art world. Wherever
the artist depends on others for some
necessary component he must either accept
the constraints they impose or expend the
time and energy necessary to provide it some
other way.
To say that the artist must have the
cooperation of others for the art work to
occur as it finally does does not mean that he
cannot work without that cooperation. The
art work, after all, need not occur as it does,
but can take many other forms, including
those which allow it to be done without
others’ help. Thus, though poets do depend
on printers and publishers (as Cummings’
example indicates), one can produce poetry
without them. Russian poets whose work
circulates in privately copied typescripts do
that, as did Emily Dickinson (Johnson, 1955).
In both cases, the poetry does not circulate in
conventional print because the artist would
not accept the censorship or rewriting
imposed by those who would publish the
work. The poet either has to reproduce and
circulate his work himself or not have it
circulated. But he can still write poetry. My
argument thus differs from a functionalism
that asserts that the artist must have
cooperation, ignoring the possibility that the cooperation can be foregone, though at a
The examples given so far emphasize
matters more or less external to the art
work-exhibition space, printing or musical
notation. Relations of cooperation and
constraint, however, penetrate the entire
process of artistic creation and composition,
as will become clear in looking at the nature
and function of artistic conventions.
Producing art works requires elaborate
modes of cooperation among specialized
personnel. How do these people arrive at the
terms on which they will cooperate? They
could, of course, decide everything fresh on
each occasion. A group of musicians could
discuss and agree on such matters as which
sounds would be used as tonal resources, what
instruments might be constructed to make
those sounds, how those sounds would be
combined to create a musical language, how
the language would be used to create works of
a particular length requiring a given number of
instruments and playable for audiences of a
certain size recruited in a certain way.
Something like that sometimes happens in, for
instance, the creation of a new theatrical
group, although in most cases only a small
number of the questions to be decided are
actually considered anew.
People who cooperate to produce a work
of art usually do not decide things afresh.
Instead, they rely on earlier agreements now
become customary, agreements that have
become part of the conventional way of doing
things in that art. Artistic conventions cover
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all the decisions that must be made with
respect to works produced in a given art
world, even though a particular convention
may be revised for a given work. Thus,
conventions dictate the materials to be used,
as when musicians agree to base their music
on the notes contained in a set of modes, or
on the diatonic, pentatonic or chromatic
scales with their associated harmonies. Con-
ventions dictate the abstractions to be used to
convey particular ideas or experiences, as
when painters use the laws of perspective to
convey the illusion of three dimensions or
photographers use black, white and shades of
gray to convey the interplay of light and
color. Conventions dictate the form in which
materials and abstractions will be combined,
as in the musical use of the sonata form or the
poetic use of the sonnet. Conventions suggest
the appropriate dimensions of a work, the
proper length for a musical or dramatic event,
the proper size and shape of a painting or
sculpture. Conventions regulate the relations
between artists and audience, specifying the
rights and obligations of both.
Humanistic scholars-art historians, music-
ologists and literary critics-have found the
concept of the artistic convention useful in
accounting for artists’ ability to produce art
works which produce an emotional response
in audiences. By using such a conventional
organization of tones as a scale, the composer
can create and manipulate the listener’s
expectations as to what sounds will follow. He
can then delay and frustrate the satisfaction
of those expectations, generating tension and
release as the expectation is ultimately
satisfied (Meyer, 1956, 1973; Cooper and
Meyer, 1960). Only because artist and
audience share knowledge of and experience
with the conventions invoked does the art
work produce an emotional effect. Smith
(1968) has shown how poets manipulate
conventional means embodied in poetic forms
and diction to bring poems to a clear and
satisfying conclusion, in which the expecta-
tions produced early in the lyric are
simultaneously and satisfactorily resolved.
Gombrich (1960) has analyzed the visual
conventions artists use to create the illusion
for viewers that they are seeing a realistic
depiction of some aspect of the world. In all
these cases (and in others like stage design,
dance, and film), the possibility of artistic
experience arises from the existence of a body
of conventions that artists and audiences can
refer to in making sense of the work.
Conventions make art possible in another
sense. Because decisions can be made quickly,
because plans can be made simply by referring
to a conventional way of doing things, artists
can devote more time to actually doing their
work. Conventions thus make possible the
easy and efficient coordination of activity
among artists and support personnel. Ivins
(1953), for instance, shows how, by using a
conventionalized scheme for rendering shad-
ows, modeling and other effects, several
graphic artists could collaborate in producing
a single plate. The same conventions made it
possible for viewers to read what were
essentially arbitrary marks as shadows and
modeling. Seen this way, the concept of
convention provides a point of contact
between humanists and sociologists, being
interchangeable with such familiar sociological
ideas as norm, rule, shared understanding,
custom or folkway, all referring in one way or
another to the ideas and understandings
people hold in common and through which
they effect cooperative activity. Burlesque
comedians could stage elaborate three man
skits without rehearsal because they had only
to refer to a conventional body of skits they
all knew, pick one and assign the parts. Dance
musicians who are total strangers can play all
night with no more prearrangement than to
mention a title (“Sunny Side of the Street,”
in C) and count off four beats to give the
tempo; the title indicates a melody, its
accompanying harmony and perhaps even
customary background figures. The conven-
tions of character and dramatic structure, in
the one case, and of melody, harmony and
tempo, in the other, are familiar enough that
audiences have no difficulty in responding
Though standardized, conventions are
seldom rigid and unchanging. They do not
specify an inviolate set of rules everyone must
refer to in settling questions of what to do.
Even where the directions seem quite specific,
they leave much unsettled which gets resolved
by reference to customary modes of interpre-
tation on the one hand and by negotiation on
the other. A tradition of performance
practice, often codified in book form, tells
performers how to interpret the musical
scores or dramatic scripts they perform.
Seventeenth century scores, for instance,
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contained relatively little information; but
contemporary books explained how to deal
with questions of instrumentation, note
values, extemporization and the realization of
embellishments and ornaments. Performers
read their music in the light of all these
customary styles of interpretation and thus
were able to coordinate their activities (Dart,
1967). The same thing occurs in the visual
arts. Much of the content, symbolism and
coloring of Italian Renaissance religious
painting was conventionally given; but a
multitude of decisions remained for the artist,
so that even within those strict conventions
different works could be produced. Adhering
to the conventional materials, however,
allowed viewers to read much emotion and
meaning into the picture. Even where
customary interpretations of conventions
exist, having become conventions themselves,
artists can agree to do things differently,
negotiation making change possible.
Conventions place strong constraints on
the artist. They are particularly constraining
because they do not exist in isolation, but
come in complexly interdependent systems,
so that making one small change often
requires making changes in a variety of other
activities. A system of conventions gets
embodied in equipment, materials, training,
available facilities and sites, systems of
notation and the like, all of which must be
changed if any one segment is.
Consider what a change from the conven-
tional western chromatic musical scale of
twelve tones to one including forty-two tones
between the octaves entails. Such a change
characterizes the compositions of Harry
Partch (1949). Western musical instruments
cannot produce these microtones easily and
some cannot produce them at all, so
conventional instruments must be recon-
structed (as Partch does) or new instruments
must be invented and built. Since the
instruments are new, no one knows how to
play them, and players must train themselves.
