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Art and the Zen Master’s Tea Pot:

The Role of Aesthetics in the Institutional
Theory of Art

The philosophies of Arthur Danto and George other most intriguing truth: Indeed, anything
Dickie have been greatly influential, each in its goes in art, but not everything works. To be
own way, in establishing a major trend in sure, our conception of art has changed consid-
post-1960 art theory. That trend had two major erably, insofar as we are much more aware of
features. The first was to advocate a necessary the contextualization of works of art, but works
connection between art theory and the arthood of art themselves, at least in the mainstream,
status of works of art as such. The second fea- seem to be just about the same as they always
ture, very much a result of the first, was to re- were. That is to say that, for the majority of
move questions of arthood from questions of the works of art, the aesthetic still seems to be quite
aesthetic. It was a radical move, and one of the relevant, and that for most artists and theorists
utmost historical importance, for the opposites the aesthetic still seems to be a pivotal category
of those two theses, in reverse order, were com- of discourse. The main question of the paper is
monly accepted throughout the tradition of the thus: Given that the institutional conception
West’s philosophy of art. That is to say, that claims to have severed the traditional bond be-
arthood was always necessarily connected to the tween art and the aesthetic, so that the aesthetic
aesthetic (or to beauty, pre-1750), and therefore no longer plays an essential role in the definition
quite impervious to definitive, conceptualizing of art, what role does it play? Moreover, if the
theory. aesthetic is not an essential and definitive fea-
In a sense, we were akin to a Zen novice who ture of art, as the institutional theory contends,
always thought that tea was tea and the pot was a then why is it still so centrally important to art?
pot, until we became apprentices of the Chado
masters Danto and Dickie. Under their tutelage, I. ART AND THE AESTHETIC PART WAYS:
we came to realize that the tea was not tea and THE CONSTITUTIVE NATURE OF ART
the pot was not a pot: Art was not an “immedi-
ate” sort of affair, and art theory was not a chi- Of its very essence, the aesthetic involves that
mera. Among other concurrent theories, the de- which is presented to the senses, widely con-
velopment of Danto’s Artworld and of Dickie’s strued. The aesthetic deals with colors and tones,
institutional theory of art seemed to hail the sounds and timbres, rhythms and weights, bal-
“end of art as we know it.” Many thinkers raised ances and counterbalances. The aesthetic prop-
all manner of objection, but the insights were erties of any artifact, including works of art,
too powerful. Moreover, the artworld itself must be properties that the artifact exhibits to the
seemed to concur, what with the onslaught of senses. Therefore, any theory of art that holds the
conceptualism, readymades, installations, ap- aesthetic to be the defining essence of art must
propriations, and schizophrenic pastiche. The then maintain that certain exhibited properties of
so-called postmodern artworld raised the “Any- artifacts are responsible for the arthood status of
thing Goes” banner, and some started printing those artifacts. In one way or another, this
up the obituary. includes virtually all traditional theories of art in
However, perhaps to the surprise of many, the the West, since Plato and Aristotle up to Colling-
artworld of the past forty years showed us an- wood and even Goodman. Danto and Dickie are
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60:4 Fall 2002
342 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

singled out here because they presented theories ries and history of which Danto speaks are prop-
of art that explicitly claimed that certain non- erly the theories of actual artworld systems, such
exhibited properties of works of art are those that as French impressionist painting and Chinese
are responsible for the works’ being art. The pas- theater, and their history.6
sage from Danto, quoted time and again, is: “To For Danto, art theory and history constitute
see something as art requires something the eye artifacts as works of art. For Dickie, artworld
cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, systems, subinstitutions of the artworld, do that.
a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.”1 The question pertinent to both is how they do
And from Dickie: “The institutional theory of art that. Dickie offered the answer by focusing
concentrates attention on the nonexhibited char- upon the rule-governed nature of the practices of
acteristics that works of art have in virtue of art. In a nutshell, at the core of the artworld at
being embedded in an institutional matrix which large, as well as at the core of each of its subsys-
may be called “the artworld” and argues that tems, is a constitutive system of rules. As Dickie
these characteristics are essential and defining.”2 describes the institution of the artworld in terms
Even though the tight traditional correlation be- of rules and roles,7 he finds that there are certain
tween art and the aesthetic had been subject to basic, nonconventional rules that institute the
considerable loosening by the post-Wittgen- very practice of art. Two such rules that Dickie
steinian thinkers of the analytic tradition, with cites are: (1) “If one wishes to make a work of
Danto and Dickie, art and the aesthetic finally art, one must do so by creating an artifact” and
parted ways. (2) “If one wishes to make a work of art, one
The deep feature common to Danto and must do so by creating a thing of a kind which is
Dickie is the realization of the constitutive nature presented to an artworld public.”8 These two
of art. For Danto, this resides in his key notion of rules together, states Dickie, are sufficient for
“the is of artistic identification.” Whether it be art. Thus, by calling attention to the rule-gov-
for Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or for Warhol’s Brillo erned nature of art-making, Dickie proposes that
Box, a person’s ability to say “That is a work of the rules establish a “way of doing,” which,
art” about the object depends upon that person’s when generally recognized by the public, insti-
mastery of the “is of artistic identification.” Such tute a practice. Any such institution, by way of
mastery involves a good working knowledge of its rules, can set out various clusters of require-
the relevant theories of art behind the objects and ments that must be met by different members
their history. Without such knowledge, one sees acting in certain capacities. In the case of art,
paint, canvas, cardboard, shapes, eyes that fol- there are such rule-stipulated requirements one
low you around the room, and all manner of must fulfill so as to count as an artist, or public
things, but one does not see those specific works member, or curator, and so on. These are institu-
of art properly identified as Mona Lisa and Brillo tional roles, which vest the members with the
Box. As Danto says of Testadura, puzzled by authority to carry out their respective tasks.9
pure abstract art: “We cannot help him until he Summing up the new twist, Dickie suggests that
has mastered the is of artistic identification and art can be seen to be a complex of interrelated
so constitutes it a work of art.”3 Dickie concurs, roles governed by constitutive (nonconven-
noting, however, that while Danto’s argument tional) rules.10
shows that works of art exist within a context or Thus, if one might be hard-pressed to explain
framework, it does not reveal the nature of the el- how theories or history can constitute an artifact
ements making up the framework.4 Dickie offers as a work of art, one would not be so hard-
up the elements of Danto’s artworld in his later pressed to explain how an institution can do so.
version of the institutional theory, The Art Cir- That is what institutions do. A fortiori, if one
cle.5 I will return to Dickie’s description later on. conceives of institutions as rule-governed prac-
The important point for now is that Dickie main- tices, which is the proper way to regard them.
tains that the institutions of the artworld, those The logic of the “is of artistic identification” be-
established cultural practices such as painting, comes analogous to other cases of culturally
theater, and poetry, are the practices that actually based identifications. A cultural institution gov-
do constitute artifacts as works of art. One may erned by constitutive rules can transform a ball
say that, as far as Dickie is concerned, the theo- being kicked into a framed net into the winning
Graves The Role of Aesthetics in the Institutional Theory of Art 343

