In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Visual Arts, Music, and Aesthetic Experience

  • Introduction
  • Classic Works
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Developments

Sociology Visual Arts, Music, and Aesthetic Experience
Fiona Greenland
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0200


Artistic fields are the spaces of activity in which art is produced, evaluated, and interpreted. Aesthetics, deriving from the Greek word for “perception,” attends to judgments of taste about artworks and other sensory objects. In sociology, aesthetic experience as a subfield developed from studies of taste and judgment and now extends to sophisticated analyses of materiality and material encounters, cultural consumption, and iconicity. As this article suggests, there is no single domain within sociology for the study of art. Sociology of art permits a diverse range of methodological and empirical approaches to the relationship between societies and cultural objects. What unites this broad area of work is the understanding that the arts and social theory are equal partners; art offers a source of “existential social knowledge that is of its own worth” (Harrington 2004, p. 3 [cited under General Overviews]). In other words, art can reveal certain aspects of society that other social phenomena cannot.

Classic Works

The framework for sociological studies of art in the early 21st century was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Émile Durkheim, and W. E. B. Du Bois, among others. These thinkers drew on Enlightenment ideas about aesthetics, beauty, and the nature of form, particularly via Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and David Hume. Although those earlier philosophical ideas are still present in sociological studies of art, the contemporary subfield has largely bracketed metaphysical questions to focus instead on issues of institutions, knowledge production, materiality, and social class and status. Marx’s legacy is especially evident in the works of Lukács 1971 and Hauser 1999 (cited under Theoretical Developments, originally published in 1951). Durkheim 1995 (originally published in 1915) established a sociological framework for analyzing the cohesive effects of artistic objects and images on a community. The contribution of Du Bois 1926 to sociological studies of art was the idea that systemic prejudice limits opportunities for artists of color. Nevertheless, Du Bois made a strong case for artistic autonomy as the most promising path to elevate the status of black artists. Simmel’s meditations on artists and their works present a distinct path of enquiry from his contemporaries. According to Simmel 2005 (originally published in 1916), art was not merely an object of social scientific study but rather the very basis of a Lebensphilosophie, or the philosophy of life that illuminates the modern social condition. Adorno 2002 (originally published in 1932) and Benjamin 2008 (originally published in 1936) pushed beyond Marxian critique to insist that artistic productions have a meaningful impact on listeners and viewers. Modern classics by Becker 1982, Bourdieu 1984, Crane 1987, and Zolberg 1990 represent a scholarly shift from seeing aesthetics as the outcome of contentious political and economic forces to situating artists and their works in social networks populated by a range of actors and institutions with different forms of power and agency. Elias 1993 insists that the artist and her or his works must be understood together—that the singular characteristics have meaning for sociological generalization—and thereby lays the groundwork for sociological study of creative genius.

  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2002. On the social situation of music [1932]. In Essays on music. Edited by Richard Leppert, 391–436. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Adorno wrote several essays on music, examining how the modern age structures the possibility of musical expression. In this essay (dated 1932), he argues that “monopoly capitalism” has corroded freedom of production and consumption in musical life. Adorno laid the groundwork for treating music as a causal force on people and for thinking about an artistic form as a manifestation of society, rather than an appendage that exists alongside it.

  • Becker, Howard. 1982. Art worlds. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    Becker’s book was pioneering in its presentation of art as a product of labor and cooperation rather than genius and isolated individuals The author states that there is no single art world, but rather multiple networks of this type of cooperative activity. The “art work,” in this frame, is the product of a self-reinforcing system of values, labor, and organizational practices. Although the network is loosely structured, it holds together through a range of actors.

  • Benjamin, Walter. 2008. The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Transcribed by Andy Blunden. London: Penguin.

    Originally published in 1936. Benjamin explores the impact of modern technologies of artistic reproduction on the meaning and experience of art. In this sense, the essay sits within an early-20th-century tradition of contemplating the consequences of urbanization and mass mechanization on human culture and societies. Benjamin’s central argument is that art in the modern period has lost the singular “auratic” quality that characterized earlier periods of art.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Translated by Richard Nice. London: Routledge.