Conventional Western notation is inadequate
to score forty-two tone music, so a new
notation must be devised, and players must
learn to read it. (Comparable resources can be
taken as given by anyone who writes for the
conventional twelve chromatic tones). Con-
sequently, whereas a performance of music
scored for the conventional set of tones can
be performed adequately after relatively few
hours of rehearsal, forty-two tone music
requires much more work, time, effort and
resources. Partch’s music has typically come
to be performed in the following way: a
university invites him to spend a year. In the
fall, he recruits a group of interested students,
who build the instruments (which he has
already invented) under his direction. In the
winter, they learn to play the instruments and
read the notation he has devised. In the
spring, they rehearse several works and finally
give a performance. Seven or eight months of
work finally result in two hours of music,
hours which could have been filled with other
music after eight to ten hours of rehearsal by
trained symphonic musicians playing the
standard repertoire. The difference in the
resources required measures the strength of
the constraint imposed by the conventional
Similarly, conventions specifying what a
good photograph should look like are
embodied not only in an aesthetic more or
less accepted in the world of art photography
(Rosenblum, 1973), but also in the accep-
tance of the constraints built into the neatly
interwoven complex of standardized equip-
ment and materials made by major manu-
facturers. Available lenses, camera bodies,
shutter speeds, apertures, films, and printing
paper all constitute a tiny fraction of the
things that could be made, a selection that can
be used together to produce acceptable prints;
with ingenuity they can also be used to
produce effects their purveyors did not have
in mind. But some kinds of prints, once
common, can now only be produced with
great difficulty because the materials are no
longer available. Specifically, the photosensi-
tive material in conventional papers is a silver
salt, which produces a characteristic look.
Photographers once printed on paper sensi-
tized with platinum salts, until it went off the
market in 1937 (Newhall, 1964, p. 117). You
can still make platinum prints, which have a
distinctively softer look, but only by making
your own paper. Not surprisingly, most
photographers accept the constraint and learn
to maximize the effects that can be obtained
from available silver-based materials. They
likewise prize the standardization and de-
pendability of mass-produced materials; a roll
of Kodak Tri-X film purchased anywhere in
the world has approximately the same
characteristics and will produce the same
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results as any other roll, that being the
opportunity that is the obverse of the
The limitations of conventional practice,
clearly, are not total. One can always do
things differently if one is prepared to pay the
price in increased effort or decreased circula-
tion of one’s work. The experience of
composer Charles Ives exemplifies the latter
possibility. He experimented with
polytonality and polyrhythms before they
became part of the ordinary performer’s
competence. The New York players who tried
to play his chamber and orchestral music told
him that it was unplayable, that their
instruments could not make those sounds,
that the scores could not be played in any
practical way. Ives finally accepted their
judgment, but continued to compose such
music. What makes his case interesting is that,
according to his biographers (Cowell and
Cowell, 1954), though he was also bitter
about it, he experienced this as a great
liberation. If no one could play his music,
then he no longer had to write music that
musicians could play, no longer had to accept
the constraints imposed by the conventions
that regulated cooperation between con-
temporary composer and player. Since, for
instance, his music would not be played, he
never needed to finish it; he was quite
unwilling to confirm John Kirkpatrick’s
pioneer reading of the Concord Sonata as a
correct one because that would mean that he
could no longer change it. Nor did he have to
accommodate his writing to the practical
constraints of what could be financed by
conventional means, and so he wrote his
Fourth Symphony for three orchestras. (That
impracticality lessened with time; Leonard
Bernstein premiered the work in 1958 and it
has been played many times since.)
In general, breaking with existing conven-
tions and their manifestations in social
structure and material artifacts increases the
artist’s trouble and decreases the circulation
of his work, on the one hand, but at the same
time increases his freedom to choose uncon-
ventional alternatives and to depart substan-
tially from customary practice. If that is true,
we can understand any work as the product of
a choice between conventional ease and
success and unconventional trouble and lack
of recognition, looking for the experiences
and situational and structural elements that
dispose artists in one direction or the other.
Interdependent systems of conventions and
structures of cooperative links appear very
stable and difficult to change. In fact, though
arts sometimes experience periods of stasis,
that does not mean that no change or
innovation occurs (Meyer, 1967). Small
innovations occur constantly, as conventional
means of creating expectations and delaying
their satisfaction become so well-known as to
become conventional expectations in their
own right. Meyer (1956) analyzes this process
and gives a nice example in the use of vibrato
by string instrument players. At one time,
string players used no vibrato, introducing it
on rare occasions as a deviation from
convention which heightened tension and
created emotional response by virtue of its
rarity. String players who wished to excite
such an emotional response began using
vibrato more and more often until the way to
excite the emotional response it had once
produced was to play without vibrato, a
device that Bartok and other composers
exploited. Meyer describes the process by
which deviations from convention become
accepted conventions in their own right as a
common one.
