REPORT of the 7th Conference of the European Research Network Sociology of Arts that took place at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna from 5 to 8 September 2012.
The four keynote talks discussed artistic practices from different perspectives. Nathalie Heinich argued for a pragmatic sociology that offers a thick description of phenomena, leaving interpretations and criticism aside. Instead of formulating theories on the basis of conceptual abstractions she identifies three paradigms in the art worlds, i.e. different systems of the social organisation of the arts. Alongside the paradigm of contemporary art, which transgress the traditional notion of arts and its boundaries, there is the paradigm of modern art, which challenges representations, as well as the older paradigm of classical art. She observes frictions and conflicts between these three paradigms, since they are based on different valuetion regimes – for example, works of contemporary art are often directly accompanied by texts, have fewer visual properties and are semantically thicker, to a degree that people from a different paradigm not only do not appreciate them but also feel offended by their claim to be artworks. Evidently the three paradigms are based on different systems of practices. Whereas mediators in contemporary arts, such as curators and critics, play an increasingly important role, in the paradigm of modern art it was art-dealers who found and promoted new artists and styles. Additionally, from the era of classical art through the era of modern art until the present day, the internationalism of art markets and exhibitions has been constantly increaseing. Thus artistic centres are nowadays dispersed around the globe and not concentrated in few locations.
Karlheinz Essl offered a reflexive presentation of his artistic development and recent practice of composing. Building on the legacy of Anton von Webern, who emphasised the openness of composition processes, as well as the legacy of John Cage’s experimental practice, which challenged and finally enlarged the understanding of music and integrating new technological possibilities for sound creation, Karlheinz Essl practically demonstrated how the element of chance has challenged and transformed his approach to music moving his practice of composition from the writing of a score to improvisation and performance. He explained these two different composing practices on the basis of an analogy with cooking according to a given recipe or intuitively based on one’s own cooking experience. In a situation where the music composition remains open and to some degree unpredictable – chance and randomness occur within a given frame – the act of composing is tending towards a more fluid practice, or to put it differently, there is an interesting proximity between composition and improvisation, though both remain distinct.
Theodore Schatzki provided a powerful analysis of the application of some central ideas of practice theory to the arts. The acknowledgment of the constitutive relations of arts to social practice emphasises the non-propositional aspects of artistic activities as well as to the varied bundles of between practices and material arrangements such as artistic materials, instruments, technology, organisations, market structures and cultural policies. Changes in art require changes of practices and material arrangements. The indeterminacy of human activity and the complex relation between practices and material arrangements mean that artistic change, similarly to social change, is simply unpredictable. Like other activities, artistic practices are teleological though the artistic goals may be primarily incorporated in the practical understanding of the artists and therefore not easily expressed and analysed. Thus practical understanding is directly related to creating (doing) and should be distinguished from taste or appraisal. Sense experience is crucial to artistic practices as well as to consumption and appreciation. Finally, sense experience is linked to aesthetic experiences, though the latter occur in particular bundles.
Laurent Thévenot sees some advantages regarding the concept of engagement rather than of practices, which from his point of view primarily refers to collectives rather than to individuals. Art worlds include a broad range of forms of engagement in the arts and their environment. Further, he stated that in the arts we find two types of engagement: familiarity engagement and engagement in experimentation that demands a rupture with familiarity. Artists themselves are practically engaged but they also devise arrangements to host engagement. Whereas discursive language is a common form for (particularly political) engagement, artists create arrangements and forms of participation that go beyond language. Engagement is always constituted towards some goods. Thus Laurent Thévenot here recognises a moment of responsibility not only for the artist but also for other people involved in the art worlds. In order to deal with such sensitive issues resulting from the complex relation between artists and audience we need a framework for a profound analysis of individual cases.
Apart from the keynote speakers, there was a big and extraordinarily lively contribution from almost 200 presenters. Since it is practically impossible to refer to each presentation I would like to highlight the diversity of topics as well as the desire to go beyond the established theories. Undoubtedly, some of the topics have also been covered in previous conferences of the Sociology of the Arts Research Network, for instance the analysis of classifications and boundaries, the investigation of markets, audiences, organisational strategies, the role of arts in public sphere, within local communities or with regard to social and political issues such as environmental policies, the description of the role of particular professionals and the discussion of technological challenges. New topics were related to architectural issues as well as to the processes of the acquisition of artistic knowing, including aspects of the incorporation of practices. Finally, all participants acknowledged the variety of approaches, arguing that sociology of the arts is nowadays has a less disciplinary focus but seeks interchange with other related disciplines and discourses. This impression is definitely correct, but it should be added that the main theme of this conference, “artistic practices”, has certainly stimulated a high level of participation of artists, activists and scholars from other areas such as the liberal arts.
The 277 registered participants came from 45 different countries around the world. The background experience with arts and art worlds as well as the disciplinary and methodological approaches therefore varied significantly. This variety offered everyone a rich picture of the plurality and broadness of arts sociology. Mutual understanding was promoted by the egalitarian nature of the conference and the spontaneous curiosity and openness that characterised the communication inside and outside its 50 different sections during the four days of the conference.