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The Sociology of the Performing Arts
This field involves the study of the social context of theater, motion pictures, drama, music, dance, and opera. The performing arts are distinguished from the visual arts such as painting, sculpture, and photography since they are expressed somatically, using the artist’s own body, face, and/or presence as a medium. The performing arts also differ from the plastic arts, which use material objects such as clay, metal, or paint, which can be molded or transformed to create some art object. Of course, this distinction is not absolute since the performing arts often involve some form of plastic art, such as props and scenery. For example, modern dance uses space like any other three-dimensional object made of wood or clay by occupying it, relating to it, and influencing the perception of it (Ness 2004:137).
Current research in the sociology of the performing arts provides a systematic way to study the performing arts as a social process wedding art, culture, emotion, and the body as part of the systematic study of society. Empirical studies focusing on the social context of art forms focus on the different aspects of either production or consumption processes (Gornostaeva 2004:92). For example, opera combines elements of singing and dancing while employing visual arts, such as painting, to create a visual spectacle on the stage. Whether the words, the music, or dance movements are paramount has been the subject of debate for several centuries. For example, theatrical dancing was originally embedded in opera, gradually becoming a separate art form in the late eighteenth century after audiences began to attend ballet as performance separate from rather than within opera.
Sociological aspects of the performing arts include all those elements pertaining to the performing arts as a social and cultural phenomenon. Currently, research on these aspects is concentrated in anthropology, but there is a growing interest by sociologists in considering the performing arts as social institutions. Sociological research on the performing arts ranges from trying to formulate an understanding of the social roots of artistic production, distribution, and consumption to work on the relationship between arts institutions and audiences or communities (Griswold 1986; DiMaggio 1987; Zolberg 1990). This area also overlaps with American pragmatism and symbolic interactionist theoretical interests in the political aspects of interactive performance as empowerment leading to participatory democracy (Denzin 2003). Sociology has always had an uneasy relationship with studying the particular, but recent developments in sociological theory, particularly postmodernist articulations of the authenticity of personal experience, has opened up a dialogue between those concerned with objective formulations (structural functionalism, conflict theory, and exchange theory) and those theories explaining subjective experiences, including symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, and ethnomethdology (Gornostaeva 2004:91–92). Finally, the sociology of the performing arts offers a way to better understand the inherent contradictions of structure and agency. This essay will provide a general overview of the subfield of the sociology of the performing arts and conclude with a discussion of the insights this area offers for sociology in general.
The Performing Arts in Society
Sociology of the performing arts is a subtopic of “art and society” that emerged as a specialized field in the 1950s (Wilson 1964; Weil and Hartley 1975). This topic explores the relationship between social processes and creative artists and is concerned with a wide variety of aesthetic products, including literature, the visual arts, and music (Alexander 2003). This area is particularly concerned with the social institution of theater, especially in how it relates to music (DeNora 2003), dance (Thomas 1995), and opera (Evans 1999).
The sociology of the performing arts is by its very nature interdisciplinary, drawing scholars from a variety of fields in both the humanities and social sciences. Most recently, in 1999, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) launched a multidisciplinary initiative to foster a social science investigation of the arts (Liben and Szechter 2002:385). This program was broadly aimed at developing social science interest and scholarship on the arts and to bring social science theory and methods to bear on a broad range of issues in the arts, including the individual experience of art, the social, historical, and economic context of that experience, and cultural policy.
This SSRC initiative, led by the pioneering sociologist of art, Howard Becker, builds on his previous work on the sociology of art, Art Worlds (1982), which examines the social production of art, particularly painting. His seminal works nevertheless pertains to analyzing the performing arts since he initially recognized that art is a collective process, in how it is produced and consumed, regardless of form. Becker demystified the arts as “miraculous revelations” making them “objects for naturalistic analysis” (Zolberg 1990:2). In doing so, Becker’s work led to the growing interest in the arts as an area of inquiry by social scientists.
Zolberg (1990:29) argues that sociologists have generally neglected the arts as an area of inquiry due to the positivistic nature of American sociology that came to dominate the overall discipline of sociology for several decades. This neglect is also partially related to the fact that sociologists judged the arts as being of far less importance than other issues for their professional concerns and consequently allocated them little space in sociology. The reason the arts are taken more seriously now by sociologists, as well as the general public, is due to (1) their increased subsidization by the state, (2) the collapse of the boundaries between “fine art” and “popular art,” and (3) “mainstream recognition of art previously marginalized, such as the arts of women, ‘amateurs,’ and minorities” (p. 30).
