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Chapter Twelve— Becoming an Arty Sociologist
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Chapter Twelve—
Becoming an Arty Sociologist

Barbara Rosenblum

Little did I know that the form my adolescent rebellion took in 1958 both crystallized and foreshadowed the themes that would dominate my sociology and my life. Teenagers do strange things in adolescence: some overconform, some become exaggerations of a superstar, some become football players or cheerleaders. I became arty. Every Friday afternoon I would take the forty-five-minute train ride from Brooklyn into Greenwich Village in Manhattan, go to the Cafe Rienzi, order that foul-tasting coffee called espresso with the intense hope that someday I would like it, and read translations of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. After all, wasn't I going to major in comparative literature when I eventually went to college? On my napkin I would practice spelling existentialism, a word I was just learning. I read novels that were deep and meaningful. At home I practiced the guitar and sang folk songs, memorizing lyrics about social justice and black blues. I wrote poetry in the style of Allen Ginsberg. And, of course, there was jazz, the most vibrant, robust, alive form of music I had ever heard. I saw movies that made me suffer. I used the word absurd about a hundred times a day. More absurd was that I wore black beatnik clothes and looked like a teenage jerk. But arty and cultured I did in fact become. Later on, my field became the sociology of art and culture, and I became arty and cultured with a vengeance.

Becoming cultured, for me, had two essential ingredients. First, it was not enough to learn about one field, such as music, read about it, study it, and become one of the cognoscenti; that would be too simple. Rather, to be cultured meant becoming a generalist, knowing all the


arts. I had to learn about music, theater, literature, film, poetry, photography, and painting. I was driven into a kind of hypervigilance in which I had to know what was going on where, who was performing what, and what the New York critics said about it. Reading newspapers, especially the critical reviews, became my daily devotional study. No day passed when I did not submit myself to the process of taste formation and aesthetic discrimination. I had to know everything. I had to take courses in everything as well—music theory, Elizabethan drama and poetry, American cinema. The cultural landscape was there for me to gobble up and for no other reason. The notion of a single major in college seemed ludicrous to me. Wasn't everything connected to everything else? The artificial intellectual boundaries of majors or disciplines, I knew, were merely organizational conveniences for the creation of subdivisions for financial allocation and control of personnel. I was an intellectual. I was a generalist. I was cultured.

I embraced everything that was new and radical. I became a neophile. The avant-garde became my avant-god. For example, it wasn't enough for me to like the standard string quartets, though most enthusiasts felt a smug, often secret aesthetic superiority that distinguished them from lovers of the symphony. They could take joy in their selection of the most elite form of composition as their favorite kind of music. But I was compelled to learn to like the jarring and dissonant sounds of Bartók's dark and disturbing quartets. And then Bartók became insufficient for my psychological need to embrace the new. I sought out Berg and Webern, Henze and Stockhausen, Berio and Babbitt, Subotnik and Rochberg. I studied their compositions in the same intense way that I was learning angst-ridden modern literature and the names and styles of all the New York painters.

My sociology is dominated by the same themes. I became a generalist devoted to the sociology of knowledge, art, and culture. What other category could be large enough or more sanguine for one's needs? It was perfect—sociology at its most general, encompassing the entire world. But the second theme, embracing the new, also filtered into my sociology. I felt a need to know what was going on at the edge of social thought. I studied the latest in French and British social analysis and became knowledgeable in the work of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault. My sociology was on the edge, too, when in 1970 I chose to study the organizational determinants of photographic aesthetics, long before the sociology of art became the relatively legitimate field it now is.

One day, when I felt superior enough and sufficiently protected


against my own insecurity to relax a bit, I found myself crying over the heart-wrenching themes in those damned Russian symphonies my father played when I was a child. Was I running away from Tchaikovsky all the time, from my own sentimentality, my own class background, where I frequently heard the Russian symphonies, with their grand, sweeping-across-the-steppes-of-Russia themes?

My mother was one of seven children, only two of whom survived World War II. She got out of Europe in 1929, avoiding bodily harm and probable death. When she was very young, she lived in a small Jewish ghetto, a farming town in rural Poland. Later, when I read Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, I was not horrified by the brutal ignorance and religious superstitions of rural Polish peasants, which I had been told about by my mother. As a child she worked instead of going to school and hence never learned to read or write properly. My father, however, was a city boy, was literate, had a bicycle, and wore shoes. He too left Poland before the war, in the 1930s. They met in America, first spoke to each other in Polish, and went to night school to learn English and study the Constitution. The combination of Polish, Yiddish, and English was the first linguistic music I ever heard.

