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Creative Visions: Innovation and Style in the Production of Contemporary Art

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How do creative producers make their works, and how do their social interactions within creative industries shape the creative process? This study addresses these questions by drawing upon two years of ethnographic fieldwork and over 100 interviews with artists, dealers, curators, collectors, and art advisers in the New York City contemporary art market. I define the creative process as a sequence of judgments directed toward objects that is oriented by social values. This perspective offers a methodological approach through which sociologists can reconstruct various stages of the creative process and examine how artists negotiate different forms of judgment, such as aesthetic judgment and economic judgment. It also provides an analytic approach that takes seriously both artists’ engagement with materials – the “inside of creativity” – and the social interactions that orient artists’ judgments – the “outside of creativity.” To focus on the relationship between the inside and outside of creativity, I explore how contemporary artists create and maintain signature styles – bundles of recognizable and enduring elements within bodies of work. After the introduction, Chapter Two explores how the trope of creative visions, the idea that innovative and genuine artists follow their creative muses and eschew economic concerns, shapes the structure of and social relationships within the art market. I reveal that artists leverage this trope to gain a certain degree of creative autonomy, while relinquishing legitimacy as economic actors. Chapter Three and Chapter Four focus on artists’ processes of experimentation. I reveal that artists use processes of experimentation that allow them to develop talent by producing variations of certain elements, while also maintaining novelty by introducing unpredictable elements. I uncover a feedback loop between artists’ creative self-concepts, their perceptions of who they are as artists, and these processes of experimentation. Artists pursue ideas that they view as aligned with their creative self-concepts and associate material results of experimentation with their creative self-concepts, resulting in increasing consistency in their signature styles over time. Chapter Five and Chapter Six examine social interactions within the art market. I show how dealers, curators, art advisers, and collectors select works to exhibit and collect by drawing upon their understandings of market pressures and processes of experimentation. They choose iconic works from mature, yet evolving, signature styles, requiring artists to maintain a delicate balance of consistency and variation within their bodies of work. I examine how artists negotiate these dual demands over the course of their careers, with consequences for pursuing signature styles that others consider either too narrow or too broad. As they craft their signature styles with varying degrees of breadth and change over time, artists shape both their creative trajectories and career trajectories. Previous sociological studies of valuation in creative industries have overlooked decisions during production, focusing largely on the distribution and consumption of creative products. Sociologists who study creative experimentation have neglected how socially constructed evaluative standards shape artists’ material engagements with products. Analyzing perceptions signature styles reveals an interactive matrix of judgments through which social structures influence the creative process and the creative process influences social structures.

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  • 01/29/2019
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