Distinguishing Art from Non Art: Discussion 3, Part 1
Dickie, Davies, and Institutional Theories of Art (with a little critique by McEvilley)
In our last two discussions we looked at attempts to state necessary and sufficient conditions that allowed one to distinguish a thing of the world as art versus a thing of the world as non art.
A somewhat different approach was taken by George Dickie, a philosopher specializing in aesthetics and 18th century taste, and Stephen Davies, a philosopher specializing in aesthetics and music. In this article we’ll take a brief look at their ideas that can be situated under what is generally called an institutional theory of art. In doing so we’ll be seeing the term “conferring the status of art,” meaning to bestow the condition or state of affairs upon.
George Dickie believed that a thing was a work of art when certain conditions were fulfilled. These are:
1. The thing is an artifact. By artifact he means a human created thing. This thing can be something made or found.
2. The thing created is presented to the art world public.
3. This public is comprised of people who understand the object presented to them, for example, curators, museum people, critics, and so forth.
4. The art world system is a framework for the presentation of art to an art world public.
5. The art world is a totality of all art world systems. Behind all of this is the artist, who Dickie says is someone who understand the making of a work of art within this system.
So basically, if an artist makes something (tacitly agreeing to be part of the art world) and the artist puts the thing into the art world systems and before the art world public, and if the art world public or a representative for it such as a major curator, says, “Yes, this is art,” then the thing is art.
Marcel Duchamp, in 1917, bought an ordinary urinal and displayed it as art with the title Fountain at the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, he had some things going for him that a plumber who installed urinals did not. First, Duchamp was an artist who knew the art world. Second, Duchamp inserted his work into that art world, in this example at an exhibition New York City. The plumber was neither an artist who knew the art world, nor was the plumber installing the urinal in a restroom in an attempt to situate the urinal within the art world. Members of the art world (Board members of the society) initially did not agree the urinal was art and the urinal was removed from the exhibition. Later, art world experts agreed with Duchamp that the urinal was art and they called it a type of art, a readymade. In this example, the creation and conferring of art status upon the urinal generally meets the conditions set out by Dickie.
Dickie also points out that this process of conferring art status isn’t entirely easy and glib. The person (on behalf of the institution called the art world) who confers the status of art takes responsibility for that conferring, and many may judge the person right or wrong. If wrong, there’s the possibility nobody will appreciate the conferrer’s viewpoint, and the conferrer will lose face.
Generally Dickie saw his theory as value neutral. Anything could be art as anything could be put forth for evaluation as a possible candidate to receive the status of art. This solved one problem of Weitz’s open concept, it provide a definition with some conditions, even if a loose definition in which everything could be art.
Dickie was critiqued on numerous grounds. For example, who exactly were the public experts to be given the authority to confer the status of art? What if experts disagreed. What about conferring art status on some mundane object? What if an artist said the thing was created as art but no expert agreed? More fundamentally, the theory was seen to be circular reasoning. A thing was art if someone said the thing was art, but to call a thing art presupposed the expert knew what things were art and what things were not art. This in turn presupposed some unstated set of necessary and sufficient criteria and we’re back to the Weitz’s critique of theories on this point. Finally, it seems art required a public. To press this a bit, evidently someone living alone on a desert island couldn’t make art. Finally the idea was critiqued for not telling us what a work of art was, but rather telling us the social context into which a work of art could be situated.
Stephen Davies looked carefully at Dickie’s theory and he decided that Dickie was basically right regarding the institutional theory. Davies’ added some conditions of his own that listed the manner in which a thing could qualify as a work of art:
a) The thing shows excellence of skill and achievement in recognizing significant aesthetic goals, as it’s primary, identifying function (or it contributes to the realization of that function) A thing could be art even if it falls outside all recognized categories, and if it has some purpose other than contemplation for its own sake. For example, think of a beautiful sword.
b) The thing falls under an art genre or form established and publicly recognized within an art tradition. Thus, paint on a canvas would be like art of the past that was paint on canvas.
c) The thing is intended by the maker/presenter to be art and the maker/presenter does what is necessary and appropriate to realize that intention. This view was explored in detail by Christy Mag Uidhir in his book Art & Art Attempts. In it he says if an artist intends to make art and fails the thing is not art. For example, if someone intends to construct a doghouse but it cannot function as a doghouse, it is not a doghouse.
Davies appears to support the fact that both artists and experts, as such by their knowledge and experience, can confer the status of art on a thing. Or, the thing can be art if it fits with historical forms. Or the thing can be art if it shows and proves its excellence of skill and achievement in recognizing significant aesthetic goals and becomes the subject of aesthetic contemplation. Davies gives an example a pattern that is simply decoration versus a significant aesthetic goal although he recognizes that a significant aesthetic goal can exist alongside things that have other functions, decoration on a ceremonial sword for example. Davies says when the dominant function is practical the thing is not art, cars for example. Only the most most superb examples of cars are accorded art status.
In agreement with Weitz, Davies thought the tradition that sought to define art only in terms of aesthetic properties was misguided. The art world was relative and changeable. In his view any attempt going forward needed to pay attention to wider social settings, and especially those that fell outside of the art world known as “‘high’ Western art (meaning art of Western Europe and North America). That said, Davies holds that there must be something common to all art works around the world, beyond the fact that they are products of their social institutions.
A few of the same questions we’ve seen with Dickie also arise with Davies. What actually constitutes a significant aesthetic goal. Look up the sorites paradox, 1,000,000 grains of sand is a heap. A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. And so on. How does one know that the work of art has aesthetic properties or fulfills art’s function? Does this not in itself presuppose necessary and conditions of aesthetic qualities or function that one might recognize or assess? Who gets to consider or confer status of art on a thing, and when do they become an expert? Isn’t being an artist presupposing we know what an artist is? As always these become dense philosophical questions that deserve further consideration.
Finally, we will look at an important critique of the institution and the conferring of art status raised by Thomas McEvilley, critic, poet, and novelist. In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City put on a show titled ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. McEvilley wrote a devastating review, titled Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief (taken from the title of a popular 1945 song). McEvilley pointed out that African tribal masks were connected to systems of belief and ritual, and that these connections were denied in their appropriation by the European artists who saw the masks as source materials. This view was reinforced by the museum exhibition that displayed the masks without labels or explanatory text. The ‘primitive’ masks were not presented as serious art nor did the museum or artists acknowledge the mask’s functioned within religion or magic; the masks were not intended to function within art history. The institutional conferring of art world status upon the masks, as things in themselves to be used as source material or displayed, was not sufficient nor should be sufficient to make the masks “art” for the Western art world.