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Institutional Theories: Art and the Artworld

Arthur Danto (1924- )

Philosopher at Columbia University since 1966 Longtime art critic for The Nation Originator of the "artworld" theory in aesthetics in the end art" 1960s; in recent years exponent of an "end of art thesis derived from Hegel...


Briefly... The `End of Art' Thesis

"...the master narrative of the history of art--in the West y but by the end not in the West alone--is that there is an era of imitation, followed by an era of ideology, followed by our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes. ...In our narrative, at first only mimesis was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical p y constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the master narrative. It is the end of the story" Art After the End of Art (1997)

Artworks and Real Things

Danto begins with a (winking) apology for the "wildness" of his prose; it reflects wild times (the New York art scene "from circa 1961 to circa 1969" ). But in the end, Danto says, the essay becomes its own subject, it becomes an artwork: "Perhaps the final artwork in the history of art!" (242) (I.e.,, 20 years avant la lettre, Danto here anticipates the `end of art' thesis.)


Ontological Inferiority

Since Plato, "art allegedly stands at a certain invidious remove from reality...artists are contaminated at the outset with a kind of ontological inferiority" Artists supposedly imitate antecedently existing real things. In the space the gap between reality and the work of space, gap, imitative artists some strange and interesting possibilities arise...

According to Nietzsche, by imitating the barbaric rites in celebration of the death and resurrection of Dionysius in y tragic drama, the ancient Greeks managed to distance themselves from the reality of such barbarism ("and invent civilization in the process"). Aristotle says that art is pleasurable because it is imitative ("all men by nature desire to know"); but this presupposes that we know that the work of art is an imitation: We may derive some minor pleasure from someone who can imitate crow calls, but we take no special pleasure in crow calls produced by actual crows.


The Dilemma

"Realism" in art (e.g., Euripides doing away with the ) p possibility--to make imitative art y chorus) takes up one p that is as close to reality as possible. But, surely, we already have all the reality we need. Why then do need art? "Art fails if it is indiscernible from reality and it equally fails if it is not " (243) not. Compare, for instance: A successful toupée; a bad soap opera.

Ontological Promotion: First Step

An alternative possibility is to make art that celebrates its artifice (through its form, perhaps), such that no one ( g p p ) could mistake it for reality. (Danto provides no example here, but we might think of, e.g., opera or tableaux vivant.) But insofar as such art becomes non-imitative it again risks becoming indiscernible from reality: "the more purely art things become the closer they verge on become, reality, and pure art collapses into pure reality." And after all (one might say), if something is just what is (like other real things), why pay it a special compliment by calling it art?


Ontological Promotion: Last Gasp

The last remaining possibility, a way past both dilemmas, is to create non-imitative art that is "radically distinct from non imitative radically all heretofore existing real things" (e.g., Rauschenberg's Monogram) ­ "unentrenched things" (Equivalent, I think, to valuing creativity or `unusualness' over either realism or artifice or form in works of art.) But this too faces a (paradoxical) problem...

Significant form?


It would be strange, would it not, to say that two objects have the same shape and yet one has significant form and the other doesn't? doesn t? Maybe not: In some Polynesian language the sentence acoustically identical to the English "Beans are high in protein Motherhood protein" might mean "Motherhood is sacred." Same auditory token; very different effects.

The Pierre Menard Phenomenon (PMP)

In Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (1939) we are told that: "[Menard] did not want to compose another Quixote-- which is easy--but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide--word for word and line for line--with those of Miguel de Cervantes."


The PMP indicates, Danto suggests, that mere copies or quotations (while possibly indistinguishable from their originals) have no artistic value at all. A copy or forgery cannot enter the artworld (except possibly by deceit, e.g., in the case of a van Meergeren) And it cannot do so not simply for curatorial or connoisseurship reasons--not simply because it is "not authentic"--but because the copy or forgery is not the actual statement of the artist.

The Artworld

So works of art, says Danto, are distinct from non-artistic things not because of any aesthetic property present in the work, but because they have been intentionally presented for inclusion in the artworld. As such, they are statements of the artist For instance, artworks have been given a title (even `Untitled' is a kind of title) and selected as possible candidates for `enfranchisement' by the artworld.


But not every real thing will be enfranchised by the artworld as a work of art... For one thing, art history must be ready to enfranchise the work. E.g., the painted necktie example. Fakes and forgeries similarly will be excluded since they lack the required relation to the artists (the relation of "being a statement of").

Art as Philosophy (and Vice Versa)

Danto: Philosophy has "turned reflexively inward," it has become its own subject. j And art too has become its own subject. Consider: For critics like Harold Rosenberg (and, mutatis mutandis, Clement Greenberg), a painting is the inscription, the real thing that the artist has made; "it is the stroke and not a representation of anything" p y g Yet even this critical view is cheerfully taken up and subtly challenged by artists like Lichtenstein...