Such changes are a kind of gradualist
reform in a persisting artistic tradition.
Broader, more disruptive changes also occur,
bearing a marked resemblance to political and
scientific revolutions (Kuhn, 1962). Any
major change necessarily attacks some of the
existing conventions of the art directly, as
when the Impressionists or Cubists changed
the existing visual language of painting, the
way one read paint on canvas as a
representation of something. An attack on
convention does not merely mean an attack
on the particular item to be changed. Every
convention carries with it an aesthetic,
according to which what is conventional
becomes the standard by which artistic beauty
and effectiveness is judged. A play which
violates the classical unities is not merely
different, it is distasteful, barbaric and ugly to
those for whom the classical unities represent
a fixed criterion of dramatic worth. An attack
on a convention becomes an attack on the
aesthetic related to it. But people do not
experience their aesthetic beliefs as merely
arbitrary and conventional; they feel that they
are natural, proper and moral. An attack on a
convention and an aesthetic is also an attack
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on a morality. The regularity with which
audiences greet major changes in dramatic,
musical and visual conventions with vitupera-
tive hostility indicates the close relation
between aesthetic and moral belief (Kubler,
An attack on sacred aesthetic beliefs as
embodied in particular conventions is, finally,
an attack on an existing arrangement of
ranked statuses, a stratification system.3
Remember that the conventional way of
doing things in any art utilizes an existing
cooperative network, an organized art world
which rewards those who manipulate the
existing conventions appropriately in light of
the associated sacred aesthetic. Suppose that a
dance world is organized around the conven-
tions and skills embodied in classical ballet. If
I then learn those conventions and skills, I
become eligible for positions in the best ballet
companies; the finest choreographers will
create ballets for me that are just the kind I
know how to dance and will look good in; the
best composers will write scores for me;
theaters will be available; I will earn as good a
living as a dancer can earn; audiences will love
me and I will be famous. Anyone who
successfully promotes a new convention in
which he is skilled and I am not attacks not
only my aesthetic but also my high position in
the world of dance. So the resistance to the
new expresses the anger of those who will lose
materially by the change, in the form of
aesthetic outrage.
Others than the artist have something
invested in the status quo which a change in
accepted conventions will lose them. Consider
earthworks made, for instance, by a bulldozer
in a square mile of pasture. Such a sculpture
cannot be collected (though a patron can pay
for its construction and receive signed plans or
photographs as a document of his patronage),
or put in museums (though the mementos the
collector receives can be displayed). If
earthworks become an important art form,
the museum personnel whose evaluations of
museum-collectable art have had important
consequences for the careers of artists and art
movements lose the power to choose which
works will be displayed, for their museums are
unnecessary for displaying those works.
Everyone involved in the museum-collectable
kind of art (collectors, museum curators,
galleries, dealers, artists) loses something. We
might say that every cooperative network that
constitutes an art world creates value by the
agreement of its members as to what is
valuable (Levine, 1972; Christopherson,
1974). When new people successfully create a
new world which defines other conventions as
embodying artistic value, all the participants
in the old world who cannot make a place in
the new one lose out.
Every art world develops standardized
modes of support and artists who support
their work through those conventional means
develop an aesthetic which accepts the
constraints embedded in those forms of
cooperation. Rosenblum (1973) has shown
that the aesthetic of photographers varies with
the economic channels through which their
work is distributed in the same way that their
customary work styles do, and Lyon (1974)
has analyzed the interdependence of aesthetic
decisions and the means by which resources
are gathered in a semi-professional theater
group. One example will illustrate the nature
of the dependence. The group depended on
volunteer help to get necessary work done.
But people volunteered for non-artistic kinds
of work largely because they hoped eventually
to get a part in a play and gain some acting
experience. The people who ran the company
soon accumulated many such debts and were
constrained to choose plays with relatively
large casts to pay them off.4
If we focus on a specific art work, it proves
useful to think of social organization as a
network of people who cooperate to produce
that work. We see that the same people often
cooperate repeatedly, even routinely, in
similar ways to produce similar works. They
organize their cooperation by referring to the
conventions current among those who partici-
‘I am indebted to an unpublished paper by
Everett C. Hughes (n.d.) for the argument that an
attack on the mores is an attack on social structure.
He develops the argument by combining two points
in Sumner’s Folkways, that 1) the folkways create
status, and 2) sects (whether religious, political, or
artistic) are at war with the mores.
4The problem of financial and other resources
and the institutions which have grown up to provide
them for artists deserves much more extended
consideration than I give it here, and some
sociological and social-historical literature is available
(see, for instance, White and White, 1965; Hirsch,
1972; Grana, 1964;Coser, 1965;Haskell, 1963).
This content downloaded from on Mon, 17 Sep 2018 14:44:17 UTC
All use subject to
pate in the production and consumption of
such works. If the same people do not
actually act together in every case, their
replacements are also familiar with and
proficient in the use of the same conventions,
so that the cooperation can go on without
difficulty. Conventions make collective action
simpler and less costly in time, energy and
other resources; but they do not make
unconventional work impossible, only more
costly and more difficult. Change can occur,
as it often does, whenever someone devises a
way to gather the greater resources required.
Thus, the conventional modes of cooperation
and collective action need not recur because
people constantly devise new modes of action
and discover the resources necessary to put
them into practice.
To say all this goes beyond the assertion
that art is social and beyond demonstrations
of the congruence between forms of social
organization and artistic styles or subjects. It
shows that art is social in the sense that it is
created by networks of people acting
together, and proposes a framework in which
differing modes of collective action, mediated
by accepted or newly developed conventions,
can be studied. It places a number of
traditional questions in the field in a context
in which their similarity to other forms of
collective action can be used for comparative
theoretical work.
The discussion of art as collective action
suggests a general approach to the analysis of
social organization. We can focus on any event
(the more general term which encompasses
the production of an art work as a special
case) and look for the network of people,
however large or extended, whose collective
activity made it possible for the event to
occur as it did. We can look for networks
whose cooperative activity recurs or has
become routine and specify the conventions by
which their constituent members coordinate
their separate lines of action.
We might want to use such terms as social
organization or social structure as a meta-
phorical way of referring to those recurring
networks and their activities. In doing so,
however, we should not forget their meta-
phorical character and inadvertently assert as
a fact implied in the metaphor what can only
be discovered through research. When sociolo-
gists speak of social structure or social
systems, the metaphor implies (though its user
neither proves nor argues the point) that the
collective action involved occurs “regularly”
or “often” (the quantifier, being implicit, is
non-specific) and, further, that the people
involved act together to produce a large
variety of events. But we should recognize
generally, as the empirical materials require us
to do in the study of the arts, that whether a
mode of collective action is recurrent or
routine enough to warrant such description
must be decided by investigation, not by
definition. Some forms of collective action
recur often, others occasionally, some very
seldom. Similarly, people who participate in
the network that produces one event or kind
of event may not act together in art works
producing other events. That question, too,
must be decided by investigation.
Collective actions and the events they
produce are the basic unit of sociological
investigation. Social organization consists of
the special case in which the same people act
together to produce a variety of different
events in a recurring way. Social organization
(and its cognates) are not only concepts, then,
but also empirical findings. Whether we speak
of the collective acts of a few people-a family
or a friendship-or of a much larger number-a
profession or a class system-we need always
to ask exactly who is joining together to
produce what events. To pursue the general-
ization from the theory developed for artistic
activities, we can study social organizations of
all kinds by looking for the networks
responsible for producing specific events, the
overlaps among such cooperative networks,
the way participants use conventions to
coordinate their activities, how existing
conventions simultaneously make coordinated
action possible and limit the forms it can take,
and how the development of new forms of
acquiring resources makes change possible. (I
should point out that, while this point of view
is not exactly commonplace, neither is it
novel. It can be found in the writings of,
among others, Simmel [1898], Park [1950,
1952, 1955 passim], Blumer [19661 and
Hughes [1971, esp. pp 5-13 and 52-64]).
Albrecht, Milton C., James H. Barnett and Maso Griff (eds.)
1970 The Sociology of Art and Literature: A
Reader. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Bennett, H.S.
1972 Other People’s Music. Unpublished doc-
toral dissertation, Northwestern University.
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Blizek, William
n.d. “An institutional theory of art.” Unpub-
lished paper.
Blumer, Herbert
1966 “Sociological implications of the thought
of George Herbert Mead.” American
Journal of Sociology 71:535-44.
Christopherson, Richard
1974 “Making art with machines: photography’s
institutional inadequacies.” Urban Life
and Culture 3(1):3-34.
Cooper, Grosvenor W. and Leonard B. Meyer
1960 The Rhythmic Structure of Music.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Coser, Lewis
1965 Men of Ideas. New York: Free Press.
Cowell, Henry and Sidney Cowell
1954 Charles Ives and His Music. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Danto, Arthur
1964 “The art world.” Journal of Philosophy.
Dart, Thurston
1967 The Interpretation of Music. 4th ed.
London: Hutchinson.
Dickie, George
1971 Aesthetics: An Introduction. New York:
Faulkner, Robert R.
1973a “Orchestra interaction: some features of
communication and authority in an
artistic organization.” Sociological Quar-
terly 14:147-57.
1973b “Career concerns and mobility motiva-
tions of orchestra musicians.” Sociological
Quarterly. 14: 33449.
Gombrich, E. H.
1960 Art and Illusion. New York: Bollingen.
Grana, Cesar
1964 Bohemian Versus Bourgeois. New York:
Basic Books.
Haskell, Francis
1963 Patrons and Painters. New York: Knopf.
Hirsch, Paul M.
1972 “Processing fads and fashions: an organiza-
tion-set analysis of cultural industry
systems.” American Journal of Sociology
77 :639-59.
Hughes, Everett C.
n.d. “Action Catholique and nationalism: a
memorandum on church and society in
French Canada.” Unpublished document.
The Sociological Eye. New York: Free
Ivins, W.
1953 Prints and Visual Communication. Cam-
bridge: MIT Press.
Johnson, Thomas
1955 Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
Kase, Thelma
1973 The Artist, the Printer and the Publisher.
Unpublished master’s thesis. University of
Missouri-Kansas City.
Kealy, Edward
1974 The Real Rock Revolution: Sound Mixers,
their Work, and the Aesthetics of Popular
Music Production. Unpublished doctoral
dissertation, Northwestern University.
1974 The Recording Engineer. Doctoral dis-
sertation in progress, Northwestern Uni-
Kubler, George
1962 The Shape of Time. New Haven: Yale
University Press.
Kuhn, Thomas
1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolution.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Levine, Edward M.
1972 “Chicago’s art world.” Urban Life and
Culture 1:292-322.
Lyon, Eleanor
1974 “Work and play: resource constraints in a
small theater.” Urban Life and Culture
Meyer, L. B.
1956 Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago:
University of Chicago.
1967 Music, the Arts and Ideas. Chicago:
University of Chicago.
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Newhall, Beaumont
1964 The History of Photography. New York:
Museum of Modern Art.
Norman, Charles
1958 The Magic-maker, e. e. cummings. New
York: MacMillan.
Park, Robert E.
1950 Race and Culture. New York: Free Press.
1952 Human Communities. New York: Free
1955 Society. New York: Free Press.
Partch, Harry
1949 Genesis of a Music. Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press.
Pevsner, Nikolaus
1940 Academies of Art: Past and Present.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reese, Gustave
1959 Music in the Renaissance. Revised ed. New
York: W. W. Norton.
Rosenblum, Barbara
1973 Photographers and their Photographs.
Unpublished doctoral dissertation, North-
western University.
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1898 “The persistence of social groups.” Ameri-
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829-36; 4:35-50.
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1968 Poetic Closure. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
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1964 Psychiatric Ideologies and Institutions.
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