A Critique of George Dickie’s “What is Art?”
In his essay, “What is Art?,” George Dickie puts forth a definition of art that is much simpler than those of many philosophers before him. Unlike David Hume’s very subjective discussion of “taste,” for example, Dickie instead speaks of art in a purely classificatory sense; that is, he speaks only of what is or is not art, and avoids discussion of how to determine the relative quality of that art. According to Dickie, a work of art is an artifact upon which a representative of the artworld has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation. This representative can be a museum curator or art critic, but it can also be simply the artist himself. In a way, Dickie’s definition of art is just a more detailed version of Arthur Danto’s assertion that “nothing is an artwork without an interpretation that constitutes it as such.” Both men essentially state that if a person calls a thing art, it is art, no matter what the thing is.
The consequence of reducing the definition of art to such a basic level is that the resulting category is very broad and makes no statement about the art other than it is or is not. Therefore, Dickie’s statement can only be useful in consideration of art as a whole; it provides almost no useful information with which to evaluate individual works of art. His definition can be used at first to determine whether an object deserves further consideration, but after that point, the ideas of other philosophers and the personal experiences of the viewer must be taken into account to fully assess the value of the art. This distinction should not be taken as a criticism of Dickie’s ideas, however. His theory of art provides an important jumping off point by creating simple classifications from which more complicated evaluations can be made.
For the most part, George Dickie’s definition of art is well argued and makes clear and logical sense. He carefully provides explanations of every term in his definition so there is no question about the intended meaning. His most interesting idea, the one that separates his definition from other more evaluative theories, is the concept of an artwork’s candidacy for appreciation. With this statement, he makes his meaning clear that the artwork does not actually have to be appreciated. Thus, a bad work of art is still called art, but it is separated from good art by its lack of appreciation. In addition, the term “candidacy” allows the definition to be inclusive of unknown art that has the potential for appreciation if it becomes known.
Near the end of the essay, Dickie speaks briefly about the status of fake art using Danto’s definition of such works as “copies of original paintings which are attributed to the creators of the original paintings.” Both men in their discussions of art require that originality be present for a thing to be considered a work of art. This requirement holds interesting ramifications for today’s media-driven, technologically advanced society in which art is copied and distributed ad nauseum. Take, for example, Thomas Kinkade, the head of a multi-million dollar industry that sells printed images of his paintings as well as figurines and other related items. Kinkade makes every original painting, but then each painting is copied hundreds of times and becomes part of an enormous Kinkade collection of works. Consequently, thousands of people have Thomas Kinkade products in their homes and believe they own works of art. According to Dickie, however, they do not. Once the image is copied, the element of originality is gone.
Many of the people who own Kinkade copies consider themselves true art lovers and would say they are part of the artworld. Indeed, Dickie says that “every person who sees himself as a member of the artworld is thereby a member.” If this is true, and these thousands of people believe a thing is a work of art and appreciate it as such, why would we still say that it is not art? Though Dickie does not address the issue in quite this way, his comparison of the artworld and certain legal institutions can help to answer this question. Dickie states that conferring of the status of art by the artworld is similar to conferring some other legal status like marriage. In marriage, for example, there is a certain set of people who are allowed to actually perform the ceremony. Someone from the audience might read the right words, but the state would not recognize the marriage unless additional steps were taken to make it legal. Similarly, certain members of the artworld have more authority than others when declaring something a work of art. Though there are many of them, the people who own a few Kinkade copies hold very little authority to call those copies art.
In stark contrast to Kinkade and his paintings is Paul, the star of an episode of “Faking It!” who learned to be artist in four weeks. Paul’s style is far less refined than Kinkade’s, and the quality of his paintings proves to be hit-and-miss. Nevertheless, according to Dickie, Paul’s work is art because it is original and the status of art has been conferred on it by several members of the artworld. This example shows why Dickie’s avoidance of a value judgment in his definition is very important. Paul’s work was exhibited to a number of people, many of whom said it was terrible. Several other people said it was very good. But all these people came to look at, and judge, art. They had a mutual understanding that they were looking at art, and from that point could determine whether the art had value or not.
Overall, George Dickie’s ideas are clear and well supported, and very little issue can be taken with what he says. There is, however, a problem with what he does not say. Though he begins the essay with references to theater, as he builds his arguments he focuses only on visual works of art like paintings and sculptures. The term “art,” however, is all-encompassing and includes the genres of theater, literature, and music, among others. The connection of Dickie’s ideas to these other genres can be inferred, but because he does not address them directly, some liberties must be taken to find this association. Take, for example, the discussion of fakes and copies. How might this apply to theater, or music? Of course, someone could put his or her own name on another piece of writing or music, but this is more a plagiarism than a fake. A person could imitate another writer or composer, but Dickie includes imitation in the category of legitimate artworks.
Therefore, we must infer there is nothing outside of physical art that could not be considered art if someone assigns it that status. There are also many issues involved in the performance of a literary or musical work that Dickie does not address, such as stage directions, set design, and musical decisions. He does not say whether these issues should be included when conferring the status of art on a particular work.
Though he may not consider other types of art, George Dickie’s discussion of visual art is quite thorough and addresses many accusations that might be brought against his argument. By restricting his definition to just the classificatory sense, however, he avoids many of the common difficulties that arise when speaking of the relative quality of art. Dickie’s definition provides a relatively objective way to differentiate between art and nonart, from which further discussion may develop.
Dickie, George. “What is Art?” Culture and Art: An Anthology. Ed. Lars Aagaard-Mogensen. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press 1976, 21-32.
Freeland, Cynthia. But Is It Art?. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001. 231 p.
by Robyn Brown
Expected graduation: May 2005
In the process of trying to evaluate George Dickie's argument, I
noticed that his ideas worked very well as long as they were seen as a
starting point. I tried to develop on this and discuss the contexts
in which his ideas are valuable, as well as those where additional
points of view are needed.