What is Art? Art Gallery Rituals and The Importance of Art in Social Life.


Author: Selina Lynch

Published Online: 20th May 2020


Art is a complex concept to define. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, art is:

‘The expression or application of creative human skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’.

The definition provided here, from a ‘western’ cultural understanding, demonstrates the widely recognized property of art, being its aesthetic qualities. The philosophy crucial to the nineteenth century Aesthetic Movement L’art pour l’art meaning art for art’s sake, states that art has an intrinsic, inherent value and comes with the idea that art transcends reality in some way. Sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu have looked at the way that the being able to appreciate art is not a preconceived ability but an exercise of class identity.

As a response to the arguments surrounding what art is, I was led to the topic of my anthropological research. My aim was to explore what art was in the context of private art galleries on Cork Street, a street in Mayfair in West London. Despite the art world being expanded to all areas of London by the 1960’s, Cork Street was seen as the premier destination for progressive contemporary art from the 1930’s onwards. Today the street is still recognized as being at the frontier for making London one of the main international global art capitals. Having attended a few gallery openings and having permission from the gallery directors to speak to people for my research, I gained insights into why people came to see art in Mayfair. What was interesting about this study is that I found people were not actually there for the artworks themselves…

Art, in Mayfair was not simply a painting hung on a gallery wall, but it was a social event. On Cork Street, a social world lies around the artwork, the galleries and the street itself. An essential component of what makes art, art, is the people who surround it. For many people I spoke to, Cork Street events are a way to enjoy more of London in the evening and to meet new people through expressing a common interest in contemporary British art. Here, people can swap thoughts and ideas and become invested in critical debates about the work and its value.

My findings could be grouped into themes such as maintaining networks, family affairs, status symbols and being seen. Instead of focusing on the paintings, it was important for people to ‘maintain social connections. In a city like London where everyone seems to be constantly busy and leisure time is being increasingly pushed to the margins, the gallery openings are an important event for social interactions. Art galleries provide people with the sense of group identity, which is especially important in a potentially very isolating city like London.

Commercial art galleries on Cork Street are marketed as luxury, ‘high-brow’, centers of fine art. For a lot of people, buying an expensive piece of art at a private view is more about self-esteem and a display of wealth rather than for an aesthetic appreciation. The tone of this article may start to sound slightly cynical about the art world. However, we can instead understand this from a material culture perspective. An artworld lies around the artworks themselves. Art is not a passive object which sits on gallery walls to be observed. Instead, art has the power to facilitate a social event, which mediates social dynamics between people and is embedded in people’s social lives.

In response to the question ‘what is art?’, art is in fact, a social instrument, which is something which people use, in symbolic association, to identify their social status and is employed as a display of wealth. In this way, it effectively embodies meaning and conveyed ideas about social-class and identity in this context. From the interviews I conducted, what was also revealed was that art was not the central focus the event, but an important aspect of art was being seen, the hype of the event and its exclusivity – therefore it was involved in a collective, performative drama surrounding the events. The object itself served a function beyond aesthetic contemplation but a symbolic social category. Artworks are certainly capable of being a social vehicle, since evidently, the events at Cork Street galleries were centered just as much around the people as they were around the artwork. Art does not exist independently of the social connections in which it is embedded, but extends beyond this into a social realm, through its participation in sociality. Through its agency in enabling a network of relationships, art was a crucial aspect of people’s social lives and sense of community.