The Sociological World of Installation Art

By Tia Harne

In today’s contemporary society, the concept of art and the world in which it belongs is difficult to define. What constitutes art? What is an art world? According to Howard Becker, an American sociologist revered for his studies of occupations, education and art, that which is considered art and its respective art world is clearly defined. Art is anything that is accepted by those within an art world. An art world is all of the people who come together to create art, this includes those who we may or may not consider to be the artists. All art worlds must consist of collaborators and conventions, resources, distribution and judgement. There are many art worlds in contemporary society; installation art being an example of one such art world. Installation art is three-dimensional artwork that occupies an interior space. It is often site-specific – designed to have a particular relationship, whether temporary or permanent, with its spatial environment on an architectural, conceptual or social level. Installation art seeks to create a high level of intimacy between itself and the viewer as it exists as a presence within the overall context of its container whether that be a museum, building or designated room. Artworks are often meant to evoke a mood or emotion, and as such ask for a certain commitment from the viewer. The ideas behind a piece of installation art, and the responses it elicits, tend to be more important than the quality of its mediums or technical merits. Artists champion this genre for its potential to transform how art is viewed by surprising and engaging audiences in new ways. Installation as its own form of art satisfies Becker’s requirements of an art world. It contains a network of collaborators, holds to specific conventions, utilizes unique resources, and undergoes the scrutiny of aestheticians and critics. Installation is a relatively new form of art that is still making its presence known within accepted art worlds.

Installation Art

Similar to other art worlds, installation art consists of collaborators – the people within the art world that are responsible for the creation and distribution of a piece of art to appear as it does in its final state. Installation art did not arise from a particular collective or organized intention. Rather, it arose from a lineage of conceptual, theatrical, site and time specific ventures by various artists. One such artist is Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s three-dimensional tableau, Étant donnés (1966), set the early expectations and basis for future concepts of installation art. More modern artists, such as Nathaniel Stern, have evolved installation art from being solely observatory to interactive. Stern’s piece, enter: hektor (2001), requires guests to chase after projected words with their arms in order to trigger spoken words. This kind of immersion requires more than just the artist’s vision however. Artists must work in tandem with multiple technicians to bring their artwork to completion. Engineers are necessary for the construction of large and complicated works, projectionists and lighting specialists may be needed, and material and design specialists may need to be consulted with. Along with technicians, artists delving in Installation art must utilize support staff, whether that be in the form of security, transportation staff, janitorial staff, etc. Collaborations among artists, technicians and support staff are vital to any art world and installation art is no exception. The motives for such collaboration varies greatly among participants. Some are solely in search of financial gain or fame while others wish to simply bring their visions to life or even serve a greater, more meaningful purpose such as Carsten Holler and Rosemarie Trockel’s House for Pigs and People (1997). Holler and Trockel’s artwork served as a metaphor of social division and intended to elicit a more visceral than intellectual response from its viewers. Issues and opportunities arise from collaboration, however, as a result of motives. Artists may find themselves in unfavorable positions of pressure or with limited resources and venues. Unequal opportunities may also factor into the struggles of the collaborators within the art world of installation. However, collaboration does allow for artist recognition, press interviews, appreciation of installation art, as well as providing job opportunities for support and technical staff.

Carsten Holler and Rosemarie Trockel’s House for Pigs and People (1997)

The conventions – rules, standards and assumptions that facilitate and constrain the possibilities within an art world – of installation art are in agreement with Becker’s definition and help to further cooperation and collaboration within that art world. The possibilities of constitutes installation art is seemingly limitless and depends entirely upon the artist’s concept and aim. Almost any type of media and material can be utilized including natural or man-made objects. Installation art is not, however, sculpture; it instead inverts the principles of sculpture. Whereas the latter is designed to be viewed from the outside as a self-contained arrangement of forms, installations envelop the spectator in the space of the work. The viewer enters a controlled environment featuring objects, light, sound and even projected imagery. The composition of the artwork is secondary – it is the effect on the spectator’s spatial and cultural expectations that remains paramount. These conventions of installation art support cooperation via the artist’s need to consult with various peoples of diversified skill. This level of cooperation, as a result of the conventions, allows for more intimate relationships between collaborators and better opportunities of artist recognition. However, since installation art has rather loose conventions in resources, it may be difficult, especially for the public, to discern between what is installation and what is sculpture.

The resources, which includes materials, money and personnel, of installation art vary greatly and incorporate natural and artificial objects, painting, sculpture, animation, photography, live performance art, sound, smell and audio. Some of the most interesting forms of installation art are ones containing live performances. An example of the bizarre yet immersive experience that live performance can contribute to installation art is Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. Last presented in 2003, Ono’s artwork invited viewers to overstep their boundaries and cut clothing from her body until she was naked. This conceptual performance is a famous feminist artwork that demonstrates how each participant changes the tone of the work. Ono claims that her installation is “against ageism, against racism, against sexism, and against violence.” These resources and personnel are limited however. Many installation pieces are usually site-specific and those which incorporate live resources are temporary for obvious reasons. Although integrating living beings into an artwork is controversial, it often produces the most interesting and thought-provoking pieces as well as creating a more immersive environment, which is what defines installation as an art form.

Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece

The distribution of installation art is complex due to its exploited resources and general concept. It exists mainly as a gallery system which focuses on museums and exhibitions as well as critic attraction. Installation art is challenging to mass distribute and usually impossible. Many exhibitions are stationary and rely heavily upon their set surroundings. Thus, if it were to be removed, it would lose its meaning. Some, such as live performance installation, may be featured at varying venues, but still remains as something which is not easily possessed. The best form of installation distribution is via photographs of the artwork or experience, but even then a photo can only capture so much and does not serve the intentions of the artwork, the viewer is supposed to be immersed in the piece, not simply spectating. Although distribution is rather impractical, it necessary for artists to disperse their work, or at least some representation of that work, to gain reputation. The fact that installation art is difficult to distribute fosters a certain exclusivity of the artwork. Viewers are more likely to appreciate an installation artist’s piece because of the scarcity of distribution. It also benefits the artist financially that their art is singular and impossessable; enthusiasts cannot simply purchase the art, they must consistently pay a fee to admire their favorite artworks.

Alicia Martin’s Biografies

In accordance with other art worlds, installation art also satisfies Becker’s definition of those who pass judgement, or aestheticians. Aestheticians are persons given the authority to judge by an art world and typically adhere to a system and rubric. Aestheticians are also important in coordinating action between art worlds and setting standards. In the art world of installation, approved critics may judge the artwork, artists themselves may also criticize their fellow peers, but the viewers are the true focus. “The main centre [in installation art] toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer”, states installation artists Ilya Kabakov. The art of installation is meant to relate to the audience; they are the intended critics. Although spectators are the expected analysts of the artwork, it is still subject to official aestheticians who supply the standards the art world must adhere to. They enforce the principles of installation art and thus aid in its development as a unique art form. The issues of judgement that many aestheticians of installation art face lays in the fact that the requirements of what comprises installation are broad. It can be an arduous task defining what is and is not acceptable in installation, but this also allows artists to be more creative.

The main problem of installation art is also its most beneficial component. Installation as an art form seems to comply with only one rule: it must engage the viewer, otherwise it is essentially limitless. By having one standard to conform to, what defines installation art is extensive. However, because of this element, artists are able to experiment with multiple styles, mediums, materials, etc. To improve the competition and enforce idealism within the art world of installation, artists and aestheticians may be inclined to approve certain parts of artwork to compile a complete and final definition of what constitutes said art. Lowering the standards of installation art would only be a hindrance to that art world; with such lax conditions, anything less may be considered sculpture. In regards of distribution, since the art itself loses meaning when removed from its setting, it may be beneficial to devise better ways for the people to be brought to the art. It is feasible to assume that the reduction of ticket prices for installation art would increase the number of faithful connoisseurs who would not mind the travel.

Although installation art is still a relatively contemporary art form, it is able to satisfy Howard Becker’s standards of art and art worlds. It contains a network of collaborators, holds to specific conventions, utilizes unique resources, and undergoes the scrutiny of aestheticians and critics. Each component of the art world consists of its own set of expectations, problems and opportunities. Installation art is an ever-changing form of art that has a wide variety of what is acceptable and allows artists to push boundaries. The future of installation pieces only serves to expand the imagination and inspire awe in enthusiasts and the general public alike. It is innovative, immersive, intriguing, and, most importantly, a remarkable form of art.



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Nastasi, A. (2012, August 28). The Weirdest Interactive Installations and Performances.

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