goal for the Spanish soccer team. Games simply but one possible type of relevant properties and
are cultural institutions, systems of rules that values. Art today is considered to be multifac-
constitute the relevant facts of the matter. The eted, including aspects of the cognitive, the
brute facts concerning the Spanish soccer team’s moral, the political, and so on, and not just the
victory are that one person kicked a ball into a aesthetic. This is not really a matter of theory;
framed net, while others tried to stop him. A per- the artworld itself showed us that, starting with
son who is ignorant of the rules of soccer would Dada and Duchamp, through Pop Art and con-
see just that, that is, something analogous to ceptualism, up to installations and appropria-
“nonartistic identification.” The institution of tions. Thus, the main question of this investiga-
soccer institutes the relevant facts of the matter, tion becomes clear: If, under such a general
and it does so by way of the participants’ acting institutional conception, the aesthetic does not
in accord with a particular system of rules. play the definitive role in art, what role does it
Acting in accord with the rules constitutes cer- play?
tain institutional facts, and they are the pertinent
ones.11 So it is with art: The rule-systems gov- II. THE INSTITUTIONAL STRUCTURE OF THE ARTWORLD
erning the practices of the artworld institute all
relevant art-facts. Artworld systems (usually Of all the newer, nonaesthetic philosophies of
called genres or styles, etc.) such as impression- art, the institutional theory appears to be the far-
ist painting and realist cinema are systems of thest removed from considerations of the aes-
rules specifying means, ends, products, and roles thetic (with the exception of Davies’s proce-
for their respective practices. This is sufficient to dural theory, which is a proper variant of the
explain both Dickie’s and Danto’s ways of institutional theory). For functionalist theories,
thinking. Seen this way, Dickie’s conception the aesthetic may play a basic role as the
falls right in line with other respectable con- delineator of one of art’s key functions. For the
ceptions in other realms. Following Wittgen- intentional-historical theories, the aesthetic may
stein’s conception of language games, this con- delineate a basic notion of proper regard for art,
ception of art follows the same kind of logic as historically based. For the later Danto, art be-
John Searle’s theory of speech acts12 and Asa came “embodied meaning,”14 and the aesthetic
Kasher’s theory of pragmatics,13 to mention two is basically just presumed. For Dickie, however,
pertinent analogues. in both his versions of the institutional theory,
As noted earlier, Dickie and Danto are but the aesthetic does not even appear in any of his
two key figures in a major trend of post-1960 proposed definitions of art. For this reason, I am
philosophy of art. The idea that nonexhibited inquiring as to the possible role of the aesthetic
properties, hence, nonaesthetic properties, are in art from the perspective of the theory that ap-
responsible for transforming an artifact into art pears to be most alien to the idea—the institu-
is an idea common to their theories. In one way tional theory. If we can answer the query there,
or another, this contratraditional key idea is and given that the institutional theory appears to
common to a host of other contemporary theo- be pivotal to the antitraditional trend spoken of
ries like proceduralism (e.g., Stephen Davies), earlier, then we may possess a sound basis for
polyfunctionalism (e.g., Robert Stecker), the in- follow-up investigations into the role of aesthet-
tentional-historical theory (e.g., Jerrold Levin- ics in contemporary philosophy of art.
son), not to mention the plethora of post- Summing up the previous point, the mainstay
modernist theories that reject the aesthetic of the post-1960 antitraditional trend in philoso-
essence of art, along with any other essence. phy of art, spearheaded by the institutional the-
Certain postmodernist theories to one side, the ory, is that nonexhibited, hence nonaesthetic,
key idea of the institutional theory seems to be properties are the ones responsible for arthood
variably implied by all these kinds of newer the- status. And yet, so many people, artists and the-
ories, namely, that the cultural practices of the orists alike, still hinge their practices upon the
artworld play a constitutive role in the defini- aesthetic. Why is the aesthetic still so important
tion, identification, and classification of art. It is to art? The problem restated, then, is this: Can
commonplace nowadays to think that the aes- the apparently still-central role of the aesthetic
thetic properties and values of works of art are in art be accounted for under an institutional
344 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

conception? The answer I wish to propose is isfied by “painting” and “romanticism,” respec-
yes. Moreover, I wish to show that Dickie and tively. Now Dickie always maintained that the
Danto converge on the same point, all differ- artworld consisted of a multitude of subin-
ences aside. That point of convergence is the stitutions, called “artworld systems,” but he gen-
idea of art as essentially being a matter of em- erally regarded them to be the various media of
bodied meaning. To show this, it is necessary to art—painting, sculpture, music, theater, and po-
take a closer look at the institution of the art- etry. Here, however, we see that a multitude of
world. artistic “ideologies” are also involved. There are
Simon wishes to be an artist. If he is to fulfill no “paintings” in the artworld, there are only
his wish, Dickie tells him that he must create an “expressionist paintings” or “romanticist paint-
artifact, a thing of a kind to be presented to a ings” or “realist paintings,” and so on. However,
public. Simon sets out to do that. Two central expressionism, romanticism, and realism, as ar-
questions will arise of their own accord, and tistic ideologies—as sources to answer “why?”
present themselves to Simon. In no order of or “what does it mean?” questions—can be man-
preference, those questions are “What artifact?” ifested in painting or poetry or many other artis-
and “Why?” It is important to note that the insti- tic “whats.”
tutional theory does not answer these questions, The institutional logic, if I may, standing be-
and purposely so. The institutional theory does hind both primary levels of consideration is one
not place any restrictions whatsoever upon the and the same. There is no brute reason why oil
kind of artifact, its material and application, that paint is a medium of art. If one is to use oil paint
can be a work of art. Nor does the theory place as an artistic medium, then that fact, and other
any restrictions upon the reasons for making pertinent facts of the matter, simply must be in-
such an artifact, that is, the artistic ideology be- stituted.16 The same holds true for artistic ideol-
hind the act. This is a deep feature of the theory, ogies. Art can deal with objective reality (real-
for, as Dickie points out, it provides the elastic- ism), with subjective attitudes (expressionism),
ity whereby creativity of even the most radical with “nature vs. human spirit” issues (romanti-
sort can be accommodated by the artworld.15 cism), or virtually any other sorts of meanings
Thus, Simon must decide for himself what sort and significance. However, if one is to use art to
of artifact to make and why, or, conversely, expound upon the subjective attitudes toward
what is it that he wants “to say” (i.e., why do it at life situations, expressionism as an art form
all) and what sort of artifact is likely to “say” must be instituted. As Dickie noted, there is no
that. (This is not the place to expand, but this is limit to the number of such subsystems that can
the start of understanding the true role of the art- be incorporated in the overall framework of the
ist under the institutional conception, and, per- artworld.
haps to the surprise of some, it is not far re- Scanning the artworld, we can see that there
moved from the traditional modern conception are artworld systems that institute practices con-
at all.) cerning the use of material (broadly construed).
So, Simon the would-be artist has some major We call them “mediums.” Also, we find another
decisions to make. He can paint a painting, if he set of artworld systems that institute various ide-
has the inclination. But why? That would depend ologies for art, such as impressionism, expres-
on what he was trying to say. He could say some- sionism, and all the other “isms.” (I like to call
thing about the romantic aspects of personal be- these subsystems “Big Theory” institutions of
littling in face of the vastness of nature. Yes, the artworld. Roughly, they are artworld-inter-
Simon could paint that. He could also dance it, or nal theories of art, distinguished from artworld-
rhyme it. Whatever Simon finally decides to do, external theories, such as philosophical or socio-
the internal logic of the artworld starts to become logical theories.) We note that the first set, the
clear. For Simon to fulfill the role of artist, he media, are quite independent of the second set,
must create some sort of artifact with some the ideologies, since a medium such as painting
meaningful purpose behind it (that meaning is can manifest virtually any artistic ideology, and
why he intends to present it to a public). So, there a specific ideology such as expressionism can be
are now two levels of consideration in Simon’s manifested in virtually any medium (in princi-
case: the “what?” and the “why?” which are sat- ple, at least). That means that a third set of
Graves The Role of Aesthetics in the Institutional Theory of Art 345

artworld systems is needed, one that institutes was wrong, but until now, he had focused only
the very specific practices of using a certain type on the framework of the artworld, and not so
of medium to manifest a certain artistic ideol- much on what one finds within that framework.
ogy. French impressionist painting is such an Upon examination of the inner workings of the
artworld system, a way of putting painting and artworld, one finds that the artworld at large
impressionism together. We commonly refer to does indeed institute art as embodied meaning.18
these third-level subsystems as genres, styles, or This in itself would be sufficient to reinstate the
techniques.17 The institutional logic of the aesthetic as being integral to the enterprise of
artworld, then, can be broken down into three art. If art essentially involves the embodiment of
distinct components: (a) what sort of artifact one meaning, and the very purpose of embodiment
is to produce; (b) what sort of ideology one is presentation to the senses, then the aesthetic is
wishes to make manifest; and (c) how to go indeed essential to art, even under the institu-
about doing that, that is, how to use the material tional conception. However, even though that is
to manifest the meaning. This logic is mirrored the way I wish to go, it will not be that simple.
by the artworld itself, when we distinguish be- The institutional theory is quite different from
tween the three different types of subinstitutions traditional theories of art as embodied meaning
one finds within: in the important respect that embodied meaning
is a conclusion of the institutional conception,
1. The medium-based subinstitutions such as paint- rather than an assumption. The institutional the-
ing, music, poetry, and so on. The rule-systems ory might very well be capable of demonstrating
here are specific as to the material requirements of what the other theories can but presume.
the various media of art, but remain open with re- From what has been said thus far, I hope I have
gard to artistic ideology. shown that it is quite plausible to suggest that the
2. The ideology-based subinstitutions such as real- institutional theory can explain why the aesthetic
ism, expressionism, conceptualism, and so on. is essential to art, if one accepts its premises (as
They are specific about the ideological require- outlined above). However, for this suggestion to
ments, but remain open with regard to material as- be properly followed through, there is one more
pects. (In some cases, secondary ideologies are preliminary issue that must be fleshed out. That
also placed here. For example, abstract expression- issue is that the institutional theory’s derived
ism and figurative expressionism are both placed principle of embodied meaning is a schematic
under the institution of expressionism.) one. Dickie said there is no limit to the number of
3. The technique-based subinstitutions, which are the subsystems that can be incorporated into the
frameworks in which art production actually takes framework of the artworld. This is the heart and
place. Material (type 1) and ideology (type 2) are soul of art’s endlessly creative capacities. If,
joined together here to form a system that specifies however, those subsystems converge so as to in-
most precisely the nature of its art game. For exam- stitute modes of embodying meaning, as shown
ple, Les Fauves and Die Brucke are specific subin- above, then the artworld is also open to numer-
stitutions of painting and figurative expressionism. ous manners of embodying meaning. The art-
world itself does not tell us how to embody
III. ART AS EMBODIED MEANING meaning, only that we should.
In principle, then, if the artworld is open to
The artworld, then, is not just some formless any manner of subsystem, then it is also open
cluster of random subsystems. It is a structured to any manner of embodying meaning. “Any-
institution, bearing a distinct sort of logic about thing Goes” is the slogan brandished upon the
it. That logic, bluntly put, is a logic of embodied banner of post-1960 art, and the institutional
meaning. It is manifested by the three constitu- theory concurs. It does not tell us which material
tive components: (1) material, (2) idea or mean- to choose as a medium (nor why), which artistic
ing, and (3) a technique in which the materials ideology to employ (nor why), nor how to use
of the chosen medium (1) are used in certain the medium to embody the meaning. To answer
ways that count as embodying (or trying to em- those questions, we need the specific, third-level
body) the chosen artistic ideology (2). So, Danto artworld systems, with specific rules for em-
is right, after all. Dickie never said that Danto bodying meaning in that system. How one em-
346 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

