Ordinary Artists: From Paradox to Paradigm?

Variations on a Concept and its Outcomes

Artistes ordinaires : du paradoxe au paradigme ? Variations autour d’un concept et de ses prolongements

Artistas ordinarios : ¿ de la paradoja al paradigma ? Variaciones en torno a un concepto y sus ramificaciones

Marc Perrenoud and Géraldine Bois

Translated by Jasmin Smith and Delaina Haslam

Translated from:
Artistes ordinaires : du paradoxe au paradigme ?


Electronic reference

Marc Perrenoud and Géraldine Bois, « Ordinary Artists: From Paradox to Paradigm? », Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods [Online], 1 | 2017, Online since 15 October 2017, connection on 03 March 2021. URL : https://revue.biens-symboliques.net/171

The theme of this first Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods dossier is “ordinary artists”—that is to say those musicians, painters, writers, dancers or actors who are neither rich nor famous. The practicalities (working conditions, career instability, the necessity of doing more than one job, etc.) of carrying out their work, and the way they perceive these practicalities (as relegation, or in hope of future recognition) are understood in terms of the paradoxical situation in which these artists find themselves: one that is at once banal (since it concerns most artists), and unconventional (since it derogates from the ideology of originality which governs the world of the arts). The sociology of artistic work, conscious of the part played by social structures, falls within a greater body of recent research into minor or partial modes of artistic recognition, while at the same time paying homage to more classical sociologists such as Howard Becker, Pierre Bourdieu, and Raymonde Moulin. Thanks to articles by Audrey Millet, Serge Katz, Adrien Pégourdie, and Jérémy Sinigaglia, the category of “ordinary” is understood via varied artistic disciplines (plastic and graphic arts, audiovisual media, theatre, classical music, dance) and in very different historical or contemporary contexts, but it is also employed from the perspective of another kind of producers of symbolic goods—intellectuals— in the article by Pierre Bataille, which is dedicated to former students of the prestigious École normale supérieure, who have pursued a form of “downgraded” career path. The dossier ends with an interview with Howard Becker, whose work on “dance musicians” helped form the concept of ordinary artists.

Ce premier dossier thématique de Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods porte sur des artistes qui, parce qu’ils ne sont ni riches ni célèbres, sont qualifiés d’« ordinaires ». Les modalités concrètes d’exercice de leur activité (conditions de travail, instabilité des carrières, nécessité de cumuler des emplois, etc.) et la manière dont ils les vivent (comme une relégation ou non, avec des espoirs de reconnaissance future ou non) sont comprises au regard de leur situation paradoxale, à la fois banale (parce que concernant la majorité des artistes) et non conventionnelle (car dérogeant à l’idéologie de la singularité qui régit les univers artistiques). Cette sociologie du travail artistique attentive aux structures sociales au sein desquelles il s’accomplit s’inscrit dans la lignée de plusieurs travaux récents autour des modes mineurs ou partiels de la reconnaissance artistique, tout en convoquant l’héritage de sociologues plus classiques comme Howard Becker, Pierre Bourdieu ou Raymonde Moulin. Grâce aux articles d’Audrey Millet, Serge Katz, Adrien Pégourdie et Jérémy Sinigaglia, cette catégorie de « l’ordinaire » est appréhendée au travers de disciplines artistiques variées (arts plastiques et graphiques, audiovisuel, théâtre, musique, danse) mais elle est aussi mise au travail à partir des autres producteurs de biens symboliques que sont les intellectuels, dans l’article de Pierre Bataille consacré aux anciens élèves de l’École normale supérieure ayant connu un parcours « déclassé » d’enseignants du secondaire. Le dossier se termine par un entretien avec Howard Becker, dont le travail sur les « musiciens de danse » est en partie à l’origine de cette notion d’artistes ordinaires.

Este primer número temático de Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods trata de artistas que, ya que no son ni ricos ni famosos, son calificados de « ordinarios ». Las modalidades concretas de ejercicio de su actividad (condiciones de trabajo, inestabilidad de las carreras, necesidad de acumular empleos, etc.) y la manera como lo viven (como una relegación o no, con la esperanza de un futuro reconocimiento o no) se comprenden en relación a su situación paradójica, a la vez banal (ya que afecta a la mayoría de los artistas) y no convencional (puesto que quebranta la ideología de la singularidad que rige los universos artísticos). Esta sociología del trabajo artístico, que considera las estructuras sociales en las que el trabajo artístico se desarrolla, se inscribe en la línea de varios trabajos recientes en torno a los modos menores o limitados de reconocimiento artístico, retomando también la herencia de sociólogos más clásicos como Howard Becker, Pierre Bourdieu o Raymonde Moulin. Gracias a los artículos de Audrey Millet, Serge Katz, Adrien Pégourdie y Jérémy Sinigaglia, la categoría de artistas « ordinarios » es aprehendida a través de disciplinas artísticas variadas (artes plásticas y graficas, audio-visual, teatro, música, danza) pero también es abordada a partir de otros productores de bienes simbólicos, como lo son los intelectuales, en el articulo de Pierre Bataille sobre los ex alumnos de la Escuela normal superior cuya trayectoria en tanto profesores de secundaria muestra un descenso de categoría social. El número se termina con una entrevista a Howard Becker cuyo trabajo sobre los « músicos de danza » se encuentra, en parte, al origen de la noción de artistas ordinarios. (Traducción Paola Diaz)

Image 100000000000073E000004701365D629.png

A regional book fair

© Wikimedia Commons (CC)

The first themed dossier of Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods1 focuses on “ordinary artists.”2 This notion is derived from that put forward by Marc Perrenoud, who characterized the population of “ordinary musicians” in France at the turn of the twenty-first century (Perrenoud 2007), drawing explicitly from the “dance musicians” whom Howard S. Becker studied in the 1960s (Becker 1963). Becker and Robert R. Faulkner then borrowed the expression “ordinary musicians” from Perrenoud in a recent book (Faulkner & Becker 2009). At the same time, the work of French-speaking sociologists on minor or partial forms of artistic recognition, including “incomplete” forms of consecration3, has expanded a great deal over the last few years regarding various artistic disciplines (see Poliak 2006; Sinigaglia 2007; Dubois et al. 2009; Sorignet 2010; Bajard & Perrenoud 2013; Cardon & Pilmis 2013; Bois 2014, among others). Like these recent publications, this dossier’s articles are not focused exclusively on music but rather discuss this qualification of “ordinary” as it applies to various disciplines and sectors (audiovisual media, theatre, music, dance, graphic and plastic arts). Therefore, only Adrien Pégourdie deals exclusively with musicians in his paper; Serge Katz studies a profession that straddles two different sectors—stage and screen actors; Jérémy Sinigaglia looks at all performing arts; and Audrey Millet, whose article gives the dossier its historic depth, explores the fringes of the art world with a study of draughtsmen working for luxury manufacturers in the eighteenth century. One last article, written by Pierre Bataille, occupies a particular position in this dossier as well as being essential to the reflection concerned: through the case of normaliens teaching in schools and colleges,4 it proposes an extension of the notion of “ordinary artists” to the spheres of intellectual production, that is to say to another large category of actors producing symbolic goods. More precisely, this paper shows how career paths, and access to and experiences of professional recognition in the field of teaching can be close to those experienced in the art world, even though teachers’ careers are far more institutionalized and predictable than those of artists.

The common thread between the artists studied in this dossier is the fact that they are neither rich (relative to the professional market in which they work) nor famous. They are neither “stars” nor “great” artists who are well known and celebrated. This is a situation experienced by most artists, and yet it is seldom studied. This sociology of the banal, which deals with artistic work in its most mundane aspects, has, for a long time, had only a few proponents. Examples include works by Cynthia White and Harrison C. White, who can be considered precursors; or Raymonde Moulin on painters’ careers and the art market (but also, for Moulin, the colour print market) (White & White 1965; Moulin 1967). Around the same period, Howard Becker’s research into dance musicians also constitutes an original reference. For this reason, we invited him to share his reflections on the notion of ordinary artists in an interview published in this dossier.

The aim of this dossier is to link Becker’s essential theoretical work on this notion to the theoretical contributions of “critical” sociology. Since these two approaches consider the hierarchies that exist between artists differently, they offer two complementary insights into the situation of lesser-known artists. The concept of “field” is used to emphasize the relations of power, domination, and competition between artists in dominant and in subordinate positions, that is to say, between those whose interests lie mostly in preserving hierarchies, and those who seek to subvert them. Becker’s concept of “art worlds” can be applied to consider hierarchies as the various degrees in which artists are part of cooperative networks involving all those who collectively produce an artwork and who thus contribute to the construction of its value, whether these individuals directly participate in artistic competition or not. Combining these two approaches—one structural and one organizational—allows researchers who study ordinary artists to investigate two different dimensions of a singular problem: how does one manage to exist as an artist when one is not in a stable, visible position, nor a “fully fledged members of the field” (Bourdieu 1995: 226), nor an “integrated professional” in an art world (Becker 1982)? Let us rephrase this problem with two questions: 1. In which principles of legitimacy, in competition with established principles, should we believe? ; 2. How does artistic activity exist in this case in concrete terms; that is to say, who are the participants, and through which circuits is it developed? The complementarity of these two approaches resides first in the imbrication of their scales of analysis. While the Bourdieusian perspective provides tools for analysis of how ordinary artists are positioned in the field (i.e., what their references and ambitions are and, conversely, from which ways of making art are they distancing themselves?), the Beckerian perspective allows us to understand how ordinary artists carry out their work within the art world in which they have ultimately found their place5. In return, we can consider that the possibility that ordinary artists have of accessing cooperative networks which allow their art to exist constitutes support for the attitude they take.

