The Institutional Theory of Art

HOW OBJECTS BECOME “ART”

In writing The Artworld, art writer and philosopher, Arthur Danto, laid out a history of how art history had to change its theories of what art was supposed to be in the face of new objects. He said, “Suppose one thinks of the discovery of a whole new class of artworks as something analogous to the discovery of a whole new class of facts anywhere, viz., as something for theoreticians to explain,” and mentioned the shift away from the Imitation theory of art when Post-Impressionism came on the scene. He continued, “Suppose, then, tests reveal that these hypotheses fail to hold, that the theory, now beyond repair, must be replaced. And a new theory is worked out, capturing what it can of the old theory’s competence, together with the heretofore recalcitrant facts.” This was Danto’s way of laying the groundwork for yet another aesthetic reordering.

By the time Danto was writing in 1964, a new definition of art was long overdue. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp opened the door to a question everyone thought had been answered: “What is art?” If “anything”, even a bicycle wheel, even a bottle rack, even a urinal, could be “art”, then how can the “precincts” of art be protected from “non” or “not” art? The power shifts from the “art” itself to the gatekeepers, those–the artists—who are (self)-empowered to define “art”. Today this outcome seems self-evident, but in the early years of the twentieth century, Duchamp was an underground artist, understood only by a very few individuals. He was absorbed first into Dada and then into Surrealism,where the fact that he had redefined art and artist was interpreted as “anti-art.”

Whether they were influenced by Duchamp or not, both Neo-Dada and Pop artists began (re)making ordinary objects. Danto approached the results with caution. On one hand there was enough artistic intervention—Jasper Johns painted, Robert Rauschenberg dumped paint onto a bed, Claes Oldenburg built a bed, shaped like a rhomboid—to make these objects “art” in the traditional sense. But Danto had doubts, “What, after all, prevents Oldenburg’s creation from being a mis- shapen bed? This is equivalent to asking what makes it art, and with this query we enter a domain of conceptual inquiry…”

Several pages later, Danto reaches the heart of the matter: Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, shown at the Stable Gallery. “Mr. Andy Warhol, the Pop artist, displays facsimiles of Brillo cartons, piled high, in neat stacks, as in the stockroom of the supermarket. They happen to be of wood, painted to look like cardboard, and why not?” Danto asked, “In fact the Brillo people might, at some slight increase in cost, make their boxes out of plywood without these becoming artworks, and Warhol might make his out of cardboard without their ceasing to be art.”

After puzzling over the Brillo Boxes and their status as “art,” Danto concluded,

What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is (in a sense of is other than that of artistic identification). Of course, without the theory, one is unlikely to see it as art, and in order to see it as part of the artworld, one must have mastered a good deal of artistic theory as well as a considerable amount of the history of recent New York painting. It could not have been art fifty years ago.

So, art is made by the theory of art which is in turn made by at the art world. Art is what the art world accepts. The concept of the “artworld”—one word—was taken up later by the aesthetician George Dickie who suggested a more complex theory of art that rested upon the institution, which was known as the “institutional theory of art.” As Dickie pointed out later, the artworld was at the heart of the institutional theory. “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 some persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).” Dickie was concerned about the framework of the institution.

For the philosopher the artist and the audience were the necessary elements of the institution’s framework. The artist is aware that what she is producing is art and the audience is aware that what he is looking at is art. In addition to these two major actors are what Dickie call “supplementary” actors: critics, curators, teachers, directors, and dealers, all of whom are part of the institution. All of these agents and their acts are governed by rules. These “rules” are conventions.

On the surface, it would seem that the theories of Danto and Dickie, who are often coupled, are co-extensive but, in fact, there are important distinctions between the two. Danto, an art critic, had to account for the presence of a set of Brillo Boxes as “art.” Dickie, an aesthetician, had to redefine art. For Dickie the ontology of “art” was its artifactuality, i.e., it had to exist as “art.” The issue of intrinsic or extrinsic properties was neither here nor there as long as the artifact deemed “art” existed. However, after two decades of dealing with the impact of Duchamp on the definition of art, by 1984 Dickie had to rethink this early theory of art as artifact and take into account the fact of an object that was untouched by the artist. In other words, the emphasis shifted to the institution or the artworld.

An art world system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an art world public,” Dickie concluded. In his 2009 book, How to Study Art Worlds, Hans van Maanen, concluded his chapter on George Dickie by explaining the importance of his theory:

Firstly, there is his concept of roles and rules, which clarifies the significance of conventions in making an art world system op- erate; secondly, there is his emphasis on the essential role of the public, a public which exists as a more or less prepared addressee of the artist’s activity.

The modernist or traditional perspective was that art was eternal and absolutely recognizable and independent of the system of cultural production. An institution cannot make art, only an artist can make art. Art comes, not from a site of production but from art itself. Only an artist makes art. However, starting with the belated recognition of the importance of Duchamp, from Neo-Dada to Pop to Minimalism to Conceptual Art, it became clear that the the two hundred year definition of art was untenable.

Danto and Dickie inherited the problem of how to patrol the borders of the art world. For Danto it was a question of who or what was to be admitted to the precincts of the artworld. For Dickie it was the nature of the framework of the artworld and the mode of its reception of the artifact. Who or what would be empowered? Who or what would be would be anointed? When George Dickie implied that an object could become legitimized as “art” if it was “recognized” as such by the art institutions, his institutional theory of art refuted the notion that there was an essential ontology to art.

Art was relative, contingent, and dependent upon the existence of institutional space. The art institution was more than a physical one of museums and galleries, it was also a product of reading about art by an art audience, writing about art by art historians and art critics and current conversations about art–art discourse, all of which contributed to the “making” of an artist or a work of art through naming and designation. With the work of these two writers, “art” was disconnected from its traditional moorings—beauty and Greek art. Suddenly art could be anything; an artist could be anyone; the audience could be everyone; art could be anywhere. All the “institution” had to do was to acknowledge the presence of the artifact and “art” was “made.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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