Art and Institution
In 1956, Morris Weitz challenged the foundations of modern aesthetics when he declared that the question “what is art?” was the wrong question for aestheticians to be asking. Instead he proposed that the question that should be fundamental to aesthetics is “what kind of concept is ‘art’?” thus starting one of the largest debates in contemporary aesthetics. Morris argued against essentialism in art, and instead proposed that art was an open concept.
Fifteen years later, the aesthetician George Dickie published Aesthetics: An Introduction, an introductory text to the issues of aesthetics. In it, Dickie explains the anti-essentialist position as forwarded by Weitz as well as arguments made against it. He then proposes his own response to Weitz, in which he proposed that the definition of art is not open, in the Wittgensteinian sense, and is actually defined by the institution of art.
Both Morris and Dickie continue to be challenged by aestheticians and philosophers. What is to follow is not so much of a challenge, but a reformation of the institutional theory of art. Dickie’s model is no longer sufficient to describe the current state of art and its institutions, but its core idea is still relevant almost forty years later. This essay will first review the core ideas and questions of Dickie’s theory, attempting to clarify his position. Problems with the institutional theory will then be addressed, with possible solutions provided. Finally a new theory will be proposed that takes the fundamental ideas of the institutional theory as well as solutions to its problems and attempts to describe the definition of art and the art institution in a way that fits with the contemporary state of art.
The Institutional Theory of Art
Dickie begins his argument by describing two senses in which one can consider a work of art. The first sense is the evaluative, which is strictly linguistic and used to praise an object. The second sense is the classificatory, which indicates that a certain object belongs to a certain category of artifacts. He makes this distinction to refute Weitz’s claim that if one were to call a piece of driftwood found on the beach a “work of art”, it would be. For Dickie, the driftwood would be a work of art only in the evaluative sense because although Weitz is correct that linguistically the statement “that driftwood is a work of art” is comprehensible it ignores that the driftwood is not an artifact. Dickie, unlike Weitz, believes that for something to be considered a work of art it must be an artifact, thus motivating his distinction between the evaluative and classificatory senses.
Dickie continues his argument by citing Arthur Danto’s concept of an artworld. Danto claims that “to see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry–an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of history of art: an artworld” (Danto 571-584). For Danto there is no special kind of aesthetic perception (as in the “trained eye” of a connoisseur) that can determine whether something is a work of art. However, he does believe that a certain type of knowledge (in Danto’s case being art historical and theoretical knowledge) is required to make judgments of whether something is art or not and he sees this knowledge as part of the system he calls the artworld.
Dickie uses Danto’s concept to form his theory of art, in which he states that “a work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on the behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation” (Dickie 101). What Dickie is suggesting is that a work of art is an artifact that can acquire the status of candidate for appreciation within the artworld through an agent or agents of the institution of art. In other words, any artifact can become a work of art as long as it is legitimized by the artworld.
Dickie addresses the question of how the status of art is conferred, describing a system in which “a number of persons are required to make up the social institution of the artworld, but only one person is required to act on behalf of or as an agent of the artworld and to confer the status of candidate for appreciation” (Dickie 102-103). The requirement is that there needs to be both a group of persons who form an institution, and one or more of those persons legitimizing artifacts as candidates for appreciation. Dickie notes that although a group of persons can confer the status of candidate for appreciation, one person usually confers it: the artist who created the artifact (Dickie 103).
Although it makes sense that an artist would be an agent of the artworld it remains in question what the qualifications are for a person to be a member of the artworld. Dickie clarifies that “every person who sees himself as a member of the artworld is an ‘officer’ of it and is thereby capable of conferring status in its name” (Dickie 104). Therefore someone is a member of the artworld as long as they believe they are a member.
Dickie goes on to address questions of the institutional theory, the first being a question about appreciation. Dickie points out that it is “…important not to build into the definition of the classificatory sense of “work of art” value properties such as actual appreciation: to do so would make it impossible to consider unappreciated works of art and bad works of art (Dickie 104). In order to be able to talk about works of art that are “unappreciated” or “bad”, it is necessary to make sure the definition of art does not include properties of value because it would exclude certain artifacts that have already been or can be legitimized by the institution. Dickie supports his statement, claiming, ”for something to be a work of art in the classificatory sense does not mean this it has any actual value” because value (whether monetary, aesthetic, etc.) in terms of art is a subjective judgment.
Dickie continues by clarifying what it means to confer status upon an artifact. Using an example of a painting created by a monkey either being displayed in an art museum or a natural history museum Dickie states, “[conferring status] all depends on the institutional setting–the one setting is congenial to conferring the status of art and the other is not” (Dickie 106). Being an agent of the institution of natural history and declaring something as a work of art is not the same as conferring status in the artworld. It is, again, the distinction between evaluative and classificatory senses of “work of art” compounded with the institutional backing of the artworld. A curator at a natural history museum is not an agent of the artworld, whereas a curator of an art museum is and thus has the authority to confer status.
The question then turns to the definition of artifactuality and its effect on creativity. Dickie states that “natural objects which become works of art in the way being discussed [e.g. driftwood] are artifactualized without the use of tools–the artifactuality is conferred on the object rather than worked on it” (Dickie 106). Artifactuality can be conferred, like the status of art, which accounts for things like found art in which an object was not made by an artist but is still considered a work of art by that artist. Dickie then addresses the concern of creativity claiming, “since it is possible that anything whatever may become art, the definition imposes no restraints on creativity” (Dickie 107). Because anything can be artifactualized without direct intervention from an artist (in the sense of creating a work), anything can become art with institutional approval thus accounting for things like conceptual art, performance art, etc., showing that creativity is not inhibited by the definition.
If the institutional theory does not limit creativity then the issue of new works that may or may not fit the current subconcepts of art comes into question. Dickie’s solution is that “…if a new and unusual work is created and it is fairly similar to some members of an established type, then it will usually be accommodated within that type, or if the new work is very unlike existing works, then a new subconcept will probably be created” (Dickie 107). For example, the Happenings of the 1960s became a part of the subconcept of performance art due to their similarity to theater and performance, whereas conceptual art had no similar subconcepts and thus a new subconcept was created to accommodate it. Dickie, however, infers that it is not necessarily the case that either will occur as the institution must confer the status of art on a work first.
Dickie closes his argument by addressing the possibility of the institution making a mistake in conferring the status of art on an artifact. He states, “in conferring the status of art on an object one assumes a certain kind of responsibility for the object in its new status; presenting a candidate for appreciation always faces the possibility that no one will appreciate it and that the person who did the conferring will thereby lose face” (Dickie 108). An example of this would be a curator who discovers a new artist and displays their work in a gallery only to find that the work is unappreciated by the institution and therefore delegitimized, the curator thus loses respect in the artworld.
Problems of the Institutional Theory
Dickie addresses several questions of the institutional theory, however some aspects of the theory are vague and certain issues arise that he does not address. The first issue is the definition of artifactuality, which he leaves fairly ambiguous. A work of art does not necessarily have to be an object (e.g. performance art) nor does it have to be created by an artist (e.g. found art), so how can artifactuality be a necessary property of art? He states that artifactuality can be conferred on something, but how artifactuality is conferred is left open. Furthermore if artifactuality can be conferred, who can confer it? The method of conferring artifactuality is, in the simplest sense, a method of exhibition. If a work is exhibited or performed, then it is artifactualized. This can account for works not directly made by an artist or works that are not objects. The institution legitimizes exhibitions and performances; therefore it is the institution that can confer artifactuality. Thus when the institution confers the status of art on a work, it is also conferring artifactuality.
The second issue with the institutional theory is the definition of artworld. Both Danto and Dickie leave the artworld undefined. The structure and composition of the artworld are not discussed, nor is the system of the artworld covered. Dickie states “the counterparts in the artworld to specified procedures and lines of authority are nowhere codified, and the artworld carries on its business at the level of customary practice…”, yet this is not the case in the contemporary sense of the artworld (103-104). Although the hierarchical system of the artworld is not as rigid as other systems (e.g. government), it still exists and has an impact on the functioning of the artworld. Furthermore Dickie and Danto imply that there is only one artworld but that, too, is not the case in the contemporary sense of the artworld as there are many different art movements and communities that exist that may or may not participate within the same hierarchical system.
Howard Becker, in Art Worlds, defines an artworld as “consist[ing] of all the people whose activities are necessary to the production [and consumption] of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art” (Becker 34). Becker’s definition presupposes that there are multiple artworlds (e.g. regional art communities, contemporary art galleries) each of which has their own definitions of art as well as a network of people who are responsible for both the production and consumption (commercial or otherwise) of works of art within their respective artworlds. This definition clarifies what an artworld is, but does not account for how people become members of an artworld.
Throughout history there have been large amounts of people who have trained or attempted to become members of an artworld (e.g. artists, critics, dealers) but who never succeeded (economically, intellectually, etc.). Some of these artists receive recognition posthumously (e.g. Van Gough) but these cases, especially in a contemporary artworld, are exceptional. Instead, it seems that members, like works of art, must have their membership conferred upon them by the institution. Artists are “discovered” by people like art dealers, curators, critics, or other artists, after which their work is exhibited (thus conferring the property of artifactuality) and, depending on the reaction of the members of a particular artworld, the artist is then granted membership. Along with artists, curators, art dealers, and critics must also have their membership conferred on them. Anyone who is a member of an artworld has had that status conferred upon them by other members of that particular artworld.