There is one further essential common aspect of these two approaches. In their writing, Becker and Bourdieu both deploy a radical constructivism and engage in the same distancing from the romantic myth of the life of an artist as “vocational6” and “unique” (Heinich 1993), to consider art instead as a form of work. It is precisely the Art = Work equation that Becker proposes in works from Art Worlds (1982) up to his most recent publications (Becker 2013). Regarding Bourdieu’s analysis of artistic fields, it reveals the gap that exists between the belief in these spaces of “social magic” and “denial of the social world” (Bourdieu 1980; 1998), and the artists’ incessant effort to become recognized and find their place, often at the cost of a series of renunciations and adjustments. Art can therefore be considered as a form of work, but a particular one which involves a “social dramaturgy” (Menger 2013) or an especially tense “human comedy” (Linhardt 2015) since it takes place in the spaces where symbolic goods are produced: where one dedicates one’s life to one’s work, and becomes engaged in a vocational relationship and a lifestyle marked by a belief in the social and artistic game. Hence, is artistic work always a vocational or scholastic kind of work, where its very exercise is the worker’s first retribution? Certainly not. There are numerous professional artistic situations that go against the “art for art’s sake” ideal—situations in which elements of the “artistic lifestyle”—such as the rejection of social conventions and “routines” (Bourdieu 1984)—are forever linked to a life that is ultimately ordinary.

This dossier aims at making those banal situations and careers visible, by developing a sociology of artistic work, attentive to the social structures within which it takes place. How do “ordinary” artists work? What are their activities? To what extent do they manage to live off their artistic activity? What knowledge and expertise do they employ? Where do they work? What forms of recognition do they have access to? What networks are they a part of? How do they construct their uniqueness (or not)? To what extent do they feel they are making art, being artists, etc.? Each contribution in this dossier brings a specific answer to these questions by dealing with different artistic professions. Yet, several common features can already be found among the various ordinary artists which are studied here. A “deviant” banality, the heteronomy of their activity, career instability, partial recognition, and the ambivalence between the objective and subjective realities of work seem to be shared by all ordinary artists.

1. Banality and deviance: the paradox of art worlds

Above all, “ordinary artists” can be defined by the banality of their condition. Far from constituting a depreciative judgment of their production (since this term traditionally tends to disqualify any symbolic good), the word “ordinary” as used in this expression, actually qualifies the artists’ position in the professional sphere. These artists are indeed ordinary and their situation is banal because it is predominant in art worlds. These very inegalitarian spaces are often represented in the form of a pyramid whose base and lower rungs are far more populated than the top. Ordinary artists are therefore the most numerous, and by a long way. We could provide several examples but to mention only one: in a study comparing writers’ fame with that of their publishers, in a given sample only 20% had published all their books with nationally recognized publishers, whereas close to 50% had only published with a local publisher7 (Lahire 2006: 195‑196).

The banality of the situation of ordinary artists runs counter to the common perception of art worlds (which is also their raison d’être): that they are the ultimate places for the revelation of exceptional “talent,” and of admirable and admired originality. Ordinary artists would thus be in a certain sense the losers of what Pierre-Michel Menger calls the “talent lottery” (Menger 2002). However, the spaces of production of symbolic goods, even those that are the most independent, do not work in a binary fashion, banishing artists who have not achieved recognition; instead they bear the marks of different forms and degrees of integration and professional success. There are not winners on one side—the established professionals who have hit the “jackpot”—and losers on the other side, excluded from the job market; in fact, a gradation exists between the conditions of the international stars of the art world and those of service providers in commercial or cultural organizations. Ordinary artists are therefore (to a greater or lesser extent) integrated into art worlds, and account for the largest portion of its population even if they are not the most visible.

In what appears to be a paradox, the “ordinary artist” is also outside the norm. The norm in the characterisation of the artist is the romantic conception, common since the nineteenth century, of the artist as an exceptional creator and as a solitary individual, both unique and irreducible to the material, daily concerns of common mortals (Barthes 1972; Bourdieu 1984). From that perspective, the figure of the ordinary artist would constitute a deviation from the norm while representing the most common situation. In fact, there is a rift, even among artists, between collective representations of art and real practices, as Séverine Sofio showed in the case of nineteenth-century male and female painters and sculptors (Sofio 2016). Ordinary artists therefore separate themselves from the norm which requires an artist to be exceptional while they constitute the majority in art worlds, seeking to exist, to “stand out from the crowd,” but experiencing and building their career within the banal conditions of an occupation. It is precisely this deviation from the norm of singular exceptionality as a means of expression of social success, which makes ordinary artistic work appear paradoxical. The vast majority can thus appear to be a set of “mediocre” artists, vulnerable to stigmatization and labelled as imposters. As can be seen in the rhetoric employed in the past twenty years by radical opponents of the French unemployment insurance system specifically for intermittents (contract workers) in the performing arts: claimants are labelled “frauds” (since they do not work enough to escape unemployment) and “talentless” (since they need state subsidies to live because their revenue from artistic activities is not enough).

