Some Thoughts on Aesthetic Labor

Photo via Improv Everywhere

This response is posted on behalf of Jeff Sallaz.

The idea of aesthetic labor is a fascinating one.  What does it mean to get paid to create beauty?  A beautician by definition engages in aesthetic labor, but so too does an avante-garde film-maker.  Are we justified to compare what happens in a hair salon with what occurs in a movie studio?   In both cases we find work that is extremely difficult to routinize or mechanize.  (Are you a Flowbee user?  Nuff said.)  And in both cases we find that acts of production and consumption are united in a way that complicates Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism (witness the cult of the auteur).

But surely aesthetic labor is not all of one stripe.  I suppose we could differentiate between those whose work entails beautifying the self and those who beautify some other or object.  Ashley Mear’s recent book studies runway models, who must engage in fastidious management of their own bodies to meet the often-nebulous standards of the fashion-industrial complex.  In a forthcoming article, I present comparative ethnographic data on architects and marketers.  Middle-aged and not exactly in runway shape, these (mostly) male professionals spend a great deal of their time dreaming up designs that embody something essential about themselves.

Variation within existing forms of aesthetic labor is something that sociologists would seem to be well-equipped to study.  If ever there was a market activity that is “embedded” in the social, this is it.  Standards of beauty vary historically, cross-nationally, and across social groups/classes.  In capitalist economies, entire industries exist wherein aesthetic labor is driven by the profit imperative.  Even so, aesthetic laborers tend to think of themselves as autonomous from market forces.  Social, cultural, and political conventions, in brief, form a context within which aesthetic labor must be situated.

Then there are the basic material foundations for aesthetic labor.  As Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker argued, worlds of art and beauty rely upon vast institutional infrastructures, themselves dependent on resources and funding.  You can’t have artists without art classes,  and you can’t have art classes without easels and pastels.  Unfortunately, the United States and Europe appear set on gutting state funding for arts and culture.  Austerity over aesthetics for Athens and Atlanta.  But as the rest of the world continues to grow and urbanize, aesthetic labor should become increasingly common in places where previously a “taste of necessity” ruled.   I expect that more and more sociologists will study aesthetic labor—hopefully from a cross-cultural perspective.

Jeff Sallaz is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Arizona. His interests include work, economic sociology, political sociology, deviance, and social theory.

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: