Archive for the ‘culture’ Category
In this post, I’ll revive an argument that I raised in the journal Museum & Society. In an article co-authored with Nick Rowland (a former guest on this blog), we argued that it is unwise to use museums as an exemplar of institutional theory. According to the traditional view, museums are these completely malleable things that bend to the will of the institutional environment.
Instead, we argue that there is a technical core to museums that often asserts itself. For example, contemporary art often requires large spaces to installations. Museums that wish to preserve their art must have technology for controlling temperature and humidity. Modern museums also have systems for managing accounts, tracking attendance, and other tasks. We don’t argue that institutionalism is wrong, but that museums are not the “cultural dupes” that appear in the literature. Even cultural organizations have technical cores that must be integrated with their social environments.
I recently visited Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s not a terribly good museum, even though it covers a topic, rock and roll, which is very exciting. In this post, I’ll try to figure out what goes wrong.
It always helps to start with a discussion of what museums do. In general, they (a) entertain, (b) educate/inform/indoctrinate, and (c) act as an archive or research center. It’s pretty clear that the R&R Museum isn’t scholarly, so we have to think about how the museum tries to entertain or engage the audience, or tell the audience something.
Over the past few years, George Lucas has tried to find a home for his museum, which will house his personal collection of contemporary art and, of course, the deepest collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world. At first, he tried his backyard, San Francisco, before choosing the city of Chicago.
It turns out the move to Chicago won’t be worry free. Apparently, a coalition of Bears fans will try to stop the Lucas Museum from locating itself next to soldier field. From artnet.com:
The group fighting for maintaining public and open space claims that Lucas’s plans for a 95,000-square-foot cultural institution are in direct violation of a city ordinance that ensures that space adjacent to Lake Michigan be reserved for public use. The other group threatening to sue over the choice of location for the museum—which will house artworks from Lucas’s private collection including pieces by Maxfield Parrish, Alberto Vargas, and Norman Rockwell, as well as Star Wars memorabilia—has a much more practical reason for its opposition: The institution would be built on a site that is currently devoted to two parking lots next to Soldier Field use by Bears fans for pregame tailgating.
This nicely illustrates how organizations fit into urban systems. First, there are the overt politics of an organization. Is it welcome? Does it flaunt public values? Second, how does it fit into the “spontaneous order” of urban politics? While the planner in the mayor’s office probably saw an ugly parking lot, they didn’t see how locals use the space for the very emotionally rooted rituals, like football. Later in the article, various people are quoted as saying that they welcome the Lucas museum, but maybe it should be used to develop low income neighborhoods. Thus, the Lucas Museum has been punted from being part of the “urban engine” of sports and entertainment and thrown into the domain of Chicago race politics. It will be interesting to see if Lucas sidesteps this, or is drawn into another development quagmire.
This week, we’ll have a series of posts dedicated to museums. Some will be personal, others academic. Here’s the line up:
- Tuesday: The trials of the George Lucas museum.
- Wednesday: Why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could be better.
- Thursday: The limits of institutional theory as applied to museums.
- Friday: What the Creationism Museum in Kentucky tells us about social movements.
For some, it’ll be better than shark week.
Warning: Some of Koons’ work is NSFW! Not for kids.
Except for the cheesy intro music, I like this review of Jeff Koons’ recent show. I’ve always had this love/hate approach to his work and I think this discussion by art critic Rodrigo Canete helps out. #puppies
A few years ago, I read Creative Life by Bob Ostertag and promised myself that I’d blog it. Sadly, I was waylaid by children, post-modernism, critical realism, and all other manner of things. Today, I shall right that wrong. I love Creative Life. It’s a great book, one that I find fascinating and inspirational.
The book is by Bob Ostertag, a Bay Area electronic musician. I got to know him mainly through his musical works, specifically a series of CD’s called “Say No More.” Really top notch sound collage. I later heard “Sooner or Later.” From the liner notes:
The sounds in this piece come from a recording of a young boy in El Salvador burying his father, who had been killed by the National Guard. There is the sound of the boy’s voice, the shovel digging the grave, and a fly buzzing nearby.
The music is gripping, to say the least.
Creative Life is part autobiography, part political statement, and part manifesto for artists in the Internet age. The early parts focus on becoming an avant garde musician and political activist. Interesting, but much more insightful are sections talking about how to do political art in places with violent histories (e.g., Serbia), the work of gay artist David Wajnarowicz, and his plan to distribute all of his music for free as a liberation from a music industry that is hostile to his work.