When he arrived in the United States, my father had a marketable skill: he could cut hair. In Warsaw he had worked as a barber since the age of eleven. He too had strange stories to tell, of bleeding customers with leeches and applying heated cups to the chest to relieve congestion. When I heard my parents speak of Europe, I never saw in my mind any version of the photographs I would see many years later—pictures of gentlemen in the street, walking in long black coats and beards, engaging in the routine work of peddling or selling while retaining a pious demeanor. Rather, my father's stories created visions of dark medieval towns with sickly flagellants running to escape the plague.

But when he came to the United States, he thought he might do something other than barbering, so he tried new jobs. It was the Depression, and work was not easy to get. For a while he worked in a shoe factory but lost his job when he participated in the unionization of the factory and a subsequent strike. Leftist sympathy with working people is something I grew up with; to this day it is in my bones, as it was in his. When American industries began to produce for the war in Europe, my father found work in the Brooklyn navy yard as a ship fitter, a job he kept until he was drafted in 1943.

During her first years in America my mother did not read or write well; consequently, she worked as a live-in housekeeper and later, when


her English improved, as a governess. When the family that employed her was hit by the Depression and had to fire her, she next found work in a small factory shop sewing buttons on dresses. After that, she worked as an alterations seamstress for a department store in Brooklyn.

My father's military salary was the last solid, steady, and predictable wages that our family would see for the next twenty years. When he returned from army service, the barber-shop partnership he had formed dissolved and he was without steady work for a year. He free-lanced as a barber while looking for regular work. On borrowed money he bought one-fifth of a partnership in a tiny New York—style luncheonette, where racing forms, newspapers, magazines, comics, cigarettes, chocolate egg creams, and cherry lime rickeys were sold and fresh sodas made from syrup and fizzing seltzer streaming from spigots. I worked in his store from the age of ten. My father's mastery of numbers always impressed me. He could add up a column of numbers written down the side of a brown paper bag in no time flat, faster than any other person I knew.

We were very poor. We lived in low-income city housing in predominantly white-ethnic and black neighborhoods. I wore hand-me-downs except for one skirt and white blouse I was required to wear every Thursday for school assembly. The menu in our house was different from that in my friends': I thought that the category meat consisted of cow organs—lungs, pancreas, heart—and chicken feet. I did not taste steak until I was ten years old.

Being a poor kid in a city housing project and having immigrant parents was no fun. When my parents fought, it was always about money. From an early age I knew I had to earn money as quickly as possible, to work as soon as I was able, and to help my family in any way I could. Any thought of college was remote—it was not even a word I heard while growing up.

Being poor meant waiting—waiting in long lines in health department clinics, waiting hours to hear a bureaucratic voice call one's number on a loudspeaker, waiting for a social worker or eyeglasses or somebody or something. Being poor meant having one's finances investigated constantly, sometimes for seemingly insignificant and arbitrary reasons. In those days social workers were not as sensitive to matters of privacy as they are (or are told to be) now. Then a civil servant's primary duty was the assiduous detection of cheaters. My father's tax forms were examined every year to see if we were still eligible for the privilege of living in low-income housing projects. When my parents wanted to move from one housing project to another in a better neighborhood


closer to where my father worked, they were endlessly interrogated about their finances, having to admit time and again in the inquisitional ritual that they were economic failures. When I was sent to summer camp, my family's financial records were scrutinized carefully. We were poor, yes, but were we poor enough to qualify me for summer camp at a cost of one dollar? Yes, we were poor enough.

Being the child of immigrant parents also meant I felt like an outsider, not only because we were poor but also because my parents and I were different. Our ways, habits, talk, and rhythms seemed strange and bizarre. I lived in an un-American house, which my young mind linked with the congressional committee on un-American activities when people began to associate Jews with stolen atomic secrets, spies, and dangerous foreigners. The first comparison and difference was linguistic: we were other. To my unschooled ears the language spoken by my parents' friends, despite their Brooklyn drawl, sounded like the King's English. My parents sounded like foreigners.

My father's luncheonette became the locus of my education. From the comic books, newspapers, and magazines he sold, I learned to read. There was a bar and grill next to my father's store, and the waitresses and neighborhood prostitutes congregated there and often came into the store. I learned about the race track, horses, violence, protection, personal threats, and kissing from the young hoods who hung around there.

In the 1950s my parents' cousins and distant relatives began coming in droves to the United States. I remember being introduced to vast numbers of new people to whom I was bonded by blood but little else. Some of my mother's relatives were Chasidic Jews. The men had long hair, and the women wore wigs over their short-cropped hair. They were animated, hummed to themselves, and laughed a lot, and when they smiled, they showed a mouthful of gold front teeth. They all had tattooed numbers on their forearms and some, I would later see, had scars on their bodies from having been experimented on by Nazi physicians. They seemed to come by the hundreds: ragpickers, junk men, diamond dealers, watch repairmen, salesmen. They passed through my life bringing the names of the dead and stories of the living to my parents. Relatives came and went: I would meet someone and next thing I heard, somebody had moved to Israel and another went to Montreal, probably to become a character in a Mordechai Richler novel—maybe even Duddy Kravitz.

When I entered high school, I was placed into an accelerated pro-


gram called the Honors Program, which was the first time I was formally separated from my neighborhood friends. I found myself among bright kids from middle-class neighborhoods that the school district also encompassed. Although my own neighborhood was largely working-class ethnic and black, the Honors Program had few students from these backgrounds. For the first time I met Protestants who were not black, working-class ethnics who were not Italian and whose fathers were not in the garbage business, and middle-class Jews whose fathers were physicians and accountants. No question about it: they were different, and I felt different from them. But being in the Honors Program was an opening and a separation. My friends took secretarial courses; they studied typing, stenography, and bookkeeping. I took college-preparatory courses and hated it. The work itself was not difficult but being differentiated and separated into formal programs drove a wedge between me and my friends.

I did not want to be a secretary; summer employment in an office during high school taught me that. And I knew I did not want to be a postal clerk, my father's ambition for me. He wanted me to work for steady wages, have job security, and be employed by the government. And I really did not want to go to college. I knew I wanted to be arty, and I knew that college would bring me closer to that goal than anything else; so I went.

As I began to grow accustomed to the idea of myself as a girl who would go to college, I began to practice talking about things I was learning in school. When I would do so or use a word I had recently learned, I would be accused by my neighborhood friends of being phony and putting on airs. After high-school graduation my friends went to work, and I began Brooklyn College. The women worked as secretaries or bookkeepers in Manhattan and began taking business courses in night school at the college. Within a year or so, some dropped out of night school, got better jobs, married, and moved to Queens. The men went to work for their uncles' construction companies and drove trucks filled with concrete and garbage.

I started college immediately after high school and was one of a group of seventy-five kids from the housing projects whose grades were good enough to be accepted into day college rather than on probationary status into evening classes. When I entered Brooklyn College, I parted company with my neighborhood friends; but at the same time I could not relate too well to my new fellow students. They looked like they came from another planet or tribe, wearing funny gold chains with


totemic representations called charms. The men wore penny loafers and ties and looked crisp. The women looked prim, proper, and pinned. I wore black beatnik clothes and already knew about Thelonious Monk, marijuana, the Mafia, illegitimate children, contract murders, bars in Greenwich Village, homosexuality, interracial couples, heroin, and French existentialist novels. Brooklyn College seemed like a monster movie starring live Barbie and Ken dolls. It was a world I did not fit into, a world I did not feel comfortable in. After a year I dropped out.

I was caught: I could not go to college and move up because I felt so terrified and uncomfortable with class differences, but it was impossible to move back down. My own solution was to embrace an arty life-style permanently, a move that in our society signifies class exemption and arrogates to itself privilege through difference, rebellion, and nonconformity in the service of higher values; through otherness.

For the next six years I lived in the Village. I studied classical guitar, took music theory, philosophy, and literature courses, and held a variety of jobs, which for the last four years were in the music business. My lovers were as unconventional as I was: musicians or artists, they were all soulful, misunderstood, brilliantly talented, and unspeakably poor.

The music business was the perfect solution for my dilemma. I loved the music, the people, the recording sessions, the free concerts, the payola lunches, and reading Cashbox, Variety, and Billboard . There was one problem: as a woman, I was doing the secretarial work I disliked, and there was little opportunity for me to do creative work. Women were not writers or producers and had none of the jobs I might have considered moving into. The work itself was becoming boring. At the same time New York became a center of civic energy. It was the time of John F. Kennedy, and I got caught up in what I could do for my country or my city and became involved in political action at the local level, organizing rent strikes and neighborhood improvement campaigns. After a six-year leave of absence I returned to school for a credential as a city planner. Now school was important because I had a vocational goal: to work in a municipal agency in New York specializing in problems of transportation. I had grown to hate subways and city housing projects: both had made me—and thousands of others—feel demoralized, hopeless, and poor. I wanted to do something about them.

When I returned to college in 1967, there was energy, there were causes, there was a war that people hated. The Barbie-and-Ken era was over. Students looked beautiful in their hippie clothes, and things mattered to them in a different way. I took sociology courses as part of my


city planning program. I did not expect to fall in love with sociology, but I did, and then graduate school seemed like the next place to go. So I went.

At Northwestern University near Chicago I met blond people, one of many types of people I had never met before. They looked, spoke, and acted very differently from New Yorkers. They hardly understood my New York put-on jokes. But I had to learn their behavioral code to make it in their world, so I did.

When it was time to choose a dissertation topic, I decided to study photographers and the organization of labor as a partial determinant of photographic aesthetics. That was an important decision for me and, again, crystallized the arty theme in my life. Up until that time I had studied suicide prevention centers, psychiatric intake procedures at a hospital, and an agency dealing with child abuse and neglect in Chicago. I had planned to expand one of these topics into a dissertation since they were in keeping with the ideology of service to others, a strong sense I retained from my activist days. But I did not want to study these areas any more: the pain was much too great, and I could see that my days of doing field work filled me with rage and despair. Moreover, my passion for social change and service to others was finding expression in the antiwar movement. I decided to study something that was interesting, fun, and would be just enough on the edge of my bohemianism to be psychologically comfortable for me.

My years doing field work with photographers were, without exaggeration, some of the happiest of my life. How terrific to have a fellowship and take photography courses at the Pratt Institute in New York and later at the San Francisco Art Institute while interviewing and observing some of the most interesting people I had ever met! I was, in a manner of speaking, a state-supported arty type. The field work ended, and reality intruded: it became time to write the dissertation and get a job.

Having an arty countenance may have been necessary for my psychological equilibrium at the time, but it did not prove useful as a basis for social skills in the academic world. There was much more to university life than doing interesting studies and being an intellectual. My first lesson came during my first week at Stanford University as an assistant professor. One of my colleagues took me aside and suggested, "You aren't working in the university to be an intellectual. You have to start immediately getting grants and supporting graduate students. That's your first priority."


One of the detrimental consequences of my bohemianism was my lack of experience in socially strategic behaviors, academic financial matters, and other ephemeral, but essential, qualities of academic life. Such practices as the one my colleague suggested came as an abrupt surprise to me. I had just spent several years as a graduate student during the heyday of sociology in America, the golden years when government money and support flowed from Washington. Who would have thought that my first priority as a young assistant professor would be to bring in money to the department? Such a notion, I ruefully admit now, stemmed from my naive attitude about the mixture of money and ideas, the sacred and the profane. But with this incident my initiation into the realities of university life began, and I gradually came to understand the altered priorities of professional life. With it too came the discovery that my devotion to being cultured was irrelevant in my new setting. I thought I had spent my life acquiring the culture that would unlock a world to me, and I was wrong. There was much more to the bureaucratic culture than I had ever realized. My accommodation to it came a few years later, after exposure to the culture of the university, and I did finally master the strategic behaviors and other skills requisite for bureaucratic survival.

I began to search into the nature of social class in a way that was eye-opening for me. Of course, like any good sociologist, I knew the basic issues and debates in social stratification. In general, from reading sociological studies of class I imagined the class system as stratigraphic, that is, consisting of fixed strata. It was a solid image with clear demarcations, allowing members of a society to locate themselves in a spatial framework. It was also a ladder-of-success image. But these everyday images and sociological conceptions of social class were remote and lifeless to me, inapplicable to my own experience. These models did not illuminate my personal confrontation with class-mobile situations. I was experiencing, on a social-psychological level, some invisible aspects of class that I had never read about. The keen observation that the personal is political, which became a slogan of the women's movement, became an insight that I could apply first to my own experience and then to the social world. The personal is social. I began to ponder my own history, and out of this personal examination came a richer and much deeper understanding of social class.

I thought that all I had to do was move up educationally and the rest would happen automatically. And didn't I have a head start, being super cultured? Education in and of itself was a guarantee that opportunities


would be open to me, but as I later found out, it was no guarantee that I would also acquire the other skills to fit in. What was missing from this picture was my deeper appreciation of the tight grip that social origins exert despite high educational attainment. Although my conceptual skills and my educational credentials bought me admission, I simply did not yet have the requisite social skills, political savvy, and interpersonal sophistication to move in this social world. And I am sure to this day that had my social background been more middle-class, the acquisition of such bureaucratic orientation would have been second nature.

Class works in psychological ways, keeping people in their appropriate substrata. Class works by making movement across strata psychologically uncomfortable, even painful and, for some, intolerable. Earlier I mentioned that when I began using big words in my circle of high-school friends, I was ostracized. That process operates all the time. Class works by making people feel marginal when approaching class or status boundaries. Social markers, like signs on the highway, are always telling people, Stop! You are going the wrong way. Social life is filled with such markers.

Sociologists now pay attention to class markers and look at things like etiquette, social manners, dress, demeanor, taste, self-assurance in personal comportment, understatement, and so on as key concerns in the understanding of social class. Norbert Elias's work on the social evolution of manners is now being read in America and is enlarging the scope of the study of social class by looking at aspects of class-based social sensibilities. In their study The Hidden Injuries of Class Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb grasped the fundamental idea that class operates on a psychological level, and they attempted to document it. Theirs was a first look at the phenomenon, and since that time sociological sensitivities to subtle determinative aspects of social class have increased only slightly. But with Pierre Bourdieu's work on the influence of social origins and educational level on taste formation, an important avenue to this problem may now open up.

What makes class fascinating to me is the subjective side of social mobility, which takes the form of stories people tell about their own upward social mobility.[1] Everybody has a story, and most people will recall occasions and situations when they felt out of place and counterfeit. Most people have experienced interclass movement in a subjectively meaningful, painfully real way. Class is not merely some set of income and educational categories that sociologists fill with demographic figures and distributions. Class works by making people feel


fraudulent, like they are "passing." Despite knowing about the best cuisine and fine wine, many people still feel like lower-class frauds, as if they contained dual class identities; indeed, they often do. They speak of experiencing themselves as having a veneer and never can predict when and how they will inadvertently disclose their class origins. They tell stories about their awkwardness at dinner parties, the instant recognition that their clothes were inappropriate and that even as their words left their mouths, they knew they were saying the wrong thing for the occasion. Class works by reminding people that they do not belong and by making them feel ashamed of even trying to get in.

There are still many stories to be told. Nothing is as powerful as a personal history, especially contemporary histories. My friend Eleanor tells how she learned to say thank you at the late age of twenty-five. Now living in an exclusive part of Westchester County, New York, she grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. During World War II and after, with tin can in hand, she begged for money to send to the children of Israel. After every coin was dropped in the can, Eleanor said thank you. She did not know that the phrase thank you was an ordinary part of good manners, not the automatic reflex to a coin being dropped. Like most people I have talked with, Eleanor remembers the moments of class awakening most vividly in connection with table manners. She never knew how to set a table properly because in her home, as in many other working-class homes, families did not eat together. Everyone was on a different schedule and just grabbed a knife and fork and dumped food on a plate from the big pot sitting on the stove. After she married and began to entertain other couples, she served the same way, expecting her guests to take a knife, fork, and spoon and help themselves.

Those poignant stories illustrate the inescapability of class considerations and indicate the vanity of my intense desire to deny the realities of my working-class background by striking a highly cultured, bohemian pose. As I look back, I see that I did not integrate my cultural tastes because my social background did not prepare me to do so. My cultural side, as serious as it was, was like a graft: some of it took, and some of it did not.

My own story is an example of the way in which I have come to include a richer understanding of social class in everything that I study. These concerns are reflected in work that I continue to do. I have just finished investigating the problem of the alienation of the artist, taking a close look at marketplace conditions that become structural sources of alienation for artists, a population usually thought to have enormous


control over the production process. Before that, I examined the effects of the art market on the strategic attempts of artists to gain fame and recognition through means that increase their social visibility. Another project I am working on concerns the social history of bathing practices, a theme not unrelated to stratification and cultural practices. An examination of the floor plans of bathhouses built in Britain during the height of the public bathing and hygiene movement shows that two and sometimes three sections were created, each for separate but equal bathing by the different social classes. I have a passionate personal interest in these intellectual problems and have found a way to integrate all the parts of myself—emotional, intellectual, cultural, and historical—in all the work I do.

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