The sociology of art
Jānis Taurens, Philosopher

What’s a suitable place for the telling of stories? It could be some snowed-in staging post in the expanse of the steppes beyond the Volga, where “country squires, merchants and farmers” have all sought shelter, where it’s not possible to abide by the hierarchy of trade or rank, as “wherever one turns, everywhere there is narrowness, some are drying off, others are trying to get warm, while a third group is searching for even the smallest space to settle down”. One of Nikolai Leskov’s works, ‘The Sealed Angel’, commences with a roughly similar description, outlining the environment in which the story is told.(1) Walter Benjamin, who designated the Russian writer a “story teller”, in his article dedicated to Leskov attempts to conceptualize the difference between two forms of message – story and information. Information lays claim to “prompt verifiability” and, even though “often it is no more exact than the intelligence of earlier centuries was”, “it is indispensable for information to sound plausible”. From what’s been stated Benjamin makes the conclusion that, “if the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs”.(2)

Visual art, too, can become a story, for example, bringing an irrational and affective aspect to current themes in politics and economics. This is the idea expressed to me in conversation by the young artist Melanie Gilligan, who is based in London and New York. The conversation is one of the events in the Survival Kit-3 “event” list (others: “excursions”, “lectures”, “discussions”, “actions”, “performances” and other events which can be characterised by the urging “participate!”). Of course, what the artist says brings to my mind Benjamin. In posing the question, I refer to the previously-mentioned Leskov tale in order to find out about the context in which art can best tell its stories, and receive confirmation for the view about the return of narrative in visual art. Whereas for the artist, Benjamin is among the more important sources of influence, and she is happy about my question and the common points of reference we have inadvertently discovered in our understanding of the functions of art.

The situation described, however, is only one of many that are possible. This time I was interested in testing and thinking through to conclusion something of my own. That’s why I participated only in some of the Survival Kit-3 events. It’s clear that the various events, even if called “lecture”, do not mean information (in Benjamin’s interpretation), but can be considered as a component of art. You could ask: what does it change? First of all – the conditions for the perception of an event are transformed (along with this – conditions also for the perception of the works of art which could be viewed in the wide-ranging exhibition on all five floors of the former Natālijas Draudziņas Gymnasium, forming something like a centre around which the other events were clustered). Even if we were to hold to the most usual concept of information(3), which permits us to view anything as information, it could be said that in our current information-saturated era it’s not something which has value of itself – information is important in a defined context, namely, information that friends exchange between each other, information in some social or interest group, a community connected to a specific place and similar. It is specifically this type of – contextually relevant – art “information” which is offered by Survival Kit-3.

Contemporary art and events such as Survival Kit (and the realisation of this project the last two years as well – but about this, a little later) make us change our way of making judgments, giving up the traditional aesthetic evaluation of a work of art. There are two possible directions here – to either broaden the aesthetic concept itself, as is done by Wolfgang Welsch(4), or to replace the aesthetic judgement with some other (political, economic or semantic) method of judgement.(5) In the second case it is important to take the viewer into account; it is in communication with the viewer that the meanings carried by art as well as information evolve. It could even be said that in this case one has to mark out the types of art viewer. Someone may object that this is the task of art sociology, and that in order to talk about art in this way, concrete empirical research is required.

Here we need to make a small digression. Prior to the “regular” elections, I was talking with my friend Vasīlijs Voronovs about sociology. We didn’t feel as if we’d been included in those “slices of pie”, which TV offered up as the visualization of the percentage results of sociological surveys. A little later we agreed that the data from a survey would be even less likely to tell us anything about the perception or understanding of art. If, however, I use the description “sociology of art”, then, firstly, it is a reference to the role of the viewer as a certain social type in the perception of art and, secondly, it is to emphasize the analogy with Theodor Adorno’s term “sociology of music”. Hence if someone were to ask what is the sociology of art, I’d reply – paraphrasing Adorno – that it’s the relationship that develops between the viewers of art as socially organized individuals and art itself, knowledge and the fact that the extensive empirical research required by such knowledge will be fruitful only if the problems associated with this knowledge were to form a certain theoretical structure. In other words, only when theory tells us what is essential and what we need to find out, will empirical research give us something more than a compilation of inarticulate facts which don’t actually tell us anything at all.(6)