    Distinction is now a core text in the sociological study of taste and art. Bourdieu’s achievement was to demonstrate how taste reinforces status distinctions—distinctions that are durable even in the face of changing fashions in art, music, and other cultural spheres. Since Bourdieu, sociologists have studied questions concerning taste formation, objective and subjective knowledge, and communities of taste making and taste reinforcing.

  • Crane, Diana. 1987. The transformation of the Avant-Garde: The New York art world, 1940–1985. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Crane examines transformations in the New York City art world since World War II. She traces the careers of more than 400 artists, using biographies, museum catalogues, and other documentary sources to trace the artists’ productions and the reception and circulation of their work. Drawing on her diverse data, Crane reconstructs the individual and organizational relationships of each artist, offering a detailed picture of how these affiliations shaped artistic practice, ideology, and aesthetic sway.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. 1926. Criteria of Negro art. The Crisis 32 (October): 290–297.

    Du Bois asks, should African American artists produce works that explicitly engage with the social and political goals of the black community? Or should they be freed from that pressure and allowed to pursue the Muse to their own ends? Du Bois supports the second position, believing that doing so will raise black artists to the highest levels of respect and attainment within the canonical fine arts, bringing recognition and respect to the entire community.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1995. The elementary forms of the religious life. Translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press.

    Originally published in English in 1915. Durkheim argues that creative expressions including music, dance, and images are “collective representations” through which societies symbolically represent themselves to each other and to other groups. Although Durkheim does not address art per se, his idea of the totem—a collectively recognized object with meaning-rich images and form—has been developed by contemporary scholars interested in how social actors make sense of the world with and through cultural objects.

  • Elias, Norbert. 1993. Mozart: Portrait of a genius. Edited by Michael Schröter. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Elias describes Mozart as a “genius before the age of genius,” arguing that the musician’s preternatural rise to fame and tragic early death are both explained by the social constraints of 18th-century European court life. Mozart navigated both the petite bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, and his experiment with freelance musicianship crystallizes the tensions between them. The book is essential reading for those interested in the social production of music.

  • Lukács, György. 1971. The theory of the novel. Translated by Anna Bostock. London: Merlin.

    Originally written in 1914. Lukács was the first to identify in Marx’s writings a systematic philosophy of aesthetics. This book tries to develop a theory of meaning as much as it does a theory of the novel. Although Lukács later repudiated his text and reworked his literary ideas in The Historical Novel twenty years later, The theory of the novel remains an important text for understanding the development of Marxist aesthetics.

  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1974. The German ideology. 2d ed. Edited by C. J. Arthur. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

    Originally published in 1846. Marx’s ideas about art are developed in different texts over a period of several years. The fine arts, he argued, are a privilege of the ruling classes because they have the money and leisure time to produce and enjoy them. Also influential, particularly on later studies of cultural consumption and status, is Marx’s argument that the aesthetic content of art reflects the set of social class relationships from which they arise.

  • Simmel, Georg. 2005. Rembrandt: An essay in the philosophy of art. Translated and edited by Alan Scott and Helmut Staubmann. New York and London: Routledge and Taylor.

    Originally published in 1916. For Simmel, art can only be understood properly when it is situated in the entire matrix of life’s relationships, built environment, ideas, language, and other processes and rituals seemingly unconnected with art. In Rembrandt, Simmel’s interest is in developing the philosophical essence of Rembrandt and connecting it to the theme of inner life, creativity, and human action.

  • Zolberg, Vera. 1990. Constructing a sociology of the arts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511557712

    In this foundational text, Zolberg assesses various sociological approaches to the study of artists and artworks and develops her own approach in which the individual creative process is a vital part of the overall structure of the art world. The book is important for its incisive analysis and empirical breadth, including sections on how artists’ careers develop, why artistic styles change, and what impact the public audience, collectors, and curators have on artists’ choices.

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