2. Heteronomous activities

This seemingly paradoxical situation is also what causes ordinary artists to carry out their work far removed from an ideal creative autonomy and only sometimes allows them to adopt an “artistic lifestyle” (Bourdieu 1984), as, most of the time and in most places, they cannot be recognized as “artists.”

The relationship to the public and commercial concerns

For this reason, ordinary artists “do the job”—the “trade”—and their creation is far from autonomous, detached from commercial constraints and the concern of adapting (their art, their lifestyle, etc.) to the expectations of an audience (Bourdieu 1985). Thus, Becker (1963) studied musicians, who needed to diversify not only their repertoire according to audience tastes, but also their performance venues so as to include more “popular” ones (bars, parties, etc.). Perrenoud investigated this same issue fifty years after Becker, from a similar position of participant observer (both made music their line of work as well as their field of research) and found the same type of occupational group, torn between a desire for autonomy and commercial necessity. While this tension seems to be intrinsically linked to the artist’s condition whatever his/her level of fame, it is particularly strong for ordinary artists. Indeed, the latter seem to “do the job” while having a particular attitude to work and employment. They are independent service providers, craftsmen of entertainment and animation (musicians, comedians, dancers), of graphic design and illustration (plastic artists, and factory draughtsmen of the eighteenth century). In certain cases, their activities take place on the fringes of, or outside art worlds (like the actor who plays Santa Claus in a shopping mall, the musician who plays jingles for each speaker who goes up to the microphone during a ceremony, etc.). Artists then become backup personnel in the system that is in place: the heteronomy is complete; the artist is an auxiliary.

As for ordinary musicians, they are, as Becker has already said, “people who are ready to play anything they are asked to play within the limits of their abilities. [...] Jazz stars are the ones who are no longer obligated to do all of that, who can live off their concerts and their record sales. They represent two or three hundred people at the most” (Azaïs, Bachir-Loopuyt, Saint Germier 2010). Musicians’ jobs are perhaps the most clearly concerned with this dimension since the social functions of live music are so varied, offering, in particular, a wide range of anonymous gigs and functions (see the ethnography of performance service providers for the Rotary Club, graduation ceremonies at a business school, and even the general assembly of French fishing federations in Perrenoud 2006 and 2007). Similarly, in other artistic disciplines, there are also relegated modes of making art and a career, because of a particularly downgraded relationship to the audience and to commerce. For example, in the literary world, there are many opportunities to work with the public, in spaces that are connected, to varying degrees, to books or “knowledge” (libraries, bookstores, book fairs, classrooms, but also tourism offices, fairs dedicated to local cuisine, markets, etc.), and under forms that are also connected, to varying degrees, to explicitly commercial purposes (from public readings to the sale of books on a stand). These gradations in the form of interventions corroborate to varying degrees the latter’s legitimacy (Bois 2014).

The implementation of “ordinary” social competences

To be an ordinary artist means having to deal with “ordinary” social relations. Being neither rich nor famous, working as a service provider or employee means not being able to behave like an exceptional, fanciful artist (see interview with Howard Becker at the end of the dossier).

In fact, when one cannot lay claim to the level of recognition that is due to an inspired, unique artist, who therefore necessarily a little “different,” one must conform to the common principles of “soft skills” and “professionalism.” For ordinary musicians, for example, having a local career over the course of decades requires the use of a set of very different skills to those expected of “artists” and an “artistic lifestyle;” skills that can indeed be regarded as very ordinary. For instance, ordinary musicians generally do not employ intermediaries (Jeanpierre & Roueff 2014; Lizé, Naudier, Sofio 2014)8, meaning they have to be their own agents (to sell or negotiate), technicians (to set up the sound, regulate the sound balance, and transport instruments and amplifiers), and even drivers. It has also been shown that the rarity of intermediaries makes the posture of artistic “purity” very difficult to maintain for lesser-known writers, insofar as they are often in charge of their own books’ distribution and promotion in the absence of a publisher to do this; they are also in charge of approaching bookstores, and frequently go to book fairs; as a consequence, they develop skills in, and sometimes even a taste for, dealing directly with the public—something that more famous writers tend to denigrate (Bois 2013). Finally, for ordinary artists, establishing a local career often depends on client satisfaction, the establishment of trust, and a word-of-mouth reputation very similar to that which usually governs the work of artisans.

3. An unstable career and a necessary diversification of professional activity

One of the most significant and specific features of artistic activities is their unstable and unpredictable nature, which places them at one end of the employment instability continuum, the opposite end being occupied by professions that are highly regulated, especially in large institutions like the army or the public sector (hospitals, education, etc.). This low degree of institutionalization for several artistic activities has led many researchers to question the use of the word “professional” for their designation (for example, Freidson 1986), and even to recuse the pertinence of this vocabulary for artistic disciplines (Lahire 2006). It is true that being an artist means depending on the desire of others, which often means experiencing continual periods of alternation between paid and/or legitimate jobs and unpaid and/or under-the-table work, the consequence being a high variability of revenue. For people working in the performing arts—who are dependent on their bodies for work—employment instability is even more significant. The difficulties faced by ageing performers (Cardon 2014; Katz 2015) or by dancers who become mothers (Sorignet 2004) recall what we know of athletes’ careers, which are also very inegalitarian, marked by the permanent risk of being betrayed by one’s body and, moreover, largely subjected to the ideology of “talent” (Schotté 2012). Artistic careers are therefore far from being linear, except for well-known artists, who are relatively sheltered from the hazards of the business (for example, in the literary world, those who have won prestigious awards, Lahire 2006). Thus, “career exits” are a common occurrence for artists, as shown in Serge Katz’s article on actors who have been barred (either temporarily or definitively) from receiving unemployment benefits, and in that of Jérémy Sinigaglia, which, by analysing what happens to live performance artists for whom “consecration […] never comes,” shows diverse forms of professional reconversion. Such career changes undoubtedly depend on the degree of professionalization in the discipline. The greater opportunities to make a living—albeit a frugal one—from artistic work in the performing arts certainly encourages young artists to “try their luck,” at least at first, by dedicating themselves entirely to this activity, even if it means changing course later. In the literary world, on the other hand, everything happens as if the question of reconversion did not even need to be asked. The chances of “living by the pen” are so slim that seeking a paid position of some kind in addition to writing is a necessity from the start for most writers, even the most well known (Lahire 2006). For intermittent performing artists, turnover is very high. We thus observe that, for more than ten years, nearly 50% of intermittent performers have renewed their unemployment benefits annually (Roigt & Klein 2002).

Owing to this fluctuation of artistic revenues, the situation for artists who diversify their activities to ensure their economic survival is also entirely “ordinary” (Lahire 2006; Bureau, Perrenoud, Shapiro 2009), whether they teach their art, occupy “support personnel” positions (Becker 1982), act as intermediaries in art worlds, or still hold positions outside of the arts altogether. This situation is addressed by several articles in the dossier which show that it can be experienced in a wide variety of ways, and not always as a form of constriction. From this perspective, the distinction between pluriactivity (having several jobs in the same artistic field) and multiactivity (having different jobs in different social spaces), such as proposed by Janine Rannou and Ionela Roharik (2006), is fundamental for envisioning situations where different professional activities can more easily support one another (writer and translator; musician and soundman; actor and director) and others where, conversely, they are objectively quite distant and more likely to be viewed as incompatible (writer and mechanic; musician and chimney sweep; actor and engineer9). As Jérémy Sinigaglia explains in his article, this diversification is often the result of an adjustment of the aspirations of ordinary artists who invest themselves, for example, in the “social utility of art” (cultural and life mediation). The phenomenon of reducing these aspirations is also addressed in this article through an analysis of the “modest” forms of recognition of ordinary artists who constitute another important link in this dossier.

4. Spaces and minor forms of recognition

The reflection proposed in this dossier chimes with the line of research carried out by Raymonde Moulin on artists in France (Moulin et al. 1985). This work, indeed, did not propose a restricted definition of artists limited to the best known, but a broad definition of the population, envisioning degrees within a space perceived as a continuum or scale. By collecting as many lists citing the names of artists as possible (individual or collective exhibition programmes, association lists, etc.), the authors thereby gathered “artists from all the schools and with different styles, even those who are not officially registered as such and those who are not well-known” (Singly (de), 1986: 532), before differentiating them according to how well known they were. In doing this, they affirmed the necessity of considering all spaces of recognition (of varying levels of prestige) for artists, and the lack of a radical rupture between these spaces (as Raymonde Moulin had done previously by underlining the possible overlaps between the colour print market and the market for masterpieces, Moulin 1967). The work of Géraldine Bois on writers and those of Marc Perrenoud on musicians show the pertinence of this relative acceptance of the notion of recognition, as does, for example, the study of wind band directors in Alsace, carried out by Vincent Dubois, Jean-Matthieu Méon, and Emmanuel Pierru (Dubois et al. 2009). These ordinary artists are not well known on a “global” scale (respectively the in French publishing milieu, the national and international space of popular music, and the field of orchestral music), but they can enjoy wide recognition locally, which ought to be taken seriously.

The importance of local networks for careers

Many ordinary musicians have thus developed a local career, achieving a certain level of celebrity in their city, appearing all year in musical bars and regional festivals, becoming authorities on the local scene, having the power to help younger musicians to play in one joint or another, etc. Ordinary artists do not exist outside of all recognition, but rather at a level of local recognition, therefore becoming “big fish in a small pond,” instead of becoming lost in the seas of competition at the highest level of legitimacy. So local careers are built, relative legitimacies, and minor modes of recognition within local networks. The regularity of partnerships with local employers, recurring performances, thus the lack of uniqueness, defines the work as “continuous.” This is the case, for example, for musicians who play every Tuesday night in the same bar or club with the same partners and the same repertoire: this is the same case for illustrators who work on each cover of a series of books for the same publisher, by following an imposed graphic chart. These modes of artistic work are in opposition to the regime of uniqueness that characterizes the most legitimate art worlds, where only the exceptional expression of talent matters, in a “discontinuous” way, valuing, for example, the rarity of the only concert in a city or of the production of an original and authentic graphic work.

