A Product of Culture: Sociologically Deconstructing the Myth
While walking through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam this past summer, I was awed by the magnificent exhibits. In particular, I was mesmerized by Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch, prominently displayed and considered to be one of the world’s most famous paintings. I could not help but revel in its beauty and in Rembrandt’s pure genius. As I sat on the floor, looking at the painting and falling into a stupor, I wondered how Rembrandt was able to paint such a masterpiece. Did Rembrandt just wake up one day and paint this extraordinary work? Could it really be that Rembrandt simply had a moment of inspiration and voila, out came The Night Watch? Does this painting represent the romantic myth of the artist?
Before continuing any further, it is necessary to take a step back and clarify our terms. Art generally finds itself categorized under “culture.” In this regard, art is akin to the opera or the playhouse. However, in sociology, culture is a far more elastic term; culture refers to forms of meaning through symbolic media, like language. Culture represents the expressive aspects of human experience. It is an abstraction from greater society, the patterning of social relations. Culture connotes any form of meaning, which certainly includes high artistic achievement, but also includes ideas, values, religion, aesthetics, science, art, and so on.
Max Weber believed that in modern society the unification of culture disappears and independent value-spheres emerge.1 One such value-sphere that emerges is the art-world, an autonomous value-sphere, which creates meaning in social life for those closely involved in the creation, dissemination and appreciation of art. This art-world can be visualized or mapped as four concentric circles building upon one another. In the very small center, there are the artists and their social networks. In the second, slightly-larger circle, there are art critics. In the third circle, which is even larger than the second circle, there are art consumers. Finally, the fourth circle, which is the largest of them all, contains the interested public.
Let us now deconstruct the myth of the artist. In this context, deconstruction refers to an analysis that ends up questioning the consequences of what is being analyzed. Many would like you to believe in an ideology of artistic production, which claims that artwork is the sole product of a moment of genius or inspiration by the artist, the innermost circle. Art advertisers, museums, collectors and, perhaps, the artists themselves, the third circle, often promote this romantic fantasy, for it heightens the value and accomplishments of a painting or artist; it helps create an allure. Admittedly, as a member of the fourth circle, I was sucked into this trap when first looking at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.
In reality, as longtime Northwestern professor of sociology Howard Becker points out, creating a work of art is a long and mundane process.2 “All artistic work, like all human activity, involves the joint activity of a number, often a large number of people,” working together diligently over extended periods of time.3 Artists are dependent on cooperative links and social networks in addition to their basic supplies (such as the canvas or oil paints) necessary to fashion a work of art. “The artist’s involvement with and dependence on cooperative links thus constrains the kind of work he can produce.”4 All of this therefore suggests that art can be distinctly sociological, for sociology in its most basic form is the study of social causes and consequences of human behavior. Consequently, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, commissioned by the Amsterdam Archers Guild and completed in 1642, is the product of the artist’s genius combined with the social processes of daily life incumbent on any work of art.
1 Weber, Max. Essays in Sociology. Ed. H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.
2 Becker, Howard. Art Worlds. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.
3 Becker, ibid., p. 1
4 Becker, ibid., p. 26