Tag Archives: institutional theory of art

Art or arts?

‘Art’, as in ‘contemporary art’ or ‘modern art’, is different from ‘the visual arts.’ This subtle distinction confuses many people including some professional artists and has been the cause of many and repeated disputes. If it weren’t for this confusion and disputes arising from it the distinction would hardly worth mentioning.

‘Art’ is a singular noun that describes a collective idea. What exactly art is never become specific, it is an opened set, like games. It does not have the definite article ‘the’ nor the indefinite article ‘an’ because ‘the arts’ and ‘an art’ are entirely different to ‘art’. ‘The arts’ is the vaguest of the variants as it can mean everything from the humanities, logic, rhetoric to juggling and dance. ‘An art’ is at least referring to some specific skill. Whereas ‘the visual arts’ or ‘the fine arts’ are plural nouns with a definite article that means architecture, painting, drawing and sculpture.

The differences between the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Musée du Louvre explains distinction between the fine arts and art. Both are the result of a royal collection, in the case of Dulwich the King of Poland-Lithuania, a country that ceased to be before the collection of fine arts could be delivered to its king. Opened to the public in 1817, it was opened to students of the Royal Academy two years earlier. Dulwich collection contained works of fine arts for students to study whereas the Louvre contained works of art.

The Louvre had opened twenty years earlier, in 1793, but had already made a revolutionary decision that would make a major difference The revolutionary difference is that the Louvre, along with a royal collection, included confiscated church property as a way of conserving them. The church altarpieces in the Louvre, decontextualised with their religious function removed, became art when displayed to be looked at as if they were paintings or sculptures.

‘Art’ emerged from the discourse about looking at things, like altarpieces in the Louvre, as if they were something like a painting or sculpture. To look at something as if it were a work visual art is the metaphoric relationship that the philosopher, Arthur Danto argues for in his institutional theory of art. It is this idea of art rather than a conspiratorial or consensus driven act of an actual institution that determines what art is.

For about a century the distinction between ‘the visual arts’ and ‘art’ was invisible, an imperceptible semantic distinction. The trajectory that started with confiscated church property continued with the items from other cultures similarly removed from their context. This was quickly followed with products of new technology, like photography and readymade found objects. It was Marcel Duchamp’s readymades that defined and illustrated the already widening schism between art and the visual arts.

Art may involve shopping, confiscating and appropriating images whereas the visual arts don’t highlight these activities. An artist may be making art or painting, sculpting and drawing or doing both.


What is an Artist?

What is art? Answer: something that an artist calls art. This raises the next question: what is an artist? The obvious and almost circular answer to this question is someone who makes art. This can lead on to discussions about how to make art (including by an artist calling it art) but for this blog post I will stay with the question of what is an artist.

Debs painting in Croft Alley, 2009

Debs painting in Croft Alley, 2009

After many years of paying attention to the institutional theory of art I want to look more closely at the artist rather than gallery. I am becoming aware of some of the inadequacies of the theory. Is the institutional theory of art basically Marxist in declaring that the material reality makes art? In that case so much for Duchamp’s cerebral approach and the individual psychology of artists.

There is the idea of the artistic temperament; that artists are born and not trained. There was also the idea that artists were inspired by the spirits; hence the word ‘inspiration’. But we can’t have faith in the ghosts of words. Are artists really different from the statistical norm in any measurable way? Considering that Asbergers syndrome and ADHD are no longer clinically assessed, it is time to point out that an artistic personality or temperament has never been clinically assessed.

Rather than an artistic personality perhaps artistic work is the product of a scholarly temperament? Describing the very first modern artists in Korea Youngna Kim

“Rather than thinking of themselves as artists trying to make a living, they seemed to regard themselves they seemed to consider themselves the literati from the Joseon dynasty. They considered painting a hobby and did not produce much work.” [Youngna Kim Modern And Contemporary Art in Korea (Hollym, 2005, New Jersey) p.11-12]

Gallery La Mer in Seoul

Gallery La Mer in Seoul

Youngna Kim’s history of Korean modern art drew my attention to this traditional where scholars produces ink paintings, poetry and music because of their temperament and the contrary idea of professional modern artist. This tradition exists in Europe but because of Korea’s compressed art history it is more clearly expressed. These two contrary ideas about why a person makes art influences subsequent interpretations of the art produced. What we expect an artist to be; these two ideas about who is an artist helps makes sense of a great deal of debate about what is art and what is good art.

The modern artist produces art as a professional, educated and trained in how to make and sell art. The professional artist is trained in techniques and is an insider in the art world. Professional artist is exploiting a market for their talents and produce the bulk of the art in circulation; Salvator Rosi became the first artists to paint speculatively rather than for commissions. As professionals they have a degree of reliability and consistency in the art they produce.

Contrasted to the person with a scholarly temperament may turn their attention to art from time to time as part of variety of interests. They are not so narrowly focused and generally work in an unrelated occupation; Desmond Morris painting, Brian Cox played in a 80s band, or Lenny Lipton, the man who wrote Puff the Magic Dragon and programmed the 3D navigation on the Mars Rover. Although the quality of the individual works of art can be as good as the professionals the quantity of the work is not sufficient to satisfy the market.

What kind of artist do you aspire to be?

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