Some Implications of the Equation Art=Work for the Sociology of Art

Howard S. Becker

(Originally published in French as Becker, Howard S. “Quelques Implications De L’équation Art=Travail Pour La Sociologie De L’art.” In Les Mondes Pluriels De Howard S. Becker: Travail Sociologique Et Sociologie Du Travail, edited by Marc Perrenoud, 117-26. Paris La Découverte, 2013.)

I have always favored a genetic approach to the sociological study of art works and art worlds. Such an approach encompasses two kinds of research. The first is the investigation, upstream, of how some artistic phenomenon—a work, a style, a genre, an entire world of artistic cooperation—comes into being, step by step. It tries to identify all the things that get done, in the order they do get done, by the people who do them, as the object of study, which I’ll from now on speak of as a “work,” this being understood as encompassing both the individual work (or style or genre, etc.) and the actual labor all these people do which makes the artistic product what it is.

Such an approach takes Everett Hughes’ dictum that “everything is somebody’s work” as the starting point of any analysis of art. By doing this, it departs from the standard formula, which looks mainly at the work itself, narrowly conceived as the physical or audible or visual object and its immediately apprehendable formal qualities and their relationships. For that intense study of the work’s character, so narrowly conceived, it substitutes intense study of the network of connections that constitute the work in its actual physical being. So, instead of analyzing the words in the play alone, we look its immediate enactment (every time it is enacted) in this theater, played by these actors, to this particular audience, which responds in its own unique way. Thinking of art as someone’s work naturally leads to this focus.

I have suggested elsewhere that we can think about the upstream part of a work’s history, seen from the point of view of the artist, as editing (in the sense that photographers give that word and idea), looking at all the artist’s decisions, conscious and otherwise, that make the work (or genre, etc., I won’t repeat this from now on) what it is. In the case of multi-artist works, where no one is quite sure, or where it isn’t agreed, who the artist is, we naturally study the decisions of the several people or groups involved and how they settle whatever disputes arise among them. In the case of a genre or a style, we include all the people whose labor and ideas contributed to that development, including among them, naturally, the aestheticians and historians who gave a collection of tendencies such a name and pedigree.

(It is easier to discuss this in French, which uses two words—“travail” and “oeuvre” to separate two meanings for contained in the English word “work”.)

On the other hand, moving downstream from the work, we study its continuing history, what happened to it after whatever date we decide is appropriate to consider it “done,” for which an extended version of the technique of tracing a provenance is an apt metaphor: briefly, after “it” is done, what happens to it?

(This is not a unique or original idea. Far from it. I have made use of the ideas and researches of many others in arriving at this position, and have already said many of these things myself.)

But, though there is nothing new under the sun, putting ideas into a provisional framework that indicates their relationships and similarities lets us profit from the novel juxtapositions systematic comparison produces, and use them to see processes and phenomena we are ordinarily too accustomed to to notice, and to learn from them about new dimensions of the things that interest us.

Where does upstream stop and downstream begin? The history of any work or style or genre starts—well, where does it start? Wherever we choose to begin, we can always find something relevant to our story that came still earlier. Similarly, we could equally easily take something that came still later as an appropriate starting point. We can, of course, regard the present minute as the place where the downstream stops for analytic purposes. This is not to counsel despair but simply to recognize that the choice is arbitrary, dictated by our questions and the available data and time, but not by anything inherent in the events we are studying. (This is like the question of periodization in history.)

Such an approach makes the work people do, and the ways they do it, the primary object of study rather than the object or performance that more commonly becomes the focus of study. What can the outcome of such an exercise reasonably be expected to be? It won’t produce startling new results or a new Grand Theory of Art and Society. Instead, it suggests how applying the Hughes maxim produces new questions, new answers, alternatives to conventional avenues of research and discussion, which point us toward the investigation of the typical trajectories or stages we might find—not a “law” about how genres necessarily develop from an authentic expression of some emotion or historical necessity to a commercialized version of it, for instance, but the description of how that sort of process develops as the result of the intersecting lines of work involved in a more or less conventional division of labor between people and groups who all have their own reasons for doing what they do.


Starting with the artistic material to be analyzed, we can look back at the steps that produced it and the work done by whoever did it at each step of the process. We think of everything that happens to the work, and is then incorporated into it, as the work that someone has done, that work including one or more choices somebody (or somebodies) made, though often enough the choices are not conscious and deliberate but instead the routine use of a material or technique or idea so conventional as to be almost “unconscious” (if I can use that word without any heavy psychological overtones creeping in).

Everett Hughes emphasized that, in the sociological study of work processes, the sociologist learns most when the participants disagree, quarrel, even fight. Because at these moments some agreement, whether it existed in fact or was only hoped for, has broken down. When people say to each other, “I expected you to do X [be able to play the notes my score calls for or, alternatively, to write notes I can play],” an underlying expectation on which interaction had been so securely premised that it did not come up for discussion, and which had very likely been “unconscious,” reveals itself for our analysis.

Where do such moments of conflict typically occur? They often arise at the social margin between two groups—for instance, in the interaction of professionals of various kinds in the production of art works, between suppliers of materials and artists, between artists and lay people, between artists and people who deal with the finances of the artistic enterprise. Each such group brings to the encounter an established set of ideas about how things are to be done, who gives the orders, how the money is divided and distributed, and so on about all the things that participants who routinely work together in any enterprise expect of one another. (A similar approach (Star and Griesemer 1989) focuses on the “boundary objects” which both parties to such a transaction work with but which have different meaning for each of them. The difference between this and my approach arises from a slightly different research aim; for me the two are complimentary, not a matter of “either or.”)

For each such margin, where conflict is possible and even likely, we expect to find characteristic patterns of fighting and resolution, and an historical process by which a fight eventually resolves into a set of customary procedures that last for a while. So we look for the process that eventually produces—or not, since people don’t always resolve their differences successfully—a customary solution to the current fights over the division of income from an art work that have been engendered by the rise of computers and their associated practices, for instance, in the production of music: marketing via the internet, widespread ability to easily copy works, or the issue of ‘sampling” musical works to create new ones. Just as earlier quarrels about artistic works in print produced a set of arrangements about copyrights, royalties, etc.

Such an area is in itself tremendously complicated and I will only refer here to the work of the economist Richard Caves (2000), who has brought the full armory of economic theory to bear fruitfully on a variety of problems that arise in such areas of economic activity related to the arts, as well as to Pierre-Michel Menger’s analyses (for instance, Menger 2009) of the labor market for artists.

Here’s the message for the researcher: when you observe art world participants interacting in their natural settings, or when you interview them about their activities, look for trouble. Probe for disagreements and for the violated expectations that provoked the trouble. Follow through on the consequences of the disagreements: who responded to them in what ways and with what consequences? And, as I have always put it to interviewees, “then what happened?”


Let’s remember Latour’s remark: “the fate of what we say and make is in later users” hands.” (Latour 1987, p. 29) He is talking about scientific facts, but the remark applies equally to works of art. Once we pass the point we have arbitrarily chosen as the pivot between upstream and downstream—a common and analytically useful place to put that point is when the work leaves the hands of whoever is conventionally identified as the creator—we can choose a later point as the other end of the trajectory we want to study. And then we can do an extended version of what art historians do when they construct a provenance for a painting. A provenance lists all the owners of the object in question and all the places it was located, from its inception to the present moment, accounting for the picture’s whereabouts at all times, thus showing an unbroken chain of ownership and physical possession: who got it from who under what circumstances and where they kept it. This establishes the authenticity of a picture and guarantees that it is in fact the work of the artist whose work it is alleged to be, an important consideration in many art markets.

I became aware of this as a possible technique for social scientists when I came across Hans Haacke’s inventive use of it (1975, pp. 69-94) to show how a painting by Manet had moved through a number of owners, including some well-to-do and scholarly Jewish families, eventually to be purchased by the Friends of the Cologne Art Museum, whose chairman had been a highly placed Nazi during those years. Haacke didn’t do this to establish the painting’s authenticity. He used the technique, instead, as part of his larger project of showing the morally shaky ground on which the collections of major art world institutions rested (see the discussion in Becker and Walton 1976).

We can generalize Haacke’s procedure a little by suggesting it as a method for studying the financial bases of art world organizations: checking out the history of ownership of objects, looking for the key moments at which the object changed hands, where we might expect shifts in valuations and aesthetic judgments to show themselves very clearly. (I’ve relied on his pioneering research in Becker 1994.) In this branch of downstream studies we often concern ourselves with the financial work other actors in the art world under study do: the buying and selling and paying for art objects and performances without which the painters or musicians or actors or writers could not proceed.

Another typical downstream sequence of work events occurs in the development of certain genres, with a shift in audiences and in an associated moral judgment of the work. I refer here to the kind of research done by Richard Peterson (1997) and David Grazian (2003) on the problem of the authenticity, in a different sense than the art-historical, of some kinds of “folk” musics, country and Western music in Peterson’s case, and blues in Grazian’s. “Authenticity” in these cases does not arise out of the music as a kind of emanation of its essential qualities, but rather results from the work done by participants in the world of that music, some of whom play, some of whom listen, some of whom buy and sell it, and most of whom judge whether this music, played this way by these people, is “the real thing,” an authentic reflection or product of a way of life that is ethnically distinct or otherwise closely related to the life conditions of the people who play it, sing it, dance to it, listen to it—whether it is all of that, or just some inferior, commercially inspired substitute. The audience does its work of assessing the music in its surroundings and judging its authenticity, since much of their pleasure comes from their belief that what they are hearing is “the real thing,” unaffected by commercial pressures, a real window into another way of life. But, just because people who do not live that life want to see this “real thing,” other people can work at selling it to them. 

And so a process begins in which musicians, singers, and composers begin to create versions of the originally authentic music for an audience which only knows of it through recordings. In the paradoxical case studied by David Grazian (2003), people come from all over the world to hear “authentic” Chicago blues. They know what that is because they have the recordings of it they bought and treasure. And they come to Chicago in search of what is on their records, played by real blues musicians in real blues clubs, in which all the other customers are the “real people” whose lives this music authentically expresses. As you can imagine, this leads to the clubs being filled with such seekers from all over the world, driving the (more “authentic”) people who formerly went there out, and boring the musicians by insisting that they play exactly what is on the recordings that brought them there. And the club is thus no longer authentic and no longer of interest to the people who have thus destroyed it. Similar processes have occurred with respect to “authentic African art,” “authentic pre-Columbian art,” and many other kinds of art. And it is best understood as the unintended result of all these people doing the work they do under the circumstances they find themselves in.

A third typical downstream moment occurs when an object is disposed of. Critics and others often use the fact of physically lasting as a criterion of great art but, more prosaically, lasting in a physical sense is a contingency that affects all works. Whether something lasts physically, and therefore aesthetically as well, depends on the work a great number of people do, either to save it or destroy it. Because some people’s work consists exactly in destroying art. Perhaps as a result of political decisions, as in the destruction of churches and their associated art works in England or Spain during times of political violence, or in various parts of the world today as the result of changes in political regimes. Ray Bradbury made the problem vivid in Fahrenheit °451, describing the burning of books and their salvation through people who made it their work to conserve the destroyed books in an unusual and difficult way: by memorizing them and continuously reciting them.

Works survive, when they do, because someone has made it their work to store and protect them. We have all faced the moment when we have to get rid of things we feel meaningful and valuable, to choose which books or recordings to keep when we move, which picture to leave on the wall and which to take down. Museums and libraries, which have limited space (no matter how much they have), but keep on acquiring new things, have this difficulty built in to their mission. Either they keep growing forever to accommodate the endless number of new things or they “deaccession” some to make room for the new. This is a place where there are surely moments when the established ways of solving this problem become uncomfortable and cause trouble, as when museums are discovered to have gotten rid of things given to them to be held in trust forever, but which are no longer thought to be good in the way they once were. Worse yet when, as so often happens, fifty or a hundred years later, tastes and judgments having shifted again, what they threw away is now just what is wanted.

Gladys and Kurt Lang (1990) showed how key players take up as their occupation the enterprise of keeping the work, the memory, and the reputation of an artist alive. They describe how the wives of a generation of English etchers did the job, preserving their husbands’ etchings, persuading repositories to accept them, and publicizing the works when possible. Similarly, “revivals” of the reputation of a work or artist or genre usually result from someone deciding to revive the item in question. It is not the result of some kind of quality finally showing through, but rather of an enterprising conductor or player or publisher or director or critic or curator deciding to revive something, for whatever reasons their own work situation makes relevant.

More generally, the movement of reputations goes on relentlessly, down, up again, back down,, as Natalie Heinich (1990) has shown in the case of van Gogh and Barbara Herrnstein Smith (1968) has described for Shakespeare’s sonnets (see also Haskell 1976).

Finally . . . .

None of what I have said is particularly novel or unknown to sociologists, especially sociologists of art. I do think that following this line of research and thinking will be fruitful, perhaps more so than others now in use. The evidence of that is everywhere to be found.


Becker, Howard S., and John Walton. "Social Science in the Work of Hans Haacke." In Framing and Being Framed, edited by Jack Burnham and Hans Haacke, 145-52. New York: New York University Press, 1976.

Caves, Richard E. Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and Commerce.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Grazian, David. Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Heinich, Nathalie. The Glory of Van Gogh : An Anthropology of Admiration.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Lang, Kurt, and Gladys Lang. Etched in Memory: The Building and Survival of Artistic Reputation.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Menger, Pierre-Michel. Le Travail Créateur: S'accomplir Dans L'incertain.  Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2009.

Peterson, Richard A. Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. "Institutional Ecology, "Translations," and Boundary Objects in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.". Social Studies of Science 19 (1989): 387-420.