Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sociology of Arts

Dhiyanesh Ravichandran.

Being a student of Sociology, I habitually tend to disagree with people speaking about some specific subject commonsensically. I don't say that the commonsense is absolutely not sociological, but many of the everyday common ideas are biased and unscientific. A recent discussion with one of my friend about 'Arts' and paintings gave me some space to retrospect my understanding about them and induced me to look for sociological side to the arts and its relation to cultures.

A dictionary defines  'Art' as "the quality, procustion, expression, or realm of what is beautiful or of more than ordinary significance; the class of object subject to aesthetic criteria" (The Random House College Dictionary, 1982, p.76). Drawing on the same dictionary, 'Aesthetics' involves "...the qualities perceived in the works of art...; the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty" (p.22). However, it is possible for a work of art to attract our attention, direct our thoughts, and have more than ordinary significance with out being judged as beautiful by most people who experience that creation. Pablo Picasso's "Guernica", a famous painting of the Spanish civil war, comes to our mind as a scene, while not beautiful, is indisputably moving, thus work of art. 

Is art like religion a 'cultural universal'?  

Many cultures even lack a word for art. Yet even without such a word, people everywhere do associate an aesthetic experience -  sense of beauty, appreciation, harmony, and pleasure with objects and events having certain quality. The Bamana people of Mali have a word (like ‘art’) for something that attracts your attention, catches your eye and directs your thoughts (Ezra 1986). Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the word for art, ona, encompasses the design made on objects, the art objects themselves and the profession of the creators of such works. For two Yoruba lineages of leather workers, Otunisona and Osiisona, the suffix-ona in their names denotes art (Adepegba 1991).
People in all cultures do seem to associate an aesthetic experience with certain objects and events. Experiencing art involves feelings as well as appreciation of the form. The 'arts' include the visual arts, literature (both oral and writings), music and theatre arts. These manifestations of human creativity are called as 'expressive culture'. People express themselves creatively in dance, music, song, painting, sculpture, pottery, cloth, story telling, verse, prose, drama, comedy, etc. Folk art, music and lore refers to the expressive cult of the ordinary, usually the poor and the rural people.

The arts are part of culture and aesthetic judgements depend, at least to an extent, on cultural background. The aesthetic value, which distinguishes forms of art, is defined only by culture. Sociological and anthropological definition of culture broadens the study of humanities from fine arts and elite arts to popular and folk arts and the creative expressions of the masses. Community standards judge the completeness and mastery displayed in a work of art. Standards may be maintained informally in society or by specialists such as art critics. Myths, legends, tales and storytelling play important roles in transmitting culture and preserving traditions. 

Here comes an another grasp too. That which is aesthetically pleasing is perceived with the senses. Usually, we restrict the scope of art to something that can be either seen or heard. But many others might define art more broadly to include things that can be smelled (scents, fragrances), tasted (recipes), or touched (cloth textures).  

Is art and life the same?

Initially, the patronage of rich enabled people to become professional musicians, composers, sculptors and artists. Later, the specialist institutions such as art schools were developed to train future generations of cultural specialists. Other institutions such as theatres, art galleries, and concert halls were established to make cultural products more widely available. Culture was therefore separated or differentiated from other aspects of life. It was produced by specialists, trained in particular institutions and was consumed in specific places. This formed the basis for distinguishing between folk culture (which could be found among ordinary people) and high culture, which was the product of these specialist individuals and institutions. Culture was, thus, always differentiated from other areas of life.

There have been attempts to break down the division between high culture and everyday life. Avant-garde artists have tried to shock people out of their cultural complacency by portraying everyday objects as art. Mascel Duchamp (1917) displayed a urinal as a work of art with the title ‘Fountain’. He attributed the work to the sanitary engineer who designed the urinal. As modernity progressed, a new ‘Popular culture’ developed, which tried to integrate the aspects of everyday life into high culture arts but nothing notable here too.

Ruling Class art

May it be any society or period, the art tend to serve the ideological interest of the ruling class. The classic example would be the oil painting, the dominant medium for painters between 1500 to 1900AD. John Berger in his book ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972) says that it came to reflect the world view of the ruling class. That period which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil painting. Oil has special characteristics that made them particularly suitable for portraying ruling class ideology. Berger says oil painting has a special ability to render the tangibility, texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on. This was important because oil panting came to be primarily concerned with the depiction of wealth or property. Because of the sense of tangibility that oil painting can produce, it gave substance to the sense of ownership that the ruling class wanted to portray in their paintings. As capitalistic society developed, painting focussed more on wealth and power of the ruling class. They were able to impose their own view of the world, simply because it was very largely they who commissioned the paintings. It was more important to the buyers of the paintings that they portrayed them and their wealth in the way they wanted. 

‘Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’ by Thomas Gainsborough
Still life paintings were more obvious about possessions. They tended to portray such things as table laden with luxurious food as testament to the high living of those who commissioned them. Paintings of animals were also popular. However, they were not usual animals in the wild but livestock whose pedigree is emphasised as a proof of their value. Landscapes were used to celebrate the property of rich. Consider the case of this nineteenth century painting ‘Mr. and Mrs. Andrews’ by Gainsborough. Andrews insisted on being included in the landscape which featured land owned by them. They are land owners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expression.

Not all the oil paintings portrayed only rich. Some that portrayed poor reflect the ruling class ideology too. Pictures of ‘low life’ such as paintings of debauched groups in taverns were popular with the growing bourgeoisie in the 16th to 19th century.  The point of such pictures, was to tell a moral tale about how the rich deserved their success while the poor had only themselves to blame for their misfortunes. Berger says that the paintings lent plausibility to a sentimental lie – namely that it was the honest and hard working who prospered and that the good-for-nothings deservedly had nothing. Some paintings were able to transcend the narrow concerns of the bourgeoisie too.

The art go on changing, although certain art forms have survived test of time for years. In today's world, a huge 'arts and leisure' industry links western and non-western art forms (selectively) in an integral network with both aesthetic and commercial dimensions. And sociological study of arts is an enchanting endeavor, charmed by the diversity for forms and aesthetic sense you find in different cultures across times. An endless journey indeed!