Toward a Sociological Aesthetics of the Contemporary Art System

“The function of art can be traced to problems of meaningful communication,” writes sociologist Niklas Luhmann in Art as a Social System.[1] The entanglement of art, functionality, and society that Luhmann calls into question forms the fundamental thesis of art historian Matthew Rampley’s “Art as a Social System: The Sociological Aesthetics of Niklas Luhmann,” from Telos 148 (Fall 2009). Rampley suggests that Luhmann’s corpus of social theory, which models modern society as a structure of systems, merits a critical revisiting. Noting the current marginal status and limited applications of Luhmann’s sociological systems theory, Rampley maintains that a return to Luhmann offers an innovative alternative to orthodox methodologies of social theory and history, particularly relevant to the realm of art. By positing art as a social system, Luhmann formulates the hermeneutic potential for a sociologically rooted aesthetics, for which Rampley argues a direct relevance to the interpretation of contemporary art and culture.

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