Gender and expertise

Lately I have noticed a particular theme in my social media analysis of artists, most notably among my female participants. A lot of my thinking around this also coincides with a paper I recently co-wrote with my colleague Annette Naudin on female cultural entrepreneurs. Before that I hadn’t read much around gender even though it is incredibly important when thinking about cultural work, especially as some of my participants are women situated in a ‘working from home’ context where blurring between personal and professional life, while an accepted part of being an artist, could be exacerbated with the use of social media for work and personal purposes. Some work has been carried out on female artists working from home and it has focused on how they manage the family and the more traditional domestic responsibilities which most women are still expected to do (Luckman, 2015; McRobbie, 2016). These wider issues are important and provide the context for my own area of focus: gender and expertise.

Social media and art and craft seller websites such as Etsy allow anyone to create and sell art and potentially make money from it, and the large majority of sellers on sites like Etsy are women. The opening up of cultural production through social media and seller sites has raised questions about the legitimacy of amateur art and its impact on ‘professional’ artists (Luckman, 2015).

Social media also makes it easier for people to say they are an expert in their field, to a potentially global audience, and yet the implications of this are yet to be explored in cultural work. In addition, those who talk about ‘experts’ in the cultural industries usually refer to cultural intermediaries, consultants and art critics (Prince, 2010; Taylor, 2013) and the idea of the expert is traditionally masculinised (Thomas-Hunt and Phillips, 2004). What about the expertise of artists? And what about the female experts in cultural production? I will unpack these questions using insights from my research so far.

1. What about the expertise of artists?

My social media analysis is still ongoing; for all of my participants I am taking samples of social media posts over four months and analysing them using Candace Jones’ (2002) signalling expertise framework. My findings so far demonstrate the importance of other people and companies for artists, especially for performing expertise. This includes associations with others through mentions and follows, mutual endorsement through retweets and sharing positive reviews from clients/customers. All of these practices are evident in my analysis so far. I’m now going to relate these to two useful concepts I have come across recently.

Naming

Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of naming a useful way of conceptualising this public endorsement on social media. Naming is “a symbolic strateg[y] through which agents aim to impose their vision of the divisions of the social world and of their position in that world” (Bourdieu 1991:239). This relates to how those in power can endorse people, such as artists, and enhance their status and reputation, which I have written about in a previous blog post.

The practice of retweeting endorsements by others and associating oneself with larger clients can be considered to be an example of artists using social media to repurpose the ‘naming’ by companies or people who could help to enhance their status. Where companies or people may not explicitly ‘name’ an artist, that artist can create an impression of naming which is specific to social media, such as mentioning others in posts and retweeting or sharing positive reviews by others.

In addition, Bourdieu’s process of ‘naming’ can be further progressed for social media: while being mentioned by high-profile and powerful companies/people is incredibly important for gaining increased exposure and enhancing one’s status, what occurs more often, and what appears to be crucial, is the mutual ‘naming’ among the artistic community, on social media at least, and more frequently among female artists, which I will talk about in more depth shortly.

Labour on social media

When thinking about social media use, the process of naming links to the idea of ‘relational labour’, which Nancy Baym defines as “regular, ongoing communication with audiences over time to build social relationships that foster paid work” (2015, p. 16). For my research, the idea of relational labour is useful for thinking about the labour that goes into performing expertise on social media-associating with others and nurturing those associations.

However, the idea of relational labour is too narrow for thinking about how the artists in my research use social media as a whole. Relating to each other is not all they do on social media, and paid work is not always the aim. They also build and maintain their online presence, browse for inspiration, check up on events and opportunities, see their friends’ latest holiday photos, look at memes posted by other artists or random people, or read the latest industry news. They do all of this on social media, and most of it feeds into their artistic practice. I argue that the labour of these myriad of practices, and the way they interweave with work and personal life, is better described as social media labour. 

2. What about the female experts in cultural production?

While I need to do more primary research and reading, I have some idea of where I can situate my initial thoughts on expertise in debates around gender, feminism and creative labour. Conor et al (2015) argue that despite appearances, gender inequalities are prevalent in the cultural industries; and in the same collection, Scharff (2015) highlights the challenges for female classical musicians to effectively self-brand and present themselves online in order to effectively compete for work. These accounts focus primarily on the cultural industries, such as film and music, and not the experiences of artists, however they point to wider prevailing inequalities for female cultural workers and increasingly difficult conditions for women to forge a successful career in the sector. In terms of gender inequality in art, Linda Nochlin asked in 1971 Why have there been no great women artistsWith Nochlin highlighting that the great artists of art history are often the heroic, singular male ‘genius’, identified by the male art historians. More than 40 years later, Nochlin could still be asking that question. According to a-n the artists’ network: “while female fine-art graduates outnumber male, only six women have won the Turner Prize in 30 years (four in the last ten), with male nominees vastly outnumbering female”.  The visibility of female artists remains an issue, so what about the female artists and what do they do to perform expertise on social media?

Using the signalling expertise framework, I’ve found that the major stand out theme is the widespread retweeting and mutual support demonstrated among female artists, even when they appear to be in direct competition. This is commonly in the form of simple retweets, but sometimes the tweets are quoted and accompanied by a compliment or kind message.

I’ve also noticed some communities on Twitter, particularly writing groups, where the majority of members are women and there appears to be a great deal of mutual support and encouragement going on; this is sometimes gathered around hashtags such as #Tuesdaybookblog. In interviews, a few of my participants have talked about the importance of supporting each other, with one person saying “we all need to make a case for the arts” which is important for reminding me about the significance of the wider context of the cultural economy and cultural policy.

This supportive online environment is not the form I thought the performance of expertise would take, but it has and it suggests that while the marketplace is crowded and competitive (and social media potentially opens that up to even more competition) there are at least pockets of convivial, supportive activity going on, particularly among the female artists. While they could be acting to “make a case for the arts”, are they also making a case for female artists?

 

References

Baym, N. K. (2015). Connect with your audience! The relational labor of connection. The Communication Review, 18(1), 14–22.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Polity Press.

Conor, B., Gill, R., & Taylor, S. (2015). Gender and creative labour. The Sociological Review, 63(S1), 1–22.

Jones, C. (2002). Signaling expertise: How signals shape careers in creative industries. Career Creativity: Explorations in the Remaking of Work, (May
1998), 209–228.

Luckman, S. (2015). Craft and the Creative Economy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

McRobbie, A. (2016) Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries. Sussex: Wiley.

Nochlin, L. (1971). Why have there been no great women artists?. The feminism and visual culture reader, 229-233.

Prince, R. (2010). “Fleshing out” expertise: the making of creative industries experts in the United Kingdom, Geoforum, 41(6), 875-884.

Scharff, C. (2015). Blowing your own trumpet: exploring the gendered dynamics of self‐promotion in the classical music profession. The Sociological Review,
63(S1), 97-112.

O’Connor, J. (2013) Intermediaries and Imaginaries in the Cultural and Creative Industries. Regional Studies, (ahead-of-print), pp. 1-14.

Thomas-Hunt, M. C. and Phillips, K.W. (2004). When What You Know Is Not Enough: Expertise and Gender Dynamics in Task Groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(12), 1585–1598.

 

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About Karen Patel

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

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