Archive | November 2015

Conferences at Middlesex and Salford

I’ve been on ‘tour’ in the past week presenting at conferences at the University of Middlesex and the University of Salford. Before doing a quick recap of those, first I’ll introduce what I presented myself.

Compared to my previous conference presentations, this is a more rounded analysis of my pilot study because it includes material from the interview. I incorporated Bourdieu’s ideas of the illusio into my analysis, because I have found it useful when thinking about artists and expertise. The slides are below:

My main arguments are:

  • Expertise is a social relation, and on social media this is performed in a public way through the use of platform-specific functions such as hashtags, replies, likes etc.
  • This can be conceptualised for artists using Bourdieu’s idea of the illusio – a consensus about consecrated artists, which is reached by those in power and fundamental to the elevation of those artists over others, “permitting consecrated artists to constitute certain products, by the miracle of their signature (or brand name) as sacred objects” (p.230). A ‘social media’ version of this could be when a user or company with high status, such as a world famous art gallery, retweets an artists’ work to their thousands (maybe millions of followers), immediately boosting that artist’s reputation and adding to their performance of expertise, potentially elevating them over other artists also on social media.
  • However, the temporal and structural qualities of social media, as well as the motivations of the corporations who own the platforms, influence what is displayed and seen on social media and therefore must be considered in contemporary accounts of cultural work.

I’m currently putting together an abstract and paper based on this, and incorporating my more recent research, for an edited collection based on contributions to the Creative Industries and Collaborative Production Symposium at the University of Middlesex.

The Creative Industries and Collaborative Production, University of Middlesex, 13 Nov 2015

The keynote for this one was Sarah Brouilette, who talked about her recent work with Chris Doody on the Literary as Culture Industry, which is of particular interest to me. Sarah said that the idea of being a writer is still highly appealing because it appears to be a form of non-alienated labour, but this idea is tenuous. She talked about how the literary nowadays is transmissible to other media forms such as films, TV, etc – a “profilerating literary adaptation industry, endlessly repurposed”. She argues that the literary is now liquid content which pervades all other forms of media, and now that authors are aware of this, it changes the illusio – authors that are elevated are those whose books can successfully translate to other media forms. She also raised a point about e-book readers and their function to determine how people read books and collect information about them. This is an example of the ‘power of the platform’ I talk about in my own work.

The other papers included a great mix of work on new media and creative industries. James Graham (below) also talked about the literary industry and authorship – arguing that the author – the ‘brand name’ (to draw on Bourdieu again) is a platform for translating product into sales. James talked about a collaborative, edited collection called Ponte City in which the editors were eventually listed as the main authors, the auteurs, and therefore recieved the credit.

20151113_124457 Alessandro Gandini, who I met at University of Warwick and who asked me to present at this symposium, finished the day with a great presentation about his work on creative labour markets and the collaborative economy. He talked about creative workers and reputation – the idea that ‘you’re only as good as your last job’ and how this is crucial for securing work in precarious industries, where free and unpaid work is common. Of particular interest to me was his idea of the social media reputation economy – how freelance websites and social media contribute to reputation building, which is prominent in the dialectic between risk and trust for workers. On social media this requires the production and curation of a public and social self to be sold as a commodity – self-branding.  Alessandro argued that we have a financialised labour market where free labour is an investment, and risk falls entirely with the individual. He argued that the collaborative economy resembles “neoliberalism on steroids” rather than an aftermath of neoliberalism- with self-exploitation as investment and false consciousness as self-branding.

I see reputation as a subset, a component of expertise, and I’m particularly interested in the ways reputation is manifest online, particularly through social reputation measurement sites such as Klout, which calculate your online reputation through a series of algorithms, and present you with a score to show how influential you are. The role of these sites has not come up in my own research yet.

Challenging Media Landscapes, University of Salford, 16 Nov 2015

This was a huge event with four paralell sessions throughout the day and two high profile keynote speakers in David Hesmondhalgh and Angela McRobbie. David talked about his new book on cultural policy, providing an overview and critique of cultural policies since New Labour, right up to the current Conservative government. He argued that cultural policy has failed to deal with inequalities in access and participation in the arts, and that policies should pay more attention to social democratic goals, highlighting the activities of the left-wing Greater London Council in the late 1980s as an example of this.