This renewed scholarly interest in the arts is also related to the concerns of sociology’s founding as a discipline in the nineteenth century that prioritized rationality and disembodiment over emotions and the body. The predominance of interest in rationality also led to the overall devaluation of performing arts as an academic concern. These tendencies have been gradually replaced by a growing general interest in taking seriously the embodiment of experience as part of sociological inquiry.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1984) laid the theoretical foundations to challenge conceptions of the body as a mere object by focusing on “the relationships between personal identity, the human body and social practices” (Wainwright and Turner 2004:100). Bourdieu’s theoretical insights are particularly important in grounding embodiment with sociological analysis (Turner 1992; Fowler 1997, 2000) in arguing for a new understanding of the body as an agent actively involved in world making and in the production of thought and knowledge.
This section will emphasize dance since the performing arts are primarily expressed somatically, using the artist’s own body as the primary means of expression. Dance also often incorporates other elements of theater, such as a stage and accompanying music. Sociological interest in the performing arts has been marginalized due to its association with emotions and the body rather than rationality and the mind. Prior to the mid-1970s, “sociologists who were interested in the arts . . . were situated on the margins of the discipline . . . ‘often considered eccentric and dilettantish’” (Thomas 1995:18). This is due, in part, to the mind/body dualism in Western culture that dates back to Descartes who articulated the essence of the human subject as constituted through the mind. This privileging of the rational thinking subject has placed the mind in binary opposition to the body, constructing it as a nonverbal object or voiceless ‘other.’ Since the performing arts, especially dance, largely depend on the body, it has led to them not being viewed as legitimate areas of sociological interest.
The Cartesian mind/body dualism was incorporated into the emerging discipline of sociology in the nineteenth century. Sociology focused on problems of modernity; trying to understand the processes of rationalization associated with the rise of industrial society and the development of science. The social role of the performing arts diminished in general and their relevance to human experience was reduced to either psychological or aesthetic aspects. These processes of rationalization that prioritized the intellectual occurred even as the body was becoming the main instrument in capitalist production (Brinson 1983a:104). The general decline in the legitimacy of emotions in industrial society was not limited to the arts alone but also to the general relevancy of ritual and religion (Thomas 1995:9). Even when the arts were considered as a social fact, as by Max Weber (1958) in The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, interest was focused on its relationship to processes of rationalization in modernity. The hierarchy of reason mandated that anything pertaining to aesthetic experiences would be an object, not a subject, of sociological inquiry.
Scholarship on the sociology of dance begins with work published by Hammond and Hammond (1979, 1989), Brinson (1983a, 1983b), and Thomas (1995). Hammond and Hammond (1979) apply Weber’s ideas on rationalization to analyze changes in ballet technique that gradually increased the physical demand on dancer’s capacity for linear extension in the use of the legs and arms. Furthermore, this increased range of motion was accompanied by an unprecedented “fleetness and precision” due to the “toothpick” ideal ballerina body (Hammond and Hammond 1979:601). As ballet became more technically demanding, its aesthetic changed, dancers became lighter, longer, and leaner.
This approach toward historicizing ballet in terms of the development of its technique rather than “dominant performances and personalities” (Hammond and Hammond 1989:15) provided a basis of comparison with technical developments in the other performing arts as well as other areas (Van Delinder 2003, 2005a, 2005b). The technical history of ballet “exhibits a discernable order, an accumulative character” (Hammond and Hammond 1979:602), a process of rationalization that is generally characteristic of modernity. However, after Weber, rationality is not a uniform process; it proceeds at different rates in different institutional spheres.
In 1983, British dance scholar Peter Brinson (1983a) outlined some initial scholastic tasks toward a more coherent sociology of dance. Brinson thought that the recent intellectual interest in culture laid some promising theoretical groundwork to begin systematically examining the relevance of dance in industrial society (p. 101). Conceptualizing dance as a “social fact” Brinson argued that “dance can be as much a social response to human experience as it can be psychological or aesthetic, and we need to study the nature of that social response” (p. 104). Dance rituals are an integral part of national cultural identities, ranging from ballroom dancing being used as social education to reinforce traditional attitudes and customs to being used “to develop community action and strength” in public protests in a variety of places, including Western Europe and South America (p. 104).
