First of all, I would like to start with an apology for the lack of posts of late. I do, however, have good news! I have recently started a PhD at the University of Chichester, in which I will be focusing on the relationship between outsider art and the mainstream art world. Specifically, it will be looking at whether, as is commonly suggested, there really has been a ‘rise’ in outsider art within the mainstream art world – with a particular focus on the last ten years or so.
My intention is to use this blog to share my thoughts along the way – and hopefully have some feedback from you, the reader. If you have any thoughts or comments on any of the posts featured on this blog, please contact me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first assignment that I have been working on as part of my PhD project has seen me entering the world of the sociology and philosophy of art. So, I have been reading a lot of Pierre Bourdieu! I find that blogging has been really helpful for me in amalgamating my thoughts and bringing them together in a less academically rigorous way. In light of this, I would like to share some of my thoughts so far about Bourdieu’s theories on art, and how I propose they relate directly to outsider art and outsider artists.
Pierre Bourdieu, a French scholar whose writings span the 1970s and 1980s, was a philosopher and self-proclaimed sociologist. Influenced by the works of his socialist predecessors; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Bourdieu’s writings focus on the hierarchies of power that exist within the world. Most useful to me, of course, are his writings about culture. In these, he states that the way we consume and appraise culture is directly dependant on our class and educational background. So, people who have been brought up in households where trips to art exhibitions and excursions to the theatre are a regular – or normal – occurrence, are going to feel more comfortable consuming culture as adults. They will, Bourdieu asserts, already have the skills and tools available to them that will support them in deciphering the context and meaning of a work of art.
When reading Bourdieu, I was struck by what is apparent to many people working within (or with knowledge of) the art world. There seems to be an impregnable cycle within the art world that means that at every stage of participation, one needs to be from a certain social or educational background. I will call this cycle the ‘cycle of cultural consumption.’ To write about this cycle, I will begin with the artist. However, it is important to note that the artist is not the beginning of the cycle – the artist is just a part of it; the artist could in theory be the beginning, the middle or the end (see diagram above. I hope this will become clearer as I explain each cycle component.
Bourdieu does not write a lot about why artists create. But he does write about who or what influences an artist and how this has changed over the course of the previous few centuries. Prior to the nineteenth century, many artists were commissioned directly by the Church or the State, meaning they had little to no control over the content of their work. The Church and the State held all of the power. However, with the turn of the twentieth century – a century that in its youth in Europe was marred by uncertainty, instability, discontent, and of course, war – a revolution was starting. Artists were becoming autonomous individuals who were inspired by the context within which they were living and working.
So it seems that at this point the artist was beginning to take back some power. But hold on! How were these artists able to do this? How were they able to erase centuries of codes and language commonly used within works of art – and used, too, by educated cultural consumers who could fluently understand these codes and this language. Because, Bourdieu says, artists like Edouard Manet and Marcel Duchamp were already inside the art world. They were only able to challenge the accepted norm in such a spectacular way because they were already big fish swimming in the ocean of the art world. So, not so revolutionary when we look at it like this.
To relate this to outsider art; it seems it is possible for artists creating challenging, unusual, unique work to have an impact on the art world – to have this work shown and to have it seen. But only if the artist is already able to navigate the art world, which generally assumes that a person has taken the ‘preferred’ educational route (art school), which is generally only possible for people from a certain educational background (most commonly middle-class or upper-class).
The next players in my cycle theory are the ‘taste-makers.’ These are the people who decide what work is shown in a museum or gallery, and therefore what we (the public) consider to be art. These are the curators, the critics, the gallery and museum directors. The gatekeepers. We know these gatekeepers exist as tastemakers because art is such a subjective topic that if there weren’t people in these positions of power making decisions about what we see before we even know what the options are, then there would certainly be many more ‘famous’ or ‘admired’ artists in the world. Imagine for a moment the vast amount of work being produced by artists every single day. All over the world, every minute, every hour. In a world of seven billion people, there is going to be at least one person who likes each new creation. But then why isn’t this reflected in what we see in museums and galleries. Why do we see the same ‘big’ names, the same ‘big blockbuster’ shows? The same artists who are the ‘flavour of the moment’? We see these precisely because of the existence of the taste-makers and gatekeepers who are making our decisions about cultural and aesthetic value for us.