bodies meaning in impressionist painting is ation of an impressionist painting was not, by

quite different from how one embodies meaning any stretch of the imagination, an easy and
in romantic poetry. However, the institutional mindless task. The institutional theory regards
theory does yield a general “embodied mean- this most difficult of creative procedures to hold
ing” rule, a guideline that instructs us to “do true for all works of art. That is the rule, and ex-
whatever,” as long as the form of our artistic ceptions, if any, are just that.
doing can justifiably count as trying to embody
meaning. What we get here is quite pleasing: we IV. “ANYTHING GOES, BUT NOT EVERYTHING WORKS”:
get a universal principle allowing for, and ap- THE RETURN OF AESTHETICS
plying to, a plurality of art forms.19
“Anything goes,” we say, but not “everything The institutional theory, then, is in complete ac-
works.” For an artifact to count as a work of art, cord with the idea of art as embodied meaning.
it must meet the constitutive requirements of the As suggested, the very structure of the artworld,
artworld, namely, to be an artifact created by an involving medium-based institutions, artistic
artist and presented to a public, within a (set of) ideological institutions, and technical institu-
artworld system(s). Then it must meet the re- tions for wedding the one to the other, set up the
quirements of some properly instituted medium, work of art as being embodied meaning. It fol-
and it must meet the requirements of some prop- lows that one ought to strive toward a form of
erly instituted artworld ideology (even if it is art-making, a style, a technique, in which a clear
one that the artist is inventing). At the bottom of relation of appropriateness between the materi-
the institutional structure is a technique-based als used and ideology expressed is created in the
subinstitution, which is fully specific with re- artifact. Competent artists know this as a matter
gard to the ends, means, products, and roles of of course. So do competent critics. (In the era of
the system. This top-down procedure delineates pluralism, however, we sometimes forget.) The
the classificatory path of artworld systems to artistic distinction here is in the “body,” first and
which the work in question properly belongs. In foremost, as has been well recognized from
fact, the procedure constructs the work as the Plato and Aristotle on (all differences notwith-
kind of artwork that it is. The classificatory path standing). Usually, the idea that artistic meaning
of relevant artworld systems sets out the very is unique (and I agree), comes from the notion
identity conditions of the work of art. The me- that the meaning of a work of art is such that it
dium-institutions institute the very fact that cer- can only be communicated via the body of the
tain materials can be artistic media at all. The work. The gist of it is simply “aesthetics.” If cer-
ideology institutions institute the very fact that tain material properties of an artifact manifest
their products can mean anything at all as some meaning, that can only be fully understood
“works of art.” The technique institutions insti- when sensed, when felt. What the color red
tute the very fact that using a certain material in might mean is quite opaque to someone who
certain ways counts as “embodying a meaning” cannot see it. The possible meanings of mass are
at all. And they are all interrelated: for instance, quite lost on someone raised in zero gravity, and
one cannot truly understand (including knowing who has not personally experienced the pressure
how to relate to or engage) one of Monet’s “hay- of weight. It is through the subjective, “in the
stack” paintings without understanding the spe- first person,” sensations of material properties
cific system of “French impressionist painting.” of works of art that the meanings manifested by
And one cannot understand “French impression- the work emerge. Of course, this is all quite de-
ist painting” without understanding something pendent upon the competence of the artist and
about the more general systems of “impression- the willingness of the public. If the artist does
ism” and “painting.” This entails an understand- not know how to get the material properties of
ing of the history of painting, on the one hand, his or her work to appropriately relate to the
and an understanding of the relation of impres- work’s intended range of meanings, then the
sionism to other conceptions of art, on the other work will (normally) fail to engage. If the public
hand. (This is a specific example of the kind of is unwilling to seek out that appropriate relation
knowledge Danto had in mind, for one to master between the artist’s use of material and the in-
the “is of artistic identification.”) Monet’s cre- tended range of meanings (as often happens
Graves The Role of Aesthetics in the Institutional Theory of Art 347

when a new art form is presented) then the work systems at the bottom of the institutional struc-
will fail. ture of the artworld—the technique-based
Now, the salient feature is that it is unclear subinstitutions (genres, styles, schools)—are
what constitutes such an appropriate relation be- quite explicitly institutions that specifically tell
tween matter and meaning in a work of art. us what counts as appropriate relations between
Given that art involves a general requirement to matter and meaning. These institutions, these art
embody meaning, and that there are numerous forms, simply are practices of using certain
manners of embodying meaning that can be in- sorts of materials in certain sorts of ways to
stituted by the specific subinstitutions of the mean certain sorts of things. A specific artworld
artworld, then it is the proper task of aesthetics to system, such as French impressionist painting,
investigate and explain what constitutes appro- tells us what counts as appropriate relations be-
priate relations between matter and meaning in tween matter and meaning for that system. It is
works of art, and why. This can be done at the imperative to remember that instituting an art
various levels of the artworld’s institutional form like French impressionist painting consti-
structure, ranging from specific accounts of, say, tutes, creates, sets up the very possibility of con-
“the aesthetics of German romanticist painting,” struing Monet’s brushstroke as being appropri-
up to more general accounts of “the aesthetics of ate to what he is trying to say.22 The institution
tonal keys in painting.” Aesthetics has done as of French impressionist painting sets up the aes-
much since its inception. The novelty here is in thetics of Monet’s brushstroke, for that same
the schematic nature of the essential aesthetic re- stroke, in a different subinstitution—say, French
quirement. From the institutional point of view, neoclassical painting—would be deemed aes-
the artworld at large only demands that an art- thetically repulsive. On the one hand, then, insti-
work be an instance of embodied meaning (as a tutional analyses are indeed quite necessary, for
normative consequence of meeting the art- without them the aesthetic floats freely in a frus-
world’s internal demands) but it does not specify trating state of “irreducible vagueness” and “pe-
anything at all about the actual manifestations of rennial debate.”23 On the other hand, the aes-
the aesthetic requirement. (This is in complete thetic investigations into art would provide the
accord with the general “institutional logic” of tools and criteria for determining whether or not
the artworld, namely, deploying schematic defi- a work of art succeeds in meeting the artworld’s
nitions that accommodate unfettered creativity.) normative requirement of embodied meaning,
The artworld, as it were, “sets up”20 art as bear- how and why. As said, the artworld itself has
ing a general aesthetic essence, and the artworld shown us that “anything goes, but not every-
subsystems set up the particulars. This needs a thing works.” Bluntly put, it is the task of aes-
bit of explanation. thetics to show us what works (as far as embod-
The basic tenet of the institutional theory is ied meanings go), and why.
that an artifact must meet the constitutive re- By a peculiar twist of fate, the role of the aes-
quirements of the institution of the artworld for thetic here has “reversed its polarity,” if I may,
it to be art. If my rendition of the institutional and not for the first time in its history. Tradi-
theory here is viable, then any work of art must tionally, aesthetics served as the definitive as-
properly belong to (i.e., satisfy the requirements pect of art. As such, aesthetics was the anchor
of) at least three subsystems: a medium, an artis- that stabilized the ship of art theory. However,
tic ideology, and a technique subsystem. The in the wake of analytical aesthetics from the
consequence of this, I have maintained, is that 1950s, aesthetics seemed to reverse its polarity,
any work of art is, in effect, an instance of em- and became the destabilizer of the philosophy of
bodied meaning. Thus, in principle, aesthetics is art, what with its concepts being “irreducibly
essential to arthood status.21 vague” and “perennially debatable.” With the
However, this turns out to be a necessary con- advent of postmodernist critiques, the aesthetic
dition of art, but not sufficient. It is insufficient gained prominence elsewhere in our spheres of
precisely because the demand is schematic. For life, but seemed to fall out of the artworld’s
the aesthetic condition to be sufficiently ful- compass altogether. To be sure, according to
filled, an actual practice must be instituted. Dickie’s earlier versions of the institutional
Under the institutional conception, the artworld theory and judging by Danto’s early “identical
348 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

pairs” considerations, it seemed to follow that thetics as metacriticism, aesthetics becomes a

