Why do we need to know what is art? Without taxonomy we couldn’t know if something is good at being art, or good at promoting a good cause, or good as an investment – all very different qualities of good.
Art, whatever it is, is a word that describes a cultural expression of excess. There are other ways of dealing with the excess in a culture, besides art, from jokes to religion they come in many forms (but the difference between them is a different discussion). The excess that must be dealt with is everything from an excess of time, energy, food or any other resources. If this excess is not dealt with through some cultural expression then it becomes a threatening pollution.
Art, whatever it is, is a word with a long history and many meanings – not all of them relevant to this discussion. In recent centuries discussion about what art means have intensified. The discussion about the word art in the modern sense began in the 17th century – there were no Renaissance or ancient artists, there were painters, sculptors and architects, in those times but no artists. Some have become artists retrospectively.
Art, whatever it is, is now aware of this discussion about what is art. Arthur Danto writes about the intersection between philosophy and the arts. This intersection was, until recently, a minor intellectual crossroad of little note or interest. The artist, Williem de Kooning once remarked: “aesthetics is of as much interest to an artist as ornithology is to a bird.” This changed, Danto argues, when art became aware of itself and its own definition. Art has become a self-conscious commentary on the philosophy of art.
The minor crossroad where art and philosophy met has become a major intersection crowded with artists and philosophers. This change has caught many people by surprise; a whole new subdivision has been built around the intersection. And although they are regular travellers on the street of art they find themselves lost and bewildered by this new development.
“Art is the kind of thing that depends for its existence upon theories: without theories of art, black paint is just black paint and nothing more.” Arthur Danto (Transfiguration of the Commonplace, p.134)
Arthur Danto found the idea of the art world readymade in some New York art gallery, a conceptual ghost left behind by Duchamp and Warhol. Danto’s original article “The Art World” (Journal of Philosophy v.61) influenced George Dickie to create his own institutional theory of art. There are other institutional theories besides that of art, Thomas Khun is well known for his institutional theory of science.
Although I have to note, as it caused me some pain when writing my thesis, that Danto has in some articles has distanced his own position from an institutional theory of art but this is a rather that calling something “art” is a metaphor. This is the same man who has written of “the collectors, critics, and curators (who are the three C’s of the artworld).” Arthur C. Danto The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, 1986 p.101) I am not alone and Carlin Romano asks “Would the real Arthur Danto please stand up” in the article “Looking Beyond the Visible: the case of Arthur C. Danto”.
The advantage of an institutional theory of art is that it does not foreclose on creative change by defining art. Other classificatory art theories that define art by the exhibited qualities of existent art are static and limited by history. And trying to find essential features is a classic myth. Today “art” includes many items not originally created to be art e.g. religious icons, altarpieces, idols etc. that were created for magico-religious purposes or anything that an artist chooses to ask to be considered as art. (“As art”, now do you see where the metaphoric implication that Danto is on about comes in?)
The art world institution is not a steady system but an unstable and chaotic one subject to multiple forces because it is an institution build up from all its parts: what Dickie calls an institution of established practice of behaviour of both the players and audience. These parts may have divergent opinions and values but the institution is not a distillation of these contradictions but whole set.
For more on classificatory disputes about art see Wikipedia.