The art of distinction

by CarlD

I’m reading a really good book right now for the sociology of culture seminar I’m auditing: Olav Velthius’ Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (2005). I’m not done yet, so nothing I say from now on will be entirely fair, but I thought I might as well workshop my reading process here since I have to prompt discussion of the book in seminar later.

Olav is on board with the argument that economics has a ‘hollow core at its heart’ where culture ought to be, and like Douglas/Isherwood among many others he sets out to fill it by showing that the market for art cannot be reduced to ‘nothing-but’ economic logic, nor is it fundamentally a ‘hostile world’ contaminating artistic purity. Instead the art market is better seen as a ‘paradoxical’ constant negotiation of a Durkheimian sacred/profane split within a commercial setting.

I’m married to an artist and I’m going to a fundraising gala for a local arts organization in about an hour so I’m in an anecdatal position to say that Olav is on the right track. And furthermore he’s a feast for a theory geek like me, dressing the product with a tasty sauce of symbolic flava from Marx to Weber to Durkheim to the Frankfurt School to Bourdieu to Lamont to Zelizer. Of course the danger with this kind of conceptual masala is that particular ingredients may be tossed into the pot without adequate prep and may not cook up right. There’s also a temptation to claim that the dish is a new culinary departure when in fact it’s a rehash of familiar cuisines. [Disclaimer: I’m learning from this book that economic sociology is where frustrated poets who got tracked into more ‘practical’ fields go to play with metaphors. Honestly I’ve never seen such a chaos of imagery. Example: “The term I use for these landscapes of meaning in economic life is ‘circuits of commerce’.” Landscapes=circuits, check. See also ‘hollow core at the heart of economics’, above.]

OK, so to cut to the chase here Olav does what I consider to be the usual hatchet job on Bourdieu, which is to acknowledge pro forma that PB covers both cultural and economic dimensions of art, then accuse him of reducing everything to ‘nothing-but’ economics, then correct or ‘supplement’ him by reasserting the relative autonomy of culture from the brute logics of commerce. Which would be a totally cool and useful move if Bourdieu’s procedure was really just a linear reduction of the appearances of meaning into the essences of exchange, instead of an account of the dynamics whereby symbolic goods are translatable into material ones and vice versa in an ongoing dialectic of homologous (therefore, translatable and therefore not paradoxical) logics. I expect Olav to get this right in the end, as-if he had corrected the deficient Bourdieu.

So, I was muttering and waving my hands around about this earlier, and Rachel noted wisely and ironically that “a lot of academic writing seems to be pitted against somebody else who didn’t get it right.” Quite so. Which is certainly a good way to create marketable distinctions for our symbolic commodities, but maybe not a good way to move conversations forward.


12 Comments to “The art of distinction”

  1. Well, nothing provides a better opening for argument with an established scholar like a (willfully?) reductive misreading of their work. I’ve seen this repeatedly with the responses to post-structuralist thinkers, and this is why I think close reading of one’s opponents is the only way to proceed in these kinds of cases. Otherwise it degenerates into arguments about implications. My other question in these kinds of arguments is whether the controverter has offered an alternative explanation of the phenomenon that is equally plausible, given what we already know, or at least generative of new insights?

    However, since it’s Sunday morning, perhaps the most charitable way to approach an uncharitable text is to ask: what is it good for? Velthius may not really be interested in PB, but in planting his own flag on PB’s half-mutilated carcass. He probably has something smaller to say than PB, but maybe that small thing does have a bit of independent interest. That’s probably the most charitable reading of this kind of scholarly behavior.

  2. Right. I really do think Olav’s got his ducks in order, and although his Bourdieu-construct is instrumentally deficient, it’s good enough to set OV on the path of a satisfactory reconstruction in which he takes the same conceptual resources Bourdieu drew on and reinvents a nice round wheel with them. So if we’re caring about analytical productivity rather than scholarly attribution games, he’s a-ok. It’s even an interesting demonstration of theory-construction, since this way he gets to let an eclectic assemblage of theory prompts inform empirical observation which then drives a ‘new’ theoretical synthesis; rather than just blundering in with the monolithic ‘testable’ Bourdieu-hypothesis and jamming everything he sees into its procrustean bed. The procedure only becomes alarming for those of us who are theory-geeky enough to follow the initial selective appropriation.

    So Olav is a pretty good version of what he is. In plenty of other cases, post-structuralism being a great example, the selective appropriation is in service of a facile dismissal enabling an irresponsible failure to grapple with the issues and resources the theory offers, so that there’s neither productive reconstruction nor plausible alternative explanation, but simply an ‘easy’ line on the vita.

  3. Another interesting bracketing move Olav makes, at least in what I’ve read so far, is to seal off the art market from ‘the market’ more generally, arguing that while the latter is characterized by purely rational/utilitarian exchange, the former is characterized by a universe of relationships and meanings that not only don’t boil down cleanly to the cash nexus but often actively resist its logic. He makes the case brilliantly for the art market, with a wealth (ha) of close observation and sensitive interpretation.

    But we might back up a step and wonder if ‘the market’ is really all that rational/utilitarian. Certainly Douglas and Isherwood would claim otherwise, having offered a comprehensive theory of the culture-saturation of all markets in The World of Goods (1979), or rather, showing that markets are themselves cultural milieux in which services and commodities mediate relationships, meanings and identities. And this of course builds on Veblen’s classic work on conspicuous consumption, which like Douglas and Isherwood Olav cites in passing but does not process as defining a field within which his work is a particular case.