Lichtenstein's paintings of brushstrokes assert that they are not simply brushstrokes, but instead represent brushstrokes. (Back to mimesis, in a way, but, in Lichtenstein's case, mimesis aimed at a theory that was supposed to displace mimesis as a theory of art.) "The boundaries between art and reality...become internal to art itself...the Platonic challenge has been met...[not] by promoting art but by demoting reality"

Consequences of the "Death of Art"

One consequence: "art" terms are applied increasingly to things that were traditionally contrasted with art: politics becomes theatre, clothing a kind of costume, human relations become roles, life a game. Another consequence: By bringing within itself what had been regarded as logically separate, art has become transformed into philosophy. Art and the philosophy of art become indistinguishable.


George Dickie (1926-)

Recently retired from the University of Illinois at Chicago. A major contributor in the world of analytic aesthetics: Aesthetics: An Introduction (1971), Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974), The Art Circle (1984), The Century of Taste (1996), Evaluating Art (1988), Art and Value (2001). Associated in particular with the "institutional theory of art," influenced in part by Danto's "artworld" theory.

The "New" Institutional Theory

The earlier version of the institutional theory was "defective," Dickie says (see, e.g., Freeland, p. 55). The defective, present (1974) article is an attempt to re-present it in a "viable" form. The Institutional Approach: Works of art count as art as the result of the position they occupy within an institutional framework or context. N.B.: A classificatory approach (as opposed to an evaluative approach); not what makes for good art or art proper, but an account of how the term "art" is applied.


Both according to traditional theories (e.g., mimetic ) g theories, formalist theories, etc.) and according to the institutional theory, works of art are first and foremost artifacts (`objects made by human beings, especially with a a view to future use'). This turns out to have important implications for the institutional view (e.g., with respect to the intentions of the artist). artist) Yet not all accounts of art have held to this assumption, however...

Wittgenstein and Resemblance

Dickie begins by challenging the Wittgensteinian `resemblance' account of art developed by Paul Ziff and resemblance Morris Weitz from the 1950s. According to Wittgenstein, it is impossible to provide a definition of "art" (or "game") in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions...


...But this need not be any great philosophical embarrassment, according to Wittgensteinian philosophy, since we can instead account for art in terms of the `family resemblance' among things that we recognize as art. Art, is an `open concept': Its connotation cannot/need not be precisely specified. Instead, we recognize members of the class "art" by their resemblance to paradigms of the concept.

If we think of art as an open concept, then it can have/need have no necessary conditions, not even artifactuality. Instead, members of the class "art" will be related to each other only by virtue of the similarities that they have with other things that we call art. But, notes Dickie, this conception of art faces an infinite regress problem: If all works of art are art by virtue of their similarity to some other works of art, then must there not be at least one work of art that is non-similar to which all other works of art are related by similarity?


"Nonsimilarity" art must presumably be created in some way, and `the most natural explanation' for such the explanation art (i.e., for art that other things we might call art are related to through similarity) is that it is/was the creation--the artifact--created through a human activity. So, Dickie says, the Wittgensteinian (Ziff/Weiss) "new view of art," despite its intentions, in fact requires that at least some art be artifactual.

But what do we mean by "artifact"?

Most art (paintings, sculptures, poems, etc.) clearly are artifacts within the usual meaning of the term. "Readymade" art and found art (e.g., Duchamp's Fountain) are harder cases. Yet despite some people's misgivings, Dickie says, such things can indeed count as artifacts of artists. artists Consider, by analogy, a piece of driftwood...


If I pick up the piece of driftwood and, without altering in y y g g any way, use if to dig a hole or to stave off a threatening dog, the simple object (the piece of driftwood) has been transformed into a complex object, by virtue of me taking it up and using it in a certain way. (Just as anthropologists are apt to interpret otherwise unmodified things as `human artifacts' just in case there g is evidence that that those things have been used for some purpose.) The same sort of thing takes place when a found object is offered to the artworld ...

The "Institution"

So, in some contrast to Danto, the `artworld"/ institution in which art works are located does have at least one non-conventional rule: artifactuality. Of course the `art institution' has other rules as well (e.g., the rule about stagehands in theatre). Indeed, it is made up of a variety of roles (artist, public, critic, teacher, curator, etc ) curator etc.). But all these other rules, Dickie asserts, are (merely) conventional.


Some things to notice about institutional theories

Intention, one way or another, is central Such theories do not/cannot appeal to any presentational feature of the art object. In this respect, they (deliberately) differ from `traditional' theories. Instead, such theories take into account the context of the work of art--specifically, the artworld/institution. Dickie's account of the institutional context of art is, in this respect, perhaps more developed and more open than Danto's

Some Critical Questions ...

For artifacts, is membership in the artworld too easy to achieve? Is the act of enfranchising/conferring "work of art" status too easy? Can just any old crap end up counting as art? Institutional theories provides no principled, internal standards for evaluation. Do we need them?



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