TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Toward a Sociological Aesthetics of the Contemporary Art System

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Carlos Kong looks at Matthew Rampley’s “Art as a Social System: The Sociological Aesthetics of Niklas Luhmann” from Telos 148 (Fall 2009).

“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.

Luhmann’s modeling of society from systems theory offers a different and complementary social theory of modernity. Frequently associated with discourses of mathematics, cybernetics, and biology, Luhmann sought to expand systems theory beyond its traditionally scientific, technological, and organizational applications to formalize a theory of modern society. Repurposing communicative lexicons of systems and networks, Luhmann conceives society as “a system for constitutive meaning,” of which the basic element is the “communicative event.” Luhmann further emphasizes that the inherent will to communicate reflects the fundamental autonomy and ephemerality of communicative events themselves. Rampley draws attention to the de-anthropocentrism of Luhmann’s temporalized semantics of communication, stating that “the basis of society is, therefore, not social subjects but rather the recursive network of communications between them” (113). Luhmann maintains that the internal logics that propel systems to communicate and change are illustrative of the specifically modern relevance of conceiving society as a system, which Rampley relates to his advocated hermeneutic of systematized, sociological aesthetics.

Rampley contrasts Luhmann’s systems-based social theory with other canonical works in the sociological tradition to recapitulate its application to the interpretation of modernity and its “art system.” In contrast to Foucault’s The Order of Things, which diachronically frames the history of disciplines and discourses as a successive genealogy of epistemic paradigms, Luhmann sublates the division of synchronic and diachronic modes of analysis, accounting for both in his theory of modern society. While Foucault and Luhmann co-characterize modernity’s discursive factions—art, law, science, education, politics—Luhmann’s systematized approach asserts that each discourse functions autonomously in the “functionally differentiated” social semiotics of modernity, contrary to Foucault’s totalizing knowledge-power matrix of production. Luhmann claims that the independent, internal semantic operations of modern discourses construct a fragmented, “polycontextural,” constructivist epistemology of communication. However, in opposition to what could be read as a recourse to formalist teleology, Luhmann maintains that discursive systems communicate and evolve non-linearly through “structural coupling,” opening the possibility of interaction between social systems. Thus, Rampley underscores this temporary discursive interpenetration as the motivation for art’s emergence as a social system and the basis for an application of sociological aesthetics to the history and cultural practices of contemporary art.

Following his constitution of modernity as a system of autonomous communicative operations, Luhmann models art and its history, aesthetics, and sociality as an independent social system. Theorizing the formation of the modern art system in the seventeenth century, when art functionally differentiated from other social systems (mainly religion), Luhmann maintains that the temporary structural coupling of art with other systems, such as economic modalities of patronage and connoisseurship, led art to evolve with referentiality to its own autonomous recursivity. Rampley reads Luhmann’s non-normative historicity of art alongside his constructivist account of its social aesthetics. Luhmann argues that art’s fundamental fictionality and impermanence formulate the basis for its sociality, in which art “functions as a double of reality from which reality can be observed.”[2] Rampley states that Luhmann’s envisioning of the fleeting, communicative event of the art systems—obfuscating, if not rendering obsolete, the binaries of synchronic/diachronic and fictional/real—aptly gestures toward an aesthetic modeling of modernity and contemporaneity. As Rampley writes:

Indeed, there is no “pristine” state of the original artwork, only its meaning within the ongoing sequences of operations of the art system. Such a repositioning of the artwork as an immaterial element within a recursive network points to important ways of rethinking the historicity of art, and it also casts light on various shifts in art practice. (129)

Thus, Rampley advocates a holistic re-theorization of contemporary culture, utilizing Luhmann’s art system model to offer new analytic possibilities.

Rampley ultimately argues the critical significance of Luhmann’s sociological aesthetics to a reassessed social theory of contemporary art. In response to formalist teleologies of history, Rampley asserts that Luhmann’s temporal juxtapositions, which understand historical change as autonomous and micro-social, function to move beyond a traditionally epochal history of art. Rampley suggests that this re-envisioning of temporality problematizes what it even means to think about and interpret the present moment, emphasizing the productive instability and futurity of contemporaneity. Ultimately, Rampley concludes that Luhmann’s de-anthropocentric positioning of art as an event-in-communication upholds art’s ephemerality of meaning and its systematized function to account for its present, autonomous globalized permeation. For example, an application of Rampley’s rehabilitation of Luhmann could utilize systematized, sociological aesthetics to model and interpret the phenomenon of art biennials, in which the recourse to international displays of art emerge through the (oft-discontented) structural coupling of the art system, the global economy, and national politics. Or, perhaps Luhmann could be reread in relation to debates regarding art activism and socially engaged performance, formulating a critical framework for addressing the aesthetic-ethical implications of attempting to bridge the divide between autonomous art and political praxis. Rampley’s rehabilitation of Luhmann’s sociological aesthetics functions as a compelling point of departure, hermeneutically relevant for revising and re-theorizing the conceptual complexities and aesthetic trends that saturate the theory and criticism of contemporary art.


1. Niklas Luhmann, Art as a Social System, trans. Eva M. Knodt (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000), p. 139.

2. Ibid., p. 143.

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