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.

Expertise

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.

Summary

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.

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About Karen Patel

PhD candidate in social media and cultural work at Birmingham City University.

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