Brinson also argues that dance is a part of collective experience, an expression of community that fills a void in industrial society. As a mode of nonverbal communication, dance is one way to integrate the arts back into society without worrying about language barriers. The bias toward literacy in industrial society led to the devaluation of dance as a mode of communication (Brinson 1983b:60). What makes dance interesting is its ability to communicate emotions and feelings that accompany ideas. In addition, dance fills an aesthetic, political, and social value (i.e., dances of national identity reflect the body politic). Thomas (1995) formulated a more comprehensive sociology of dance partially as a response to its neglect as an area of concern by sociologists. Thomas also points out that although dance is “bound up with the processes of gender roles and identification,” it has been largely overlooked by many feminist scholars (pp. 4–5). What is particularly puzzling is why dance has not been taken seriously by feminists since it has long been the target of “negative puritanical sexual connotations,” thus making it rich material to explore in terms of race and gender representations in contemporary society (p. 5).
Looking more generally at themes of embodiment, contemporary sociological theories of embodiment beginning with Mauss ( 1973), Goffman (1959, 1971, 1979), and Bourdieu (1990) focus on understanding social action as performance or performing ‘bodily presentation’ of largely unconscious cues communicating meaning to others. An example of this overlap between dance theorists and sociologists is Morris (2001:56) who notes the similarities between the way dancers use their bodies as art and Mauss’s early interest in “everyday movement, such as the social construction of walking or shoveling,” latter followed up by Goffman’s attention to the embodiment of communication, particularly at the level of the unconscious. Finally, Bourdieu’s corporal theory weds Mauss’s anthropological sensitivity toward materiality of human culture and Goffman’s more nuanced conceptual understanding of bodily movement. Bourdieu’s (1990) notion of bodily hexis is a “political mythology realized, embodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable way of standing, speaking, walking and thereby feeling and thinking.” Bourdieu argues that the body, as separate from the mind, constitutes a type of intelligence, a physicality long appreciated by dancers (Foster 1996:15) and other performing artists.
One fruitful avenue of inquiry combining these different approaches from sociology and the humanities would be to examine the objectification of the female body in modern ballet. In the early twentieth century ballet became less representational and more abstract; ballets became movement of the body in space rather than conveying emotions or a character in a story. The female body that was further objectified as an androgynous ideal of the body became synonymous with a “ballet body.” This transformation of women’s bodies in modern ballet is similar to other processes of modernity that resulted in the domination, subjection, and finally objectification of the individual self or personality through technical innovation.
In the world of ballet, choreographers like George Balanchine adopted modernist notions of regularity, consistency, and predictability, making the choreographer, not the dancer, in control of the dancer’s movements. This process also resulted in women’s bodies being transformed and regulated, not only in ballet but also in other spheres, such as the home. Balanchine’s carefully measured and precise choreography in ballets like Apollo (1928), The Four Temperaments (1946), and Agon (1957) resulted in the appropriation of the dancer’s autonomy and control over individual artistic expression (Van Delinder 2005b). The result of this was the production of disciplined, objective female bodies whose subjectivity was constituted, or made, by the choreographer (Van Delinder 2005a).
At the same time, these changes in ballet were taking place concurrently with other structural changes to the nature of modern work. Synott (1992:97) argues, “constructions of the body, particularly in matters of gender and race, were in flux.”As Thomas (1995) argues, even in the highly structured work world of ballet, female dancers “often confronted conventional (patriarchal) representations of women’s bodies through their expansive use of space and their attire” (Thomas 1995:5). The twentieth century also saw the emergence of the modern dance movement, which was mostly led by women. This is an area that has only been recently noticed by sociologists (Thomas 1995, 2003).
Contradictions of Aesthetic Experiences and Rationality
Sociology of the performing arts also provides a vocabulary and framework to examine how social reality generally is constantly being organized and reorganized. First, by focusing on the embodiment of action, it draws attention to how “actors produce themselves as identifiable agents and how this production is achieved through ‘aesthetic reflexive’practices” (DeNora 2003:91). Second, it acknowledges the importance of the emotions, particularly aesthetic experiences, which have been largely lost in modernity. Interest in the body as content (Foster 1996; Morris 2001) rather than as the passive recipient of discipline (Foucault 1979) has been accompanied by recent interest in the idea of renewal of social life as a “performance” (Denzin 2003).
Research in the sociology of the performing arts incorporates both referential (objective, cognitive) and emotive (subjective, expressive) analysis. For example, Jordan and Thomas (1994) offer an important insight into how dance can be studied in this way. In discussing Balanchine’s 1947 ballet The Four Temperaments, the ballet can be discussed as an extrinsic form representing “existing gender relations in the ‘real world’ outside the dance . . . a symmetry between the dancer’s movements and the ways in which women are subordinated by the ‘male gaze’ or look” in patriarchal society (Jordan and Thomas 1994:7). While dancers would focus on its subjective elements, “on the intrinsic, structural and connotative features of a dance work” rendering its “referential function . . . subservient to the aesthetic dimension where the focus is on the symbol which is self-referring, as opposed to the sign which is concerned with denotation” (Jordan and Thomas 1994:7–8). Thinking of dance just in terms of its referential characteristics, one would miss what is going on in the moment of the dance performance, or as Becker (2001) says one would miss “the work of art as a thing to be appreciated in itself and for itself, for what it is just by existing” (p. 1). But then the question becomes how to reconcile these two opposing tendencies?
One way this question has been addressed is by the immediate and the consequential aspects of Dewey’s ( 1988d) consummatory experience. The immediacy part of experience is at the level of the individual artist’s creative energy (pp. 188–189). The other aspect of experience—the consequential—provides a relationship between the individual artist to some type of continuum beginning with the past and leading forward into the future. Consummatory experience is the vehicle through which the artist’s power captures for a moment—if only fleeting—the integration of the definite (finite or immediate) with the indefinite (infinite or illimitable). Dewey suggests that the way to resolve this “problematic situation . . . [of] . . . incompatibility between the traits of an object in its direct individual and unique nature and those traits that belong to it in its relations or continuities” is to incorporate the immediacy of individuality suggested by the consummatory with the consequential (p. 189).
The inherent dualisms of Western philosophy mentioned earlier in this essay first led Dewey to search for a possible way to value immediacy (ecstatic) within the context of rationality. Intrigued by the power of the arts to evoke “simply [the aesthetic] experience itself, having experiences at their best and at their fullest,” Dewey’s interest led him to investigate the arts (painting as well as dance) as a potential way to achieve a balance between the conscious and the unconscious, reason and emotion and, thereby, unify the mind/body dualism that had been split asunder by modernity.
In Art as Experience, Dewey (1934) argues that aesthetics had become an experience separated from the daily living, or what Dewey terms “the practical.” To approach the problem of integrating the aesthetic experience into everyday life, he undertook a historical analysis of the arts (Dewey [1938–1939] 1988a, [1938–1939] 1988b, [1929–1930] 1988c, [1938–1939] 1988d,  1988e). This analysis led him to the conclusion that the arts were a collectivity with the potential to create a shared aesthetic appreciation between the artist and their art as well as the art object and the viewer. Dewey’s interest in the arts was related to his overall search for suitable tactics in creating participatory democracy. Dewey recognized that the arts had the capacity to evoke a consummatory experience with “the characteristics of the human experiences that have the quality . . . we call esthetic” (Dewey [1938–1939] 1988d:358). The value of consummatory experience, evoked aesthetically, is in its ability to create an immediacy that has largely been lost in modernity: “Moments of intense emotional appreciation when . . . the beauty and harmony of existence is disclosed in experiences which are the immediate consummation of all for which we long” (Dewey  1988e:241). The power of the aesthetic experience was something Dewey sought to bring down to the level of everyday life and integrate it into the consequential order of experience.
Echoing Dewey’s sentiments, Denzin (2003:187) recently invited “symbolic interactionists to think through the practical, progressive politics of a performative cultural studies . . . [in order to create] . . . an emancipatory discourse connecting critical pedagogy with new ways of writing and performing culture” (p. 187). The genealogy of this emancipatory discourse can be traced back to Mead’s (1938:460) initial model of the act as “discursive and performative,” opening the way to understand performance as imitation (Goffman 1959), liminality or construction (Turner 1986), and as motion or movement (Conquergood 1998; Denzin 2003:187). These three dimensions of performance—imitation, construction, and movement— outline the emancipatory discourse of gender and race, which is one of the most promising directions for the sociology of performing arts.
Over a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois (1903) addressed the problem of the color line in American society as being enacted using “definitions and meanings of blackness . . . intricately linked to issues of theatre and performance” (Denzin 2003:188). Du Bois recognized that an all-black theater was one way for blacks to assert agency and start to combat racism and white privilege. Du Bois’s (1926) idea of politicizing race by performing it as radical theater (Elam 2001) was also carried out by dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham (Perpener 2001; Aschenbrenner 2002). Noting the lack of dance venues featuring African dance or other cultural forms of the African Diaspora in New York of the 1920s, Dunham began to create both dancers and audiences for these forgotten cultural practices based on her anthropological research in the Caribbean and Africa. Dunham’s pedagogy, later called the Dunham Technique, fused African and European cultures to create a new, modern style of moving. The staging of her choreography challenged her largely white audiences to confront non-European culture and social issues facing African Americans in the United States. As a dancer and choreographer on Broadway and in Hollywood films, Dunham opened doors for future generations of black choreographers and dancers to celebrate their African heritage, encouraging greater understanding of the African Diaspora cultures (Emery 1988). As a teacher, she promoted the study and preservation of these Diaspora dances not as museum pieces but to foster crosscultural communication of ideas and knowledge. Through theater and dance performances, black Americans attempted to “break through ‘sedimented’ meanings and normative traditions” (Denzin 2003:188).
The binary discourses that racialize bodies as black or white also engender them as male or female (Butler 1993; Banes 1998). Transgressive performances of race and gender also provide ways to blur the boundaries enacted by civil restraint. For example, contesting gender identities creates “spaces for a queer politics of resistance” (Denzin 2003:190).
Using the bodily techniques of theater to transcend conventional understandings of race and gender has also been used to engage in praxis or political empowerment. The potential of performance tactics to disrupt the hegemony of the bourgeoisie developed along with democratizing effects of the mass media in the early twentieth century. Walter Benjamin ( 1976) saw the possibility to wrestle control of the production of ideology using technological developments in photography (in both still photography and in moving pictures). Using cameras, the masses now had the tools to demystify art by being able to mechanically reproduce it; they also had the ability to disrupt the bourgeois sense of time through film techniques of reordering the presumed linear sequence of reality. Benjamin’s interest in generally disrupting the performance of consumption enacted through the street life of Paris’Arcades was later elaborated on and enacted through the situationist praxis of Guy Debord (1967), selfproclaimed leader of the Situationist International. Debord recognized performance and performing as transmuting everything that had once been real and directly lived into a representational shadow or what Baudrillard (1988, 2005) would later term hyperreality.
Sociology of the Performing Arts in the 21st Century
The sociology of the performing arts promises to be a rich area of inquiry in the twenty-first century. As an emerging subfield, the sociology of the performing arts touches on many core themes of sociological theory, the rise of modernity and its accompanying processes of rationalization. The sociology of the performing arts can broaden our understanding of the social context of theater, motion pictures, drama, music, dance, and opera. The relevance of the performing arts as part of, rather than separate from, social life is discussed in recent research on the significance of opera (Evans 1999), particularly its overlooked role in political activism (Stamatov 2002). The “cultural objects” studied in the sociology of the performing arts (dance, opera, theater) also contribute to a better understanding of how they, as all the arts, are part of a social system (Luhmann 2000). Studies on the transnational careers of ballet dancers can lead to a better understanding of the global context of artistic work and the realization that ballet companies, like other artistic fields, “are social worlds with their own power dynamics, yet subordinated to larger power structures in society” (Wulff 1998:33).
Research on the social context of London theater has led to the development of the cultural diamond conceptual tool helping us to understand the complex social relationships between art, society, creators, and consumers (Griswold 1986, 1994). As a heuristic device, the cultural diamond sharpens our understanding of “any cultural object’s relationship to the social world” (Griswold 1994:15).
In addition, viewing the performing arts as a “sequence of events” offers new opportunities to alter our understanding of time, conceiving it as an unfolding process by innovative thrusts in technique and form (Luhmann 2000:21, 228). This helps us appreciate the fluidity of social reality as no longer being fixed as either in time or space. The performing arts “depend on light—a visual medium—whereas the lyric, like narrative (the epic, the novel) relies on language” (p. 116).
Finally, by integrating and understanding theories of performance and the body in terms of the politics of resistance in participatory democracy (West 1989), it helps us to avoid nihilism or meaninglessness of human activity—since the performing arts are human aesthetic activity defined by the meaning of the participants and observers—while retaining a focus on the immediate and the local. Further research on cultural objects of the performing arts will also continue to remind us not to lose sight of how the individual or particular are embedded in macrosocial processes.
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