Race and Sociology of Art

By Fiona Greenland (University of Virginia) and Patricia Banks (Mount Holyoke College)

The art world is replete with the same forces of anti-Black racism that permeate society as a whole: pay inequality in the arts sector, lack of representation in U.S. art galleries, and few Black people or people of color appointed to positions of power in museums. To give adequate scholarly attention to these problems requires facility with core sociological ideas about race and inequality. But given the unique intersections of symbolism, cultural capital, and social stereotypes about who makes art, the work ahead of us must also attend to the specificities of art. We discuss three areas where Black artists’ contributions are systematically denied and explain why sociologists are in a good position to critique and analyze them. While our focus is on Black artists and artworks by Black people, there is work to be done, too, on the challenges facing artists who identify as Latinx, Native or Indigenous, and other communities that have been marginalized in the art industry.

On being a Black artist. Research shows that racism impacts all stages of Black artists’ careers. Elite art schools in the US are disproportionately white. Black students at these schools report feeling social isolation, having their ideas dismissed, and being pressured to convince faculty and peers that their artwork is legitimate. White peers, by contrast, are more readily accepted as producing artwork that is culturally “neutral.” Upon leaving art school, often with considerable debt, Black artists face a professional art world that is rife with racism and racial inequity.

Just 5.6% of artists shown in galleries in New York City, the capital of the contemporary art market, are by women of color, though about a quarter of the city’s population is Black. In the second half of 2020 there was a surge of market interest in Black artists’ work, with the result that some Black artists are seeing higher income streams and greater demand for exhibitions and solo shows. The reality is that most Black artists still face systemic challenges. Black artists report high levels of burnout due to unpaid, invisible labor, persistent micro-aggressions, and pressure to produce certain kinds of art that resonate with white audiences’ expectations for what “Black art” should look like.

Sociologists can greatly add to our understanding of these phenomena. Sociology of art has typically been split between semiotics, or the study of meaning, and structure, or the study of artists’ career trajectories and industry institutions. Because the Blackness of an artist is frequently inseparable from her creative work, semiotics and structure are fused. We need both approaches to decenter whiteness in the art world.

Art and money. According to research conducted in 2018, the total combined auction value of work by African-American artists over a ten-year period was $2.2 billion. Moreover, one artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, accounted for $1.7 billion of that number. Removing Basquiat from the calculation, the total combined auction value of work by other African-American artists is $460.8 million – just 0.26% of the global auction market. With recent news headlines about new auction records for Black artists’ work, it is easy to conclude that the art world is finally giving Black artists their reputational and financial due. The picture is more complicated. “Flipping” – in which an artwork is bought and then quickly resold at a much higher price – is prevalent around Black artists’ work. It typically does not generate income for the artist – it’s the “flipper” who wins – but puts the work out of range for all but the richest collectors. There is also evidence that speculative buying hurts young artists’ careers, through overvaluation and swift devaluation. In other words, we need more work done on the broader ramifications of the art world’s interest in investing in Black artists’ works.

Let’s consider, too, the situation faced by Black gallery owners, who play an important role in boosting Black artists’ careers by showing their works to collectors and patrons. At the prestigious Art Basel Fair last June, of the 281 galleries selected to participate in the fair, not a single one was Black-owned. The fair’s organizers explained it as a pipeline problem: there are not enough Black-owned art galleries of sufficient prestige to make it through the competitive application process. Black gallery owners counter that they will not accrue sufficient prestige without the opportunity to participate. Black artists’ works are being shown at Art Basel and other contemporary art fairs, mainly by white-owned galleries, and they are now at a price point beyond the reach of most museums and many Black collectors.

Is the market popularity of Black artists’ work an indication of permanent commitment to equity and access in the art market? This is an empirical question, and we suggest sociology of art has a role to play in answering it. Without a major shift in monetary flows and centers of cultural power, the surge could dissipate into a passing trend. As one artist pointed out, “We’re still moving though this particular era with such a huge lack of equity that we have to depend on the goodness of white folks to see these changes being made, but what happens when there is a backlash?” Just such a backlash occurred in the early 2000s, when a surge of art market interest in Black art failed to generate durable structural change for Black artists themselves. In light of this, sociology can do more to analyze critically the intersection of art, money, and race.

Museums. Since the early 1990s there has been a considerable increase in the number of American museums focused on African-American art and artists. This increase is the result of concerted efforts by Black philanthropists, collectors, curators, and artists to organize and raise funds. As Patricia Banks (2019) has shown, however, many African-American museums face financial hardships within a few years after opening. This is due in part to broader patterns of equity distribution. It is related, too, to patrons’ ideas about “what matters about the museums they support” – and what matters, it turns out, cannot be easily subsumed into the traditional theories of class and capital. We need more work on the role of ethnic museums in legitimating culture produced by racial and ethnic minorities. We also need more research on how      racial and ethnic minority elite collectors legitimate      culture produced by co-ethnic artists.