I hope my summary indicates the rich range of topics covered in the book, but it certainly underplays the passion he brings to these topics. For me, the discussion of his plan to distribute his work for free is the most passionate. Rather than being a pipe dream, the Internet has now made it possible for artists to develop new ways of presenting themselves and, if they are lucky, they can control how their work reaches the audience. It’s a fight for integrity in a world where that’s hard to come by.
A while back, I asked about the relationship between philosophy and sociology. Here’s some evidence that there’s some philosophical imperialism at work these days. Specifically, more and more cultural sociologists are relying on the tools of philosophy to help them stake out new territory. Three recent examples:
- Drawing on a bunch of traditions (yes, even critical realism), Isaac Reed argues that sociology is about “cultural landscapes”)
- Gabriel Abend draws on phenomonology to articulate his theory of the “moral background”
- Andreas Glaeser relies also on phenomonology, and other traditions, to argue that people are stuck in a folk cosmology
The underlying theme, I think, is that cultural sociologists have moved beyond the Swidler moment (i.e., arguing against Parsons’ theory of action) and they’ve moved back into the game of semantic systems and their internal logic. This requires an explanation of how people situate themselves in a social world and how they reason about. This naturally leads (mainly) to the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, Schutz, and Berger and Luckman. But instead of letting actors become the servant of this “lifeworld,” as in institutionalism, there’s a lot more effort in explaining what is possible in that world.
If this approach to symbolic systems turns out to be of lasting value, it will be one of the rare bridges between philosophy and mainstream sociological practice.
Gabriel Abend has just published The Moral Background, a book that investigates the rise of business ethics. It’s certainly a history of American business ethics, but it has a much more ambitious purpose. Abend uses the history of business ethics to illustrate and promote a specific sociological idea: “the moral background.”
This is an important idea so I’ll try to give you a sense of what it means. Roughly speaking, morality – the labeling of things as good or bad – depends on a number prior ideas and cognitive processes – the “background.” In Abend’s account, the “background” has many dimensions, such as a repertoire for argument, an ability to perceive certain people and actors as capable of moral actions, and tacit assumptions about how the social world works. In other words, moral judgments rely on a gut feeling of what should be moral, an understanding who can be moral, and tools for making arguments about good and bad.
Business ethics, it turns out, is an amazingly good case study because for a long time the concept didn’t exist in quite the same way as it does today. Now, there are business ethicists, a Better Business Bureau and over a century of arguments about what responsibilities business should have. I am not doing justice to this meaty book, but the book’s empirical chapters are quite fascinating (and very detailed) explorations of how the “moral background” of business was defined in the corporate office, the church and the business school.
This book represents, in a sense, the full expression of some emergent themes in cultural sociology that were well expressed in Isaac Reed’s book, which argued that what sociologists do (or ought to do) is study “cultural landscapes.” When you combine this book, Reed’s book, and others like Glaeser’s book, you see that cultural sociology has now made a notable move from the study of cognition (Griswold), toolkits (Swidler) and actions (Joas) and established, or re-established, the primacy of symbolic systems as the focus of its inquiry.
California artist Job Piston makes interesting photograms by combining digital images with photographic paper. He’s has two California shows detailing these rich red prints. He was recently covered in Gizmodo for this technique.
I recently attended the IU Hoosiers show, the Indiana musical review. What struck me is that the performance covered an enormous range of American music – doo-wop, commercial jingles, jazz, disco, and a whole lot more. But what struck me is that rap was completely absent in a two hour show that strives to give something to everyone. Then, I noticed that rap is absent from nearly the entire world of glee clubs/school musicals, even though it is obviously the most important pop music innovation post-1980.
Here are some hypotheses:
- Race – I find this hard to be believe since other Black art forms get a lot of attention in these revues.
- Pedagogy establishment – Choral instructors, for some reason, just don’t like hip hop.
- Musical technique – a lot of glee club/choir music relies on the “American song” broadly construed. Hip hop has way different musical sources.
- Teaching techniques – perhaps people would like to teach it, but there isn’t a common method yet.
Guest blogger emerita Jenn Lena and Danielle Lindemann have a forthcoming article in Poetics analyzing the self-identity of artists. The issue is that people often question whether they are artists. From the paper “Who is an Artist? New Data for an Old Question:”
Employment in the arts and creative industries is high andgrowing, yet scholars have not achieved consensus on who should be included in these professions. In this study, we explore the ‘‘professionalartist’’ as the outcome of an identity process, rendering it the dependent rather than the independent variable. In their responses to the 2010 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project survey (N=13,581)— to our knowledge, the largest survey ever undertaken of individuals who have pursued arts degrees in the United States—substantial numbers of respondents gave seemingly contradictory answers to questions asking about their artistic labor. These individuals indicated that they simultaneously had been and had never been professional artists, placing them in what we have termed the ‘‘dissonance group.’’An examination of these responses reveals meaningful differences and patterns in the interpretation of this social category. We find significant correlation between membership in this group and various markers of cultural capital and social integration into artistic communities. A qualitative analysis of survey comments reveals unique forms of dissonance over artistic membership within teaching and design careers.
When you get into the nitty gritty, the authors focus on embededness in institutions as decreasing ambiguity. There’s probably an Abbott side of the story where people in specific orgs or art systems successfully getting the high position in the field.
The great author Gabriel Marquez died and he left a treasure of great literature. Here, a few notes about the smallness of networks inspired by Marquez’ passing. One of my uncles was a lawyer and literature professor named Eduardo Pachon Padilla. He is probably best known for El Cuento Colombiano, an important anthology of Colombian fiction.
Throughout my life, he would go on and on about Marquez and I never understood why. One day I got the story. It turns out that Eduardo and Marquez where from the same region of Colombia, and they studied the same subject (law) in Bogota. The world of novelists and literary critics is small. They knew each other. This was before either had achieved much, but Marquez was competitive and smart and people knew it. So there was that. Later, it came to a head when my uncle was on the jury of a literary contest and, according to Eduardo, Marquez submitted this absolutely brilliant manuscript. Perhaps it was some version of Cien Años, or another work. It was about thirty or forty years after the fact, the memory was not fresh. Regardless, people could tell it was brilliant but still, the jury liked one other book a teensy bit better. He never did regret the award and always argued that, on some technical ground, this other book was better. Perhaps. I also wonder if the friction between Marquez and some his contemporaries was translated into the texts and that Eduardo and his buddies exists as characterization in one of Marquez’ short stories or novels.
Joeff Davis, Malachi Ritscher, Iraq War Protest, Chicago, 2003. Included in the project Malachi Ritscher by Public Collectors. Image taken from the Whitney 2014 Biennial Website.
Last week, while I was visiting CUNY, I made some time to get down to the Whitney Museum to see the Biennial. This year was notable because the show was split three ways. Each curator got her own floor and each took a wildly different approach. The fourth floor was given to Michelle Grabner, a professor and artist. That was probably the most jammed part of the show with art on the walls, floors, and ceiling. It was also the most educational. Basically, Grabner found artists who explored all kinds of materials. For example, Sheila Hicks, one of my favorite fabric artists made this huge rope column. There were also some interesting gems, like a few shiny abstract canvasses mottled with salt by Carissa Rodriguez. Each work was an education in what you could do with particular materials. The floors by Stuart Comer and Anthony Elms were about youth and what one might call “intellectual concerns:” ethnography, politics, etc. For example, there was some strong work dealing with gay subculture, such as Tony Green’s work, Paul P. ‘s watercolors and Elijah Burgher’s pencil drawings.
The critics constantly complained about the whole show. I think it is better to admit that art has massively expanded and that there are multiple centers of gravity. Overall, you’ll be overwhelmed, or bored by the spectacle. But if you slow down, you’ll find that there is a lot to be enjoyed depending on what you want from art.
For me, there was one very moving part of the show, an exhibit by the group Public Collectors dedicated to Malachi Ritscher. He was a Chicago resident who was an avid free jazz fan and antiwar activist. He was notable for two things. First, he created an extensive library of recordings from the Chicago creative music scene. Second, he killed himself in 2006. To protest the Iraq War, he lit himself on fire on the Kennedy Expressway. He recorded that as well.
Malachi’s life and my own crossed many times. I am also a free jazz fanatic and sat next to him many times. I would go to the shows that he recorded. I actually recognized some of the shows whose recordings are in the exhibit. I am pretty sure that I am at least in one them and I am certainly an audience member in many other recordings that are part of Malachi’s library. He documented me. A brooding graduate student, I never introduced myself. But still, he was part of my world.
Later, I would dedicate part of my academic career to recording the antiwar movement. I spent quite a bit of time going to major cities, like Chicago, and conducting surveys and long form interviews with activists. Malachi is probably recorded in my materials. Maybe he filled out a survey. Maybe he was interviewed by me or my research partner. Or, more likely, he is part of an audience that I documented with a photo or audio recording.
