This conversation is a recurring feature of the Consumers and Consumption website: the “Scholars’ Conversations” series, where consumption scholars (broadly defined) talk to other scholars in the field about recent publications and their approach to all things consumption. You can participate too! Graduate students, this can be an excellent opportunity to connect with someone whose work you like. Faculty and postdocs, this is a way to highlight your recent work and establish connections with future colleagues.

To learn more or to participate in the series, please email Tim Rosenkranz (timrosenkranz@cuhk.edu.hk) or Jordan Foster(jordann.foster@mail.utoronto.ca).

Scholars’ Conversations: Hannah Wohl, Bound by Creativity

By Tim Rosenkranz

I had the chance to interview Hannah Wohl, Assistant Professor at UC Santa Barbara, about her fascinating book Bound by Creativity (University of Chicago Press, 2021) and her experience doing field work with artists, collectors, curators and dealers in New York City. We talked about creativity and judgment, the difference between distinctiveness and distinction, her current research project on the qualities of scholarly worth, and finally, about new objects of consumption.  

Tim Rosenkranz: Your book, Bound by Creativity, is a fascinating and unique ethnography of the social world of artists and creativity. How did you come to work on this topic? What sparked your interest in this?

Hannah Wohl: My first ethnography was of a sensual figure drawing session at an erotic arts club, which ignited my interest in aesthetic judgment. This group was trying to accurately represent the human figure, and ultimately, I wanted to explore an art world in which aesthetic judgment was more uncertain. Contemporary visual artists strive to represent abstract ideas, concepts, and moods in physical forms, and there is not a clear consensus about when a work aptly embodies theory. This led me to the New York City contemporary art world, where art could be made of anything from frozen cat food to socks (in the case of two artists I studied) and artists make these aesthetic decisions with a lot of money and prestige on the line. 

Tim: Your book is based on two years of ethnographic research in New York. Please let us look behind the scenes. How did you gain access, how did your project develop? Are artists hard to engage and study with?

Hannah: I started by interviewing artists. Access to artists was relatively easy, as they generally enjoy talking about their work, but the interview process was challenging, as artists tend to talk about their creative decisions in very abstract terms. To get artists to discuss their creative practices more concretely, I asked them about specific work in the studio at different stages of development, such as sketches, unfinished work, and work in storage, and, when possible, I returned to the studio several times to see how work had evolved. I also realized that to understand how artists made creative decisions, I needed to grasp how artists’ interactions with others shaped their judgments. That’s when I started interviewing dealers, curators, collectors, and art advisers (people who professionally recommend artworks to collectors).

Elite collectors were the hardest to access, because they don’t publicly display their contact information and because artists and dealers are understandably cautious about maintaining these relationships. Eventually, a well-known dealer reached out to several collectors on my behalf, and these collectors were not hesitant to refer me to their collector friends, so things snowballed from there. Accessing interviews and fieldwork was a symbiotic process for me, as I asked interviewees if I could accompany them to art world events and met more people to interview at these events. As I conducted interviews and fieldwork over time, I observed how artists, dealers, curators, collectors, and art advisers all drew upon their perceptions of artists’ creative visions to orient their aesthetic judgment.

I homed into the concept of creative visions, which I defined as a bundle of formal and conceptual consistencies that were core and enduring within a body of work. This became a unifying focus that tied together my research across these various groups.

Tim: On first sight, your study seems to be about communities and practices of production. How does “consumption” feature in your book?

Hannah: I’m interested in how artists’ perceptions of others’ judgments influence their aesthetic decisions, so analyzing how collectors made decisions about which artworks to purchase was important. I interviewed elite collectors and conducted ethnographic fieldwork with them, including accompanying collectors to studio visits, exhibition openings, art fairs, and VIP parties. In a world where reputation was paramount, collectors jockeyed for status. They used narratives of what I call aesthetic confidence, claiming that they selected works based on their independent and superior taste.

They downplayed recommendations received from others, framing this information as received as part of informal friendships, while delegitimizing lower-status collectors’ claims to aesthetic confidence by arguing that lower-status collectors had to buy their taste through formal recommendations from art advisers. The broader literature on elites and consumption shows that elites make their distinction through their cultural omnivorous taste patterns. I reveal that, in certain fields, showing aesthetic confidence (or distinctiveness in taste) is at least as important as displaying cultural omnivorousness (or distinction in taste). More broadly, I argue that more research should examine not only taste patterns but also how people present their taste in face-to-face interaction.

Tim: What book or article about “consumption” has been particularly influential in your work?

Hannah: It’s hard to pick just one. Since I focus on elite consumption, Ashley Mears’ Very Important People and Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street have been especially helpful in thinking about contemporary elites’ orientations toward consumption and how elites justify their consumption in moral terms. Clayton Childress’ Under the Cover pushed me to think about how processes of production, distribution, and consumption are intertwined and influence one another. 

Tim: What are you working on now? What can we look forward to?

Hannah: During the pandemic, I started squirreling away archival datasets. One project I’m currently working on is about the evaluation of academic worth. I collected a unique dataset of tenure files across STEM, social sciences, and humanities disciplines, and I’m in the process of analyzing the letters from external reviewers. It’s a really rich and fascinating dataset, and I’ve just begun to scratch the surface. I’m particularly interested in how reviewers weigh different qualities of scholarly worth, attach or decouple these qualities from multiple metrics, project future outcomes, and understand their own ability to judge. An ethnographer at heart, I’m eager to get back to the field and I’m soon starting new fieldwork involving creative industries in Los Angeles.

Tim: From your perspective on the scholarship of consumers and consumption, what are areas that need more attention? And, what are new/emerging phenomena that have to be studied?

Hannah: I’m definitely biased. Analyzing aesthetic judgment in social interaction, including consumption, has long been a passion of mine, and I would love to see more work in this area. I’d also like to see a more relational focus on consumption, where sociologists examine how consumers’ evaluative orientations are influenced by their perceptions of how others make judgments within a field. Empirically, we’ve obviously started living much more online, and this has led to the emergence of new objects for consumption, from influencer culture to NFT art. I’m also very curious about what the future of ethnography will look like as we navigate this hybrid existence. 

About the interviewer:

Tim Rosenkranz is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research explores the global commodification processes of national destination marketing that turn nations into tourist destinations.

Published by Carla Cunha

Carla is an aspiring Sociologist with a Bachelor's degree in Sociology and a Master's degree in Business Administration from Montclair State University. She has over 8 years of digital marketing experience and works as a Senior Director of Digital Marketing at Faircom New York. Her research interests are consumer philanthropy, lifestyle choices, and anything revolving around the digital world.

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