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Wollheim's dilemma.

I turn very belatedly to an argument that Richard Wollheim in 1980(1) set out against the institutional theory of art as it was presented in my Art and the Aesthetic in 1974.(2) I do so at this late date because philosophers continue to refer to the argument and apparently regard it as a definitive refutation of the institutional theory--a sort of killer argument on the model of the Monty Python killer joke. I consider this argument in spite of the fact that I no longer hold the 1974 version of the institutional theory. I think Wollheim's argument is completely spurious, and further I think it is important to clarify the issue in case anyone thinks his argument applies to the later version of the institutional theory.(3)

Wollheim begins the article in which the argument at issue occurs by denying that there are evaluative and other senses of `work of art'--senses that I had tried to distinguish. He claims that what I called senses of the term are cases of ellipsis and metaphor. He writes that what my examples `show is that "art" is often used idiomatically or in ways which cannot be understood simply on the basis of knowing its primary meaning' (my italics).(4) Whether there are different senses or simply cases of ellipsis and metaphor here is not important, as Wollheim's remark about primary meaning shows; the institutional theory has always been an attempt to deal with what Wollheim calls the primary meaning of `work of art'. Whether there are evaluative or other senses of `work of art' or whether there are only ellipses and metaphors, it is the primary meaning of `work of art' that is at issue. (Whether a given usage of a word is metaphorical or has a new sense depends, I suppose, on whether or not a metaphor has recently died.)

I turn now to Wollheim's argument. His argument takes the form of a dilemma. He writes:

Is it to be presumed that those who confer status upon some artifact do so

for good reasons, or is there no such presumption? Might they have no

reason, or bad reasons, and yet their action be efficacious given that they

themselves have the right status--that is, they represent the artworld?(5)

If, Wollheim claims, the institutionalist takes the first horn of the dilemma, his theory is not institutional, but if he takes the second horn it is not a theory of art.(6) Taking the first horn, Wollheim argues, would make the theory non-institutional because it would be the possession of the characteristic referred to by the good reason that makes the artefact a work of art. As far as I can tell Wollheim never says or indicates why taking the second horn would prevent the theory from being a theory of art.

There is a difficulty with the way the second horn of the dilemma is stated. I have never claimed that anyone has a status of representing the artworld. I have previously argued(7) against a more exaggerated form of this misrepresentation of the institutional theory in Wollheim's, Painting as an Art.(8) In this book, he caricatures the institutional theory as holding that there are artworld representatives who are nominated and have meetings to confer the status of art. In Art and the Aesthetic, I did speak of a person (an artist) acting on behalf of the artworld to confer the status of candidate for appreciation because of his or her imagination and because of his or her knowledge of the artworld. I did not say that the status of candidate for appreciation is conferred because of a status that a person has. Perhaps the dilemma could be rewritten as:

Is it to be presumed that those who confer status upon some artifact do so

for good reasons, or is there no such presumption? Might they have no

reason, or bad reasons, and yet their action be efficacious given that they

themselves have the requisite knowledge and imagination.

Having stated the alleged dilemma, Wollheim begins a discussion of the first horn.

If the representatives of the artworld, setting out to confer status upon an

artifact, are effective only if they have certain reasons which justify

their selection of this rather than that artifact, does it not look as

though what it is for an artifact to be a work of art is for it to satisfy

these reasons? But, if this is so, then what the representatives of the

artworld do is inappropriately called `conferment' of status: what they do

is to `confirm' or `recognize' status in that the artifact enjoys the

status prior to their action: and the consequence is that reference to

their action ought to drop out of the definition of art as at best

inessential.(9)

In this passage, Wollheim writes as if the institutional theory conceives of all artmaking as proceeding in the way that Duchamp made his readymades--by the `selection of this rather than that artifact'. This is misleading. The institutional theory conceives of the great bulk of art-making as proceeding in the traditional ways of painting, sculpting, and so on; it just pictures these procedures as taking place within a certain institutional framework. In any event, Wollheim queries in an assertive manner, `does it not look as though what it is for an artifact to be a work of art is for it to satisfy these reasons?' For him, to have a good reason means to note that an artefact has a certain characteristic, and having that characteristic is what is solely responsible for the artefact's being a work of art. But then after the just quoted passage, he raises the possibility that (i) having a good reason for conferring the status and (ii) the conferring of status are both necessary for making art. Wollheim, however, then immediately rejects this possibility and concludes:

Of course, in the absence of any account of what these reasons are or are

likely to be the issue cannot be settled, but it is hard to see how there

could be reasons putatively for making an artifact a work of art which were

not better thought of as reasons for its being one.(10)

