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The Arguments for and Against the Institutional Theory of Defining Art

Updated on March 31, 2013

The Urinal Fountain by Marcel Duchamp as featured in Tate Modern

Is this art? What do you think?
Is this art? What do you think? | Source

What is the Institutional Theory?

The theory states the following:

  1. Art can be any object that has been modified by a human being: poetry, sculptures, floor tiles, flour and a urinal are all examples of potential art. Things that have not been intentionally modified by a human being: the sky, the oceans, trees etc. cannot be art until they have been e.g. if you place a tree in a museum then you have effectively modified it enough for it to be called art.
  2. Art is just a title, a christening, made by members of the art world onto anything they choose. This means that any of the above handled objects could be art - including the urinal and floor tiles - if they were labelled so by a person of the art world.

This theory helps to explain why some things that had never previously been seen with any degree of beauty or artistic quality suddenly end up in museums and exhibition halls e.g. a urinal named 'fountain' or a picture of a pile of bricks.

Criticisms of the Institutional Theory

  1. No Distinctions
    The theory doesn't distinguish between good and bad art but merely states what all art has in common. This makes it very uninformative when trying to rank some forms of the same art above the other.
  2. Circularity
    The argument states that 'art' is christened by members of the 'art world' making these members part of a world that they themselves create. What makes these people qualified to confer the status of art if not a specific talent to do so?

Institutional Theory Counter-Arguments

  1. No Distinctions
    The reason the institutional theory doesn't distinguish between good and bad art is that in effect there isn't such a thing - there is only the human institution that decides haphazardly how much better one piece of art is than another.

    For example, we may look at a portrait and notice that it is much more similar to the person portrayed than another and thus call it better. However, this depends on what criteria the person judging it is using. If the second portrait had a more appealing colour scheme to the human eye then maybe it would appear more beautiful and therefore a better piece of art than the first portrait. Again, it all depends on which one of those criteria (or how much weight is given to each) the observer is using.

    You may say 'well one portrait might excel in both (or more) of those qualities than another" but then I would reply that others can easily state that the other is an abstract, intentionally bad portrait that was made in order to provoke some abstract idea e.g. the portrait is bad because the artist wants to express the idea that the way others see us is always different to how we see ourselves.

    In this way, the art world could claim that the abstract portrait is a better piece of art than the more realistic one - if the entire art world agreed upon this, then what is the likelihood that the rest of the world will disagree?

    [Note: If anyone has any arguments for why art is not subjective please comment at the end]
  2. Circularity
    The arguments for the institutional theory being circular are nullified upon the realisation that new members of the art world are employed by old members of the art world. Therefore, new members do not create their own world of art but take on the old world from their maturer peers.

    This means that in order to become an established member the art world, one has to hold many of the same views of what is and isn't art as some of the old members of the art world, making art a historical passing on of artistic ideals. Once new members have been established, they can start adding their own ideas to the world of art which will in turn be passed on to the next generation of artists, who, after establishing themselves, will be able to keep or toss those inherited ideas and replace them with their own, ad infinitum.

    This of course does not take away from the idea that art is completely subjective, but shows how as time passes what we call 'art' changes itself according to what the new generation of artists decide; their choices being moulded by new technologies and the degree to which their society is liberal.

What is art? Where is it going?
What is art? Where is it going? | Source

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