Angela McRobbie also talked about inequalities in cultural work and entrepreneurship in the ‘talent economy’. She argued that the double movement of individualisation and neoliberalisation is defined through competition, talent and self-responsibility. Much like what Alessandro talked about at Middlesex, the risk is with the individual whether they sink or swim, with no safety net of the welfare state. This is reproducing social inequalities.

 Angela also talked about the ‘middle-classification’ process – a new creative workforce working in jobs in retail and the service industry which have been ‘elevated’ to creative work, such as coffee baristas. Young people are paving the way for an inflated middle class where the emphasis is on passionate work which permeates all aspects of life. I see this as an example of the artist as a model for all types of work, as argued by Andrew Ross and others.

The final panel of the day was particularly interesting for me, with contributions from Dan Ashton, Daniel Allington and Leandro Lima, all about cultural production online. Leandro talked about gender equality in crowdfunded games, highlighting that even though there are opportunities for anyone to create games, gender inequalities in those that are crowdfunded still remain, with very few women in major development roles.

Daniel Allington presented his work on Soundcloud and music production within ‘scenes’. Even though soundcloud offers a space for anyone to make music, place is still important, and those producers with the most followers resided in the major cities within particular clusters and cliques. Finally, Dan Ashton talked about cultural production in the bedroom and its value, presenting some examples of people who have made millions from creating YouTube videos, arguing that the bedroom is now an important site for cultural production. Creating these videos requires a great deal of time, effort and equipment, which not everyone has access to.

I pointed out at the end of this panel was that these were all examples of ‘amateur’ cultural production, which carries with it the idea that ‘anyone’ can produce cultural products, and the promise of one day ‘making it big’ regardless of your gender, social class, and so on. But what was apparent in all of those examples was that the issues and social inequalities associated with traditional forms of cultural production appear to be replicated in amateur, online cultural production.

These conferences were really helpful for thinking about the really relevant issues for my work – particularly around social class and inequalities in contemporary cultural work.

Artists, expertise and mediation

For my research into the social media use of cultural workers, I’m focusing specifically on artists – for example those working in fine art, music and literature. This is because the production of art, in its traditional sense, is not known to include much of ‘the digital’ in its process. This is changing now, and I believe that looking at the role of social media in artists’ lives and creative practice will provide a useful, more contemporary insight into cultural work.

The focus on artists has led me to Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art (1996) which I have found particularly useful, as it is grounded in an historical account of artistic production which provides a useful backdrop for me, not coming from an art background. The concepts in the Rules of Art have given me much to think about in terms of expertise as well as my own conceptual framework.

One concept in particular is the illusio – a “collective belief in the game” – a collective consensus which is fundamental to the elevation of some artists over others, “permitting consecrated artists to constitute certain products, by the miracle of their signature (or brand name) as sacred objects” (p.230). In terms of the process of expertise, this has paralells with how I understand expertise through this definition by Russell Prince – of expertise as a “social relation, where a particular actor has authority over another actor through their possession of a particular form of knowledge” (2010:6). In the art field, the social consensus of artists deserving to be consecrated is reproduced within a field until even their name is sacred – the consecrated artist is believed, by those in power within that field, to possess superior aesthetic technique, resulting in their elevation. Bourdieu here is talking primarily about 19th century artists, and argues that much more lies behind the supposed ‘genius creator’.

This elevation of artists is where the accumulation of symbolic power (prestige) is a factor. Bourdieu says that this occurs for artists who observe the rules of the functioning of the field (of art production). He claims that symbolic power in this context is associated with “pure” art, and is opposed to the forms of “heteronomous power” in which “certain artists and writers and more widely all holders of cultural capital – experts, administrators, engineers, journalists – may find themselves granted as a counterpart to the technical or symbolic services they render to the dominants (notably in the reproduction of the established symbolic order)” (p.120). So in other words, those artists and writers who appear to be driven by a more economic logic, are in opposition to those who may have more symbolic capital and driven by a more artistic logic.

