The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed.
Michael Kelly, Oxford University Press, 1998
The Institutional Theory of Art
ROBERT J. YANAL
he first institutional theory of art is outlined in a 1964 essay by Arthur Danto, “The Artworld,” which ruminates on the paradox that Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes is art though any of its perceptually indistinguishable twins—any stack of Brillo boxes in a grocery store—is not. Danto’s offers this solution to the paradox: “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.” Ultimately, though, it is “art theory” that makes Warhol’s stack of silk screened plywood boxes into art. How does this “making” occur? Danto unpacks “art theory” in terms of what he calls “artrelevant predicates,” which are predicates that apply uniquely to artworks. Let it be that predicates P, Q, and R are, at a certain point in history, the only artrelevant predicates in critical use. It will follow that any artwork is some or all of P, Q, or R. “But suppose,” Danto continues, “an artist determines that H shall henceforth be artistically relevant for his paintings.” Then objects to which H applies can now and in the future stand as artworks. How does H become an artrelevant predicate? Danto tells us only an artist “determines” that it be so. However, his theory leaves unexplained why someone’s decision can render a certain predicate to be artrelevant. In fact, at this point we wonder what work the artrelevant predicates are doing, if in the end making something art comes down to someone’s decision. Why not, for example, allow decisions to make a thing art directly, unmediated by artrelevant predicates? In later works Danto turned away from an institutional view, and towards a theory which defined art in terms of “aboutness” (or “semantic character”). In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace he explicitly abjured the institutional theory of George Dickie that was motivated by his “Artworld” essay. However, the influence of that essay is considerable. It was the death knell for aesthetic definitions of art, and this because Danto forced into philosophical attention the paradox (which I’ll refer to as “Danto’s paradox”) of two materially identical objects, only one of which is a work of art. If two objects alpha and beta are materially identical, then alpha and beta share all material properties. Alpha and beta are then perceptually, hence aesthetically, equivalent. Each, that is, is equally beautiful (or ugly), equally serene (or garish), equally balanced (or unbalanced), and so on. Further, if alpha but not beta is a work of art, then the arthood of alpha cannot lie in its aesthetic features, for it shares these features exactly with beta which is not art. Danto’s essay also spawned other institutional theories by pointing to one way of solving his paradox, namely the possibility that something is art not by virtue of any properties of
Congress’s making a piece of geography a national park. However. not an already evaluated object. Art and the Aesthetic: “A work of art in the classificatory sense is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).” which was slightly modified into the more familiar version that appears in his 1974 book. for example. and has drawn out in detail the view that Danto. and after him. He acknowledged that the artworld has no codified procedures. The most prominent institutional aspect of the definition is the conferral of status by someone on behalf of the artworld. Danto. ultimately. that the status of candidate for appreciation is typically conferred on the painted sides of paintings—that “set of their aspects”—and not on their unpainted backs).” To be a candidate for appreciation is. a view rooted in the later Wittgenstein that was most famously expressed by Morris Weitz in his 1956 essay. neatly solves Danto’s paradox. and the like. While Dickie was influenced positively by Danto’s essay. “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics. For it accepts that there is no material difference between Duchamp’s notorious urinal-artwork Fountain and any of its plumbing store twins. and Dickie’s claim that it is “a set of aspects” of something that gets arthood status. art critics. then. is art. The classificatory sense of “art” is thus like “bicycle” or “water” and unlike “durable” or “brackish. is revealed to be not a one-place predicate but a multi-place relation. we should note that he was also reacting against the view that art is an open concept.D. lines of authority. upon analysis. or conditions for membership. fell into at the end of his artworld essay. if correct. Dickie’s first version of the institutional theory of art appeared in a 1969 essay. namely that it is the decisions of persons.” The best know institutional theorist is George Dickie.” “Appreciation. and accordingly that the arthood of Fountain must come from some institutional status it has come to have. call this larger context “the artworld. that make objects into art. since this introduces a complication that also has little to do with the institutional theory (it means. Dickie.” Dickie took that essay to deny the possibility of defining “art. such as artists. “Defining Art.” Dickie tells us. Dickie likened the conferring of the status of candidate for appreciation on objects to such things as a university’s bestowing a Ph.” We shall set aside both the artifactuality condition. to be an object for evaluation. and the like. The classificatory sense of art is supposed to be a nonevaluative use of the term “art” that picks out a thing of a certain kind without thereby attributing to it any value (or disvalue). And institutional status is not a material but a relational property. means “in experiencing the qualities of a thing one finds them worthy or valuable. since this isn’t specific to the institutional theory. paradigmatically though not exclusively artists. “every person who sees himself as a member of the artworld is thereby a member.” The institutional theory. we should note that there is an ambiguity in the claim that art is an open
. Two features of Dickie’s institutional theory embrace a value neutrality. Although there are “core personnel” in the artworld. perhaps inadvertently. who has taken Danto’s paradox seriously.2
it but rather by virtue of a relation it bears to some larger context. Accordingly. degree on a person.” and in advancing his definition took himself to have refuted the open concept theorists. museum curators.
