Arthur Danto’s art world has to be distinguished from George Dickie’s art world (‘has’ to be as in; I was compelled to make such a correction in my Master’s thesis). As Danto writes: ‘I am often credited with being the founder of the Institutional Theory, though in fact it was George Dickie whose theory it was, even if it arose in his mind though his interpretation of a sentence in my 1964 paper, “The Artworld”.’ (Arthur C. Danto “Response and Replies” Danto and his Critics ed. Mark Rollins p.203)
If an institutional theory isn’t what Danto means with his ‘art world’ why do so many people think he does? For a philosopher whose career is based on theoretical differences between visually indistinguishable things this is a rather fine distinction. And I am not the only one with this problem — “Would the real Arthur Danto please stand up?” (Carlin Romano “Looking Beyond the Visible: The Case of Arthur C. Danto” Danto and his Critics)
Not that Dickie’s art world is an elite group holding meetings in NYC, London and Milan to determine what is art; Dickie has a holistic, inclusive and sociological view as to who makes up the discourse that determines what is art. His institutional theory was probably also influenced by the paradigm shifts in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, where what is science is determined by the taxonomy created by people at the time.
There can be no definition for all art because history is not over. Over time the definition of art, and science, has changed and both Danto and Dickie’s rejects the idea that ‘art’ is a word that define a sets of things with essential features or relation to an eternal Platonic form of art. Rather it is a Wittgenstein influenced approach to the way that language is used.
Danto, who in theory does not support an institutional theory of art, writes that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes “…brings to consciousness the structures of the art which, to be sure, require a certain historical development before the metaphor is possible.” (Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace p.208) Art being things that we look at things as if they were in the art world, part of the discourse of art history. The ‘world’ in Danto’s ‘art world’ is the entire history of art rather than an institution.
Consequently the word ‘art’ is not “an honorific bestowed by discriminating citizens of the art world” (Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace p.32) but a kind of metaphor. There is no definition for art because it is like a metaphor and in that respect it is more the word ‘cool’ rather than an honorific or the taxonomies of ‘science’. There is no set of cool or art because you can’t have a set of things that a vague metaphor could apply to, nor is there an institution determining its application.