Contestation in aesthetic fields: Legitimation and legitimacy struggles in outsider art

Alexander, Victoria D. and Bowler, Anne E.. 2021. Contestation in aesthetic fields: Legitimation and legitimacy struggles in outsider art. Poetics, 84, 101485. ISSN 0304-422X [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Legitimation is often theorized as a form of consensus and implicitly treated as an end-state that obtains after the unfolding of a process. Conflict and disagreement are recognized as part of legitimation processes; however, scholarship emphasizes consensus-building over contestation. Moreover, as legitimacy processes are always ongoing and never final, such contestation can persist even in legitimated fields. We bring together Baumann’s (2007) general theory of artistic legitimation and field theories (Bourdieu 1993; Fligstein and McAdam, 2012) in order to develop an approach to artistic legitimacy that accounts for conflict and contestation as much as consensus in legitimacy processes. We use a historical case study to build theory on legitimacy struggles in aesthetic fields. Specifically, we examine the legitimation of Outsider art, an aesthetic field defined as work by artists who produce outside established art worlds and who come from disadvantaged social worlds. Artist William Edmondson serves as an exemplar to ground our discussion of the Outsider field as we focus on resources, opportunity spaces, and legitimating discourses (Baumann, 2007) over time, to produce a multilevel and multifaceted approach to legitimation in aesthetic fields. In this way, our approach calls attention to ongoing legitimacy struggles in legitimated fields. We hypothesize that legitimacy struggles are more common in fields where judgement criteria are ambiguous, multiple players have a stake, and/or where resources are changing.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


Artistic legitimation, legitimacy struggles, sociology of the arts, contested fields, Outsider art, William Edmonson.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Institute for Cultural and Creative Entrepreneurship (ICCE)


22 August 2020Accepted
2 October 2020Published Online
February 2021Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

27 Aug 2020 10:55

Last Modified:

02 Oct 2022 01:26

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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