in which art is an open concept.” In spite of Dickie’s denial that he intends “a special kind of aesthetic appreciation. Dickie may have followed suit. then their reasons for conferring the status ought to have been part of the theory.” and possibly even Marcel Duchamp’s infamous urinal-sculpture Fountain—are unappreciable. (4) Richard Wollheim (1987) tries to saddle the institutionalist with this dilemma. For Cohen in effect calls for a kind of minimal or ground-floor “appreciability” condition that an object would have to meet to be qualified as an artwork. The institutional theory has been the object of much philosophical target practice. namely (ii). (2) Monroe Beardsley (1976) claims that it is incoherent to say that an artwork is made by a certain practice (conferring the status of candidate for appreciation) on behalf of a certain institution (the artworld) when neither the rules of the practice nor the limits of the institution can be further specified. (5) Noël Carroll (1994) objects that the institutional theory does not meet the challenge set by the open concept theorists. Thus the institutional theory still admits a sense. fits into a certain social context. and this because the appeal of Duchamp’s witty work lies. and that some things—he offers as examples “ordinary thumbtacks. Danto would have it. hence cannot be art. the plastic forks given at some drive-in restaurants. And in any event Cohen has himself not supplied us with any such ground-floor condition. shows (i) false.
. x. z … there need be no property they all share. If we had such a ground-floor condition—we discover (decide?) that something o is art only if it has quality G—then it becomes uncertain what relevance the further decisions of persons has in determining the arthood of o. not in its curves and color. then the institutional theory embraces an unconvincing irrationality. y. at least if true. If they do.” But it may also mean (ii) that for all things that are art. hence cannot be candidates for appreciation. It may mean (i) that there is no true statement of the form “For any x. Indeed on the institutional theory there can be two works of art—perhaps Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Duchamp’s Fountain are examples—which share no single property. which praised that work for “its gleaming white surface … its pleasing oval shape.” Danto thinks Dickie nonetheless implies aesthetic appreciation. hence he cannot search for such a minimal condition without becoming apostate to his own theory. Meeting Cohen’s objection would mean giving up on the value-neutrality—the classificatory thrust—of the institutional theory. And if they do not have reasons for making that object art. for it does not tell us at all what a work of art is. (1) Ted Cohen (1973) points out that something can be appreciated only if it is appreciable. cheap white envelopes.3
concept. The open concept theorists took (i) and (ii) to entail each other. given that an appreciation of “the qualities of a thing” suggests perceptible aspects of the object in front of us rather than the artist’s act or the ideas the thing conveys. Dickie’s definition. Either the representatives of the artworld have reasons for making a certain object a work of art or they do not. Dickie wants to keep open the possibility that literally anything could be a work of art. but it nonetheless provides a definition. where “property” is understood as nonrelational. (3) Danto (1981) objects to Dickie’s concept of “appreciation. whatever it is. x is art if and only if x meets finitely statable conditions thus-and-such. hence to be equivalent. only that a work of art. Here are five objections. He criticizes Dickie’s brief art critical appreciation of Fountain. Now.” as inappropriately aesthetic. in its expression of an idea. But this did not entail that (ii) is thereby false.
about which Dickie has been entirely open. wish to resurrect the challenge thrown down by the open concept theorists in the 1950s. of course.4
Both Wollheim and Carroll. For another. And it exchanges the near-aesthetic notion of “appreciation” for the more neutral one of “presentation. we should wonder (as we did with Danto’s theory) what the decisions of anyone have to do with artmaking.” and “An artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an artworld public. present.” “An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art. and future—must share. It no longer makes reference to a status conferred by people acting on behalf of an institution. minimally. as a matter of definition. Indeed. in virtue of their being beautiful—they had beauty as their reason for conferring arthood—then we should expect that beauty ought to be part of a complete theory of art. Carroll is correct to the extent that the institutional theory has not told us what a work of art is in terms of the qualities or functions such works have. Wollheim himself embraces a meaning theory of art.” The artist’s understanding must include the belief that there is an artworld and that the artworld contains options—Dickie calls them “frameworks”—for the presentation of artworks. It was primarily to meet Beardsley’s reservations about the unfounded legalisms of the 1969/74 theory and Danto’s objections to its concept of appreciation that Dickie produced another version. always present to justify their decision to let something be art. we should keep in mind that Dickie embraces the open concept view to this extent: he agrees that there is no set of properties that all artworks—past.” “artist. In his 1984 book. “A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public. Dickie defends himself by pointing out that some circles are informative. If “art” can only be defined in terms of its role in social practice. but it is clearly not the case that every artwork is endowed with meaning—think of a Bach fugue or a visual arabesque. if the criterion on which they decide to make art is the beauty of the object. The Art Circle. namely that a definition of art must say something about the qualities of the art object in virtue of which it is art. in different ways. not an objection to the institutional theory. It may be that being art is more like being enclosed than like being bumpy. Hence the institutional theory is incomplete or irrational (Wollheim) or not really a definition at all (Carroll). In that case we should promote a beauty theory.” “conclusion. true that if the representatives of the artworld conferred the status of candidate for appreciation on objects. a finite and statable set of conditions that something must meet in order to qualify as F.” Thus Danto’s objection is met. For a definition of F can be. Thus Beardsley’s reservation would seem to be met.” It seems one is forced into saying that an argument is by definition composed of at
. “The artworld is the totality of all artworld systems. These are serious and interesting issues. Dickie thinks “art. However. In fact.” and “argument. consider the concepts “premise. It is. then this may just be a brute fact about the concept of art. and his is one. Hence there exists no closed set of reasons that representatives of the artworld must.” The Art Circle theory abandons the quasi-legalisms of the earlier version. may appear a crippling defect. The circularity of the definition. say. in response.” and “artworld” to be one such family. Yet it does not follow that if a theory does not mention qualities or functions of artworks it has not thereby given a definition. there are families of concepts which seem impossible to define except in terms of each other. and any institutionalism would become irrelevant. But this is something the institutional theory does not do.
(Some honest logician should title his or her introductory text. I’ll mention three. and critics. “To say that something is a work of art is to imply that it is a thing of interest and of worth.S. Thus F-hood is not an “open concept. an idea …) and say of it. it may also be inconsistent. Neither is it the decision of the general public.” However. However. and even irrational. this republic confers the status of art on Jane Austen’s novels. which is that part for which evidence in the form of the premise is provided. and withholds the status from Mrs. an institutional theory must posit as a necessary condition for the truth of “o is F” some institutionality: perhaps certain practices or certain intentions of individuals as grounded in some social or cultural circumstance. J. spectators. we can easily see that institutional theories can be offered of concepts other than art. In this sense. The main problem with Diffey’s theory is that it makes bad art.) It is possible to provide a noncircular definition of “art”—for example. a definitional impossibility. “A being is a person if and only if that being is given rights in the U. What. As will be seen. anything could be F.” In Diffey’s example. ‘This is a
. with some social institution as one of the relata. and in this sense an institutional theory accepts half of an open concept view. and ultimately includes “anyone involved with the arts.” published in the same year as Dickie’s first institutional theory (though Dickie wrote in Art and the Aesthetic that he did not know of the piece at that time) speaks of art as a “status” which is “conferred” on things by a group he refers to as the “republic of art. ultimately. because it deems them inferior. In sum.” if being an open concept denies the existence of such statable and determining conditions. and a premise is that part of the argument which is intended to provide evidence for the conclusion. it is not the purely private taste of a single individual which “honors” something sufficiently to make it art. except of course that Dickie wants to keep evaluation out of the definition of art. Diffey in “The Republic of Art. which has as “first-stage” members creators. T. Constitution” would be an institutional theory of personhood. Diffey’s theory is remarkably like Dickie’s. And of course the republic may change its mind and expel things from the status of art. an item need only be indexed as an artwork by an artist. “Something is a painting if and only if it is hung in a gallery” counts as a little institutional theory of arthood. to isolate something (an object. an institutional theory of F-hood treats F-hood as an objectively determinable and socially determined multi-place concept. but rather the joint verdict of the republic of art. performers. Dickie’s still seems the most viable of the institutional theories. First. Timothy Binkley (1977) has perhaps the most minimal institutional theory of art: “To be a piece of art. Radcliffe’s. Diffey’s is an evaluative institutional definition. defining art as the expression of emotion—but it is doubtful whether we can have a noncircular institutional definition of art. There are other institutional theories by other philosophers. The Logic Circle. contrary to the facts.” However. … To make art is. Second. it must acknowl edge that there are a relatively small number of statable conditions for determining whether any object o is or is not F. because it sees value in them. Third. is an institutional theory? To qualify as an institutional theory of F-hood. an theory institutional in structure must deny that the F-hood of any o is grounded in or limited by any constellation of material properties of o. such a theory must do three things.5
least one premise and at least one conclusion. basically.
1973. Perhaps people have simply tired of discussing the theory. Atlantic Highlands. Definitions of Art. and plates of food as works of art. and the discussants not art critics. ed. 1964. Carroll. Marcia Eaton (1983) maintains that “x is a work of art if and only if (1) x is an artifact and (2) x is discussed in such a way that information concerning the history of production of x directs the viewer’s attention to properties which are worth attending to. Davies.
. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press.g. and Gourmet. and by “discussion” something aesthetic. Ted. Historical theories (e. NJ: Humanities Press.” In Robert Yanal. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. which makes her definition unable to accommodate such conceptual works as Duchamp’s Fountain. and artists... Culture and Art. Binkley. that Eaton’s definition is both too narrow and too broad. 1977. “The Historical Definition of Art. Yanal Wayne State University WORKS REFERRED TO Beardsley. However.) It would appear. Cohen.’ ” Art is what artists index as art. garments. Monroe C. “Is Art Essentially Institutional?” In Lars AagaardMogensen. Carroll 1994) and meaning theories (Danto 1981 and Wollheim 1987) seem to be in the ascendance. ed. Robert J. 1991. for she tells us that by “property” she means something perceivable. “Piece: Contra Aesthetics.. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.” Journal of Philosophy 61: 571–584. then. Noël.” Eaton’s view invites one of the criticisms directed at Dickie’s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. “The Artworld. But this also admits many automobiles. presumably. and Stephen Davies in his fine book (1991) has recently defended it. Timothy. The institutional theory may be in decline among aestheticians. “The Possibility of Art: Remarks on a Proposal by Dickie. Institutions of Art.6
work of art. Binkley embraces a theory somewhat like that in Dickie’s Art Circle.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35: 265–277. hair styles. namely that a Coke bottle can be a work of art if its perceivable qualities are discussed aesthetically.’ thereby cataloguing it under ‘Artworks. (It would beg the question for Eaton to stipulate that these are not art forums. no one has in any way refuted the institutional theory. 1994. but Binkley’s exhibits a very tight and therefore uncomfortable circularity. Stephen. Arthur. 1981. Eaton also swallows whole one implication of her definition. are those who index objects as art. Danto. Vogue.” Philosophical Review 82: 69–82. since these are discussed aesthetically in such publications as Car and Driver. 1976. _____.
” American Philosophical Quarterly 6: 253–256. Art and the Aesthetic. _____. Morris. Weitz. 1974. Princeton: Princeton University Press for the Bollingen Foundation. Richard.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 14: 27–35. 1969. “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics. 1983. “Defining Art. Inc. Art and Nonart. Marcia. T.7
Dickie. Eaton. J. East Brunswick: Associated University Presses.
. “The Republic of Art. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1987. Diffey. 1969. George. 1956. Painting as an Art. Wollheim.” British Journal of Aesthetics 19: 145–156.