And the decisions of the tastemakers and gatekeepers favour artists from a specific background (social and educational) because they too are from these backgrounds. In 2015, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport highlighted that 91.8% of jobs in the creative economy in the UK were done by people in ‘more advantaged socio-economic groups’ compared to 66% of the jobs market as a whole. Being from these backgrounds means that tastemakers and gatekeepers curate and interpret works by people from a similar background to themselves (who they relate to – makes sense right?), and therefore for people from a similar background. Again, to bring this back to outsider art – is a curator going to choose to exhibit work by someone who potentially attended the same art school as them, is their peer in that sense, or work by someone who is from a background that they really have no experience of and are therefore unable to relate to?
The Museum Association’s 2015-16 report Valuing Diversity: The Case for Inclusive Museums noted that “museum collections are often not interpreted from diverse viewpoints… Often the good work that comes out of projects is not used or displayed in the long term and therefore is inaccessible to people who would be interested in engaging with narratives that are relevant to their experience.” This quote brings me onto the third person in our cycle of cultural consumption – the consumer.
The artist makes the work, it is then chosen (or not chosen) by the tastemakers and gatekeepers. If it is chosen, maybe it is exhibited with some accompanying wall labels. Maybe these wall labels are written in a language that is unintelligible to someone who has no prior experience of the art world or art school. Someone from a low socio-economic background, or someone who didn’t attend university might visit this exhibition. Whilst there, they realise they are unable to relate to the work that has been produced, because it has been produced by someone from a certain social and educational background that is a world apart from their own experiences. They are unable to understand the codes used within the interpretative material because, again, it has been chosen and written by someone who is from a very different social and educational background. After an experience like this, would you think that the cultural world was for you? I know that I certainly wouldn’t.
Much of Bourdieu’s writing is informed by experiments and studies he conducted, in particular focusing on understanding the cultural consumer. In The Love of Art, a study conducted by Bourdieu in French museums found that 55% of visitors to French museums held at least a Baccalaureate. Only one per cent of visits were made by farmers or farm labourers, and 4% by industrial manual workers. Tellingly, 23% of visits were made by clerical staff and junior executives, and 45% made by people from an upper class background. Although conducted around 30 years ago (and in France), these results are reflected in data collected much more recently by Arts Council England for their 2017-18 Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case report. The report highlighted that the most frequent National Portfolio Organisation attendees were supervisory, clerical and junior managerial, administrative and professional workers, making up 28.9% of visitors. At 10% of all visits, the least reflected group was semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers.
So here completes the cycle (well, not completes, but continues). When you look at it like this – as Bourdieu does, it becomes clear why efforts need to be made to diversify our arts workforce, our arts audiences and, of course, the art we show in museums and galleries. If we make an effort to diversify just one segment of this cycle of cultural consumption, the ripple effect will surely create a more reflective, innovate and exciting art world that everyone (from all social and educational backgrounds) can enjoy and participate in.
By Kate Davey
 Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Creative Industries: Focus on Employment, 2016, P6
 Museums Association, Valuing Diversity: The Case for Inclusive Museums, 2015-16, P 14
 Bourdieu, Pierre and Alain Darbel, The Love of Art, Polity Press, 1991, P 14
Useful books/articles on or by Pierre Bourdieu
Richard Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu, Routledge, 1992
Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Intellectual Field and Creative Project,’ in M. F. D Young (ed.), Knowledge and Control: New Directions in the Sociology of Education, Collier-Macmillan, 1971
Karl Maton, ‘Habitus,’ in Pierre Bourdieu: Key Concepts edited by Michael Grenfell, Acumen, 2008
Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Routledge and Kegan, 1979
Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel, The Love of Art, Polity Press, 1991
Feature image by Alan Doyle