Issue 4/2011 - Ware Freundschaft

Connections, Networks and Alliances

On the Relevancy of the Term »Networking« in the Arts – An Interview with Ulf Wuggenig

Pascal Jurt

Ulf Wuggenig is a sociologist of art and culture at Leuphana University in Lüneburg. He is head of the art exhibition space there, was heavily involved in »art worlds in an international comparison: Vienna, Hamburg, Paris« in the 1990s, and is currently working on an empirical study of Zurich’s art world. In the context of his research, he has also taken a close look at network analyses in the social sciences. The following is an interview on the development of the network theory and on how the term »network« is perceived in the arts.

[b]Pascal Jurt:[/b] When did network analysis begin to take on its modern form – the form that also makes it interesting for analyzing the artistic field?

[b]Ulf Wuggenig:[/b] I would say that – apart from Georg Simmel’s work on triads and social circles – it began with Fritz Heider’s psychological network theory. His balance theory from the 1940s linking the evaluation of people and objects also seems to be enlightening for the explanation of valorization processes in the arts. Alex Bavelas and his group managed a breakthrough at MIT in the 1950s in research on communication structures in small groups, an advancement of Jakob Moreno’s idea of the »sociogram.« What’s most interesting about the structures described as »wheels,« »chains,« »circles« etc. are their centrality and marginality, as well as an efficiency dependent on their structure. Most prominent was the least favorite structure, the hierarchic »wheel,« visualized with a central node in the middle. From there, asymmetrical connections go out in all directions to points separate from one another. Their fictive connection can be illustrated as a circle – thus the metaphor of the wheel. This research, primarily geared toward use in the economic sector, soon inspired the theory of society. Johan Galtung, who coined the term »structural violence,« for instance generalized it as a tendency of social systems to create hierarchic »social amoebas,« in other words, feudal structures. The simplest case is the triad. In order to visualize it, he placed the central node at the top. From there, two asymmetrical connections lead to two nodes at the bottom that are not interconnected. The vertical distance symbolizes the difference in resources between the top dog at the top and the divided underdogs at the periphery. Galtung traced this type of structure in social systems as well as in cultural objectifications such as syllogism, triangle and pyramid in science, art and architecture. In order to fight this structure – to »defeudalize it« – on all social levels all the way up to the »structure of imperialism,« he came up with measures in the 1960s that were not necessarily suited to the masses: the theory of graphs and matrix algebra. This was a scientific variation on, and an anticipation of, the radical attacks on the tree structure that Deleuze and Guattari undertook about a decade later with reference to the biological metaphor of the rhizome in »Mille Plateaux.«

[b]Jurt:[/b] When was the term »network« first applied to social systems?

[b]Wuggenig:[/b] For the first time in 1940, when British anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown wrote that people are »linked by a complex network of social relationships.« Network in that sense can be applied to all sorts of social systems, no matter whether they are hierarchic or egalitarian, centrist or decentralized. But the narrower meaning of the term is used for social structures of a certain kind, for instance informal mafia-like networks, »connections,« alliances or secret bonds. In recent times, networks have also been juxtaposed with the established dichotomy of »hierarchy« and »market« in economics as a third type. In this tradition, Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello separated a network-based »Cité« from the »Cités« of the market and industry in their project. Representatives of the general network concept, however, also regard (art) fairs as networks of buyers and sellers. Finally, the term is readily – and with an unmistakable positive connotation – identified with social systems that are described as democratic, flexible, open etc., as early as 1953 by James A. Barnes, also a British anthropologist. He identified as a »network« a social field without coordinated organization, borders or a center, since it relies on »links of friendship and acquaintance.« His visualization of a network was more general: »The image I have is that of many dots, some of which are connected by lines. The dots in the picture are people and the lines indicate who is interacting with whom.« With Fritz Heider, these dots did not represent just people, but objects as well, as was also the case in Bruno Latour’s subsequent actor-network theory. Others interpreted the dots as collectives, organizations, countries etc., or added nodes of a cultural, biological or technical kind. Among the connections that received the most attention were similarity and dissimilarity, for instance capital, of gender or of sexual preference; social relationships such as family ties or friendship; as well as interactions such as conversation or exchange; and streams of, say, information or (symbolic) goods like art.

[b]Jurt:[/b] How would you illustrate a perspective supported by the general network concept?

[b]Wuggenig:[/b] Concerning the availability of resources such as recognition, money, information, social capital etc, a hierarchical system à la Galtung is aware of, in the simplest case, the difference between a top dog and an underdog. The top dog elite maintain horizontal connections among themselves and may even gain strength with the help of a defeudalized structure at the top, that is, symmetrical bi- and multilateral interaction. Their only links to the underdogs are top-down. The underdogs on the other hand are split – including mentally – by structural holes, by missing links, which prevents a collective mobilization. It is not difficult to visualize such a model, the complexity of which can easily be enhanced by increasing the number and type of hierarchical levels, units, dimensions and links by using dots, lines and arrows. It can then be confronted with realities of the artistic field such as cohesive rituals at the top, asymmetrical or missing links between the privileged and the lower classes, as well as the weak solidarity of the negatively privileged.

[b]Jurt:[/b] Who imported the network concept into the artistic field?