So what types of art viewers should we sketch in then, when thinking about potential attendees at Survival Kit events? Firstly, we mustn’t forget the romantic type of viewer(7), who regards art (mainly painting or sculpture) as having been created by geniuses (at least this is the ideal which should be strived for), therefore inimitable in every detail, and something that reveals to us the eternal or the truth about – possibly transcendental – reality. This kind of viewer, however, will rarely wander into Survival Kit, or events and exhibitions organized by the Totaldobže or kim? art centres, and catching sight of, for example, Lithuanian artist Kristīna Inčuraite’s work The Resort, where the abandoned areas of the once popular spa city of Druskininkai can be seen, will call out: “But Druskininkai is so beautiful! Why do you have to photograph a dump?”(8) (I should add that in 1972 Robert Smithson elicited similar bewilderment, lasting approximately 20 minutes, among Utah University students during his lecture by showing slides not of masterpieces of Mayan architecture in Palenque, but rather a crumbling hotel in a nearby Mexican village.)

The other extreme would be the “surfer” – on the internet, as well as in life – who’d look at everything in visual information bits and would only value something novel or the moment of surprise that works provide. In a way he wouldn’t distinguish advertising from contemporary art and, if he worked in advertising, would call it art, but as an artist would not get beyond the level of technological tricks. Somewhere in the middle between these extremes there’s a third type of viewer, who is interested in the concept as well as the “truth” of the work, only by this word he’d understand not some sort of transcendent, unworldly truth, but something which could be called “the truthfulness of the story” (this would be neither “truth” in the understanding of classical truth conditional meaning theory, nor in the credibility of the account).

Survival Kit events, obviously, try to attract the broadest range of audiences (this is also indicated by the fact that the timing of the exhibition and events – over ten days – was coordinated with White Night events and included in its programme). But it is specifically the third type of viewer who’ll be able to make a choice from the wide range on offer, based on a more or less conscious interest in either how art conveys its narrative, or what its message is about, or, combining the two aspects – “how” and “about what”, rather than just inadvertently wandering into an exhibition or one of the events. Maybe the best thing that can be said about the Survival Kit contemporary art festivals is the same as what Mozart wrote to his father in his letter of 28 December 1782 about the piano concerto genre, pointing out that there will be passages where music connoisseurs alone will get satisfaction, but the uninitiated also cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.(9)

The objective of this article is not to investigate the percentage relationship between the ones who are “cognoscenti” and “those who are not ”, but rather to point out the opportunities that are offered by an art event such as Survival Kit, taking place in Riga for the third time now. It creates opportunities for communication, and the meaning of a work of art – the same as in verbal communication – is determined both by the work itself and the conceptions of the author associated with it, as well as the viewers’ “pre-conceptions” about art. The actual meaning of the work of art is somewhere around the middle, when the message inherent in the work and that for which the viewer is prepared find mutual understanding, which is possibly different from that intended by the author, and also from that which the viewer had expected.(10) But these kinds of art festivals pose yet another theoretical question, namely, about the evaluation of art. Only this is no longer a question about the broadening of aesthetic judgements or their replacement with some other type of judgement, but also a question about the evaluation of various other – even completely inartistic – events. For example, from the first Survival Kit someone may have, perhaps, (as this kind of completely inartistic event) lodged in the memory of their taste buds Katrīna Neiburga’s and Agnese Krivade’s artists’ and poets’ soup kitchen(11); from the second – Aigars Bikše’s question: ‘Who here is not a sheep?’].(12)

One of the ways of evaluating this intrusion of art into empty bankrupt shop spaces (which is how Survival Kit started), would be to connect certain art events with the particular situation in Latvia in which they came about. Perhaps this type of art necessarily results from the current situation? The term “necessarily” seems rather serious, if we listen to the comments of artists about their “survival kits” caught in Linda Veinberga’s video-film – here one can encounter all gradations from “completely serious”, to even something like a funny story, where someone has to contain their laughter talking about it (Linards Kulless – about the amulets on show). Of course, a work can operate against the intentions of the artist and also the curator. Curator Solvita Krese’s invitation “Courage, onwards!” (the second Survival Kit) sounds just as utopian as the beginning of the ‘Dead Souls’ second, unfinished part of Gogol’s exhortation вперед! (“onward!”), which should awaken the best that’s slum¬bering in the souls of the Russian people.13

