My previous PhD research-inspired post, ‘The Cycle of Cultural Consumption’, focused mainly on what sort of culture audiences ‘consume’ and why. It looked at Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, and how our social and educational background is the biggest influencing factor when it comes to the culture that is available – and interesting – to us. As I continue to read and research, I have turned my attention now to artists and their relationship with the art world. So, rather than a focus on audiences, I am looking at producers and how they interact and integrate with the ‘art world’ as a system.
I have recently been reading two books – Gary Alan Fine’s ‘Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and Culture of Authenticity’ and Howard S. Becker’s ‘Art Worlds.’ Fine’s book focuses almost exclusively on work by self-taught artists, whereas Becker’s sociological insight into art worlds and how they work is slightly broader, encompassing not just visual art, but other media too. It is Becker’s broader text that I will reference in this post, as it gives more of a contextual overview of the art world and its players. I will return to Fine’s book in a later post.
The art world – and in this case, I am referring to the art world as the art schools, galleries, museums, curators, critics, and media outlets that make up what we would ‘traditionally’ and ‘conventionally’ see as the art system – is based on an historical, standard system of acceptance. Artists are generally expected to attend art school, following this, they might find representation from a gallery or dealer, in turn having their work exhibited in museums, galleries and online. There is this unconscious system constantly ticking over, and only a few are privy to the pattern. As Becker says: “How do we know the pattern? That takes us out of the realm of gestalt psychology and into the operations of art worlds and social worlds generally, for it is a question about the distribution of knowledge, and that is a fact of social organization.” 
In ‘Art Worlds,’ Becker describes four main types of artist – the ‘integrated professional,’ ‘the maverick,’ ‘the folk artist,’ and ‘the naïve artist.’ The integrated professional is someone who has journeyed the correct way through this system. They follow the rules when creating their work, and in turn, their work is accepted by art world aficionados. They don’t create anything too surprising, too unexpected, and this is all great – nothing to upset the status quo here. The title ‘maverick’ refers to “artists who have been part of the conventional art world of their time, place, and medium but found it unacceptably constraining.”  So these are artists who have entered the art world in the traditional and ‘respected’ way at some point, but have decided it’s not really for them. They know the system, they know how it works, but what they make – or what they want to make – goes against the accepted norm. I guess in a sense you could consider Marcel Duchamp a maverick (although in some respects his impact on the art world as a whole makes him less of a maverick in Becker’s sense and more of an influencer).
This leaves our ‘folk’ artists and our ‘naïve’ artists. Becker’s understanding of a ‘folk’ artist differs slightly from the ‘folk’ artist we might associate with outsider art. He refers mainly to quilt-makers, and people who have learned particular techniques and crafts from their families or communities. His term ‘naïve’ artists probably more closely aligns with our current outsider art category. These artists “create unique and peculiar forms and genres because they have never acquired and internalized the habits of vision and thought professional artists acquire during their training.” Interestingly, Becker says of the terms ‘naïve’ and ‘folk’ that they do not relate to people. Instead, they refer to the position a person holds in relation to the ‘accepted’ art world. He notes that “wherever an art world exists, it defines the boundaries of acceptable art, recognizing those who produce the work it can assimilate as artists entitled to full membership, and denying membership and its benefits to those whose work it cannot assimilate.”
In many cases, the ‘integrated professional’ is the safe bet. They are someone who knows the system, their work aligns with what is expected; it fits into the canon. Imagine, Becker asks, “a canonical artist, fully prepared to produce, and fully capable of producing, the canonical art work. Such an artist would be fully integrated into the existing art world. He would cause no trouble for anyone who had to cooperate with him, and his work would find large and responsive audiences.” 
So, yes, a safe bet. But is it the right bet? How do we challenge this? My favourite question: who gets to decide? Well, it is, it seems, the decision of those who have travelled the ‘integrated professional’ route: “conventions known to all well-socialized members of a society make possible some of the most basic and important forms of cooperation characteristic of an art world.” Becker mentions Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of the standard of taste, “when he remarked that while what made art great was a matter of opinion, some opinions were better than others because their holders had more experience of the works and genres in question and so could make finer and more justifiable discriminations.”
All decisions are made by certain people at a certain point in history. Decisions about whether a piece of art is accepted into the art world generally has no relation to the aesthetic quality of the work. We know this because “art worlds frequently incorporate at a later date works they originally rejected, so that the distinction must lie not in the work but in the ability of an art world to accept it and its maker.”
All of this thinking about systems and how we mould ourselves to fit them – not just the art world, but a whole host of other societal systems (the education system for one) – had me thinking about something someone said at a conference I attended last week. The conference was about collections of patient created art work in Europe, and so there was a strong focus on mental health, stigma, and the ethical exhibiting of work by people who historically were ‘locked up’ in huge psychiatric institutions. In one session, one of the panellists said that a person experiencing mental health issues shouldn’t be attempting to fit in to a societal system that has been created by ‘well’ people. (It is like that age old adage – if you spend your whole life trying to teach a fish to fly, it will always feel like a failure). Instead, we should seriously be thinking about how our societal systems work, and within these existing systems, we should be consciously making space for people who for whatever reason don’t – or can’t – fit what we consider to be the ‘norm.’
“Who tries things first? Who listens and acts on their opinions? Why are their opinions respected? Concretely, how does word spread from those who see something new that is worth noticing? Why does anyone believe them?”
Thank you for taking the time to read this post. As part of the PhD research process, I am really keen to hear from anyone who has any thoughts on the subjects I am covering in these posts – whether you agree, or strongly disagree! I am particularly keen to hear from artists about their experiences of trying to enter the ‘art world’ (whether this has been positive or negative). You can drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or send me a tweet: @kd_outsiderart.
 Howard S. Becker, ‘Art Worlds,’ University of California Press, 1984, P 41
 Becker, P 233
 Becker, P 265
 Becker, P 46
 Becker, P 228-229
 Becker, P 47
 Becker, P 226-227
 Becker, P 55