January 16, 2015

Art and the Social Construction of Reality

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

What is art? This is an unanswerable question, certainly one that I will not attempt to answer in this post.

 A recent visit to our local museum of contemporary art triggered this question, as I passed by exhibits including a plywood box, a drain, scribbles with hand-drawn maps on brown pieces of paper, sock puppets, as well as diary entries that including the creator’s daily weight, body temperature, and her body’s elimination schedule.

For these pieces to be in a museum, someone must have declared them to have artistic merit (with which professional art critics might disagree). Perhaps the creators consider themselves to be artists and set out to create art and are thus regarded by others as artists. How one defines art is not just an individual endeavor, but one that is grounded in our social context.

People might visit a particular museum because a famous painting is housed there, and experience a connection not just with the painting but the importance that others place on the painting. Some museums contain pieces that are centuries old, providing a connection to past societies and to lost civilizations.

A visit to a museum is itself a social act, perhaps a way of connecting our identities to “high culture,” or social practices that have traditionally been held in high regard, particularly by society’s elites. It’s hard not to notice the names of patrons listed on museum walls, special wings, or in the descriptions of pieces if they were donated. Being a “patron of the arts” carries specific social meanings of power and status. Taking a date to a museum might create a particular statement about your class status, or at least might be a way of making the impression that you are a person of “taste” or “refinement” who  participates in the arts.

On a more basic level, a museum highlights how context shapes our interactions with others—our conversations and their volume, for instance— and there are typically guards assigned to monitor and correct any missteps should they occur.

Is art related to beauty? As in the case of several museums I have visited, the beauty of the building and its surroundings location often draws as many visitors as the pieces it exhibits. The perception of beauty is socially constructed, something not just in the individual beholder but tied into other systems of meaning including the ways in which we make sense of gender, race, class, sexuality, and other social forces. Going to museums can offer a window on historical constructions of beauty and status. Whose portraits have historically been painted? Whose have not? How are these social and cultural decisions related to race, class, and gender?

The beauty question is at the heart of some of the consternation that contemporary art exhibits like those I described earlier might draw. Is it beautiful to read about someone waking up and peeing, as one piece featured? Is the sight of a drain on a wall or a plywood box beautiful?

Perhaps contemporary art asks us instead to question how we define art, as a way of destabilizing its meaning by pointing out that art itself is socially constructed. Some find this process pleasurable and enjoy its intellectual challenge, trying to decode its meaning.

And some people find various forms of contemporary art absurd, as 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer did in a 1993 piece questioning its value focusing on exhibits featuring urinals, vacuum cleaners and blank canvases for which people paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you watch the video here, you can see that Safer is dubious that this is really art.

Whether you agree or disagree with Safer, it is clear that some people do place high value on these pieces. One of Safer’s interviewees notes that spending large amounts of money on such items makes its buyers feel like they are part of a new art movement. Some may be investors hoping to be ahead of the curve by buying a piece from the next hot artist and make a lot of money. Either way, multiple meanings are ascribed to these objects.

Visit a local museum and think about what the pieces on exhibition there teach us about the social construction of reality; how are meanings about art created through social context and social interaction?


The amazing thing about art is how different pieces can make you feel . Without the art actually conversing it can insight such passionate responses and start conversations on every spectrum of art appreciation.
I believe Art is invaluable social learning tool, if only to teach the younger generation how to have discussions that are more interesting with many different thoughts and opinions than one exactly like your own.
Art can be a great equalizer of cultures,and languages.

Art helps us to identify and appreciate our culture and traditions. It helps us to learn different types of contemporary art across the world.

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