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Here’s What Led Howard Becker to Write ‘Art Worlds’

COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS

COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS

A nice little Friday surprise: I was just making my way through this week’s New Yorker at the dentist office and finally had the chance to read Adam Gopnik’s profile of sociologist Howard Becker, who penned Art Worlds (1982), the classic syllabus text about how the visual-art game functions, which followed his Outsiders (1963), a look at marijuana subculture.

There’s a pretty great story about how he came to study the art community, as Gopnik explains:

Living in San Francisco for a while, [Becker] took up photography…and was lucky enough to have as the “lab monitor,” who mixed chemicals and helped students, a young woman named Annie Leibovitz. His experiences as a working photographer, like his earlier ones as a working jazzman, illuminated what eventually became his second important book, “Art Worlds” (1982), which advanced a collaborative view of picture-making. Like reefer-smoking among jazz musicians, artmaking was not the business of solitary artists, inspired by visions, but a social enterprise in which a huge range of people played equally essential roles in order to produce an artifact that a social group decided to dignify as art. Art, like weed, exists only within a world.

If you have some time to spare right now, Becker wrote persuasively about the related histories and missions of photography and sociology in his 1974 essay “Photography and Sociology.”

Gopnik also inquires a bit into Becker’s marijuana usage:

Asked if he knew so much because he was smoking weed himself, he says, “Yeah. Obviously.” And does he still smoke it? “Yeah. Obviously.”

Here’s the story.

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