art simply did not have to be aesthetic for it to be normative, hence, stabilizing, aspect of the phi-
art. And yet, it seemed that the majority of prac- losophy of art.
titioners in the artworld still thought that it did. In a dispute with postmodernism we might
The task, then, is to find a philosophical theory concede that meaning is interpretation, but we
of art that at once accommodates Dickie’s and need not concede that the body is interpretation.
Danto’s original insights pertaining to the neces- One might not know what a painting means, but
sity of theoretical-historical-institutional con- one does know that paintings are to be looked at.
textualization of art, together with the fact that One might not know what the bright colors of a
the aesthetic still seems to be essential to art, painting mean, but one does see that they are
even under the institutional conception. This is bright. Thus, one can reasonably use painting as
what I have tried to provide here. a medium to convey meanings that one can only
Now, aesthetics changes it polarity yet again, “see,” and use bright colors to convey meanings
and may once more serve as the primary stabi- that are “bright.” To be sure, there are many
lizing agent in the theory of art. This is so be- ways to construe this, we have been through all
cause of the twin features of the inherent plural- that. Aesthetics will flesh out those problems,
ity of art forms, on the one hand, together with a for aesthetics can now be used as a stabilizing
universal constraint for embodied meanings, on agent, as it sifts through the reasonable uses of
the other hand. To be sure, French impressionist materials to convey meanings, distinguishing
painting institutes the aesthetics of Monet’s them from the unreasonable uses. Thus, in a
brushstroke, and yet there are always reasons quirky twist of fate, aesthetics in the age of radi-
why a specific artworld practice chooses to em- cal interpretation stabilizes art theory by focus-
ploy certain materials in certain ways so as to ing upon the objective, addressed to the senses
say certain things. One employs music to tell a features of works of art, by focusing upon the
kind of story, because a story develops over time body of the work. The bodily features of works
and music is a temporal medium. That is a good of art are much harder to “interpret away” at
reason to employ music. However, it is quite whim and fancy.
possible for one to present an exhibition of It is imperative, however, not to repeat “the
paintings that the public would only listen to. mistake upon which traditional aesthetics
Simon, our would-be artist, could do that. He rested,” as we nod in William Kennick’s direc-
can hang the pictures, and hand out blindfolds to tion.24 If we are clear about the role of aesthetics
all the guests, then have ushers guide them suggested here, there will be no danger of that.
across the faces of the paintings, pausing before The aesthetic is indeed an essential identity con-
each one to listen to it. Moreover, if Simon were dition of a work of art, but it is not the single
to do that nowadays, he could probably be as- identifying principle. Knowing that a work of art
sured of fine press attention, for it is a good gim- is, in some sense, aesthetic (i.e., a case of embod-
mick, and can be construed as being politically ied meaning) is necessary for identifying it as a
correct in this age of nonoppressive pluralism. work of art, but it is not sufficient. Knowledge of
However, from the perspective offered here, we the work’s institutional contextualization, the-
at once acknowledge Simon’s legitimate right to ory, and history, is also necessary. That is why
do that in the name of art, but also point out that different people are likely to pull different arti-
using the medium of painting, a visual medium, facts out of the burning warehouse. On the other
to embody an auditory manifold of meaning is hand, we will not repeat Kennick’s own mistake
simply a wrongheaded idea. The objective, either. In the “burning warehouse” story, Ken-
“brute” properties of the various media can rea- nick claims that “we are able to separate those
sonably be used in certain ways, and not in oth- objects which are works of art from those which
ers. Under this proposal, the artworld tells us are not, because we know English.”25 As even
what counts as an appropriate relation between B. R. Tilghman, who is no fan of the institutional
medium and meaning for a given form of art, but theory, admits: “Art may be more like entomol-
it is up to aesthetics to inquire into the reason- ogy than it is like color and it is not always
ableness of that artworld determination. Some- enough merely to be a native speaker in order to
what in the spirit of Beardsley’s notion of aes- identify something as a work of art. Art is a re-
Graves The Role of Aesthetics in the Institutional Theory of Art 349

markably complex cultural phenomenon—that for the most part, retained its aesthetic flavor.
is the truth behind the institutional theory—and There were two basic possibilities: either art re-
there are varying degrees of expertise and spe- mained faithful to the aesthetic out of mere con-
cialization in our intercourse with it.”26 Placing venience or the institutional theory was wrong.
Danto’s “embodied meanings” thesis in the Judging by the vast quantity of objections raised
framework of Dickie’s institutional theory of art against the institutional theory since its incep-
yields the most rewarding results. On the one tion, it is obvious that most people opted for the
hand, their insights concerning the necessary second possibility. There is, however, a third op-
theoretical embeddedness of works of art re- tion. That option is that the institutional theory is
main. Indeed, “anything goes” in art, this has right, but that it does not necessarily sever the es-
been shown to be quite inherent in the very na- sential link between the artistic and the aesthetic.
ture of art. On the other hand, since both their That is the option presented herein. The institu-
paths lead directly to the notion of embodied tional theory sets up art as being a matter of em-
meaning, then a set of universal constraints may bodying meanings, thus the aesthetic is quite
justifiably be placed upon any instance of art. integral to the enterprise of art. The difference
These constraints will also be aesthetic in their between this position and the traditional one is
nature, if we bear in mind that they seek to estab- still quite pronounced. Whereas tradition main-
lish appropriate body/meaning relationships. tained that art is by definition aesthetic, for the
institutional theory art is aesthetic as a normative
V. THE ZEN MASTER’S TEA POT conclusion of the conception. Moreover, the nor-
mative demand is a schematic one, with the fe-
So, what has changed? In the spirit of Zen, the licitous result of having a universal aesthetic
answer is “everything and nothing.” Until the constraint, which is consistently applicable to an
middle of the twentieth century, art in the West (in principle) unbounded plurality of art forms.
had always been defined in terms of the exhib- Having reached this point, and inquiring as to
ited properties of works of art. More specifi- the role of aesthetics under such an institutional
cally, art had always been defined in terms of conception, we then find that nothing much has
the beautiful and then the aesthetic properties of really changed. Aesthetics still does what aes-
works of art. Even after the watershed of the thetics has always done. It evaluates art, it deals
1960s, art was still generally identified by its with success and failure, it works out the reason-
aesthetic properties, even if not defined (e.g., ableness of various modes of embodying mean-
Goodman). Roughly put, the aesthetic deter- ing in the forms of art. Aesthetics still deals with
mined the artistic, as a general rule. For the pro- “sensate cognition,” it still deals with “sensed
ponents of Danto, Dickie, and the others of that unities of complex manifolds,” it still deals with
trend, all that changed. This was not some minor intuitions. To be sure, the aesthetic no longer de-
alteration. What Danto and Dickie were telling fines art, except for in a very cursory manner in
us is quite simply that what we thought made the form of a schematic normative demand for
something art did not make it art, something en- meaning embodiment. That may be very impor-
tirely different did. Moreover, they did not argue tant to the philosophy of art, to analyses of the
that their theories applied to some new form of concept of art, but how important, really, is that
art, but that art had always been that way. For to aesthetics?27 Having reached this point, I am
Danto, art always depended upon the appro- not sure that it is all that important. Aside from
priate atmosphere of theory and history. For the futile attempt to define art solely in terms of
Dickie, art always depended upon established aesthetics (which some people still insist upon
institutional practices. The artistic and the aes- doing) aesthetics still does what aesthetics does.
thetic parted ways, linked one to the other only In “The Artworld,” Danto himself recounts
by a common and contingent history. In this the tale of Ch’ing Yuan, who saw mountains as
most important sense, everything changed. mountains and waters as waters, until he studied
In spite of the strength of their insights, and in Zen. He came to a point where he saw that the
spite of the attempts of certain post-1960 art mountains were not mountains and the waters
forms (e.g., conceptualism) to sever that histori- were not waters. The next point was when he got
cal link between the artistic and the aesthetic, art, to know the very substance, and the mountains
350 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