The Ritscher exhibit deeply moved me. Malachi and I cared about the same things. Malachi and I passed by each other many, many times over a nine year period. Our lives have been stamped by the city of Chicago and its culture. We were even employed by the same organization – the University of Chicago.
But our stories diverge. He chose a path that I find hard to understand. Faced with the brutality of war, he did something brutal to himself. I have not walked in his shoes, so I won’t pass judgment. All I’ll say is that I remain viscerally shocked by his death. I mourn the loss of him and his knowledge. I responded to the war in a different way. I became the documentarian, the recorder of events.
Ending this post is hard because there simply is no end. I just don’t know what to think of Malachi’s musical contribution, or his suicide, or the crossing of our paths. Perhaps all I can now is dig out my copy of Emancipation Proclamation, which of course, was recorded by Malachi Ritscher.
My good friend Jeffrey Timberlake and his MA student Adam Mayer have a forthcoming paper on the world wide diffusion of heavy metal (early version here). It is coming out in Sociological Perspectives:
The purpose of this paper is to explain the timing and location of the diffusion of heavy metal music. We use data from an Internet archive to measure the population-adjusted rate of metal band foundings in 150 countries for the 1991–2008 period. We hypothesize that growth in “digital capacity” (Internet and personal computer use) catalyzed the diffusion of metal music. We include time-varying controls for gross national income, political regime, global economic integration, and degree of metal penetration of countries sharing a land or maritime border with each country. We find that digital capacity is positively associated with heavy metal band foundings, but, net of all controls, the effect is much stronger for countries with no history of metal music prior to 1990. Hence, our results indicate that increasing global digital capacity may be a stronger catalyst for between-country than for within-country diffusion of cultural products.
My inner Beavis yearns to come out.
For the past year I’ve slowly been working my way through Stanley Aronowitz’s Taking it Big: C. Wright Mills and the Making of Political Intellectuals. My slowness in finishing the book isn’t an indicator of how enjoyable or interesting the book really is. This book is fascinating, especially if you’re interested in the intellectual history of sociology. Aronowitz makes the case that Mills’s sociological impact was a direct result of his engagement with the broader intellectual public in an effort to push social change and present ideas that challenged the capitalist status quo. Mills wasn’t a socialist or any of the things typically associated with the Old Left. Rather, Mills was the forerunner of the New Left – a group that believed in the power of ideas to shape equality and freedom in society. He saw himself as a producer of those ideas.
Not long before I began reading this book I had a conversation with a former student at Columbia University when Mills was still a professor there. (Mills died in 1962.) The former student, now an emeritus professor himself, described Mills as a recluse. He had no involvement with the graduate program and showed no interest in training future PhDs. His main involvement with the department was to teach the undergraduate political sociology class. He was rarely, if ever, in his office, and so running into him in the halls was unlikely. At the time of his death, Mills’s impact on the discipline was fairly minimal, largely because he didn’t have an ongoing research agenda that involved PhD training or publishing articles in the top journals (although he had published those types of articles in the past). Merton, Lazarsfeld, and Bell were the stars of the department in the eyes of the students.
But arguably, Mills’s reputation has outlasted those other scholars. Read the rest of this entry »
Are humans by nature social animals? My colleague, Adam Waytz, argues in a provocative essay for Edge.org that the idea that humans are naturally social may be more myth than reality. That is, if we define human sociability as the tendency to be cooperative with others, compassionate, and empathetic, it’s hardly the case that humans will always act or think in a social way. Adam’s essay is geared towards psychologists, where the trend has been to describe humans’ brains, hormones, and cognition as innately social.
He points out various ways in which psychological research points out that this is just not true. Humans are as competitive as they are cooperative, and in certain situations competition overrides cooperation. Empathy isn’t an automatic response. Humans may have a strong in-group bias and a tendency to treat people outside of our group with suspicion and lack of trust. Social behaviors seem to be triggered by certain situational characteristics rather than being the default. Moreover, our capacity to be social may be much more limited than we have previously recognized.
Because motivation and cognition are finite, so too is our capacity to be social. Thus, any intervention that intends to increase consideration of others in terms of empathy, benevolence, and compassion is limited in its ability to do so. At some point, the well of working memory on which our most valuable social abilities rely will run dry.
Rather than sociability being the natural response to human interaction, it may actually be an achievement of society that we have created the right institutions that enable sociability. Sociologists, of course, have a lot to say about the latter.