A solution could be found by adapting to Survival Kit festival events the type and individual circumstance detachment employed by Richard Wollheim.(14) As separate episodes, Survival Kit events would be unintentional, as a type they could be considered as necessary, because the questions posed by art either directly or indirectly must react to the actual situation in which we find ourselves – in an existential sense – “thrown in”. The principles of evaluation in both cases will be different. In discussing concrete works of art and events, we could ask: could the individual event be done better or worse, should it be evaluated, for example, from the quality of the relationships which a certain type of art invites you to create, (as, for example, Claire Bishop wishes to do in criticizing Nicolas Bourriaud’s opinions on relational aesthetics)? In the second – let’s remember that art changes the meanings of words, it brings closer artistic and our everyday ways of life, but only if it breaks into the familiar like a foreign body and forces the viewer to change even just a few of his or her pre-conceptions.
Yet it won’t be the romantic viewer seeking something unchanging behind the bustle of life’s events, or the surfer over life’s superficial ripples, but rather the viewer interested in the point of the question, who will “necessarily” be in the minority, and therefore uninteresting for the sociology of percentages. But this again is a scheme in which I, as a bird catcher, try to catch the reader or, as Nietzsche would say, aber nicht wahr? da beginne ich bereits wieder und thue, was ich immer gethan habe, ich alter Immoralist und Vogelsteller –..(15)

/Translator into English: Uldis Brūns/

1 Лесков, Н. С. Запечатленный ангел // Избранные сочинения. Москва: Художественная литература, 1979, c. 71–125.
2 Benjamin, Walter. The Storyteller. Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov // Illuminations. Translated by Harru Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 2007 [1968], p. 89.
3 See, for example, what Keith Devlin writes about information being everything that is around us and that all people possess some information. And, as the chapter explains, absolutely every tangible object – and this actually happens – can carry or store information. (Devlin, Keith. The Grin of the Cheshire Cat [fragment from the book Goodbye Descartes]. Kentaurs XXI, No. 34, 2004, pp. 27–47, p. 29) Such an all-encompassing concept is unclear, of course – Devlin writes about this in another work, where he states that obviously information does exist. But what is it? It’s difficult to answer this question because there isn’t any existing theory with which everyone agrees and on which an acceptable definition could be based. (Devlin, Keith. Logic and Information. Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 1–2.) I think that compared with the 1990s, when Devlin wrote the work, nothing has changed, except that there’s been an oversaturation of information.
4 See Welsch, Wolfgang. Undoing Aesthetics. Translated by Andrew Inkpin. London: Sage, 1997.
5 See my article in the previous number of Studija.
6 Compare Adorno, Theodor W. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. Translated from the German by E. B. Ashton. New York: The Seabury Press, 1976, p. 1.
7 Compare with what Nicola Bourriaud says: “Romantic aesthetics, from which we may very well not have really emerged...” (Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Translated by Simon Plesance and Fronza Woods. Les preses du réel, 2002, p. 92.)
8 From a conversation overheard at a Survival Kit-3 exhibition.
9 See Mozarts Briefe. Nach den Originalen herausgegeben von Ludwig Nohl. Salzburg: Verlag der Mayerschen Buchhandlung, 1865. S. 225. For those who don’t wish to read it in old type, they can find the publication on the internet. For the cited letter no. 213, see.:,+Ludwig/Mozarts+Briefe/Sechste+Abtheilung/213.+Wien+28.+Dez.+1782
10 An attentive reader will observe here the influence of Donald Davidson’s views. For more, see my article “Metafora and valodas izzušana” [‘Metaphor and the Disappearance of Language’], published in Kentaurs XXI Number 45, or in Davidson’s own article written in 1986 ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’. One of the latest reprints of the article is in: Davidson, Donald. A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs // The Essential Davidson. With an introduction by Ernie Lepore and Kirk Ludwig. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006, pp. 251–265.
11 “Inartistic”, as which one of us has taken part in Rikrit Tiravanija’s culinary performances in the 1990s?
12 An interesting question would be how those “subjects of manipulation” coming from the nearby parliament building at that time “understood” this work.
13 If tracing the peripeties of Chichikov’s activities in our current
high-speed era should prove to be almost impossible, I’d recommend a reading of the chapter dedicated to Gogol in Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lectures on Russian Literature’.
14 Wollheim used it in his 1965 article, which, included in the title of Battcock’s anthology, made the term “minimalism” famous. See Wollheim, Richard. Minimal Art // Minimal Art. A Critical Anthology.
Ed by Gregory Battcock. University of California Press, 1995, pp. 387–399.
15 I left untranslated the Nietzsche text cited from his introduction to ‘Human, All Too Human’ written in 1886 so that the way I’ve expressed myself should not be accused of being amoral.
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