were once again mountains, the waters once an awfully big deal out of nothing. He is Danto’s
again waters. Danto recounts this tale to illumi- Testadura. The third point, perhaps the most im-
nate the all-important difference between a portant one, is that the meanings and values in-
philistine who looks at a pure abstract painting stituted by the Tea Ceremony are bona fide
and says “it’s only paint,” and between a tenth meanings and values. They do count; they be-
street abstractionist who says the same about the come fact. Indeed, they are institutional facts,
same painting. If I were to express the difference not brute ones, but that matters not. The institu-
for the sake of brevity, I would say that the tional facts are the ones that count. As a matter
philistine sees the nonartistic physical paint, of brute fact, the tea is tea and the pot is a pot,
whereas the artist sees the artistic physicality of but that is not what counts.
paint. There is a world of difference between the Thus, in the Tea Ceremony, the tea is not just
two, and that is precisely what Danto was trying tea, and the pot is not just a pot. They are also
to show. something else. The transition from traditional
I have something similar, but different, in aesthetic-based theories of art to the institutional
mind. So I have combined Ch’ing Yuan’s Zen conception is somewhat like that. Traditionally,
journey with Chado, the Way of Tea, and the art was considered to be determined by the aes-
traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony. In a nut- thetic, and art theory was considered to be a par-
shell, the Tea Ceremony is one of pure giving asitical sort of attempt to make sense of art by
and receiving; it is a ritual for cleansing and pu- trying to define that which defies definition.
rifying the souls of the participants in the cere- From Danto and Dickie on, art was not what we
mony. The principles that govern the Japanese had thought it was, nor was art theory. As with
Tea Ceremony are harmony, respect, purity, and the Tea Ceremony, the institutional conception
tranquility, which combine with what might be argues that the meanings and values of art are
called the Zen aesthetic of emptiness to give the constituted by the practices of the artworld. True
Tea Ceremony its distinctive feel. In the course understanding of, and engagement with, art
of the ritual, the ceremonious preparation of tea come only “from within.” And, most impor-
by the one party, and the imbibing of it by the tantly, the view “from within” is glorious. A Mi-
other party, symbolizes a host of meanings and chelangelo can be a jaw dropper, a Monet can be
significances far beyond the natural propensities a heart stopper, and a Rothko can be a glimpse at
of drinking tea. It is of the very nature of consti- God. Only from within. From without, they are
tutive cultural practices, that certain actions or fancy polished marble, erratic slops of paint, and
things count as something else, under the rules two rectangles.
of the practice. So it is with art. The application Finally, however, tea was chosen for reasons,
of paint to canvas, the production of sounds (e.g., that it was a first medicine). So were mar-
from a taut string, the movement of the body on ble, paint, and rectangles chosen for reasons.
a stage, all count as meaning and signify a host After having learned to see the Tea Ceremony
of things in virtue of their being embedded in the and the artworld in the proper ways, one may pro-
cultural matrix of the artworld and in accor- ceed further still. A still deeper understanding in-
dance with the rules of its established practices. volves working out the appropriate relations be-
There are three important points to bear in mind tween the brute facts and the institutional ones,
here. The first is that it is by the constitutive na- between the natural and the cultural, between the
ture of these cultural practices that such mean- objective and the subjective. In terms offered
ings and values are attained. The Tea Ceremony herein, that deeper understanding involves rein-
constitutes its special state of peace and recon- troducing the aesthetic dimension. Imagine a Tea
ciliation, and nothing else is quite like it. Sec- Ceremony where the tea served was positively
ondly, the meanings and values instituted by the vile and repulsive to the taste. Well, so much for
Tea Ceremony are accessible only to those who that little tea party.28 Our conception of the tea
participate (or observe) “from within.” Only pot may have changed radically, but the tea is,
knowledge of the rules of the game affords un- after all, still tea. It is other things, but it is also
derstanding and the possibility of true engage- tea. A work of art is an artifact created by an artist
ment. The observer “from without,” ignorant of and presented to an artworld public, within a set
the rules of the game, sees two people making of artworld systems. It is, however, also an arti-
Graves The Role of Aesthetics in the Institutional Theory of Art 351

