The Institutional Nature of Art

Art is seen by the general public as a nebulous field; one which we try to understand and interpret but sometimes end up concluding that artists are in a completely separate world. George Dickie attempts to quantify art by defining an artworld as described by Arthur Danto. Dickie argues that the artworld is an institution similar to other social institutions present in our society. As an institution, the artworld is an “established practice” in that there are specific guidelines as to what constitutes art, who is considered to be a part of the artworld, and the roles that these members play (22). The idea of an institution carries a negative connotation of having strict rules which is not naturally associated with art, especially modern art. But by using the “classificatory sense” in judging art, the objectivity gives the institutional concept more relevance because art is so subjective and encompasses so much (23). Dickie uses the term “classificatory” to mean that art must fit a specific set of guidelines to be considered art but the subjectivity of art, as in whether the art is good or bad, is excluded. Judgment of art is based solely on the content of the piece and how it is treated. In the television program “Faking It,” Paul, the house painter, created a piece of art that the art critic David Lee found superficial and thought should be burned. Though Lee thought the piece was bad, there was never any dispute as to whether it was art. Paul believed it to be art and worthy of appreciation and that simple fact alone makes the painting art.

Dickie notes that anyone who believes himself to be a part of the artworld is a member. The essential core is made up of artists, presenters, and goers. The noticeable omissions are the art critics. However, the main goal of “Faking It” was to fool the art critics into believing that Paul was a “real” artist. So critics hold a large amount of power in the artworld as they seem to distinguish who is and who is not a “real” artist. Dickie’s notion that anyone can be a member of the artworld could also apply specifically to artists in that anyone who believes himself to be an artist is an artist. The dispute lies in who is a good artist and though critics hold power in determining this, the public of art buyers and appreciators also hold power and at times can go completely against critics, especially in determining who is a successful artist. For example, Thomas Kinkade is seen as superficial and more businesslike than artist to the critic from the San Francisco Chronicle. However, Kinkade is the most collected living artist so he must have a reasonably large following of people who believe him to be a true artist and appreciate his work.

To be a part of the artworld, Dickie also notes that members must play a certain role specific to the art subsystem which they are in; all of which are institutionalized and learned. There are rules dictating everything from appearance to language. In order to try and fool the critics, the “experts” changed Paul’s appearance by dressing him in more artist-like clothes, thick framed glasses, and a stylish haircut. His teachers and Lee also taught Paul how to speak like an artist by giving him key words to use including serendipity, nebulous, and “the self” instead of “me” because in the words of Lee, “the self is in right now.” This idea of established roles is also seen with Kinkade’s followers. They have organized meetings in which everyone is dressed a certain way, champagne is served and classical music is played.

Dickie discusses the guidelines for something to be considered a work of art and he notes that “originality is an analytical requirement of being a work of art (30).” Imitations on which the artist signs his own name, unlike imitations with a forged signature, are acceptable to Dickie. However in the case of Kinkade, he hires assistants to add highlights to his paintings which he then passes off as his own. Dickie would most likely not accept this as true art because there is deception involved. It is not necessarily a fake but it also cannot be deemed a Kinkade original which Kinkade is attempting to sell them as. Andy Warhol also hired assistants. However the idea that anyone could produce his art was Warhol’s intent. He wanted his art to be accessible to the general public and to bridge the gap between low art and high art. Warhol could be seen as more of a legitimate artist than Kinkade because the intent itself is original.

One of the distinctions between what is art and what is not “depends upon what is done with them (29).” A painting done by an elephant is not art until that painting is hung on a wall. This idea is reinforced by the idea of Readymades. A urinal is not usually seen as a piece of art but when Marcel Duchamp placed it inside of an art gallery, it acquired the status of art and is even seen as one of the most influential pieces in art history. On “Faking It,” Paul examined a work by Damien Hirst that displayed butterflies glued to a circular board painted white. Paul, being a house painter, noted that he had seen flies stuck to paint many times and never regarded it as art. Hirst elevated the idea of insects stuck to paint to the status of art by hanging it in a gallery.

Dickie’s idea that art is institutionalized is fairly accurate as seen by the examples from art history and the progression of art. Its legitimacy lies in that his definition of what constitutes art is just as vague and over encompassing as art itself. Anything can be art but as Dickie notes, if no one appreciates it then the person who declared it a piece of art will thus “lose face” and that threat is what keeps the expanding field of art in check (32).




By Felicia Lew
Expected Graduation: May 2009
Major: Neuroscience/Veterinary Medicine
Hometown: Bothell, WA

Dickie presents an interesting attempt to structuralize the world of art and at first it is easy to completely disagree with his point of view. But at a closer glance, the framework that he presents turns out to be extremely valid and relevant to all types of art, as long as the reader understands that his argument is a broad overview rather than strict law. Understanding that Dickie is trying to define the artworld and not good art is what I found to be the key to fully understanding Dickie’s article.