The third issue with the institutional theory is a question of authority. Who has the authority to confer the status of art? Dickie believes any member of an artworld can confer status, and he even accounts for what happens when a member makes a mistake. However, his position does not account for the hierarchies inherent to any social institution. Becker provides a better analysis of who can confer status, stating:
“A relevant feature of organized art worlds is that, however their positions justified, some people are commonly seen by many or most interested parties as more entitled to speak on behalf of the art world than others; the entitlement stems from their being recognized by the other participants in the cooperative activities through which that world’s works are produced and consumed as the people entitled to do that…what lets them make the distinction and make it stick is that the other participants agree that they should be allowed to do it” (Becker 151).
The people that make up the institution of any particular artworld grant authority to certain members based on an institutional consensus. The reasons for granting authority can vary between artworlds, for example one artworld may grant authority based on education, while another may grant authority based on the amount of works sold, but no matter what the reason, there are members of artworlds with more authority to speak for the institution than others and within a social institution that authority is granted through consensus.
It is important to note that the people who are granted authority to speak on behalf of their respective artworld do have limitations on what they can and cannot confer as art. Becker describes this limitation as:
“The constraints on what can be defined as art which undoubtedly exist in any specific art world arise from a prior consensus on what kinds of standards will be applied, and by whom, in making those judgments. Art world members characteristically, despite doctrinal and other differences, produce reliable judgments about which artists and works are serious and therefore worthy of attention…Artists may disagree violently over which works and their makers should receive support, and marginal cases…will provoke less reliable judgments. But most judgments are reliable, and their reliability reflects not the mouthing of already agreed-on judgments, but the systematic application of similar standards by trained and experienced members of the art world…” (Becker 155)
Similarly to the determination of who has authority to make judgments on behalf of an artworld, the works of art themselves must fit standards that are agreed upon by members of a particular artworld. Judgments vary in reliability, which is dependent on how well a particular work meets the current standards of an artworld along with the amount of authority the conferring agent has within that artworld. Furthermore at any given time certain works may not fit the current standards of an artworld and will be denied the status of art, but because constraints on the definition are based on consensus they change over time so that works that were previously denied the status of art may become conferred as art later (Becker 155-156).
The fourth issue with the institutional theory is a matter of how one knows whether the status of art has been conferred on a work. A work must first be judged acceptable by the current standards of a particular artworld, but how that work is exhibited and consumed is equally important in determining its level of institutional backing. If an artist organizes a show independently of a particular artworld’s distribution network, the work displayed likely has a small amount of institutional approval within that artworld (this, of course, is dependant on the artist’s standing within a that artworld). However if an artist’s work is displayed in a museum, that work has the highest possible institutional approval (Becker 117).
This method of determining whether a work has been conferred as art or not is by no means objective, and there are exceptions. Yet because the status of art is institutionally determined by an institutionally agreed upon set of standards that are subject to change, it is not possible to know with full certainty whether a work has been conferred as art or not. Even works displayed in a museum can be subject to speculation, for example Han van Meegeren’s famous forgeries of Johannes Vermeer paintings were conferred as art under the assumption that they were Vermeer’s. When they were discovered as forgeries, van Meegeren’s paintings lost their status of art. The forgeries were later reconfirmed as art as works by van Meegeren, which exhibits how the standards of art can (and do) change over time. It is likely, however, that if a work is exhibited in an institutional setting then it has been conferred as art.
The final issue with the institutional theory involves the qualification of works. Dickie states “the definition of art…ought for the sake of completeness include a qualification about the various aspects of works of art…” (Dickie 105). Dickie believes that certain aspects of works (for example the back of a painting) are not part of the consideration for the conferring of status. However, providing qualifications on aspects of works would only serve to complicate the theory. Instead, the aspects of works that are considered when determining whether a work is art or not are dependent on the consensus of an artworld and their current standards of art.
A Reformed Institutional Theory
Now that Dickie’s theory has been addressed, a reformed institutional theory can now be proposed in five parts:
1. An artworld consists of all the people necessary to the production and consumption of works that that artworld defines as art. Each artworld acts as its own institution of art.
An artworld is comprised of all the people who participate in the making and/or consumption of works of art. There are multiple artworlds that each act as their own institution of art. This accommodates the various types of artworlds that exist (regional, cultural, etc.) and does not exclude any artworlds that are, for example, not very developed (in the sense of exposure, dominance, etc.) or which wouldn’t necessarily be accepted by “high art” or other contemporary artworlds (e.g. folk artworlds, commercial artworlds). There are no limitations to the amount of artworlds that can exist at any one time, nor are there any limitations to what types of works of art that a particular artworld produces and consumes. Artworlds can coexist, overlap, and even cooperate.
2. Members of an artworld confer membership in that artworld on a person. Members of an artworld consensually determine standards for membership in that artworld. A person is not limited to one membership in one artworld and can be a member of many artworlds.
Current members of an artworld determine standards for membership within an artworld, and can confer membership on people who meet those standards. These standards are determined through the consensus of an artworld’s members and can be as loose or as strict as that artworld determines necessary. For example, a small artworld may have no standards and thus anyone could become a member, whereas a large artworld may have very strict standards as to who is qualified to participate. A person can be a member of multiple artworlds, as long as being in multiple artworlds fits within the standards of membership for each of the artworlds that person is a member of. In the event that a new artworld is created, those people who create it determine the standards of membership and consensually confer each other as members.
3. An artworld is a hierarchical system. Members of an artworld consensually determine levels of authority in that artworld. The more authority a member has, the better enabled they are to speak of behalf of that artworld in terms of making judgments on works.
Like any social institution, an artworld is a hierarchical system. However this does not mean that an artworld necessarily has a structured system of authority, nor does it mean that there is necessarily a central source of authority. Members of an artworld confer authority on other members based on standards that are consensually determined by that artworld. The structure of a particular artworld’s hierarchy is then determined based on which members have what authority. Members of an artworld that have more authority are more entitled to make judgments on behalf of that artworld. When a mistake in judgment is made, a person with authority may lose some or all of their power, depending on the standards of a particular artworld.
4. Artworlds exist within a larger system of hierarchies. This system contains political, economic, and other social institutions that can directly and indirectly affect an artworld.
Artworlds do not function as independent social institutions; they exist within a larger system of social institutions that they can participate with and be affected by. Political institutions can affect artworlds in a variety of ways, for example government censorship limits the types of works of art an artworld within that political system can produce and consume. Economic institutions can affect artworlds as well, for example a corporation can fund public art projects of a particular artworld, allowing that artworld to produce work that can be consumed by a larger audience. There are other social institutions that can affect artworlds, and the kinds of affects that they can have on artworlds depends on where that artworld is located (politically, economically, geographically, etc.).
5. For something to be considered art, it must first be legitimized by an artworld. Every artworld has its own standards of what is and is not art and the members of each respective artworld consensually determine these standards. One artworld’s definition of art may or may not fit another artworld’s definition.
Each artworld acts as its own institution of art wherein the members of that artworld consensually determine the standards for their particular definition of art. Each artworld has their own definition of art, and can confer the status of art upon works that meet that definition. Nothing can be considered a work of art without it first being legitimized by an artworld. One artworld’s definition of art may not fit another artworld’s definition, thus something that is conferred as a work of art in one artworld may not have the status of art conferred on it in another.
There is no singular, objective definition of art and although this theory may seem reductionist, it is the case that the definition of art is relative to an artworld’s conception of what art is. At any given time there are multiple definitions of art that are in constant flux as artworlds change over time and as art is an open concept that can accommodate anything as a work of art, art can only be as limited as the artworlds that produce and consume it. Artworlds and the social systems that affect them are extremely complex, especially in the age of late capitalism, but as long as artworlds function within this model the core idea that art is defined by institutions will remain true.
Becker, Howard. Art Worlds. Berkely: University of California, 1982. Print.
Dickie, George. “Art as a Social Institution.” Aesthetics: An Introduction. Indianapolis: Pegasus, 1971. 98-108. Print.
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. Print.
Danto, Arthur. “The Artworld.” The Journal of Philosophy 61.19 (1964): 571-84. Print.
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976. Print.
Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978. Print.
Krauss, Rosalind. “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum.” October: The Second Decade, 1986-1996. Boston: MIT, 1997. 427-41. Print.
Weitz, Morris. “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 16 (1956): 27-35. Print.
Wollheim, Richard. Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge UP, 1980. Print.
 For an analysis of worlds and worldmaking, see Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978).
 For example the artist Damien Hirst bypassed galleries and sold a complete show directly to the public in 2008. See Arifa Akbar, “A formaldehyde frenzy as buyers snap up Hirst works.” The Independent 16 September 2008, for an account of the auction.
 For a different analysis of forgeries and authenticity, see Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976).
 For a more in depth analysis of hierarchy and social institutions, see Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia U.P.).
[This essay was originally written in 2010 as a part of my thesis for my BA in Visual Pragmatics.]