[b]Wuggenig:[/b] Presumably it was Lawrence Alloway, a British critic associated with Pop art. In 1972, he published »Network: The Art World Described as a System« in »Artforum.« There, he defined the »art world « as a non-hierarchic »support system« for the distribution of art, a network of »artists, galleries, collections, museums and magazines.« Howard S. Becker picked up this concept of the art world around the time of his cooperation with Hans Haacke and James Burnham. But Becker defines »art world « in more general terms as a »network of cooperating actors, « integrated via conventions. Since the concept extends to include production, we’re talking about a sociological variation of the attack on the centrality of the author that was introduced by Foucault and Barthes. It was sharply criticized by Pierre Bourdieu, however. Since he defines the field as a network of objective relations between positions, we can also classify his theory under the network paradigm. With a structuralist background, he accuses network analysis in the tradition of Georg Simmel of being oriented on visible or essentialist phenomena such as interaction, the individual or the group. Relationships that are independent of awareness and will according to Marx are hence excluded. Becker argued that this is why the effects of capital and power differences between the interacting actors are neglected, as are interrelations that do not depend on contact. Divergent concepts of what is »social« and what constitutes a »relationship« – whether it is an interaction or a field, for instance – is one of the divisive factors separating network analysis from sociology (of art).

[b]Jurt:[/b] Where does the euphemistic usage of the term »network« come from in the field of art? What interests are behind the dominant talk of the expansion of a network logic, which does not mean under any circumstances that the field is free of asymmetric exchange or hierarchies?

[b]Wuggenig:[/b] It really struck me about ten years ago in the framework of the globalization debate, in the form of the prevalent claim that the world is headed toward a networked, decentralized and deterritorialized structure. Given the definable territorial centers in the field of art – all of them in the Northwest – and the different forms of exploitation possible precisely within flexible network structures, I felt this idea was an expression of »wishful thinking,« of spontaneous sociology. The tendency to euphemize is undoubtedly older. It’s evident already in Alloway, although the future network romanticism is less pronounced in his case. In the artistic field, this tendency – supported not least by post-structuralist authors – has diverse social foundations. These include the positive experiences with informal networks characteristic for cultural areas of production, with partners, friends and social capital that help cushion the widespread decrease in social security. Aristotle already remarked on the concept and value of »useful friendship.« And then there’s the social construction of symbolic and economic value. The association of artistic works with names of individuals and institutions is as significant as their visual attributes. Which is why it is not surprising that, in the 2004 »Tastebuds« study conducted by the Art Council of England, artists classified as relevant to their careers first and foremost – apart from exhibitions – »network« and »contacts«, even before awards and reviews. The study explicitly advises artists to form networks. But it is not as easy as Hobbes suggested in »Leviathan,« where he claims that having many friends gives one power. In »Structural Holes,« Ronald S. Burt takes a strategic point of view and advises the reader to avoid »redundant relationships.« It is not the number of ties that matters but their quality, a function of the capital a relationship brings to the network. Adopting positions that bridge structural holes is of special advantage for obtaining information and the power to control others. Network romanticism likes to rely on the utopia of rhizomorphic structures. My studies, first in Vienna with Lioba Reddeker, then in Hamburg, Paris and Zurich, showed that of all the theorists, it was Deleuze who has gained most in popularity in the art field over the past 20 years. Along with Foucault, he is the one with the highest degree of acceptance at the center of the field. Negri and Hardt did their best to popularize the »democratic model« of the rhizome, »a non-hierarchic and non-centralized network structure.«

[b]Jurt:[/b] In their study »The New Spirit of Capitalism,« Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello showed that capitalism organized in the form of a network has spawned new forms of exploitation. How do you explain the »misreading« of the term?

[b]Wuggenig:[/b] The rhizome-like model, as Boltanski and Chiapello discovered, appears to have a certain affinity with the ideas of an advanced entrepreneurial culture. When practiced in reality, whether in the field of business or art, it is also connected with specific forms of exploitation, in which mobile networkers profit from the immobile ones, and the egocentric networkers from the others. The artistic field displays a feudal structure, not that of a defeudalized network. Hierarchic discrimination is in fact the central feature of the art world, anthropologist Stuart Plattner concludes at the end of »High Art Down Home.« »Gatekeepers« rigorously control inclusion, for instance which artists are granted access to galleries. Whether visually comparable works are shown in New York or in St. Louis makes all the difference for their valorization. Contrary to market logic, it is already predetermined in some cases who is allowed to buy or collect certain works and who may not, etc. The network concept also serves to justify and obscure the »cruel economy« (Hans Abbing) of the »the-winner-takes-all« fields characterized by the Mathew effect (accumulated advantage) and crooked Pareto distributions of advantages and rewards.

[b]Jurt:[/b] You questioned people at the migros museum in Zurich about networks. One result was that people cited contact with artists more frequently as a significant factor shaping «interest in the arts« than their own families, relatives, (university) teachers or the media. Is a personal friendship with artists ultimately more formative for the »love of art« than, for argument’s sake, the iron-clad box of habit?

[b]Wuggenig:[/b] In effect, Bourdieu’s art-related theory of reproduction needs to be expanded. In opposition to the charismatic ideology that was still powerful in his day, he tried to show that taste and interest in art aren’t natural characteristics but rather acquired, communicated and – secretly – »passed on« via the cultural capital of one’s family of origin; they’re also cultivated or neglected in state-controlled schools. All of these mechanisms are still effective. The Zurich study came up with one result that is by no means trivial in its implications concerning the politics and teaching of art: popular artists are seen as having a much more pivotal role in getting people interested in art than parents, relatives and teachers. That doesn’t mean habit is irrelevant, since Bourdieu distinguishes between primary and secondary habit, which is acquired at university or where people work or spend a large part of their time. There is no reason to believe that our dispositions, tastes and preferences aren’t also influenced in peer relationships and by friends and acquaintances. In any case, I would not interpret habit in a deterministic manner as an iron-clad box. To quote Bourdieu, »freedom within boundaries« might be a more suitable formula.


Translated by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida