George Dickie’s Art Theory: Autonomy with Regulation

Just as Aristotle and Plato attempted to do two hundred fifty thousand years ago, George Dickie attempts to define what art is. Years of art history and numerous other art theories influence Dickie’s definition. Instead of presenting a purely philosophical explanation, Dickie offers a structured breakdown of what the artworld consists of and how art is accepted into this world. Under Dickie’s definition, many pieces of art can be classified as so, when past theories would have disregarded their status as art. Unrestricted modern movements in art are included in Dickie’s unrestricted definition. Recent art innovators, such as Marcel Duchamp and Juan Gris, are able to establish a role in the artworld. Dickie’s definition, however, does not encompass everything. It does contain boundaries. Examination of modern art, the BBC television show “Faking It,” and the success of Thomas Kincade’s art enterprise will illustrate the key points of Dickie’s theory.

Dickie does an effective job of outlining what the artworld is, who is a part of the artworld, and how art can be classified. The artworld is defined as, “the broad social institution in which works of art have their place” (Dickie 21). Dickie considers the core of the artworld to be the artists, presenters, and those who appreciate the artwork. Artist Marcel Duchamp echoes the ideas of Dickie, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act” (qtd. in “Marcel Duchamp”). Without using the term, Duchamp perfectly explains Dickie’s idea of the artworld, consisting of the artists and the audience. The artworld is an institution consisting of systems that have their own unique origins and development. Each system has qualifications that make it separate from other systems. Within these systems are subsystems. Subsystems are more specific divisions that allow for the expansion of the institution. Establishing the basic structure of the artworld makes it easier to understand how objects can be classified as art. To be classified as art, the object must be an artifact and be approved by members acting on behalf of the artworld. To be approved the artwork in question must act on behalf of an institution, be conferred of status, be a candidate, and be appreciated (Dickie 23). Each step of classification can become complex, but Dickie’s theory introduces a common scale on which art can be measured. Dickie also limits his definition of art in a discussion of art reproductions. In the established institution, “. . . originality in paintings is an antecedent requirement for the conferring of the candidacy for appreciation” (Dickie 30). Unoriginal art is not even considered a candidate for art status.

Juan Gris and Marcel Duchamp, both modern artists, exemplify Dickie’s concepts. Both men were part of innovative art movements that were expansions on already existing art forms. Their new ideas and methods were incorporated to already established divisions of the artworld. Juan Gris was a Spanish painter and a leading artist in the cubism movement. Cubism is characterized by the breaking up and reassembling of objects in abstract forms. Often times, such paintings have no sense of depth and have multiple planes interacting with each other (“Cubism”). Juan Gris’ Violin and Checkerboard follows cubism protocol (Appendix A). Even though it was an innovative art form, established sets of rules existed that cubism artists followed. In this respect, a new subsystem was created within the painting system. Guidelines now existed for what types of art can be categorized as cubist. Marcel Duchamp was associated most with the dada artistic movement. Despite dada’s label as “anti-art,” it still became a subsystem within the artworld. Dada aimed to go against all that traditional art strove to achieve: aesthetics, meaning, and appeal to the senses. Duchamp’s series of readymades demonstrated the ideals of dada. Duchamp took ordinary, already made objects and presented them as art. Bicycle Wheel is simply what the title suggests, a bicycle wheel put on display as art (Appendix B). The bicycle wheel was turned upside down and fasted to a stool (“Marcel Duchamp”). Duchamp succeeded in taking out the aesthetic aspect of art and concentrated on the qualities of normal objects. Just as cubism entered the artworld, so did dada. Duchamp’s readymades were presented as dada art, were then discussed within the artworld, and were acknowledged as art. Each of these steps is necessary in Dickie’s artworld construct.

The BBC television show “Faking It” follows the course of a house painter attempting to become an artist and convince members of the artworld of his authenticity. “Faking It” highlights the roles of numerous members within the artworld. The artist, presenter, and appreciating members of the artworld were all represented. The house painter had no motivation to become an artist other than for the purpose of the television program. After three short days the man was convinced he could be an artist. He was educated about art by established members of the artworld. He was allowed to experiment with various techniques. In the end, pieces from his collection were chosen for display. By convincing the art critics of his credibility, he established himself in the artworld. His art was acting on behalf of an institution and its status was conferred by people acting on behalf of the artworld. The fabricated set-up of the television show was entertaining, but also displayed the process that occurs when classifying art.

Thomas Kincade, the proclaimed painter of light, is a modern artist whose high levels of reproduction disqualify these works from being considered art. By commercializing his images, Kincade is exploiting the success of his artwork and decreasing its overall value. Dickie believes reproductions can never become candidates for appreciation and can therefore never become part of the artworld.

Despite the perceived independence that exists in Dickie’s art theory, there are restrictions that effectively classify art as part of the artworld or excluded from the artworld. By defining the artworld and its members and establishing an updated model to classify art, Dickie creates an artworld that consists of existing art genres and allows for future developments of art.


Appendix A

Violin and Checkerboard, 1913, by Juan Gris (“Juan Gris”)

Appendix B

Bicycle Wheel, 1913, by Marcel Duchamp (“Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel")

Works Cited

“Cubism.” 29 October 2006. <>.

Dickie, George. “What is Art?” Culture and Art: An Anthology. Ed. by Lars Aagaard-Mogeusen. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1976.

“Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel." Visual Art Portal. 29 October 2006. <>.

“Juan Gris.” 29 October 2006. < wiki/Juan_Gris>.

“Marcel Duchamp.” 29 October 2006. < wiki/Marcel_Duchamp>.




Cassie Malecha

Expected Graduation Date: May 2007
Major: Biology, Pre-Physical Therapy
Hometown: Prosser, WA

George Dickie's art theory is particuarly interesting to me because it establishes an unrestricted definition of what art it. His ideas go beyond a purely philosphical explanation, and attempt to break down what the artworld consists of. This is a difficult task, but Dickie is able to explain the artworld in an understandable way. The title of the paper "George Dickie's Art Theory: Autonomy with Regulation" is exactly how I view his ideas. Great independence exists in Dickie's theory, but the restrictions that Dickie imposes classify art as a part of the artworld or excluded from the artworld. Compared to the other philosophers who have been discussed in class, Dickie has the most relevance in modern art.