This month had me continue reading the canonical sociologists of art. After Niklas Luhmann, who I conversed with in my last blog, I undertook the task of reading Pierre Bourdieu’s Rules of Art and his engagement with the notion of the artistic field, which is constituted in the struggles of those belonging to such a field.
Of course, the first thing that pops into my mind, is the football field. This is not only the result of the relative dominance football enjoys in popular culture, but also the relatively active engagement I had in such fields as I was a kid growing up in 1990s, early noughties Iceland. But of course, an artistic field is nothing like a football field. Right? I mean there is no geometric, or staked-out space, that we can exactly measure to define the positions Bourdieu has in mind when conceptualizing the struggle in the field of the arts?
Of course, this reified notion of a field, might very much betray what the field of football actually is. As we well know, football is far from being only what happens within a set time, within a set field. It is also what is at stake when the ownership structure of Newcastle United, for example, changes, or these days as the Icelandic Football Association deals with the fallout of reports and charges of sexual assaults committed by several members of the national team. In fact, the field Bourdieu has in mind, may just as well apply to the world of football — it is constituted by relations between people that belong to the field, the production or activity that these people undertake and the various institutions that facilitate those activities.
But this is of course, a very, very, very abstract definition of what a field might be. How is it possible to put flesh to a notion such as this, and how is one’s own position within one or more fields constitutive of the field one undertakes to describe? How, in particular, is it possible to purport to see the limits of an artistic field and discern between what belongs to the field and what not? Are there those that belong to the field but would choose rather not to? And what about all of those that would love to belong to the field but do not? Of course, Bourdieu is careful to discuss in most detail a field lost to time, the literary field in which Gustave Flaubert found himself in 19th century Paris. No one who belonged to the field at that time are likely to return to exercise their position in the field. But is the field really a concept that one can use in respect to contemporary practices in any substantive sense?