Black artists have been instrumental in pushing for reforms in curatorial practices and in museum management structures and labor relations. Why have we, as a subfield, had little to say about this important area of change? 87% of the artwork in the collections of 18 major US art museums is by white people. Women artists of color account for less than 1% of the artworks held by US art museums. When sociologists write about museums as sites of social pedagogy and the cultivation of cultural capital, they should critique and decenter the idea that “good art” is, implicitly, works made by white men. Bridget R. Cooks, Monique Scott, and Patricia Banks are among the many scholars studying race and ethnicity in museum work, and creating new curatorial practices that showcase the contributions made by artists of color.

An agenda for sociology of art. What are the definitions that guide sociology of art? Are we thinking about “art” in terms that will allow for makers and creators who do not conform to type? The singular white male genius, the societal misfit whose creations break the mold. Thing is, that ideal comes from particular sociological conditions – an argument made forcefully by Nathalie Heinich in her study of French impressionist Vincent Van Gogh. Heinich presented Van Gogh as the earliest example of the singular but highly admired “accursed artist,” whose eccentricities were just enough within the bounds of a recognized cultural script that he could, after his death, be safely rehabilitated as a great artist. When white men (and some white women) are eccentric non-comformists, we make sense of them by calling them “Bohemians,” geniuses, or cultural rebels – terms that are generally praiseful. By contrast, people of color who make creative works but do not conform to societal niceties have been historically labeled “activists” instead of artists, “folk artists” and “naïve artists” instead of just artists, or they are diagnosed with mental illness or overlooked entirely.

We might consider whether some of our cherished methods have generated racial blind spots. By looking for artists in “artists’ communities,” we risk overlooking artists who do not have the assets or, frankly, the desire to live and work in such spaces. To take one of several possible examples, a current exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art features works made by artists in the Gee’s Bend quilting cooperative in Alabama. The majority of Gee’s Bend artists are Black women in rural communities. They come from low-income households and did not train in elite art schools. They would not show up in standard-issue sociology of art accounts of artists, and yet here they are, creating sophisticated, brilliantly creative works that continue a traditional aesthetic form while experimenting with new designs and materials. By prioritizing semiotics as the go-to method for making meaning of art in society, we risk overlooking the social experiences of the artists – experiences including racism, that may be essential for understanding the subject matter but do not necessarily show up in signs and symbols.

What are some things we’re not yet “getting” as a subfield? Recent controversies over Confederate monuments reveal widespread scholarly myopia about art and Black agency. Those monuments were created by white makers for white viewers. They deliberately and violently omitted Black people. Although Black and people of color activists have pushed for monument removal and critique, they also remain creative agents through their own works. Sociology of art would benefit by separating out some of these sites of agency and insisting on more attentive treatment of Black people’s artistic creations and ingenuity. On the other hand, Black agency has been essential to repatriation work. Returning artworks to countries once occupied by colonial powers is part of a broader effort to address and repair the violence of colonization, which often entailed the desecration and despoliation of local people’s culture. Sociology would benefit by engaging more deeply with this aspect of Black creative agency.

Adding new topics to our subfield is not enough. In order to build a better intellectual basis for scholarly analyses of art and the social, we need to revisit our concepts: art, creative industries, cultural capital, iconicity, and interpretation. Each of these is well established in our discipline already. They could take us even further were we to make intentional connections with critical race theory.

Resources for getting started. This is not a comprehensive list! Know of other great resources? Send us an email and we’ll add them.

  • Banks, Patricia. 2019. Diversity and Philanthropy at African-American Museums. London: Routledge.
  • Cooks, Bridget R. 2011. Exhibiting Blackness. African Americans and the American Art Museum. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
  • Dávila, Arlene. 2020. Latinx Art. Artists, Markets, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Fleetwood, Nicole. 2020. Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • González, Jennifer A. 2008. Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Scott, Monique. (2019). “Museums Matter in the Current Climate of Anti-Black Racism.” Anthropology News website, March 20, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1119
  • Zuberi, Tukufu. Books, films, and museum exhibition materials including “Decolonizing the Narrative” and “Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster.”
  • African Digital Art, an online collective and creative space for digital artists and their audiences, with a focus on African and African diaspora creations.
  • Black Art in America (BAIA), an online network focused on African-American art.
  • Black Prism, a forum by and for Black artists and their artwork. Includes artist interviews, a blog, and online art shop.
  • Culturetype.com. From the web: “Essential resource focused on visual art from a Black perspective, Culture Type explores intersection of art, history and culture.”
  • Dazed’s Global List of Black-owned/founded museums, art galleries, and spaces