Tag Archives: George Dickie

Danto’s Art World (not an institution)

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.


Artists & Creators

People often write to me, or talk with me, with a fixed idea of what it is to an artist. (I will leave the “no true artist” fallacy aside.) An artist is someone who creates art. Before we rush to the big question of what is art; what is it to create something and remember that not all creators are artists, there are many jobs that require creativity.

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

detail of Evangelos Sakaris, “Word and Way”, 2001

There is the eye, the breath and the hand of the creator.

The eyes, or ears in the case of musicians, process the world in a unique mind. Creativity starts in the mind. Eyes are especially important to photographers. The eye as an extension of the mind interprets the world. It selects, organises and focuses.

The breath or the word, written or spoken, of the artist is also important to the creative act. The breath is of critical importance to poets and writers in finding their ‘voice’ but there are other creative uses for the voice. The director is speaking to actors before they perform, so the voice is not heard by the audience. The visual artist may also be directing assistants. Visual artist’s word has always been there quietly declaring that a work is finished. For many centuries the word of visual artists was overlooked until Duchamp and the Dadaists brought it front and centre again.

The hand of the artist has often been written about. The hand of the artist has been praised especially with pen and ink drawing, where the hand is clearly visible. The hand of the artist is also evident in virtuoso musicians and by extension the whole body for actors and dancers. The signature is seen as the embodiment of the hand, but no one is claiming that one creations directly from the hand of the artist are valid art, demanding the read novels in the original handwritten manuscript or decrying all novels after the invention of the typewriter.

Not that all artists use the eye, the breath and the hand equally, different arts emphasise different attributes or combinations. To assume that one way of creating is the only true and correct way is a mistake. To assume that all artists must use their hands ignores all the other ways of creating. The great man doing it all himself is itself a macho idea and forgets that some visual artists can work mostly with their eye and breath.

Not all painters are artists. Discussing Betsy, a chimpanzee from the Baltimore Zoo that did some painting the philosopher George Dickie notes: “Betsy (the chimp) would not (I assume) be able to conceive of herself in such a way as to be a member of the art world and, hence, would not be able to confer the relevant status.”

To be an artist, an artist must have the idea that they are creating art, a word that is used to describe the creative output of artists. They have to learn to use this word in a society, to talk about it with thumping music playing in the room. To exhibit their art and have other people describe it as art. What exactly art is, or if this word has any meaning, is the subject of endless discussion, a discourse that in itself, defines art. (As Andy said, “Art, isn’t that a man’s name?”) Part of the problem with identifying what the word “art” means is that there have been multiple meanings in the last hundred years alone but that is another subject.


What is art?

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.


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