Institutional Theory of Art

And so we get to the last of the aesthetic theories I am covering. This theory takes a descriptive approach to describe what art is. Just as the dictionary describes how language is being used by actual living human beings, the institutional theory tells us that art is what the art world says it is. It does not seek to provide an all encompassing definition that covers every form of art in existence. What it does, is appeal to a certain degree of connoisseurship and academic knowledge. George Dickie, continuing the work of Arthur Danto’s art world tells us that art is:

“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 person acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld)”

If we translate this into lay-speak what Dickie attempts to tell us is that a work of art is an object, idea, concept (artifact) that the artists themselves propose as art, and that the “art world”, other artists, museums, collectors, galleries, universities, art historians and art critics , can decide whether to accept it into the category of art or reject it.

Dickie’s definition is just as flexible as Weitz’ Family resemblances, while at the same time being less nebulous by presenting to us two characteristics:

  • Artefactuality (something made by the human hand)
  • Conferral of status (the artifact is recognized as art)

In my opinion, this solves some of the problems in how we classify art, yet it is not without its criticisms. In a way if the art world refuses to accept an artifact as art, it is excluded either through elitism, or other vested interests or even more provocatively, when the artists themselves have not submitted it for approval, e.g. art brut  (outsider art). This phenomenon includes people in areas or groups often ignored by the art world (which is often white male and quite old) such as female artists, developing countries, minorities, etc. It is also worrying because when a person falls within more than one of these groups the chance for their work to be recognized is reduced even more as they are isolated more and more through a Russian nesting doll of prejudice; a gay person already faces challenges in acceptance, a gay woman even more so, imagine then the difficulty faced by a Nigerian gay woman for her work to be recognized. The art wold theory lacks the tools to include this work. All we can hope is that a fraction of the art world recognizes and integrates these “outsiders” and confers them the status they deserve.

Dickie’s theory has also been criticized for its elitism. As it directly appeals to a social elite that is educated, often wealthy and most often than not located in Europe and the United States. While other big art centres exist and attempt to make their voice heard, China, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico have yet to offer much of a deviation from the  Eurocentric norm. We still see the same artists being spoken about and moved. Be it Ai Wei Wei (and his love hate relationship with the Chinese Communist Party) or Oscar Murillo, Jeff Koons and Kara Walker, the names remain the same, the change is mostly geographical. And this is perhaps its greatest weakness as it perpetuates the notion that the only works worthy of consideration are the ones that follow the european norm and as these are the only works visible enough to the public, subsequently they shape the minds of those in the art world, creating a self fulfilling prophecy as the art world itself exists in a perpetual echo chamber.

The question then lies on how we solve these inadequacies. While at the international scale the question looms large and is probably unsolvable until the art world and the art market manage to decouple themselves from each other, in the national and local scales the question becomes simpler. Curators in smaller institutions can begin by being more adventurous in their selections both in acquisitions and exhibitions. By accepting those works that exist outside of the accepted traditional canon, they give them a degree of legitimacy which will in turn encourage other curators to include such works until larger institutions take note and finally grant it a place in the greater canon of art. However this process can be interrupted at any point or take an unpredictably long time.

Dickie did not present us with a solution to these dilemas as his concern lied in presenting a definition.  Like the previous definitions, the Institutional theory need not be our only metric. Art is far too subjective to be pigeonholed within a single definition. While it is true each one of the definitions I have presented cannot encompass every work of art that was and will come to be, a combination of Dickie’s institutional theory, Weitz’ family resemblances, R.G. Collingwood’s expression of emotion and Bell’s significant form as well as individual choice could get us closer to definition of art. This “ecumenical” approach will be the final article in this series.

Featured image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra


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