Alison Gerber is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Social and Economic Geography at Uppsala University in Sweden. Her research focuses on work, culture, and public life. Her dissertation has a predictably dissertation-y title and abstract.
Art Work?: Tradition, Rationalization, and the Valuation of Contemporary Artistic Practice
This dissertation looks to visual artists in the contemporary United States as a lens through which to investigate valuation in contemporary working life. Given the growing importance of ephemeral, nontraditional, and immaterial work in a post-industrial economy, how do individuals without stable employers or other organizations understand the things they do as worth something, as worth doing?
Based on in-depth interviews with 80 visual artists, ethnographic fieldwork, and archival sources, this dissertation looks to artists’ narratives of investments in and returns from artistic practice in order to understand the ways that artists account for the value of their own activities. After discussing the ways that artistic practice has over the past forty years rationalized and become widely understood as an occupation, I develop a typology of artists’ accounts and show how patterns of pecuniary, credentialing, vocational, and relational accounts structure artists’ narratives about artistic practice.
I show how artists use apparently incompatible types of account in concert, and consider the importance of such marriages and compromises in research on diverse orders of worth more generally. I offer a methodological critique on communicative contexts and their effects in data collection and analysis, and argue that recurring relationships that form among multiple orders of worth can be constitutive of a given field’s landscape of practice.
Finally, the dissertation proposes a theory of disagreement in the valuation of working life. In this process, called here “decommensuration,” a social process of disagreement about value proceeds via three stages: as traditional practices undergo an occupational turn, tensions between old and new orders of worth come to be expressed in conflicts over valuation; diverse accounts of value proliferate; and finally, some accounts – those that draw on contemporary visions of traditional practice – achieve widespread resonance and become widely shared meanings. Empirically, the dissertation describes and typifies accounts of value widespread among visual artists in the United States. In contrast to the emphasis on processes of agreement more common in economic sociology today, I promote a perspective on social processes of commensuration that foregrounds conflict, contention, and disagreement in valuation.
Alison holds a BA and BFA from the University of Minnesota, attended Critical Studies at Malmö Art Academy / Lund University, and holds an MA, MPhil, and PhD in Sociology from Yale University, where she was a junior fellow of the Center for Comparative Research and the Center for Cultural Sociology. She lives in Malmö, Sweden.