Innovation and the Institution: Jackson Pollock vs the Art World

Contemporary art theory and criticism, without doubt, still hinges strongly upon the institutional theory of art, and the associated “art world,” proposed by Arthur Danto and expanded upon by George Dickie and other notable art philosophers and critics. This institutional theory focuses on the idea of an expansive artistic community with multitudes of participants in varying levels of depth, and it is indeed quite easy to sympathize with this perspective. However, there will always exist artists who lie seemingly completely contrary to the established art community; one artist of note who falls into such a category is the famed Jackson Pollock, known for both his innovative artistic techniques and his rejection of the artistic establishment. This raises an extremely important question: is it possible to reconcile an artist who so prominently eschews the art world with the concept of such an artistic community? Obviously, this question is subject to great debate, but with a solid understanding of both Pollock and institutional theory, I believe it is possible to consider Pollock within such a framework. Prior to considering the specifics of this argument, however, we must first consider the two subjects individually.

Jackson Pollock lived a brief life (1912-1956), throughout which he was known as both a revolutionary art figure and a notoriously volatile personality. He was classically trained, studying at The Art Students’ League in New York; Mexican muralist painters and surrealists are commonly cited as some of his influences. It is worth noting that throughout his life, Pollock struggled with alcoholism: at times, he underwent Jungian psychoanalysis in an attempt to address some of his problems, and a degree of this can be noted as influential in the development of his signature drip-painting style , which fully developed by the late 1940s and was especially evident in his work up until his death. Known as a figurehead in the abstract-expressionism movement, Pollock produced paintings in a unique \way: by placing his canvas on the ground and pouring, splattering, and dripping paint onto the canvas, sometimes employing unusual implements like sticks or hardened paint brushes. Naturally, this new style evoked both praise and derision: while Pollock’s work, especially after his death, was frequently lauded with praise by art critics, some critics and other personalities were quick to dismiss Pollock’s paintings as “chaotic” due to their abstract nature. Pollock’s fiery personality becomes evident in his responses to negative criticism, such as one response reproduced by Time: “NO CHAOS, DAMN IT!”

The previous response neatly helps to characterize Pollock as an artist and a personality: Pollock was firmly and stubbornly determined to live by his own rules and do art his own way, regardless of critical reception of his work. Most of Pollock’s signature pieces were produced in his studio on a fairly remote property, surrounded by nature; Pollock frequently cited the influence of nature in his own work, rather than the works of other artists. Pollock maintained a somewhat mysterious personal life (in contrast to the public figures of other famous artists like Andy Warhol), and seemingly preferred personal artistic privacy to critical analysis and attention.  

As touched upon previously, few concepts are more representative of contemporary art theory today than those surrounding the institutional theory of art, including those texts concerning the “art world.” For the sake of brevity, we must avoid extremely in-depth discussion of Dickie and Danto’s works, as both are lengthy, and instead focus on overarching themes and concepts. In Danto’s landmark essay “Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art,” he placed great emphasis on the importance of interpretation in being the ultimate deciding factor as to whether or not an object is art, and applied this to pieces such as Duchamp’s Fountain. Danto additionally emphasized the role of the art world as providing a theoretical background that is drawn upon when any artist presents something as art, whether it is like Duchamp’s “readymades” or a piece created with traditional media.

Dickie further expanded upon Danto’s art world concept in “What is Art?”. The role of systems as part of the art world institution is discussed at length, but there are a choice few quotations which help to summarize Dickie’s ideas as they apply to the overall question at hand. Dickie defines a work of art as “(1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld)” (Dickie, 23). Dickie further states that the “core” of the art world includes artists, people such as museum directors and museum-goers, and a variety of other personnel, as well as including “every person who sees himself as a member of the artworld is thereby a member” (Dickie, 24). Dickie’s views embody much of institutional art theory today.

How, then, can we consider artistic spirits like Jackson Pollock, who might not have necessarily considered himself a member of the art world? Obviously, he becomes a member of the art world by default, as he worked as an artist who created works of art. It is not just de facto inclusion of artists that makes Pollock an expression of the art world, however, though the fact that he was so ardently individualistic may make this hard to see. To better understand Pollock as a function of the art world, we must consider one of his works of art.

Number 11, 1952, also known as Blue Poles, is one of Pollock’s most famous drip paintings, and is one of the best possible examples of a “signature,” abstract-expressionist Pollock.  The painting makes use of aluminum and enamel paints and features a seemingly chaotic use of color, with numerous blues, as well as shades of orange, yellow, and cream splashed and layered on the canvas. Regardless of Pollock’s personal narrative and his methods used, he nonetheless produced what is clearly a painting (a traditional form of art which qualifies as an artifact by Dickie’s definition) and presented it for appreciation, thereby making it a work of art, and as the artist, a member of the art world. Pollock’s disregard for the art establishment does not exclude him from membership; Dickie strongly highlighted the importance of intentionality and originality, traits which Pollock and his work thoroughly embodied.

Pollock, at first glance, absolutely seems an outlier when one thinks of the traditional art establishment. But the institutional theory of art is both expansive and incredibly flexible, and can accommodate both Pollock as an artist and Pollock’s body of work. Though Pollock may have been defined by his own aesthetical rule, that sort of innovation is part of what keeps the art world alive—as new techniques and styles evolve as a form of expression, they too become a part of the art world, not only for works created by Pollock, but for every artist.

Works Cited

Danto, Arthur. “Art, Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Art.” Humanities 4, no. 1 (February 1983): 1–2.
Dickie, George. “What Is Art?” In Culture and Art: An Anthology, edited by Lars Aagaard-Mogensen, 21–32. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1976.
“Jackson Pollock’ Biography.” Accessed April 11, 2014.
“MoMA | The Collection | Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956).” Accessed April 11, 2014.
“NGA: Jackson Pollock:the Artist 15.” Accessed April 11, 2014.
“NGA: Jackson Pollock:the Artist 20.” Accessed April 11, 2014.
“NGA:Jackson Pollock Web Feature.” Accessed April 11, 2014.
Pollock, Jackson. Number 11, 1952 (Blue Poles). Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 1952.
Varnedoe, Kirk and Karmel, Pepe, Jackson Pollock: Essays, Chronology, and Bibliography, Exhibition catalog, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, Chronology, p.328, 1998.
“WebMuseum: Pollock, Jackson.” Accessed April 11, 2014.



Number 11, 1952 (Blue Poles)
Jackson Pollock
Enamel and aluminum paint with glass on canvas.


By: Alexis Rapozo
Major: Zoology (Pre-Vet)
Expected Graduation Date: May 2016
Hometown: Wenatchee, WA

Though I am pursuing a career in the sciences, I have always had a keen interest in art and art theory, and UH 280 was an excellent opportunity to learn more about the topics. I particularly enjoyed this assignment, as it allowed for the synthesis and consideration of a major force in contemporary art theory, the institutional theory of art, and one of the most popular artists in the abstract expressionist movement. ]


“MoMA | The Collection | Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956).” Accessed April 11, 2014.

“NGA: Jackson Pollock:the Artist 20.” Accessed April 11, 2014.

“NGA: Jackson Pollock:the Artist 15.” Accessed April 11, 2014.