The Triumph of Serious Art

  • Hans Abbing


In what I call “the period of serious art” (circa 1880–1980), respect for serious art—and not popular art—is high. Presently it is going down. I discuss the emergence of a separation between serious art and popular art as well as other entertainment in the second half of the nineteenth century. In this period, art-worlds become established. They run prestigious halls, theatres and museums, and determine what is art, what is not really art, and who is a real artist and who is not. Non-profits are established. Art-worlds guard quality and progress in the arts and construct a tangible and intangible art heritage. For their functioning, the new art-worlds rely on public and private support.

Within art-worlds there is innovation, and this leads to conflicts and occasional revolutions. Unlike in the popular arts, mainstream art is taboo, the same as imitation and retro art. It is unrecognized and inferior art. In popular art, innovations are diffused in a more organic way and without major conflicts. Audiences more easily go along. This partly explains the success of popular art.


  1. Abbing, H. (2002). Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alexander, V. D. (2003). Sociology of the Arts. Exploring Fine and Popular Forms. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  4. Arora, P., & Vermeylen, F. (2013). The End of the Art Connoisseur? Experts and Knowledge Production in the Visual Arts in the Digital Age. Information, Communication & Society, 16(2), 194–214. Scholar
  5. Becker, H. S. (1982). Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bennett, T. (1995). The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Bille, T., & Jensen, S. (2016). Artistic Education Matters: Survival in the Arts Occupations. Journal of Cultural Economics, 42(1), 23–43.Google Scholar
  8. Blanning, T. C. W. (1969). The Commercialization and Sacralization of European Culture in the Nineteenth Century. In T. C. W. Blanning (Ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Boltanski, L., & Esquerre, A. (2016). The Economic Life of Things. New Left Review, 98, 31–54.Google Scholar
  10. Boltanski, L., & Thévenot, L. (1991). On Justification. Economies of Worth. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Bourdieu, P. (1977). The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods. In R. Johnson (Ed.), The Field of Cultural Production. Essays on Art and Literature. Oxford: Polity Press, 1992.Google Scholar
  12. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  13. Bourdieu, P. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  14. Campbell, C. (1987). The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  15. Collins, R. (2005). Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Cowen, T. (2002). Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Danto, A. C. (1986). The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Works of Art. New York: Colombia University Press.Google Scholar
  18. De Marchi, N., & Van Miegroet, H. J. (1996). Mapping Markets for Paintings in Europe 1450–1750 (Neil De Marchi & Hans J. Van Miegroet, Eds.). Turnhout: Brepols.Google Scholar
  19. Dimaggio, P. (1982). Cultural Entrepreneurship in Nineteenth Century Boston: The Creation of an Organizational Base for High Culture in America. Media, Culture and Society, 4, 33–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. DiMaggio, P. (1991). Social Structure, Institutions, and Cultural Goods: The Case of the U.S. In P. Bourdieu & J. Coleman (Eds.), Social Theory for a Changing Society (pp. 133–166). Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  21. Doorman, M. (2003). Art in Progress: A Philosophical Response to the End of the Avant-Garde. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Dowd, T. J., Liddle, K., Lupo, K., & Borden, A. (2002). Organizing the Musical Canon: The Repertoires of Major U.S. Symphony Orchestras, 1842 to 1969. Poetics, 30(1), 35–61. Scholar
  23. Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  24. Finkelstein, D., & MacCleery, A. (2005). An Introduction to Book History. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Fraiberger, S. P., Sinatra, R., Resch, M., Riedl, C., & Barabási, A.-L. (2018). Quantifying Reputation and Success in Art. Science. Scholar
  26. Frey, B. S., & Pommerehne, W. (1989). Muses and Markets. Explorations in the Economics of the Arts. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  27. Gay, P. (1995). The Naked Heart. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  28. Gielen, P. (2010). The Art Institution in a Globalizing World. The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 40, 279–296.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Heinich, N. (2005). L’Élite Artiste, Excellence et Singularité en Régime Démocratique. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  30. Hernstein Smith, B. (1988). Contingencies of Value. Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Klamer, A. (2016). Doing the Right Thing. A Value Based Economy. London: Ubiquity Press.Google Scholar
  32. Laermans, R. (2009). Artistic Autonomy as Value and Practice. In P. Gielen & P. de Bruyne (Eds.), Being an Artist in Post-Fordist Times (pp. 125–137). Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.Google Scholar
  33. Lena, J. C. (2014). Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Lena, J. C., & Peterson, R. A. (2008). Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music Genres. American Sociological Review, 73, 697–718.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Levine, L. W. (1988). Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Mahoney, J. (2000). Path Dependence in Historical Sociology. Theory and Society, 29(4), 507–548.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. McCloskey, D. N. (2010). Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Nietzsche, F. (1990). Twilight of the Idols (Götzen-Dämmerung). London: Penguin Classics.Google Scholar
  39. O’Hagan, J. (1998). The State and the Arts. An Analysis of Key Economic Policy Issues in Europe and the United States. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  40. Oettermann, S. (1980). Das Panorama; Die Geschichte eines Massenmediums. Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat.Google Scholar
  41. Oware, M. (2014). (Un)conscious (Popular) Underground: Restricted Cultural Production and Underground Rap Music. Poetics, 42, 60–81. Scholar
  42. Pine, B. J., & Gilmore, J. H. (2011). The Experience Economy. Boston: Harvard Business Press.Google Scholar
  43. Smithuijsen, C. (2001). Een Verbazende Stilte. Klassieke Muziek Gedragsregels en Sociale Controle in de Concertzaal. Amsterdam: Boekmanstudies.Google Scholar
  44. Susan Jahoda, & a.o. (2014). Artists Report Back, A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists. Retrieved from BFAMFAPhD website:
  45. Thornton, P. H., & Ocasio, W. (2008). Institutional Logics. In C. O. R. Greenwood, R. Suddaby, & K. Sahlin-Andersson (Eds.), The Sage Publications of Organizational Institutionalism (pp. 99–129).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Throsby, C. D., & Withers, G. A. (1983). Measuring the Demand for the Arts as a Public Good: Theory and Empirical Results. In J. L. Shanahan a.o. (Ed.), Economic Support for the Arts. Akron: Association for Cultural Economics.Google Scholar
  47. Towse, R. (2006). Human Capital and Artists’ Labour Markets. In V. A. Ginsburgh & D. Throsby (Eds.), Handbook of the Economics of Art and Culture (pp. 865–894). Amsterdam a.o: North-Holland.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Velthuis, O. (2016). Are We in a New Era of the Art Market? In Art in the Periphery of the Center (pp. 456–465). Berlin: Sternberg Press.Google Scholar
  49. Vermeylen, F., & Van Dijck, M. (2013). The Test of Time: Art Encyclopedias and the Formation of the Canon of 17th-Century Painters in the Low Countries. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 31(1), 81–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Weber, W. (1984). The Contemporaneity of Eighteenth-Century Musical Taste. The Musical Quarterly, 70(2), 175–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. White, H. C., & White, C. A. (1995). Canvases and Careers. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hans Abbing
    • 1
  1. 1.AmsterdamThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations