Institutional theory of art  

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"The point is that Duchamp's act took place within a certain institutional setting and that makes all the difference." --"Defining Art", 1969, George Dickie

"It's in an art gallery ain't it?" --Damien Hirst cited in Brian Sewell

"The essential difference between a sculpture like Andre's Equivalent VIII[1], 1978, and any that had existed before in the past is that Andre's array of bricks depends not just partly, but entirely, on the museum for its context. A Rodin in a parking lot is still a misplaced Rodin; Andre's bricks in the same place can only be a pile of bricks."--The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes.

"The crucial question to ask of the definition is this: Is it to be presumed that those who confer status upon some artifact do so for good reasons, or bad reasons, or is there no such presumption? Might they have no reason, or bad reasons, and yet their action be efficacious given that they themselves have the right status – that is, they represent the artworld?" (Wollheim, Art and Its Objects 2nd ed., 1980, p.160).

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The institutional theory of art is a theory about the nature of art that holds that an object can only be(come) art in the context of the institution known as "the artworld".

Addressing the issue what makes, for example, Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" art, or why a pile of Brillo cartons in a supermarket is not art, whereas Andy Warhol's famous Brillo Boxes (a pile of Brillo carton replicas) is, the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto wrote in his 1964 essay "The Artworld":

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.

According to Robert J. Yanal, Danto's essay, which coined the term "artworld", outlined the first institutional theory of art.



The origins of the of art are to be found in the academies of the arts such as the Académie de peinture et de sculpture. They restricted the arts to rules, and made every artist who aspired to be part of them submit reception pieces.

George Dickie

Versions of the institutional theory were formulated more explicitly by George Dickie in his article "Defining Art" (American Philosophical Quarterly, 1969) and his books Aesthetics: An Introduction (1971) and Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974). An early version of Dickie's institutional theory can be summed up in the following definition of work of art from Aesthetics: An Introduction:

A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.

Dickie has reformulated his theory in several books and articles. Other philosophers of art have criticized his definitions as being circular.

Museum art

Museum art is a neologism for a 20th century art practice and condition of an art that has to rely on a museum context to be appreciated. It started with Dada and their French forerunners such as the Incoherents . The trend is also denoted as the 'institutionalisation of art'.

Art as a sociological category

One approach to define art is to say that “art” is basically a sociological category, that whatever art schools and museums, and artists "get away with" is considered art regardless of formal definitions. This "institutional definition of art" has been championed by George Dickie. Most people did not consider the depiction of a Brillo Box or a store-bought urinal to be art until Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp (respectively) placed them in the context of art (i.e., the art gallery), which then provided the association of these objects with the values that define art. The placement of an object in an artistic context is a common characteristic of conceptual art, prevalent since the 1960s; notably, the Stuckist art movement criticizes this tendency of recent art.

Proceduralists often suggest that it is the process by which a work of art is created or viewed that makes it, art, not any inherent feature of an object, or how well received it is by the institutions of the art world after its introduction to society at large. For John Dewey, for instance, if the writer intended a piece to be a poem, it is one whether other poets acknowledge it or not. Whereas if exactly the same set of word was written by a journalist, intending them as shorthand notes to help him write a longer article latter, these would not be a poem.

See also

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