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Abstract

Though auditory culture is quickly emerging in the gallery arts, with exhibitions popping up at prestigious museums around the world, the art world is still learning to listen. Based on 105 semi-structured interviews and four years of ethnographic observation in Chicago, New York, and Berlin, this dissertation considers the relationship between the senses and aesthetic value. Although it is a better fit than market, niche, or other field models, Bourdieu’s field of cultural production is not the best model for this empirical case either, due to evidence of overlapping definitions of boundaries, heterarchies of value, and the instability of sonic objects. First, disciplinary boundaries are not only worked out in organizational contexts, placing works of art and music on one side or the other, but actors also contest the definitions of what objects constitute their own disciplines. Without a shared knowledge of which sounds belong where, organizational and semantic boundary work employ these conflicting definitions to draw lines, particularly regarding the performed, exhibited, formal, or conceptual nature of sound. Furthermore, sound art has had to rely, paradoxically, on conceptual texts in order not to be mistaken for art music, which is valued through hearing, or the other gallery arts, which tend to be valued through sight. These textual value devices are the tools of economic agencement, rendering the aesthetic economic, but they cannot be readily aggregated into a single ranking of cultural consecration. Following these empirical findings, a final theoretical investigation into the nature of hearing calls on theories of perception in social aesthetics and phenomenology to question if sonic objects are perceived in socially stable ways. On the contrary, hearing is an embodied sensory process particular to the attention, adumbration, and affect of the listener, and it is unclear if sonic percepts are heard in common by evaluators. These findings suggest that rather than a field, auditory culture better resembles a rhizomatic assemblage, where language is the rhizome rendering the aesthetic economic. And yet, if embodied listeners in a sonic sensorium might be freed to associate meanings without a mediating text, these emancipated spectators may engage in expanded discourse.

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