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Institutional Theory of Art: G Dickie







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Summer Cold
by Charles Williams

As Nigel Warburton writes in "Philosophy : The Basics"
"The so-called institutional theory of art is a recent attempt by such writers as the contemporary philosopher George Dickie to explain how such varied things as the play Macbeth, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a pile of bricks, a urinal labelled 'Fountain', T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and William Klein's photographs can all be considered works of art. The theory states that there are two things that all these have in common. First, they are all artifacts: that is, they have all been worked on to some extent by human beings. 'Artifact' is used in quite a loose way - even a piece of driftwood picked up on the seashore could be considered an artifact if someone displayed it in an art gallery. Placing it in a gallery in order to get people to look at it in a certain way would count as 'working on' it. In fact this definition of an artifact is so loose as to add nothing important to the concept of art. Second, and more importantly, they have all been given the status of a work of art by some member or members of the art world, such as a gallery owner, a publisher, a producer, a conductor, or an artist. In every case someone with the appropriate authority has done the equivalent of christening them as works of art.......... All members of this elite have the equivalent of King Midas' ability to turn everything he touched to gold."
Nigel Warburton goes on to identify a major criticism of the institutional theory
"It is sometimes argued that the institutional theory is a poor theory of art because it seems to justify the most pretentious and the most superficial objects being considered works of art. If I were a member of the art world I could, by exhibiting it in a gallery, make my left shoe into a work of art. It is certainly true that the institutional theory does allow that almost anything could become a work of art. Christening something a work of art does not mean that it is a good work of art, nor for that matter a bad one. It only makes the object a work of art in the classificatory sense: in other words it puts it into the class of things we call works of art.......... It is a theory about what all works of art - good, bad, and indifferent have in common....... However, most people who ask the question 'What is art?' are not just interested in what we call art, but want to know why we value some objects above others. Both the significant form and idealist (see section on Origin of Conceptual Art) theories are partly evaluative: according to them, to call something a work of art is to say that it is good in some sense, either because it has significant form or because it is a sincere artistic expression of an emotion. The institutional theory, however, does not attempt to give an answer to evaluative questions about art. It is extremely open about what can be counted as art. Some see this as its greatest virtue; others as its most serious defect."
A second criticism in Nigel Warburton's view is:
"The institutional theory is circular. What it says is that art is whatever a certain group of privileged people choose to call art....... A defender of the institutional theory might argue against this that the requirement that the work of art be an artifact, and the restriction of who is able to confer the status of work of art on an object, are enough to give some content to the theory. If this is so, we need a more detailed account of precisely who is part of the art world. Yet even if we did know who had this Midas touch, and why they were entitled to it, we still would want to know why they choose one object rather than another to be considered as a work of art."
Nigel Warburton says that this leads to a third criticism:
"Perhaps the most telling objection to the institutional theory is one that has been made by the contemporary philosopher and writer on art, Richard Wollheim (1923- ): even if we agree that members of the art world have the power to make any artifacts works of art, they must have reasons for making some artifacts art and not others. If they don't have any logic behind what they do, then why should the category of art have any interest for us? And if they do have reasons, then these are what determine whether or not something is art. Analysis of these reasons would be far more interesting and informative than the rather empty institutional theory. If we could identify these reasons, then the institutional theory would be unnecessary. "
I find Nigel Warburton's resume of the objections to the institutional theory very telling. I would suggest that the institutional theory of art sounds exactly like a valiant but doomed attempt to codge up a theory, however bizarre, which attempts to cover all the many and varied Conceptual abuses of contemporary art. It does not sound a credible theory of art to me.
If the theory principally rests upon artists and other members of the closed art world choosing to anoint an object with the label "art" whenever they choose and if the theory cannot differentiate between good art and bad art and if it's a theory based upon a circular argument without any logic then we MUST be talking about Conceptual art. I wish to stress that Nigel Warburton does not make this his conclusion. It is almost impossible for me not to do so.

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