Cultural Gatekeepers Research Paper

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It is argued here that the expertise of cultural gatekeepers does not pertain to the identification of those intrinsic properties that make cultural products into works of art. The expertise of cultural gatekeepers rather consists in following procedures that enable them to classify cultural products according to genre and to rank them according to quality. The use of these group-bound procedures enhances the chance that proposed classifications and evalutations will meet agreement from other gatekeepers. Empirical research has clarified the nature and effects of procedures used by gatekeepers, in particular by literary critics. These procedures seem to be endogenous to the institution of criticism, thereby suggesting its autonomy from other realms of society. However, when other cultural gatekeepers are taken into account, e.g., publishers, and when questions are posed about the content and value they attribute to cultural products, the procedures involved in this process manifest a complex interplay between a specific cultural sector and other fields of society. The autonomy of the cultural sector from other social sectors is relative in nature. All labels attached to cultural products, referring to their content, genre or value, are multidimensional in nature. What is to be understood by the value various parties attach to cultural products calls for cooperation between sociologists and economists: the former can profit from their insights into the nature of the procedures followed by cultural gatekeepers; the latter have their sophisticated analyses of value (‘utility’) to offer.

1. The Traditional View Of Cultural Gatekeepers’ Expertise

Cultural gatekeepers—reviewers, publishers, gallery owners, film producers—occupy institutional positions between cultural producers and consumers. They determine which products cross the boundary between the private and the public domains, and when this boundary is crossed, they propose classifications and evaluations of the products that are included in cultural repertoires. Gatekeepers are credited with having professional expertise on what makes cultural products into works of art.

Giving or denying access to the public sphere is an eminently social task, yet the social sciences have been slow in developing a general perspective on what gatekeepers do, the conditions under which they operate, their practices, and their impact on the reputations of cultural products and their makers. One of the reasons why cultural gatekeepers have remained so long outside the scope of the social sciences is that, for centuries, cultural expertise has been believed to pertain to the intrinsic properties on the basis of which an individual cultural product may count as a work of art. This is an instance of ‘charismatic ideology’, to use a term coined by Bourdieu and Darbel (1969, p. 161). According to this ideology, works of art have the power to convince any rational being of their particular nature (i.e., that of being a work of art), and of their quality. If works of art can induce by themselves the recognition of their nature and quality, they must have specific characteristics which are lacking in other cultural products. The expertise of gatekeepers is believed to consist essentially in the ability to identify those intrinsic characteristics that induce the judgment that we are dealing with works of art.

However, as far as cultural gatekeepers are concerned, it is extremely hard to identify sets of general and firmly established procedures for interpreting or judging a poem, a movie, or a painting; similarly, there seem to be no clear-cut procedures by which works of art are classified as having a ‘style’ in common, or as differing from one another in this respect. In light of the charismatic ideology, the question of what procedures cultural gatekeepers use seems to lose its urgency: If one believes that works of art have persuasive powers, and if one believes that each work of art is unique, then it seems useless to suppose that the successful distinction between cultural products that belong to the respective domains of ‘art’ and ‘nonart’ requires explicit, let alone general, procedures.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the study of the arts developed into specialized academic disciplines. As a result, the question of which procedures should be observed in order to arrive at sound conclusions became preeminent. Literature offers a key example, for among the human sciences, the study of literature has produced the largest number of approaches to what counts as its central object of research, the literary text. Russian Formalism, Czech Structuralism, New Criticism, Jakobson’s linguistic poetics, reception aesthetics, and narratology are cases in point, not to mention Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, and deconstructivist studies of literature—all of which encompass a considerable number of widely diverging approaches. The privileged position of literature in secondary education has facilitated the proliferation of valuative procedures. Young students are initiated into how to ‘appreciate’ a nation’s great literary works, and to a much lesser extent into appreciation for a nation’s great movies, paintings, or musical compositions. The assessment of the value of the canonical works is constantly adapted to the needs of new generations.

