The Institutional Theory of Art

Art theorist Clive Bell wanted nothing more than a definition of art.  In his grandest hopes, he said:

“If we can discover some quality common and peculiar to all the objects that provoke it, we shall have solved what I take to be the central problem of aesthetics.  We shall have discovered the essential quality in a work of art, the quality that distinguishes works of art from all other classes of objects. . . [for] either works of art have some common quality, or when we speak of ‘works of art,’ we gibber.”  Art, 1913.

And for Clive Bell, that common quality across all works of art was “significant form.”

And then along came the sociologists like Janet Wolff with their dismissal of such grand philosophical hopes:

“The social theory of art shows, first, that it is accidental that certain types of artifacts are constituted as “art” . . . Second, it forces us to question distinctions traditionally made between art and non-art . . . for it is clear that there is nothing in the nature of the work or the activity which distinguishes it from another work and activities with which they may have a great deal in common.”  Aesthetics and Sociology of Art

Finally, like a good college dean seeking to please both philosophers and sociologists, George Dickie proposed the Institutional Theory of art which succinctly stated claims:

“A work of art in the classificatory sense is (a) an artifact (b) a set of aspects of which has conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of an social institution (the artworld).”  Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis

So for my Philosophy of Art students, lets see what we can figure out from the “artworld”, or at least the big institutional artworld in the United States, about the character of art.  Can we distill any philosophical commitments or sociological histories from some of our major institutions devoted to the visual arts?

The National Gallery of Art’s Mission Statement

MOMA’s Mission Statement

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chicago’s MCA Mission Statement

For those really interested in examining the arts from the standpoint of institutions, there is actually a blog just for you covering important questions such as these?

On the Art Institute’s Mission Statement?

When does  an Art Gallery become a Museum? 

How does an institution become a museum at all?

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