Distinguishing working conditions

It is therefore necessary to typify the settings, and the sites of artistic work, and the ways in which it is carried out, and their relative legitimacy, to measure the extent of recognition. For example, Marc Perrenoud has shown how the social role of music and of the musician depend a great deal on the type of “socioaesthetic setting” in which artists are involved (Perrenoud 2006; 2007). In this way, the same musician can play a concert, in a place and time exclusively dedicated to music, before an audience which has come specifically for that performance, supported by intermediaries and support staff (technicians, administrators, etc.), or play in a bar or a local entertainment space for a “night out,” a party where music plays a role which, thought it may be central, is not exclusive, or, finally, officiate an anonymous performance, a labour in a place or for a non-musical event (such as we have seen previously regarding heteronomous activities), without being heard and even less applauded. In these different settings for public music work, we go from a situation of relative legitimacy, conferring potentially wide recognition and presenting the musician in any case as a unique creator (concert), to a situation where, as a good service provider, music is produced to increase the symbolic added value of an event (anonymous performance), by taking on a social role like that of a caterer, for example.

It would be worthwhile to search for equivalents in other artistic domains, to show how places, organizations, and structures within which the activities of ordinary artists take place are always elements of ranking, reclassification, downgrading, in the professional milieu in question, but also the springs of a permanent redefinition of the artistic identity or, to put it another way, of the subjective lived experience of artistic work.

5. Frequent tensions between the objective situation and subjective lived experience of artistic work

Concerned with minor forms of recognition and often heteronomous activities where one abandons all or some decision-making power over the content of one’s work, ordinary artists often experience periods of divergence, even tension, between the objective conditions tied to their work and their illusio, in the sense of “fundamental belief in the value of the game and of the issues inherent to working in a given field” (Bourdieu 2000: 11). Since artistic activities are judged according to values of exceptionality, freedom, and gratuity, these artists are especially likely to experience a contradiction between the supposedly exceptional nature of their “artist identity” and the banality of their condition, between the ideal of creative freedom and the constraints of production, between the ideal of “art for art’s sake” and the reality of the instrumentalization of their work. We can, from this point, identify some ways of living with these tensions that the articles in this dossier partially address:

– the critical stance of the cursed artist. Some ordinary artists can live as “autonomous” artists precisely because they struggle to “live from their art.” Among the “dance musicians” studied by Becker (1963), “jazz” musicians represent the anti-commercial end of the spectrum and adopt a stance (which has now been present for years in other styles of music) against the established criteria for economic success. Today, some may hold a marginal position in the market by “refusing to submit” to the demand of the wider public, like Becker’s outsiders but also by “keeping away” from instances of cultural legitimacy and recognition (subsidies, prizes, honours). In a reinterpretation of the nineteenth-century romantic bohemian lifestyle, these artists turn poverty and anonymity into a mark of virtuous autonomy;

– modest accommodation. The first recognition, which is, so to speak, a minimal recognition, is likely to come in the form of identification by others: the fact of “being called” a writer, musician, etc., which allows the individual to “feel like” a writer, musician, etc. (Heinich 1995). It is to do with “being of it,” being a part of the scene, the professional group, being recognized by one’s peers, as Jacques Dubois suggests when he points to the role of cenacles (salons, reviews, etc.) in “the emergence” of a writer (Dubois 1978). This form of recognition is, of course, only partial, and highly relative, but it nevertheless constitutes a first, indispensable, and fundamental step for aspiring artists, especially when their access to this sphere is also a social ascension. For some—ordinary working-class musicians, for example (Perrenoud 2007)—this integration into the professional group already constitutes an end in and of itself. Being recognized in the absolute sense, being revered and considered “great” on the national or international stage can be an amateur’s dream, but is rarely an aspiration for many ordinary artists who already have careers and have developed a rationality which aligns itself with a low-level position on the professional pyramid, a position which is often associated with modest, but “authentic” artisans. The same can be said of pluriactive artists who can adapt to supplementary employment (a commercial illustrator, for example) to the extent that it can allow the artist to create more autonomously but without making much money;

– the persistence of ambitions. While the means of accommodating these discrepancies can, for some ordinary artists, lead to new forms of belief adapted to their objective situation (when they end up satisfied with their place by adhering to a wider definition of being an artist), the persistence of discrepancies (which manifests itself in a durable sentiment of frustration and hope of success that is never completely abandoned) must not be minimized. In effect, the unpredictability of artistic careers always allows for the possibility of believing in them despite everything, especially in artistic disciplines such as literature, where recognition may come late in one’s career (Bois 2011);