In the recent past, two parallel, but mutually independent, developments have undercut the idea that cultural gatekeepers’ expertise essentially pertains to those intrinsic properties that endow cultural products with the specific nature and quality of works of art. First, researchers have come to the view that value judgments are not statements which can be shown to be true or false. Moreover, they cannot be derived logically from descriptive or analytical statements to which the true false distinction applies. Instead, any logical derivation of an evaluative statement from a descriptive one involves an appeal to ‘institutional facts’, i.e., to constitutive rules embodying norms and obligations to which one is committed (cf. Searle 1970, p. 175ff.). This has contributed to adopting a relativistic attitude towards values, in that they were seen as beliefs or views that are endorsed (or not) by specific social groups. A sociological approach to norms and values, and, in particular, to the value laden distinction between ‘art’ and ‘non-art’ became urgent. It soon became a viable option because Bourdieu’s work offered a framework within which the adjudication of ‘symbolic value’ to products, i.e., value deemed to be specifically cultural in nature, could be assessed empirically.

The second development, which made Bourdieu’s views a viable alternative for research done in the humanities, was the extensive discussion of the methodological status of interpretations of literary texts and other forms of cultural expression. Again taking literature as the exemplary case, the outcome of this discussion showed literary criticism, as practiced in newspapers, in literary magazines, and at universities, to be linked tightly to normative conceptions of literature, i.e., to mostly implicit ideas about the characteristics a text should have in order to count as a form of literature (Verdaasdonk 1979, Van Rees 1986). In consequence of this, critics’ statements about literary texts cannot be regarded as assessments of intrinsic properties these texts possess. Their statements show an inextricable mixture of classificatory and valuative aims (cf. Verdaasdonk 1994, 2001). It should be emphasized that not only literary criticism, but all studies of art and culture current in the humanities suffer from a similar lack of clear and reliable procedures for identifying properties that are supposed to make cultural products into works of art.

2. Empirical Research On Gatekeepers’ Adjudication Of Value To Cultural Products

Bourdieu (1980) offers a comprehensive view of what critics, reviewers and cultural gatekeepers do in dealing with cultural products. The questions Bourdieu (1980) addresses are: What constitutes the authority of cultural gatekeepers? What factors affect the consensus they attain on the nature and value of cultural products? How do gatekeepers interact with one another in this process? Under what conditions do gatekeepers have an impact on audiences of art and culture?

In deciding that a product counts as a work of art, gatekeepers assign ‘symbolic value’ to it, thereby setting it apart from the set of products to which they refuse to give artistic status. Evidently, gatekeepers act as representatives of cultural institutions, such as criticism, publishing houses, movie studios, theaters, concert halls, etc. This largely accounts for the legitimacy of their decisions: as representatives of specific institutions, gatekeepers are seen—and see themselves—as being endowed with expertise that is socially acknowledged. However, Bourdieu stresses that this form of legitimacy is not sufficient in itself: gatekeepers may criticize decisions made by their counterparts; and critics and reviewers often have sharply contrasting opinions about the nature and value of particular cultural products. Gatekeepers’ authority adds strongly to the legitimacy their decisions have in the eyes of other gatekeepers. Bourdieu holds that gatekeepers’ authority essentially is the credit they have earned by making previous successful decisions—decisions that were adopted by their fellow gatekeepers. Authority is a reputation for success: it is belie ed that authoritative gatekeepers will be as successful in the future as they were in the past in discovering and promoting artists and their work. In this view, authority is not thought to be based on a successful determination of those intrinsic properties that account for the artistic status of cultural products; authority is rather conceptualized as the impact of a gatekeeper’s stances on those of others.

Consensus formation among reviewers and critics about the value of cultural products, and the interaction these gatekeepers engage in, have been taken up by researchers. So far, the nature of gatekeepers’ expertise and their relations with audiences have received much less attention.

