The Institutional Theory of Art

Reading: Dickie, G. (1974) What Is Art? An Institutional Analysis, Cornell University Press, NY (pp19-52)

In this theoretical model an artwork is defined by its presence, as an artefact or as a documented idea. As an example; if you were to create an installation and then take it down without photographing the work, and no one had experienced the work itself, it is not a part of the institution. Painting a nice picture in your bedroom with no understanding as to why and not sharing it with a public who are prepared in some part to understand your work would therefore, in accordance with the 1997 definition, not be considered a piece of art. The experience of that painting isn't shared, therefore is not admitted any real status by an agent of the art world. The institution is made up of the convention of guidelines which shape the art world, but these are continuously evolving depending on individual perspectives, movements and so on. The institution holds great power in deciding what is successful, it is not about the artist but rather the institution that endorses the artist.

I don't claim to know any definitive exception to Dickie's definition. It is in an artist's nature to challenge what may be considered limitations and they have not been short in exploring ways to question them. “A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public”. Artists such as Yves Klein, who's 1958 exhibition titled 'The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void' consisted of an empty room with every surface painted white. Jeppe Hein, whom in 2006 created 'Invisible Labyrinth', where the audience are equipped with headphones operated by infrared rays which vibrate should they bump into an invisible wall. Tom Friedman's 'Untitled (A Curse)', 1992, which visually is an empty plinth, employed a professional witch to cast a curse on an 11-inch sphere, resting 11 inches over the pedestal. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, in 2004, created an installation titled 'The Empty Museum'. This piece replicates a room in a classical gallery, except the room is bare with nothing but dramatic lighting and a Bach soundtrack to fill it. Maria Eichhorn's installation '5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours', 2016, consisted of closing the gallery for the amount of time specified in the title. Gallery viewers would be greeted by a closed door for the duration of this time. Martin Creed’s 'Work No. 227: The lights going on and off'', 2000, consisted of an empty room with lights continuously turning from light to dark every five seconds. In these examples we can see that the “artefact” is absent, or intangible, and it is instead the context or ideal which is presented rather than the “artefact” itself.

In regards to the second definition (“An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art.”), an idea explored within Artist in Residence, by Simon Bill, is that if someone were to curate the works of art created by those who suffer severe neurological conditions, those who are unable to participate with any true level of understanding, is it the creator or the curator who is the artist? If the creator is unable to say their work is art, if they must rely upon the discovery and nomination by an artworld agent, they cannot fall under the above definition of an artist. We call the paintings of our Neanderthal ancestors cave art, but we cannot quantify or measure in any way that they thought it to be art.

Having studied this model I can find some relief in knowing that there is the basis for an answer to the question “what is art?”. Though the definition is ever evolving, it gives a sense of justification going forward in my own practice. I will continue to work on myself as an artist in both the technical and the philosophical aspects. My goal now, as it has been before and will be in the future, is to influence the artworld through the artefacts I produce, together with having an impact on the audience that finds themselves before my work.

Yves Klein, The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized

Pictorial Sensibility, The Void, 1958

Jeppe Hein, Invisible Labyrinth, 2006

Tom Friedman, 'Untitled (A Curse), 1992

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, The Empty Museum, 2004

Maria Eichhorn, 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours, 2016

Martin Creed, Work No. 227: The lights going on and off, 2000

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