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Artworks and artworlds.

According to (at least some versions of) the institutional definition of art, something is an artwork if and only if arthood has been conferred upon it by appropriately qualified members of the artworld.[1] A number of writers have noted the similarity between the institutional definition of art and a definition of piety offered by Euthyphro. According to Euthyphro, the pious is that which is loved by the gods. According to the institutional theorist, art is that which is loved by members of the artworld. This parallel between Euthyphro's views and those of institutional theorists is sometimes taken to be the basis of an objection to the institutional theory.[2] According to this objection, the artworld must love something because it is lovable. I do not believe that institutional theorists should be unduly worried by this objection, but Plato's Euthyphro does suggest a more worrisome problem for their theory, one which has not hitherto been addressed. When Euthyphro defines piety as that which is loved by the gods, a problem arises when the gods disagree among themselves. Similarly, if artworks are items which have had arthood conferred upon them by qualified members of the artworld, a problem arises when the artworld is divided over whether something is a work of art. The institutional theorist should not find this problem insoluble. It can be solved, however, only by recognizing the relativity of arthood. There is no single artworld and something is never a work of art tout court. An artwork is always an artwork for some artworld or other.

According to Euthyphro, 'what is agreeable to the Gods is pious.' By Euthyphro's own admission, however, the gods often quarrel among themselves. Frequently these differences lead to situations where something is loved by some of the gods but hated by other gods. Socrates notes that Euthyphro is committed, consequently, to the conclusion that 'the same things will . . . be both pious and impious', which is impossible.[3] A similar argument can be made against those who maintain that artworks are those works which have had arthood conferred upon them by qualified individuals. Just as the gods disagree among themselves, the members of the artworld have their differences. We can imagine a situation where a number of people, with impeccable qualifications as members of the artworld, disagree about the status of some work. In this situation Andy, Arthur, Clement and Peggy are all fully qualified members of the artworld. Clement and Peggy, say, deny that some work is an artwork. Andy and Arthur, on the other hand, accept the work as an artwork. Under these circumstances, it seems that the work in question will both be and not be an artwork, which is impossible. The institutional theory is in danger of reduction to absurdity.

A simple way to avoid this reductio immediately suggests itself. This response to the problem may be called the simple response. Institutional theorists can deny that the arthood of some item depends on unanimity of the artworld. They can instead maintain that it is enough that one qualified person confer arthood upon an item for the item to be a work of art. Imagine a situation where a work is presented to Andy, Clement and Peggy, and they all decline to confer arthood upon it. The work is subsequently presented to Arthur, and he accepts the work as an artwork. The simple response states that, given that the first three members of the artworld accept Arthur as a fully qualified member of the artworld, as soon as Arthur confers arthood upon the controversial item, it is an artwork. (The situation would be different if there were some doubt about Arthur's credentials. There will be differences about whether someone is a Jew, if there is disagreement about the qualifications of the rabbi who performed the conversion. Similarly, there can be differences about whether something is an artwork if there is disagreement about the credentials of the person who is conferring arthood. This is, however, not the situation here.) The other members of the artworld might not recognize that the controversial item is an artwork. After all, Arthur might not yet have told them that he has conferred arthood upon the work. Still, according to the simple response, even if some members of the artworld continue to believe that the work is not an artwork, it is. There is no contradiction between saying that something is an artwork and saying that the same thing is believed by some people not to be artwork. So it may seem that the reductio is avoided.

This simple response to the problem is unsatisfactory. The trouble is that when some members of the artworld decline to confer arthood upon some item, they thereby confer upon it non-arthood. If someone has the power to confer arthood upon a work, the act of not conferring this status is the act of conferring non-arthood. So when our controversial work is presented to Peggy and she declines to recognize it as an artwork, she ipso facto confers non-arthood upon it. Arthur may say to Peggy that she must accept that the work (a snow shovel, say, or a piece of driftwood) is an artwork, because he has conferred arthood upon it. She can say to him, however, that he must accept that the shovel is not an artwork because she has conferred non-arthood upon it. There is no more reason why Peggy should accept Arthur's judgement about the work in question than there is reason why he should accept hers. Peggy might give in and admit that the shovel is an artwork, but she might not. In such a situation, where the artworld is divided, we are left with a case of a work which apparently both is and is not a work of art.

In their effort to avoid the reductio, advocates of the institutional theory can avail themselves of a move similar to that employed by Euthyphro. This move may be called the critical mass response. Faced with Socrates' objection to his definition of piety, Euthyphro suggests that 'piety is what all the gods love, and that the opposite, what all the gods hate, is impiety.'[4] Institutional theorists could, similarly, suggest that art is what all the members of the artworld accept as art. Such a definition would immediately run into the objection that unanimity in the artworld is rather rare. If unanimity were required, only a few works would remain in the class of artworks. (Tolstoy and Hanslick were certainly members of the artworld, but both denied the arthood of paradigmatic artworks.) Faced with this difficulty, institutional theorists can maintain that art is what some sufficiently large segment of the artworld accepts as art. The critical mass could be conceived of in a number of ways. Perhaps some percentage of the artworld must accept that something is an artwork for it to be art. Perhaps some minimum number of members have to accept it as art. (Perhaps some of this number must come from each of the three estates: curators, critics and artists.) In any case, according to this reply, once some critical mass is reached, something is art. Whatever formula institutional theorists adopt, they are modifying their position. The arthood of some object no longer depends on some individual's conferment of arthood. Rather, arthood depends on the conferment of arthood by a critical mass of qualified individuals.

On some accounts of the critical mass necessary for arthood, the critical mass response fails for precisely the same sort of reason as the simple response fails. The trouble is that there will be some critical mass, some percentage of the artworld, which is required to confer non-arthood on a work. If certain settings of critical masses are adopted, it is possible that the critical mass necessary for arthood and the critical mass required for non-arthood could both be met. Suppose that twenty per cent of the artworld must agree in conferring arthood upon a work for it to be an artwork. Suppose, moreover, that a similar critical mass is required to confer non-arthood on a work. If this is the case, the critical mass needed to establish the arthood of some work and the critical mass necessary for non-arthood could both be satisfied. Consequently, the institutional theory could still entail that a work both is and is not a work of art.

This problem can be avoided by setting the critical mass for arthood in such a way that, if it is reached, the critical mass for non-arthood cannot be reached, and vice versa. If the critical mass for arthood is set at fifty per cent plus one of the artworld, and the critical mass for non-arthood is set at the same percentage, the institutional theorist would never be faced with a work which both is and is not an artwork. Alternatively, the critical mass needed for arthood could be set at ten per cent of the artworld, and the critical mass for non-arthood fixed at ninety-one per cent. In a limiting case, the critical mass necessary for arthood could be set as low as one qualified member of the artworld, so long as the critical mass required for non-arthood is the entire artworld. In such a case, the single member of the artworld will be, in most cases, the artist who creates the work. In any of these cases, a work can never both be and not be an artwork.

Institutional theorists are not out of the woods simply by opting for a version of the critical mass response which sets critical masses in such a way that works cannot both be and not be artworks. They still need to defend their settings of critical masses for arthood and non-arthood. Institutional theorists also need to defend the suggestion that the critical mass of the artworld required for the conferment of non-arthood (or arthood) can be overridden by some critical mass in favour of the conferment of arthood (or non-arthood), particularly if the overriding mass is much smaller. The settings of these critical masses cannot be chosen in a purely arbitrary manner. Unfortunately, problems arise in attempting to argue for both high and low critical masses. The view that a small segment of the artworld can confer either arthood or non-arthood, and override a large segment of the artworld, cannot avoid the reductio. On the other hand, a new sort of problem arises if arthood requires the agreement of a large percentage of the artworld.

If the institutional theory of art is correct, the only justification for saying that something is an artwork is that members of the artworld call it an artwork. Similarly, the only justification for saying that something is not an artwork is that members of the artworld do not call it an artwork. The only justification for setting a low critical mass for arthood or non-arthood is that such a setting is borne out by the use members of the artworld make of the concept of art. Any low setting will fly in the face of the use most members of the artworld make of the concept of art. Someone might reason as follows: a small segment of the artworld is calling something art, therefore, all that is necessary for arthood is a small critical mass of the artworld. If we say that something is art because a few qualified people are calling it art, however, we are disregarding the views of all the qualified people who say that it is not art. We could just as well infer from the premiss that a small segment of the artworld declines to call something art, to the conclusion that only the approval of a small segment of the artworld is necessary for non-arthood. We seem to be faced with a choice. If we are willing to accept that a small segment of the artworld can establish the arthood of some object, we are equally committed to saying that a few members can confer non-arthood. If we choose this option, the reductio rears its ugly head. Alternatively, we can say that a small segment of the artworld is not able to confer either arthood or non-arthood upon a work.

