Constructing a sociology for an icon of aesthetic modernity: Olympia revisited

Sociological Theory 15 (2):101-125 (1997)
Abstract
I address the problem of constructing a sociology of the artwork through analyzing one particular painting-Manet's Olympia. The painting is an acknowledged icon of modernist art and has been variously located in discourses concerning modernity, gender, and sexuality in the modern world. My purpose is to locate this painting and modernist painting generally in the social formation. While the interpretation of a particular work of art plays a central part, here the ground of that interpretation lies in social theory. Modernist art, and Manet's work in particular, is seen as a response to the growing disjunction between "instrumental" and "solidary" social relations-a disjunction fully acknowledged in the development of classical social theory. This changing relationship is reflected in the construction of discourses centered on value and motive. It is argued that Manet's modernism instantiates a spiritual resistance to the corruption of value by motive inherent in modernity and marked by a whole range of sociological discourses-commodification, alienation, rationality, disenchantment, and so forth. I identify a specific cultural configuration at the heart of bourgeois ideology involving gender and social class, and seek to show how Manet's painting subverts and deconstructs this configuration as a discourse of social formation. The semiotic possibilities made available by a modernist "presentational code"-the cultivation of flatness, the suppression of modelling and interaction, the use of dense allusive cultural reference, and the adaption of foreign and exotic pictorial techniques, etc.-are all seen as key to the deconstructive work that the painting accomplishes
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