Many researchers have taken a closer look at the forms of institutionally determined behavior that gatekeepers manifest in attuning their selections to those of their counterparts. It has been found that they strongly agree on which products have to be regarded as being of superior quality; and, conversely, they attain much less agreement about how to classify and to characterize individual products. New literary releases that in the majority of newspapers were hailed as ‘important’ stand a much better chance of becoming, after a certain period of time, objects of scholarly attention (Verdaasdonk 1983). This suggests that, in the course of time, the selections made by a first group of gatekeepers are taken over by other groups of gatekeepers—with a certain amount of downsizing of the choices that were made previously. Van Rees (1983) has argued that reviewers in newspapers, critics in literary magazines, and academic scholars act as three successive filters through which, gradually, a repertoire of ‘important’ literary works is established. Ultimately, this repertoire enters the literature curriculum of secondary schools. The universities seem to follow the selections made by the scientifically less prestigious institutions of newspapers and literary magazines. Such research suggests that consensus formation among reviewers and critics is a process that is strongly reproductive in nature: Previous selections shape subsequent choices.

Do gatekeepers, in composing repertoires of noteworthy products, characterize them in the same way? This seems doubtful. Critics classify books, movies. paintings, etc. as having a certain ‘style’ or ‘content’ in common. De Nooy (1993) found that such classifications do not cross the borders of one single institution. The classifications which, in the 1970s, reviewers and critics proposed of the recent Dutch literary production appeared to be unknown to other gatekeepers, such as booksellers, librarians, and teachers of literature. De Nooy performed network analyses on these classifications and came to the conclusion that the groupings of authors were based on the specific magazines and publishing houses that featured these authors—although the critics held firmly that stylistic and thematic analogies, and differences between the texts concerned, provided the basis for their clustering.

The ‘production of culture’ perspective, advocated by Peterson (1976, 1985), holds that ‘the nature and content of symbolic products […] are significantly shaped by the social, legal and economic milieux in which they are created, marketed, purchased and evaluated’ (Peterson 1985, p. 46). This view is fully congenial to Bourdieu’s approach. However, posing questions about gatekeepers’ behavior other than those addressed by Bourdieu, leads to different assessments of the interaction between factors which are thought to be ‘endogenic’ or ‘exogenous’ to specific cultural institutions, and to a fresh view on the nature of such factors. In their study of the American publishing industry, Coser et al. (1982, p. 146) found that, in judging book proposals or manuscripts, there were systematic differences between editors according to the type of publishing house where they were employed: Fewer than half of the university press editors or commercial scholarly editors rated profit- ability or commercial prospects as the most important factor; in contrast, more than 60 percent of both textbook and trade editors listed commercial prospects as the single most important consideration. Trade and college editors are more concerned with first-year profitability, while scholarly editors pay more attention to long-term commercial success. Here, organizational differences affect the weight and the nature of judgments of quality and profitability, and of their interrelations. For these gatekeepers, ‘denials of the economy’, to use Bourdieu’s term, are less possible than for gatekeepers deciding on a product’s artistic status.

When questions about content are posed—the content of cultural products or of what gatekeepers say about them—the nature of the factors that seem ‘endogenous’ to the cultural sector and of those that seem ‘exogenous’ to it will shift. Griswold (1981) notes that after the USA recognized international copyright agreements in 1891, the themes of trade novels showed a strong convergence. American publishers did not concentrate any more on English novels about love and domestic life that could be obtained free of rights; American authors did not compete any more with these novels, by treating other themes that could also appeal to a large audience. Economic viability appears to be a major factor shaping the fare trade publishers brought out at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The cultural sector offers a huge and rapidly changing supply of products. Audiences also change—in size and composition. In many Western countries, an increase of participation in higher education has led to a growth and a refined segmentation of the audiences of art and culture. Of course, this has an impact on the behavior of gatekeepers. Cameron (1995) observes that classical music is marketed now by record companies as a mass consumption good. A number of marketing ploys has been used to reduce the entry barriers for consumers. One of these ploys is to provide excerpts of classical works. A free CD featuring these excerpts is distributed together with a magazine which reviews the CD in nontechnical language. This represents a change in the function of criticism and in its major task: The adjudication of symbolic value to cultural products. Cameron (1995, p. 328) says: ‘The aesthetic dimension remains in the product but consumption is increased despite it.’ In this example, the awareness of the market place takes a form that is very different from that envisioned by Bourdieu.

3. Perspectives On Future Research

As the above discussion shows, considerable progress has been made in pinpointing factors affecting the behavior of cultural gatekeepers. However, most models are ‘static’ in that they do not account for the impact of time on interactions between dependent and independent variables. Gatekeepers’ activities encompass a considerable period of time; their decisions are conditional on previous ones. Audiences change, as do the factors—and their interactions—that have impact on the production of cultural objects, and on their classification and evaluation. Many commentators, e.g., Peterson and Simkus (1982) and Griswold (1998) have pointed out that the traditional boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture undergo rapid and fundamental changes. This entails a focus on the variations in cultural products, their appraisal, and their consumption manifest over time. Griswold (1998, p. 34) speaks of a ‘cultural swirl of mutual influence with multiple flows, no impermeable boundaries and few fundamentalists.’ If cultural consumers are to be seen as ‘occupying different positions in a differentiated distribution of knowledge and cultural resources’ (Griswold 1998) this calls for a ‘dynamic’ approach to analyzing the behavior of gatekeepers, distributors, reviewers, and producers serving these audiences. As yet, longitudinal, time series, and event history data are rarely used in sociological research on culture. However, such data may be essential to capture the time-varying impact some independent variables may have on dependent variables.

Although many studies address the modus operandi of cultural gatekeepers, there has been scant attention paid to what constitutes their expertise. It has been argued here that gatekeepers are unable to identify those intrinsic properties that are deemed to account for the artistic nature and value of a cultural product. When it is acknowledged that meaning is not holistic or fixed, but is whatever works for a specific group (cf. Griswold 1998, p. 35), then the focus should be on the procedures gatekeepers actually follow in reaching agreement on the nature and value of cultural products. In the final chapter of Distinction, Bourdieu distinguishes between the practical mastery of classifications and the reflexive mastery that is required in order to construct a taxonomy that is coherent and adequate to social reality (1984, p. 472). This idea may also be useful to analyzes the ways in which gatekeepers come up with taxonomies and value judgments. If one admits that cultural expertise does not pertain predominantly to knowledge of the intrinsic characteristics of cultural products, gatekeepers may be seen mainly as experts in executing specific tasks with regard to cultural products. Such tasks may be: Presenting a product to connoisseurs or laymen, elaborating on its meaning or value by making comparisons with other products, assessing a product’s eligibility for a subsidy or an award, etc. The use gatekeepers make of their experience with individual products may vary with such tasks; the procedures they follow in order to arrive at results that are condoned by other gatekeepers may also vary, and may lead to different groupings and evaluations of the same products.

Future research on cultural gatekeeping is likely to address the still considerable gap between economic and sociological analyses. Frey and Pommerehne (1989, p. 12f), two founding fathers of economic research on culture, remark that sociologists tend to focus on the demand side of culture, whereas economists take the interplay between supply and demand into account. Most contributions to the economics of culture follow the neoclassical approach in asking questions about the determinants of prices of works of art, the rationality of multiple art markets (Singer and Lynch 1997), or the profit-maximizing behavior of consumers of culture. In these studies, a strong similarity is assumed to exist between the symbolic and economic value of cultural products (an assumption that sociologists, as discussed above, have been at pains to attack). The finding, for instance, that successful blockbuster movies feature megastars who account for the large audience these movies attract comes very close to making the assertion that movies with a huge production budget—megastars get gigantic fees—are more likely to enter the top 20 than movies made with smaller sums of money (cf. Albert 1998).

Economics and econometrics are well equipped to analyze many types of value assignments—manifested by preferences and by choices. Gatekeepers engage in choice behavior and develop preferences, but these processes have not received much attention from sociologists. Not only the process of value attribution, but also the question of how value develops over time—under what conditions does it accumulate or diminish?—is important. Combining economic and sociological techniques, it should be possible to determine how gatekeepers and ‘ordinary’ consumers perceive differences between individual cultural products, and how they go about assigning increasing, decreasing, or stable values to them.


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