– the requalification of activity. In their strategies for diversifying their work, ordinary artists are often led to perform in various modes of “creative work,” at the intersection of the art world and industrial or commercial production. On-demand illustration (visual or sound) is a good example of work that is looked down upon in comparison with autonomous creation, which is the only legitimate kind of work for an artist. To what extent and under what conditions can someone manage, despite everything, in these cases, to “make art,” to “be an artist”? It is likely that social characteristics (notably the class fraction of origin, gender, and qualifications) as well as the dispositions that they create largely determine the possibility of conceiving of creative work as something that allows for the valorisation of the “artistic character,” or even of thinking of oneself as an “artist”;

– entrepreneurship. While certain ordinary artists do not think of themselves as “losers,” and build acceptable ways of carrying out their work, in some cases this also involves breaking with the illusio that comes with the territory and its idea of artistic “purity.” By accepting the role of developing a service activity as an efficient entrepreneur, the ordinary artist then becomes a prospector of new markets, “creating his or her job” following the neo-liberal vulgate by becoming, for example, an event-driven specialist, selling musical performances or magic shows for private events, or even an education professional, providing writing or theatre workshops for schools throughout the year in their local region. Reliability, adaptability, and technical and administrative competencies are therefore the top qualities of these artists, some of whom train regularly in management and communication. The two first cases involve a local figure of professional integration in an entrepreneurial mode, breaking away from the romantic mythology of the pure and non-profit-oriented artist but in congruence with the neo-liberal conception of “creation” and “innovation.”

In the face of the banality of the would-be exceptional artist’s condition, feelings of failure and declining status are far from unanimous and unequivocal. These different possible attitudes (and one could probably find others) are mostly tied to inequalities in the social capacity to perceive the situation, especially one’s own position in the field in relation to its most legitimate actors. For example, Bernard Lehmann showed the differences in the perception of the job among permanently salaried orchestral musicians in Paris (Lehmann 2002), including between members of the same instrumental section, who share the same working conditions and employment status. We thus find different views of the same objective position (rank and file orchestral musicians10, for example) based on the social characteristics of the individuals.


The previous pages have shown to what extent the expression “ordinary artist” can be considered an oxymoron, which leads us to analyse situations that seem, in theory, incongruous even though they are, in practice, the most common. The dossier’s articles give different and complementary insights into realities that are both banal and marginal in very inegalitarian social spaces, focusing visibility on the small number of “chosen ones” who have arrived at the summit of the professional pyramid. Since it represents the opposite condition to that of the ordinary artist on which we are focusing here—thereby allowing us to define it “implicitly”—the situation of these “chosen ones” must also be questioned. The temptation to idealize is indeed great, when one focuses on the most famous artists. Yet, artistic spheres never being completely autonomous, we may wonder if there really are artists who have, always and under any circumstances, a purely vocational relationship with their work, who never abandon the ideal of “art for the sake of art,” etc. The notion of the ordinary artist recalls the most mundane aspects of artistic work that even the “chosen” can never totally ignore (even the most famous artist must, for example, grapple in one way or another with the question of the commercialisation of their work, if only in terms of finding out about information transmitted by a publisher or agent about sales numbers, media coverage, etc.). Nor should we ignore the fact that some artists who are considered “exceptional” are in objectively more enviable situations than others, and benefit from a material and human environment that allows them to guarantee and preserve much of this exceptional status. In other words, although the figure of the “extraordinary” artist comes from a belief and makes others appear “ordinary” in comparison, the latter must face much more difficult subjective and objective working conditions.

Finally, beyond art worlds, in the following articles, Pierre Bataille’s text contributes to an attempt to expand the focus onto a group of producers of symbolic goods of restricted diffusion (Bourdieu 1985). By taking an interest in the downgraded means of professional insertion for graduates of the École normale superieure, and notably those who teach in secondary education, he shows how fruitful it is to think of an equivalent to the “ordinary artist” in intellectual careers, including in the context of strict institutional regulations, by exposing both the interest and the limits of such a transposition.

Expanding the line of inquiry further, on one hand by exploring the production and circulation of widely diffused symbolic goods and, on the other hand, by considering the subjectivization (even “superhumanization,” Linhart 2015) of attitudes to work within the contemporary managerial ideology which encourages each individual to invest their body and soul into their work, one can wonder whether the cases presented here may also be considered models. The tertiarization of the economy and the development of the service proletariat, but also the rise of horizontal management and an incessantly renewed call for the “talent” and “creativity” of wage earners, beg the question of whether the paradoxical situation of the ordinary artist is becoming a paradigm. In fact, the issue here is displacement (or annulment) by contemporary managerial ideology on the border between social work (in the Marxian sense of work that makes us human) and alienated work. When it comes to considering every alienated worker to be a vocational worker seeking self-fulfilment in his or her work—the intrinsic contradiction of the figure of the ordinary artist—the paradox of this condition, and the permanent instability to which it can condemn people, thus become a paradigm that can be generalized to include all neo-managerial ideology. In qualified work spaces, permanent injunctions to set oneself apart to “stand out from the crowd,” “create desire,” innovate, “keep challenging oneself,” or “reinventing oneself” (where one can find similarities with some agentivity theories), undoubtedly produce, as in the art world, a large majority of “losers:” atomized, permanently threatened by loss of status and constraints for a perpetual individual fight for their economic and symbolic survival11.