Some (large) critical masses of the artworld do seem sufficient to establish the arthood of an object. I would say that something is uncontroversially a work of art when there exists widespread agreement in the artworld that arthood is to be conferred upon it. At a certain point, the segment of the artworld which confers arthood upon some object becomes so large that one is inclined to say that people who believe that it is not art are mistaken about the use of the concept of art. Members of the artworld who disagree with the consensus of informed opinion within their artworld lose their franchise. They lose, that is, the power to confer arthood or non-arthood upon selected works. When this happens, the reductio facing the institutional theory can be avoided. Andy, Clement and Peggy and a large number of other members of the artworld all confer non-arthood upon some work. In the face of this consensus, Arthur must fail in his attempt to confer arthood upon the same work.[5] In this situation, even though there is disagreement about the arthood of some works, the institutional theorist is not committed to saying that something both is and is not an artwork. (A work can sometimes be an artwork even if it is never accepted by a community as an artwork. This will be the case, for example, when a work is destroyed or lost before more than one person views it. In such a case, we can preserve the arthood of the object by saying, counterfactually, that it would have been accepted as an artwork, had it been viewed by more than one person. In other words, it is the type of thing the artworld accepts as art.)

The trouble with saying that a large percentage of the artworld must confer arthood upon a work for it to be an artwork is that avant-garde works would not be artworks, at least not at first. As a matter of historical fact, not until well after mid-century were some of the controversial works of the early twentieth century accepted as artworks by a majority of the artworld. I would not be surprised to learn that a majority still does not favour conferment of arthood upon a work such as Fountain. Stodgy academicians, hidebound critics, conservative collectors and informed but fusty audience members are still members of the artworld. Consequently, it is implausible to say that the conditions for the arthood of many works were immediately met, if these conditions involve widespread agreement in the artworld.

In spite of the fact that a small portion of the artworld cannot override a larger portion's conferment of non-arthood upon some work, many people still have the intuition that many controversial avant-garde works became artworks either at, or very soon after, the time of their creation. We need somehow to reconcile two apparently incompatible positions. The first is the view that an avant-garde work can have arthood conferred upon it immediately or almost immediately. The second is the fact that a small percentage of the artworld cannot, without reducing the institutional theory to absurdity, confer arthood on a work in the face of the conferment of non-arthood by a significant segment of the artworld.

Only if arthood is relative to particular artworlds can these conflicting views be reconciled. Up to this point I have spoken of the artworld, as if there is only one. This assumption must be rejected. Already it is widely accepted that different works are artworks only relative to the artworlds of particular times. Fountain did not exist in the sixteenth century, but it is fair to say that, if it had, it could not have been an artwork. No one, not Michelangelo, not even a time-travelling Duchamp, could have conferred arthood upon a urinal in the sixteenth century.[6] On the other hand, many people today regard a Duchamp readymade as an artwork. Even though different historical artworlds differ in their assessment of Fountain, it is not the case that it both is and is not a work of art. Rather, it is an artwork relative to a contemporary artworld and a non-artwork relative to a sixteenth century artworld.

Just as there is disagreement between a sixteenth-century artworld and a contemporary artworld about the status of Fountain, so there is disagreement within the present day. Some people confer arthood upon it and others confer non-arthood upon it. This difference of opinion should not lead us to decide that the urinal in question both is and is not an artwork any more than does the difference of opinion between sixteenth-century and contemporary artworlds. We should treat disagreement within our own times just as we treat disagreement between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries. We should, again, relativize arthood to an artworld. Relative to the dada or avant-garde artworld, Fountain is an artwork. Relative to the conservative artworld, it is a non-artwork. There is no absurdity in saying that a work is an artwork relative to one artworld and a non-artwork relative to another.

The following thought experiment will motivate the relativization of arthood to artworlds. Philosophers of language have found it useful to talk about Earth and Twin Earth and aestheticians can benefit from a similar reflection on Artworld and Twin Artworld.[7] Imagine that there is a planet somewhere in the universe very much like ours in all respects. In particular, its art history is very much like the art history of our planet and each member of our Artworld has a Doppleganger in Twin Artworld. The only difference between Artworld and Twin Artworld is that in the former Andy, Arthur, Clement and Peggy confer arthood upon a urinal while in the latter their counterparts confer non-arthood on an all-but-numerically identical item. It seems clear that, if the institutional theory is correct, in Artworld a urinal is an artwork, while in Twin Artworld a similar urinal is a non-artwork. This is the case despite the fact that the two artworlds exist simultaneously. If the members of Twin Artworld should learn of the existence of Artworld, they may not change their mind about their urinal. More likely they will observe that in their artworld, a urinal is not an artwork, while in the other it is. They will not accept that the members of Artworld can make a urinal an artwork for Twin Artworld.

Fanciful as the story of Twin Artworld may seem, it reflects what actually goes on in art circles on this planet. Earth is populated not by a unified artworld but a number of mutually hostile and suspicious artworlds. An artworld is circumscribed by the principles which guide its members in conferring arthood. An accredited member of an artworld has mastered these principles. No artworld recognizes the credentials of the others. Hard though it may be for people who live in Greenwich Village to believe, many informed artists, critics and aestheticians simply do not accept the arthood of certain avant-garde works. These people are only willing to confer arthood, perhaps, on works with a function these works cannot perform. The people in this class may be called the post-avant-garde artworld. Another group of people constitute the avant-garde artworld. When informed that the avant-garde has conferred arthood on a urinal, members of the post-avant-garde do not say 'Well, I guess it's an artwork then.' They are more likely to say, 'Those people are crazy. They wouldn't know an artwork if it jumped up and bit them.' For its part, the post-avant-garde artworld maintains that Frith's Paddington Station is an artwork, though some of its members think the painting is not very good. The avant-garde can scarcely believe that people are still so benighted. They certainly will not accept the arthood of Frith's painting on the word of the members of the post-avant-garde. Their credentials are no good in the avant-garde artworld.

Faced with a multiplicity of artworlds, only by recognizing the relativity of arthood can institutional theorists avoid the reduction of their position to absurdity. The members of any artworld will deny that any other artworld can make something an artwork tout court. The only consistent position for the institutional theorist to adopt is the view that both artworlds can confer arthood and non-arthood, but only within their own purlieus. If we find this conclusion unpalatable, all we can do is try to persuade people to join our artworld. I do not believe that every account of which works are artworks is as good as any other. Some definitions of art have practical advantages which others lack. We can represent to others all of the practical advantages of belonging to our artworld. If we cannot persuade others to join us, however, we have to accept the relativity of arthood. A definition of art is simply a specification of the class of objects to which the concept of art applies. Philosophers and, in particular, institutional theorists have been mistaken in thinking that there is only one such specification.


1 This sort of account of art originates in T. J. Diffey, 'The Republic of Art', British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 9 (1969). Reprinted in Diffey's The Republic of Art and Other Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1991). Another author who holds such a version of the institutional theory is Stephen Davies. For a good discussion of the institutional theory of art see his Definitions of Art (Ithaca, New York: Cornell U. P., 1991), ch. 4.

2 The parallel between Euthyphro views on piety and the institutional theory is drawn by Melvin Rader, 'Dickie and Socrates on Definition', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 32 (1974). According to Rader, the institutional theory makes the judgement that something is a work of art 'baseless and capricious' (p. 424).

3 Plato, Euthyphro, in The Last Days of Socrates, (trans.) Hugh Tredennick (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1969), p. 28.

4 Ibid., p. 31.

5 Davies makes this point. See Definitions of Art, pp. 22of.

6 This sort of point is frequently made by Arthur Danto whose views have much in common with the institutional theory. (A difference between Danto and institutional theorists is that Danto believes that the artworld needs to use a theory in conferring arthood.) See, for example, 'Artworks and Real Things', Theoria, Vol. 39 (1973), p. 9. Davies is an institutional theorist who recognizes the historical nature of arthood. See Definitions of Art, pp. 9off.

7 This sort of thought experiment was introduced by Hilary Putnam. See 'The Meaning of "Meaning"', in his Mind, Language and Reality (Cambridge U. P., 1975).

James O. Young, Philosophy Department, University of Victoria, PO Box 3045, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 3P4, Canada.

JAMES O. YOUNG is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. He publishes on philosophy of language as well as aesthetics and his book Global Anti-Realism is forthcoming.
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Author:Young, James O.
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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