    Since Olav’s topic is in fact the art market, there’s nothing fatal about this omission. It’s just another example of distinction-making where the value of his symbolic commodity is being constructed (unnecessarily, I think) out of exclusions that don’t hold up very well to scrutiny.

  4. showing that markets are themselves cultural milieux in which services and commodities mediate relationships, meanings and identities

    I’m obviously not trying to be critical of Douglas and Isherwood here (I haven’t read them) but I always find it sort of startling that this case needs to be argued: I don’t understand what people think a market might be such that this wouldn’t be true of it. Perhaps I need to read more econ.

  5. I totally agree, and yet economists do! So there’s this continuous stream of culture types who glance over at econ, wtf, and explain how it’s fetishes and signaling all the way down. And get nowhere, because the truthiness of econ is dependent on bracketing anything that smacks of interpretation.

    The thing Olav does that’s a little dicey is that he slides analytically between criticizing economists for doing this and reading economists’ field prejudices back onto the economy itself, or rather the not-art parts of it.

  6. I am reminded of a joke I was told several years ago.

    The marketing department at Stanford organized a conference to which a eminent economist, a close friend of the chair of the marketing department, was invited to be the keynote speaker. When the chair introduced his friend, he said, “This is my good friend, Professor X. He’s an economist. You know, the folks who turn random numbers into mathematical laws.” The friend, not to be outdone, replied, “My good friend here is a marketer. You know, the folks who reverse the process.”

  7. My wife is also an artist and I would concur that the cultural landscapes that artists must navigate is tricky and full of contradictions.

  8. Carl, Jacob. Just curious. Are either of you guys familiar with Howard Becker’s Art Worlds? If so, I wonder what you think of it.

  9. @Jacob, your wife is good! I’m not always the best audience for domestic themes, but I find her work graceful and emotionally focused in an appealing way. The butterflies do some things with tone and composition that I really like.

    I think Olav would say that the trickiness is part of the performativity of the art world that elevates its products out of the mundane and into the sacred, where commerce can be decoupled from utility and prices can be used for signaling. It’s ritual. So where Paulina’s art seems to draw on a sacredness of family and relationship which pre-exists its artistic depiction, the art market works to constitute its objects as charismatic in themselves, not because of what they’re about but because of what they are. It’s meant to be mysterious and to seem contradictory because the trick wouldn’t work otherwise.

    @John, HA! That joke looks like it should find its way into the book’s footnotes somewhere. It and the stuff I was just saying to Jacob made me reflect that there’s something of the usual platonic / aristotelian split here. Most economists want to say that where value comes from is irrelevant to how the market works to allocate it, whatever it is. In effect value is treated as a preconstituted platonic essence. And it’s my impression that lots of marketers follow suit in the sense that they may think of tastes and preferences as preconstituted and their job to ‘discover’ them. But the really interesting marketers, to my mind, are the ones who understand the market to be a social setting in which values are created and given meaning relationally. This is what Olav says art dealers do and it also seems to be what the ‘creatives’ you’re working on do.

    Speaking of which, we read Becker’s shorter article “Art as Collective Action” for the class. I thought it was superb, but I’m always a sucker for the interactionists. They fit my brain.

  10. Getting back to the Bourdieu maneuver I started with, as I mentioned there’s something perfunctory, generic, even mechanically ritualistic about it. And as I read on, I find that Olav’s references to Bourdieu continue to seem casual and inconsequential. But they also tend to show up in places where Olav is making a point he thinks is important, and take the form ‘oh by the way, here’s how Bourdieu might have put this’. I take this as a kind of signaling, as references always are, and I’m struck by how meaningful Bourdieu seems to be and yet how carefully he’s being managed. This makes me think back to all the times I’ve seen Bourdieu preposterously caricatured and dismissed, and it makes me wonder if PB is such a monstrous presence in certain areas of cultural studies that it feels like no work can be done without setting him aside. Or perhaps that he’s become heavy weaponry (as he remarked about the poststructuralists) in academic turf wars and has to be handled delicately lest unwanted battles break out and blood be spilled.

  11. The thing Olav does that’s a little dicey is that he slides analytically between criticizing economists for doing this and reading economists’ field prejudices back onto the economy itself

    Sorry to be behind the conversation – but yes, this is a really common move in my experience. One minute people are critical of the discourse of rational choice, because real human beings don’t actually work like that; the next minute they’re critical of markets for making us all into affectless calculating machines. When you point out the slippage I find that people sometimes talk about the performativity of econ. I guess something like this could be coherent (and maybe even accurate), if the claim is that rational choice theory (or whatever) accurately captures a specific aspect of self generated by specific aspects of capitalist (or market) social practice (and contradicted by others). But I suspect people who make these sorts of arguments are often making two bold contradictory claims, rather than a single more limited one. Anyway, I like the characterisation of the move.

    As it randomly happens I just finished reading Distinction, having started and abandoned it years ago. I was surprised – and pleased – to find a lengthy and very good critique of Derrida’s analysis of Kant’s Third Critique, as a sort of conclusion. This isn’t really relevant to anything, except by way of saying yay for Bourdieu, at least in that respect. [A bit sceptical about the legitimacy of his statistical techniques, on the other side of the ledger.]

  12. “accurately captures a specific aspect of self generated by specific aspects of capitalist (or market) social practice (and contradicted by others)”

    Yes, I really like this! As for Bourdieu’s statistics, I’m not qualified to judge, but for what it’s worth that book went a long way toward legitimating statistics for me, such that I now think there are certain kinds of investigation that are enhanced by them. (I’m being silly, but for awhile in my misspent youth I nurtured a poetic prejudice that nothing much worth caring about came in countable quantities.)

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