These last elements have similarities with well-known works dating from the turn of the century that show how the integration of the “artistic critique” with capitalism (Boltanski & Chiapello 2005) produces a neoliberalism to which the risk-seeking, almost libertarian figure of the artist-entrepreneur (Menger 2002) is well adjusted, like the archetypal protagonist of the “society of individuals” (Elias 1987). This dossier was above all a product of the desire to give a robust, empirical foundation to the study of these very diverse modalities of ordinary existence within a world of that values uniqueness.

1 We wish to sincerely thank Séverine Sofio and Wenceslas Lizé for their thorough reading and all the improvement suggestions they’ve made for this

2 Our use of this label applies to both men and women, although it is undoubtedly particularly relevant to the situation of women (Pasquier 1983;

3 Recognition can happen to varying degrees, as indicated by adjectives such as “minor” and “partial.” The notion of “consecration” refers to a “high

4 In France, normaliens are graduates of the Écoles normales supérieures—prestigious higher education establishments that only admit students based on

5 According to Becker, artists who are not “integrated” into existing art worlds, can form new art worlds with conventions and cooperative networks of

6 A general note on quotations in this journal: we have translated all non-English language quotations for which we did not have access to a published

7 While the research mentioned here is about French writers surveyed by an organization in the Rhône-Alpes region, their link to this region is not

8 Since intermediaries in artistic fields often play an important role in building the value of an artist, it is much easier to understand why they

9 One can also find cases of “happy” multiactivity when the work that brings in the most revenue, while being totally disconnected from the art world

10 Rank and file musicians (in French musiciens du rang) are at the bottom of the orchestral hierarchy, below soloists and section leaders.

11 It would also be necessary here to address these changes and what they mean for collective mobilization, notably by studying political and union

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1 We wish to sincerely thank Séverine Sofio and Wenceslas Lizé for their thorough reading and all the improvement suggestions they’ve made for this article, and for managing the whole dossier. We are also very grateful to Isabelle Gouarné (who acted as a liaison between the authors and the experts), as well as to the experts and the translators who worked on this dossier.

2 Our use of this label applies to both men and women, although it is undoubtedly particularly relevant to the situation of women (Pasquier 1983; Ravet 2003; Buscatto 2007).

3 Recognition can happen to varying degrees, as indicated by adjectives such as “minor” and “partial.” The notion of “consecration” refers to a “high degree of recognition,” which puts it in direct opposition with the “ordinary.”

4 In France, normaliens are graduates of the Écoles normales supérieures—prestigious higher education establishments that only admit students based on a very selective examination process.

5 According to Becker, artists who are not “integrated” into existing art worlds, can form new art worlds with conventions and cooperative networks of their own.

6 A general note on quotations in this journal: we have translated all non-English language quotations for which we did not have access to a published translation.

7 While the research mentioned here is about French writers surveyed by an organization in the Rhône-Alpes region, their link to this region is not necessarily editorial. They may live in or be from this region while publishing through major Parisian publishers.

8 Since intermediaries in artistic fields often play an important role in building the value of an artist, it is much easier to understand why they are not often present in ordinary artists’ careers.

9 One can also find cases of “happy” multiactivity when the work that brings in the most revenue, while being totally disconnected from the art world, is a source of inspiration or allows the artist to maintain a level of artistic purity. This is the case for some writers (cf. certain profiles of writers doing “jobs outside of the cultural sector,” Lahire 2006) or musicians, especially those in the domain of radical improvised music who, thanks to their day job far from the art world, can maintain a “purely vocational” relationship to their artistic work (Perrenoud 2009: 91‑93), but this stance is not entirely compatible with a “professional” self-image.

10 Rank and file musicians (in French musiciens du rang) are at the bottom of the orchestral hierarchy, below soloists and section leaders.

11 It would also be necessary here to address these changes and what they mean for collective mobilization, notably by studying political and union engagement among ordinary artists and in the art world, as Jérémy Sinigaglia did for intermittent performing artists (Sinigaglia 2007), as Flora Bajard did for ceramicists (Bajard 2012), or even as shown in Roueff & Sofio 2013.

Marc Perrenoud

Université de Lausanne/Institut des sciences sociales, LACCUS (Laboratoire Capitalisme, Culture et Sociétés) https://www.unil.ch/laccus/fr/home.html

By this author

Géraldine Bois

Université de Lorraine/2L2S (EA 3478), Laboratoire Lorrain de Sciences Sociales http://2l2s.univ-lorraine.fr/

By this author

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