Is this the case nowadays? For cultural workers, tensions between ‘art for arts sake’ and making money persist (Eikhof and Haunschild, 2006). But does the opposition between prestige in the field, and working for ‘the dominants’, remain? Social media has the potential to help individuals, videos, music, images etc to ‘go viral’ and reach people all over the world. For artists. would using social media in order to reach as many people as possible and sell art be perceived as rendering services to the dominants? As argued by Hesmondhalgh (2006), Bourdieu’s work on cultural production, while valuable, pays little attention to the role of large corporations, and when thinking about social media the power of ownership cannot be ignored. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter own everything we put on their sites and can use it however they like to make money.


In terms of expertise, there are parallels between Bourdieu’s description of artists rendering services to the dominants, and questions of the legitimacy of experts in Science and Technology Studies (STS) literature, in which the legitimacy of experts in the public eye (scientific experts) is questioned (Wynne, 1992). Ulrich Beck (1992) describes how public trust in experts was undermined during the 1980s and early 1990s by not only mistakes and inaccuracies, but also the incorrect perception of the public by experts as “engineering students in their first semester” (p.59). This led to less public trust in experts, and increased mass media exposure by experts has been argued to contribute a de-legitimisation of expertise overall (Beck, 1998; Luhmann, 2000; Arnoldi, 2007). Is being ‘public’ for artists ‘rendering services to the dominants’ nowadays?

With regards to expertise, what is highlighted by Bourdieu, Wynne, Beck etc  is a tension between ‘publicness’ and legitimacy. Social media allows people to have a ‘public’ presence and perform expertise, what do artists think of this? Why exactly are they using social media, what do they gain (or hope to gain), and how exactly do they perform expertise? In terms of the illusio, a consensus about an artists’ expertise could be produced publicly on platforms such as Twitter, particularly if an artist is retweeted by a major art gallery, or a very famous artist, who, in the modern context, appear to be most able to ‘consecrate’ an artist in an online context anyway, because of the number of followers they have and the potential audience they might reach. The temporal qualities of platforms are important to consider here, which I will talk about shortly.

Where Bourdieu is particularly useful for me is his assertion that there is more to cultural production than the individual act of creation:

“The producer of the value of the work of art is not the artist but the field of production as a universe of belief which produces the value of the work as a fetish by producing the belief in the creative power of the artist […] It must therefore take into account not only the direct producers of the work in its materiality (artist, writer, etc) but also the ensemble of agents and institutions which participate in the production of the value of the work via the production of the belief in the value of art in general and in the distinctive value of this or that work of art

Bourdieu (2006:229)

For artists, this includes their employers, clients, customers, and others in their networks, as well as who they associate with publicly on social media platforms. As mentioned before, the role of corporations is important in this consideration, but so is the platform structure of social media. These platforms are built to make money for owners (Skeggs and Yuill, 2015) but they also have functions and features which enable people to associate with others and perform expertise in ways which were not possible when Wynne, Beck and Bourdieu talked about expertise. These platforms mediate expertise performances and associations with other people and organisations. As argued by Kember and Zylinska (2012), the ‘lifeness’ of media is important to consider – the temporal aspects of it. For example, the timeline formats of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook mean that content is scrollable and some posts can easily be missed. So if an artist is maintaining a Facebook page, Facebook’s algorithms make that page less visible to people who ‘like’ it, to encourage the artist to pay to promote posts and drive people to their page. One of the artists I have interviewed has talked about this as a major obstacle for her, and this has led me to think more seriously about the role of platforms and social media corporations in cultural production.


The work of Bourdieu is useful for thinking about expertise in the art world as a social relation, and this has parallels with other definitions of expertise in other fields that I have used before (Arnoldi, 2007 and Prince, 2010 are examples). Another parallel I found across the literature is the tension between ‘publicness’ and legitimacy; and with social media allowing people to perform expertise in a public way, is this a tension for artists? Finally, I find Bourdieu’s ideas of field useful for conceptualising cultural production, but I argue that within the ensemble of agents and institutions he talks about, the mediating potential of social media platforms, and the corporations behind them, also need to be considered.