fact that is supposed to embody meaning. What- sophical Review 64 [1955]). More recently, Oswald Han-
ever meaning, and whatever mode of embodi- fling has suggested a reconsideration of the institutional
theory of art in its original, “status-conferral” version, in his
ment, a work of art should still be an appropriate “The Institutional Theory: A Candidate for Appreciation?”
embodiment of its meaning. The practice of art is The British Journal of Aesthetics 39 (1999) pp. 189–194.
no easy task under the institutional theory, as we 8. Dickie, p. 67.
have seen, but the real rewards are to be found in 9. Cf. Asa Kasher, “What Is a Theory of Use?” The Jour-
nal of Pragmatics 1 (1977): 105–120.
the practice of good art. For that, just knowing the 10. To be sure, all practices of art involve a host of con-
rules and histories of established artworld prac- ventions, but they are not definitive of the practice.
tices seems to be insufficient. It is altogether nec- 11. For the first distinction between brute and institu-
essary, but not sufficient. After years of studying tional facts, see G. E. M. Anscombe, “On Brute Facts,”
Art-Zen, one can once again sense the beauty of Analysis 18 (1958) pp. 69–73. Further elaborated in John
Searle, Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University
the tea, without losing sight of the culturally de- Press, 1969), sect. 2.7.
fined tea pot that made such beauty possible.29 12. Searle, Speech Acts, supra n.11.
We might be able to avoid repeating the mistakes 13. Kasher, “What Is a Theory of Use?” supra n.9.
of the past, as we form a theory and practice of 14. Arthur C. Danto, “From Aesthetics to Art Criticism
art, which at once acknowledges the cultural and Back,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 54
(1996): 114.
contextuality of works of art together with the 15. See George Dickie, “What is Art?” in Culture and
universal aesthetic constraints that are placed Art, ed. Lars Aagaard-Mogensen (Atlantic Highlands, New
upon them, by the very nature of the cultural Jersey: Humanities Press, 1976), p. 23.
practice called art. No longer apprentices of the 16. Cf. Stanley Cavell, who, in spite of his opposition to
Zen masters, we may find that our conception of the institutional theory, recognized the necessity of some sort
of systematic framework, which institutes the practical facts
the tea has changed a bit, but that it is still tea after of the matter—namely, that a certain kind of material can be
all, only better. It can be the best of both worlds. used as a medium, that the various material aspects can bear
such and such a range of meanings, and the like. He says:
“Philosophers will sometimes say that sound is the medium
DAVID C. GRAVES of music, paint of paintings, wood and stone of sculpture,
Department of Philosophy words of literature. . . . What needs recognition is that wood
The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo or stone would not be a medium of sculpture in the absence of
Tel Aviv, Israel 64044 the art of sculpture (his emphasis). . . . The idea of a medium
is not simply that of a physical material, but of a mate-
rial-in-certain-characteristic-applications.” Must We Mean
INTERNET: What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1976), p. 221.
1. Arthur C. Danto, “The Artworld,” Journal of Philoso- 17. The term “technique,” incidentally, is the most pre-
phy 61 (1964): 580. cise. An artist’s technique consists in her or his ability to use
2. George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional her or his chosen materials to manifest her or his chosen ide-
Analysis (Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 12, emphasis in ology.
original. 18. Two remarks in passing: First, Danto did not invent
3. Danto, “The Artworld,” p. 579, emphasis in original. the idea of art as embodied meaning, of course. That idea is
4. George Dickie, Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic as old as Aristotle’s notion of art as idea materialized. In this
Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. respect, the institutional theory does not reinvent art, it de-
88. scribes it, and, to my mind, better than any other theory. Sec-
5. George Dickie, The Art Circle (New York: Haven ond, this expansion of the institutional theory is capable of
Press, 1984). providing more insights into the essentials of art than just
6. Kendall Walton might provide a good link between embodied meaning, but that is a topic for another time. Some
Danto’s and Dickie’s theories, in his seminal “Categories of such suggestions are outlined in my dissertation, see David
Art,” The Philosophical Review 79 (1970), further discussed C. Graves, Constituting Art: The Institutional Theory of Art
in his “Review of Art and the Aesthetic,” The Philosophical (Tel Aviv University, 1994), Asa Kasher and George
Review 86 (1977). Dickie, supervisors. Cf. Robert Stecker’s discussion of my
7. While it is nice to still have a few die-hard institu- version in his Artworks: Definition, Meaning, Value (Penn-
tionalists around, they do tend to remain focused upon the sylvania State University Press, 1997), pp. 259–265.
wrong sorts of things. Systems of rules constituting the insti- 19. This feature, incidentally, shows that the institutional
tution of the artworld are the true focus, as Dickie suggested theory is a strong candidate for the new kind of philosophi-
in 1984. Stephen Davies’s “proceduralism,” in his Defini- cal theory that Danto foresees in his The Disenfranchisement
tions of Art (Cornell University Press, 1991), stresses the of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 210.
roles, rather than the rules (in a manner similar to John 20. I am feeding off the intuition that the Latin root of “in-
Rawls’s original distinction between constitutive and regu- stitution” is statuere, which means “to set up.”
lative systems, in his “Two Concepts of Rules,” The Philo- 21. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers of the
352 The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

JAAC for for their constructive comments, and to one of 27. The realization that the aesthetic does play an integral
them in particular for pointing out this conclusion, and con- part in the definition of art, after all, but in a schematic and
vincing me to take that final step toward the aesthetic that normative fashion, is indeed an intriguing point, worthy of
worries any institutionalist. further investigation.
22. For some elaboration on the role institutional context 28. According to the sixteenth-century Chado Master,
plays in determining appropriateness relations between body Sen Rikyu, the first of the seven rules for the Tea Ceremony
and meaning in art, see my “On Presenting Works of Art: An is: “Make a delicious bowl of tea.”
Analysis of Meaning in the Second Intention,” Philosophia, 29. In this important respect, the analogy between the
to appear. way of art and the way of tea should be abandoned. Accord-
23. Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” ing to the Zen aesthetics of Chado there is no duality. For art,
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 15 (1956) ; 27– however, the duality of mind (meaning) and body is para-
35, of course. mount (even if certain theories of art have also tried to eradi-
24. William E. Kennick, “Does Traditional Aesthetics cate the duality). The duality offered up here is between the
Rest on a Mistake?” Mind 67 (1958): 317–334. cultural and the natural, between the institutional and the
25. Ibid., p. 321. brute, between the (inter)subjective and the objective. That,
26. B. R. Tilghman, But is it Art? (Oxford: Basil Black- I believe, must not be eradicated, for that is what art is all
well, 1984), p. 50. about.