Therefore, what does it happen if the artworks, that once circulated mostly thanks to art magazines (supported by gallerists) and exhibition catalogues, are now instantly available online to everyone?
A preliminary answer to this difficult question would be that a lot of people will simultaneously recognize a same kind of “physiological” beauty. Then they will try to buy it, if they can, driven by the idea that they are not alone, but part of a relatively large number of people who love that artist’s work. That is why – as not only Claudia Cargnel says – the request of certain artworks is extraordinary high, even if the curriculum vitae of the artist has no exhibitions, prizes or bibliography on it. It could be just a trend, due to the internet surfers’ appetite for money, but it may also mean something else. It could be the evidence that social networks, blogs and auction houses’ web sites are now informing art people definitely more than traditional art magazines and museums (generally supported by collectors).
Indeed. One can get a pretty decent education in contemporary art by just reading a few blogs and magazines obsessively. The art world may be getting ready for the next stage of evolution after the rise of the art fair model.
I was recently listening to the podcast, Bad at Sports, which covers the contemporary art world. This episode is a long interview with dealer, writer, and provacteur Matt Gleason. A lot of good stuff, but this caught my ear. Gleason claims that one of the major reasons that Jeffrey Deitch was disruptive as director of LAMOCA was that he pursued “post-curator art.” What does that mean? My translation:
Over the last 50 years, the art world has institutionalized. Museums are run by professionals, artists get MFA, and the art market is centralizing around art fairs. What is so disruptive about Dietch was that rejected the institutionalization of the curator – the people who pick art, stage exhibitions, and manage collections.
In other words, in a world of professionalization, Dietch said: “Screw it, my kid can do this.” And he did it. Dietch fired one of the main curators, had celebrities do shows, and curated many shows himself. Very “post.”
I once asked an art professional what he learned from interacting with Dietch, and he said something like, “I learned that you can hand over an art gallery to teenagers and it’ll work.” Metaphor perhaps, but it captures the spirit. People with degrees don’t have a monopoly over good taste. Gleason notes that this is self-serving. A museum with poor finances, like LAMOCA, might not have the cash for carefully curated shows and it would be easy to have some SoCal celebrity show work. But still, the comment is telling. The art world has institutionalized, but it rests on jello foundations.
Becker and Faulkner’s Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All That Jazz now available in print
Today, I met with first year grad students who wanted to know how sociologists develop research questions and studies while navigating grad school, academia, and other contexts. Although sociologists do give retrospective accounts in their publications and presentations, it’s not easy to fully convey the “back stage” behind the research. Rarely do readers get to see how a study unfolds. Luckily, Howie Becker and Bob Faulkner‘s latest book is now available both as an ebook and print book (update: corrected link), for those of us who like to read old school-style. According to Franck Leibovici,
the paperback version produces a different experience [from the ebook]. for example, it has an index which allows you to visualise how many people, scholars, musicians, anonymous people, have been mobilized to produce this investigation.
For those who like the ebook format, see our earlier post, which includes a summary by Becker himself.
Here’s the official summary of Thinking Together: An E-mail Exchange and All That Jazz:
When Rob Faulkner and Howie Becker, two sociologists who were also experienced professionals in the music business, decided to write something about this other part of their lives, they lived at opposite ends of the North American continent: Faulkner in Massachusetts, Becker in San Francisco. They managed the cooperation writing a book requires through e-mail. Instead of sitting around talking, they wrote e-mails to each other.
And so every step of their thinking, the false steps as well as the ideas that worked, existed in written form. So, when Franck Leibovici asked them to contribute something which showed the “form of life” that supported their work, they (helped along by a timely tip from Dianne Hagaman), they sent him the correspondence.
The result is one of the most complete and revealing records of scientific collaboration ever made public. And one of the most intimate pictures of the creative process in all its details that anyone interested in that topic could ask for. Investigative writing is not only about formulating chains of rational ideas (as the usual format of scientific articles would like us to believe), but also mixes plays on words, stories, and arguments in new arrangements.
this book is a contribution to the art project (forms of life)—an ecology of artistic practices, paris, 2011-2012, by franck leibovici.
curated by grégory castéra and edited by les laboratoires d’aubervilliers and questions théoriques, with the support of fnagp, la maison rouge, le fonds de dotation agnès b. see www.desformesdevie.org.
One of the songs that helped the two authors work on their cases of how musicians build their repertories: