Zaffaroni, Lorenzo Giuseppe: Artistic legitimization through category emulation: the case of art photography in Italy

The paper examines the artistic legitimisation of Italian art photography by focusing on how field actors and institutions construct the medium as an art form. The study combines the sociology of art and organizational research to address the relationship between categorization and legitimation.

Processes of legitimation and categorisation are central aspects of cultural production, distribution and consumption. Yet, extant research has only partially focused on the relationship between categories and legitimacy, as well as on cultural fields that struggle to gain recognition and autonomy despite prolonged collective efforts.

Photography in Italy struggles to gain the status of a legitimate art form due to historical processes and local socio-economic dynamics. The Italian field of photography reflects a weak degree of institutional legitimisation and cultural autonomy, which is reflected in: the contested identification of photography as art; the ambivalent presence of Italian photography within contemporary art markets; the lack of resources devoted to photography institutions and events.

To study actors and institutions dealing with the production, circulation and consumption of art photography, I collect and analyse several sources: in-depth interviews with critics, historians, curators, art collectors and photographers; historical and critical texts on Italian photography; institutional documents; ethnographic data collected during field configuring events. Data analysis was conducted following the Constructivist Grounded Theory approach and particularly focused on the relationship between categorization and legitimation throughout the data.

The findings demonstrate that field participants engage in emulation, a categorization strategy that involves resource mobilization and theorization. Category emulation indicates the assemblage of a cultural product so that it matches the qualities of a designed high-status object. Two strategies can produce such effect: one is the strategic emulation of the material and symbolic features of the desired objects; the other is the inclusion of cultural products within the market infrastructure of higher status counterparts. Both strategies favour the development of a cognitive equivalence employing symbolic and material proximity, provided that the approach takes place within the reach of authoritative audiences.