Genre emergence is a collective sense-making process that goes together with the classification of cultural objects. New genres achieve a taken-for-granted status and obtain legitimacy when audiences reach consensus about the labels and attributes that apply to nascent categories.
However, the development of shared understandings constitutes a non-trivial task, as often substantial fuzziness and contestation exist about these labels and attributes. Unfortunately, research on new genres often focuses on successful genres—although most proposals to establish new categories do not succeed. To fill this void, studies of nascent genres that fail to become institutionalized are needed.
We study modernistic music in Brussels in the inter-war period—a genre that did not become taken-for-granted among a broader audience despite massive means and energy invested by cultural entrepreneurs. We argue that genres characterized by fragmentation—resulting in high category fuzziness or low contrast—lose appeal. Furthermore, we propose that ideological contention resulting from the rise of nationalism exacerbates the effect of genre fragmentation. When sub-genres resonate with different political ideologies, nationalist mobilization is expected to spur contestation about the meaning of the nascent genre—increasing its fuzziness and blocking the development of shared understandings. Our findings support both arguments.