Since Wollheim raises the issue of good reasons, it is puzzling that he does not give at least a brief account of 'what these reasons are or are likely to be'. He does not give even one example of what he has in mind but just keeps referring indeterminately to good reasons. In any event, Wollheim's conclusion is clearly that it is the characteristic referred to by a good reason alone that makes something a work of art and that, therefore, no kind of institutional action is involved in artmaking

In order for this sub-argument concerning the first horn of the dilemma to be persuasive, the last sentence quoted would have to be backed up with further argument or be obviously clinching, which it is not. Wollheim, however, drops this point and changes the subject. First, with regard to his quoted comment concerning reasons, the discussion should be about making an artefact a candidate for appreciation, not about making one a work of art. My actual view in 1974 was that there are two necessary conditions that are jointly sufficient for making a work of art: (i) the producing of an artefact and (ii) the conferring of the candidacy for appreciation. Wollheim is aware of the distinction that I made between being a candidate for appreciation and being a work of art because he specifically alludes to it, saying that for institutionalists `The status conferred is, more specifically, that of being a candidate for appreciation.'(11) When setting out his arguments, however, he ignores my actually stated views and writes as if the 1974 version of the institutional theory involves the conferring of the status of work of art. I have in the following tried to deal with this misrepresentation by using the disjunction `candidate of appreciation or work of art'. Second, his quoted comment concerning reasons is clearly wrong; there could be all sorts of reasons for making an artefact a work of art or for conferring candidacy for appreciation on it that would not be reasons for the artefact's being a work of art or a candidate for appreciation. For example, an artist might have as a good reason for creating a particular work of art or candidate for appreciation that it is intended to promote a particular moral point of view. Let it be assumed that the work of art or candidate for appreciation when created does promote the particular moral point of view. While this is a perfectly good reason for crafting a work of art or candidate for appreciation, intending it to promote a particular moral point of view or actually promoting a particular moral point of view is not something that is responsible for its being a work of art or a candidate for appreciation in, for example, the way crafting is responsible for its being a work of art or a candidate for appreciation. (I am not assuming that crafting alone is responsible for something's being a work of art or a candidate for appreciation. I do not think that it is.) Crafting a work of art or a candidate for appreciation to realize certain aesthetic qualities would be another typical good reason for such creation, but neither intending the created object to realize these aesthetic qualities nor actually realizing the aesthetic qualities is what is responsible for its being a work of art or candidate for appreciation in, for example, the way crafting is. (Again, I am not saying that crafting alone is the whole story.) Works of non-art can self-consciously be made by their creators intending these two good reasons and realizing them without either the reasons in mind or the corresponding characteristics in the artefact making or even tending to make their creations into works of art or artworld candidates for appreciation. For example, a religious person might write a tract with the intention of promoting a particular moral point of view and realize this end, or a tool designer might create a wrench to have certain aesthetic qualities and realize this end. In neither of these two cases would the good reasons in the makers' minds or the corresponding characteristics in the artefacts make or tend to make the created objects into works of art or artworld candidates for appreciation. Wollheim's sub-argument about the first horn of the dilemma just stops in mid-air, drawing an invalid conclusion without any argument. (I remind the reader that in speaking of conferring candidacy for appreciation here I am, for purposes of argument, stepping back into a theory that I no longer hold.)

There are some other good reasons that are worth considering briefly. These are reasons that have figured in various theories of art: the desire to produce a representation, the desire to express an emotion, and so on. These reasons and their corresponding characteristics in artefacts fail as art-making for the same reason that the earlier reasons and corresponding characteristics do, because the desires and these corresponding characteristics can be satisfied and realized by the production of non-art.

After concluding his argument about the first horn of the dilemma, Wollheim challenges the institutionalist to give `some independent evidence . . . for what the representatives of the artworld allegedly do' and to `point to positive practices, conventions, or rules, which are all explicit in the . . . artworld'.(12) He writes of the evidence of the kind of artworld actions that he thinks the institutionalist might have in mind:

This need not be evidence for some altogether new action on their part. It

could be evidence that a new description is true of some already identified

action: that commissioning a piece of music, buying a painting for a

gallery, writing a monograph on a sculpture should be redescribed as acts

conferring the status of art upon certain artifacts.(13)

This last quotation shows how badly Wollheim has misunderstood what I said in Art and the Aesthetic. I was trying to give an account of what goes on when art is created by artists. He seems to think I might have been talking about activities such as commissioning music and buying paintings as art-making--activities that revolve around artists and art-making at some considerable distance.

Near the end of his article Wollheim returns to a discussion of the first horn of the dilemma. He says there is a sub-argument that forces an institutionalist to take the first horn of the dilemma, so that the institutionalist `has to say that the conferment of the status of work of art [read candidate for appreciation] upon an artifact depends upon good reasons, with the consequence that conferment ceases to be an essential feature of art and so drops out of the definition of art'.(14) Before examining the sub-argument that the institutionalist must accept the goodreasons alternative, consider whether Wollheim's supposed consequence really follows. He says that if good reasons are necessary for conferring the status of arthood or candidacy for appreciation, then conferring drops out as a necessary condition of art or candidacy for appreciation. Consider a parallel case. Presumably having a good reason is required for a king or queen to confer a knighthood. Say that a man has had knighthood conferred on him because he is believed to have slain a dragon. Believing the man to be a dragon-slayer is the good reason that he has had knighthood conferred on him, but he would not be a knight if a king or queen had not conferred the status on him. The conferring does not `drop out' as a necessary part of becoming a knight because it is done for a good reason. That conferring `drops out' if a good reason is necessary is just false as a generalization. I do not claim that Wollheim holds such a generalization, but I do not see any reason to think that having a good reason for conferring candidacy for appreciation (or art status) would cause conferring to 'drop out' as necessary in the case of art-making, if, as I thought it was in 1974, conferring were involved in art-making.

Now back to the sub-argument that supposedly forces the institutionalist to accept the good-reasons alternative. Wollheim's argument is that in presenting something as a candidate for appreciation, the presenter must have in mind something about the presented thing that he wants to be appreciated and what he has in mind is what Wollheim is calling a `good reason'.(15) It is certainly true that in the creation of art over almost all of its history artists have had good reasons in Wollheim's sense. There are many, many things that artists have wanted appreciated about their art--its aesthetic qualities, its political statement, its moral vision, its stylish verve, and so on and on. But after the practice of art-making, with good reasons invariably present, had been in place for long time, it occurred to Duchamp and his ilk that they could present candidates for appreciation within the framework of the artworld that they did not expect anyone to appreciate--i.e. they presented them in defiance of the usual good reasons. What Duchamp's readymades show is that candidacy for appreciation can be conferred and art created without the usual good reasons. There is perhaps a further analogy between art-making and knight-making. In the days when monarchs had absolute power there were no doubt cases in which the monarch conferred knighthood on persons without having a good reason, while, of course, pretending to have one. The real (bad) reason might be that the person was an old, boyhood friend or the like. Despite the lack of a good reason, such persons would still be knights. I do not wish to suggest that Duchamp had absolute power in the artworld as a monarch had in the political world, but he certainly had the power to be noticed.

But let it be assumed for the sake of argument that readymades are not art and that artists always have had and always will have a good reason for conferring candidacy for appreciation and for making art. What is the significance of having a good reason? Earlier, Wollheim seemed to be claiming that it is the good reason that makes something a candidate for appreciation or art. This was shown to be invalid because non-art can be created with all the same good reasons. What, then, would be the significance of the fact, if it were a fact, that artists always have a good reason for conferring candidacy for appreciation or making art? None, I think, other than the fact that people typically like to have a good reason for what they do, and in a highly regularized activity such as art-making it should not be surprising if there were always a good reason for carrying on the activity. I suppose it was this feature of art-making that made the shenanigans of Duchamp and company so upsetting to so many.

Wollheim's sub-argument concerning the first horn of the dilemma fails at every juncture. There are all sorts of reasons for making an artefact a work of art or a candidate for appreciation that are not reasons for its being a work of art or a candidate for appreciation. Moreover, having a good reason for conferring arthood or candidacy for appreciation such as intending to realize certain aesthetic qualities, promote a moral point of view, and the like is not what makes an artwork art or something a candidate for appreciation. Also, there is no justification for thinking that having a good reason would cause conferring to 'drop out' as essential, if conferring were involved in art-making.

I turn now to the second horn of Wollheim's dilemma. He quite correctly thinks that an institutionalist will not willingly choose the first horn and will prefer the second. He writes that an institutionalist will deny

that the representatives of the artworld need to have good reasons for

conferring the appropriate status upon an artifact. All that is required

(he [the institutionalist] will say) is that they themselves have the

appropriate status: to require more is to betray a serious confusion. The

confusion would be between the conditions under which something is (or

becomes) a work of art and the conditions under which a work of art is a

good work of art. To assert that something is a work of art depends,

directly or indirectly, only upon status: by contrast, to assert that a

work of art is a good work of art does require to be backed up by reasons,

and it receives no support from status.(16)

Now as earlier, Wollheim in the passage quoted does not have the second horn stated correctly, but in 1980 I certainly would have chosen the second horn if it asserted that something's being a candidate for appreciation depends on its being conferred by someone with the relevant imagination and knowledge, i.e. someone filling the role of artist. Even if it were the case that there is always a good reason when candidacy for appreciation is conferred, I would choose the second horn in the sense that I would claim that it is not the good reason but the conferring's taking place within the relevant institutional setting that is responsible for the candidate for appreciation becoming an artworld candidate. So, Wollheim has put the wrong words into my mouth. My choice was not driven by an attempt to avoid a confusion between being art and being good art; my choice was driven by the desire to describe the process by which art is created, which I then thought involved (in part) the conferring of the candidacy for appreciation. Once it has been shown that, even if there is always a good reason, the institutionalist is not forced to say that it is having a good reason that makes something a candidate for appreciation or an artwork, then the second alternative, as I have rewritten it, is not a horn of a dilemma but a perfectly acceptable alternative. Candidacy for appreciation can be conferred and art made independently of having a good reason, even if there is always a good reason. I can accept both horns of Wollheim's dilemma as I have reformulated it. I came to believe that the 1974 account of the institutional theory was wrong but not for the reasons that Wollheim gives.

Wollheim is right on one point; I did then and do now want to avoid confusing being art and being good art. Wollheim apparently thinks it is a mistake to try to distinguish between being art and being good art; he says that making this distinction violates two powerful intuitions that we have. The first intuition appears to be embodied in his assertion, `it seems a well-entrenched thought that reflection upon the nature of art has an important part to play in determining the standards by which works of art are evaluated'.(17) If the imitation, the expression, or some such theory of the nature of art were true, then Wollheim's claim would be justified. For example, if the nature of art were imitation, then reflection would no doubt reveal that the better the imitation, the better the art. The intuition Wollheim is appealing to here is a theory-laden one. Everything thus depends upon the nature that is to be reflected on when the nature of art is reflected on. Wollheim's first `intuition' simply assumes that some particular theory of art other than the institutional theory is true and thereby begs the question. The second intuition `is that there is something important to the status of being a work of art . . . [and] if works of art derive their status from conferment, and the status may be conferred for no good reason, the importance of the status is placed in serious doubt'.(18) The status of being a work of art is important, and the reason is that the class of works of art contains a large number of very valuable items. The class of works of art also contains many works that are mediocre, and many that are bad, and this is the reason that I wish to distinguish between being art and being good art. It is necessary that we have a way to talk about mediocre and bad art.

At the end of his essay, Wollheim comments that the institutionalists have made too much of Duchamp. He writes that institutionalists

have been deeply impressed by the phenomenon of Marcel Duchamp and his

readymades . . . . It certainly would be a total misunderstanding of

Duchamp's intentions ... to think that the existence of readymades requires

aesthetic theory to be reformulated in such a way as to represent an object

like Fontaine as a central case of a work of art. On the contrary, it seems

more like an extra condition of adequacy upon a contemporary aesthetic

theory that objects like Duchamp's readymades, which are heavily ambiguous,

highly provocative, and altogether ironical in their relationship to art,

should have this overall characteristic preserved within the theory, or

that the theory should be sufficiently sophisticated to recognize such

special cases as what they are.(19)

A number of comments are in order here. First, the institutional theory is not an aesthetic theory, it is a theory of art. Second, the theory does not claim that readymades are central cases of works of art; it regards them as works of art that are useful in revealing the matrix in which works of art exist because readymades lack the usual interesting features of art. In Wollheim's terms, the institutional theory regards readymades as works of art that exist independently of the usual good reasons. I have even suggested the possibility that they are not works of art but are revealing in the relevant way because some people mistakenly believed them to be art.(20) (Of course, this last point was made four years after Wollheim's piece was published.) Finally, I have always been aware that readymades are ambiguous, provocative, ironical, and are special cases. I doubt that anyone thinks that there cannot be ambiguous, provocative and ironical art or art that is a special case in some way.

(1) Richard Wollheim, Art and Its Objects, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1980), pp. 157-166.

(2) George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U.P., 1974), PP. 19-52.

(3) George Dickie, The Art Circle (New York: Haven Publications, 1984; republished Evanston, IL: Chicago Spectrum Press, 1997).

(4) Wollheim, Art and Its Objects, p. 159.

(5) Ibid., p. 160.

(6) Ibid., p. 164.

(7) George Dickie, `An Artistic Misunderstanding', Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Winter, 1993), pp. 69-71.

(8) Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (Princeton, NJ., Princeton U.P., 1987), pp. 213-215.

(9) Wollheim, Art and its Objects, pp. 160-161.

(10) Ibid., pp. 161-162.

(11) Ibid., p. 164.

(12) Ibid., p. 162.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid., p. 164.

(15) Ibid., p. 165.

(16) Ibid., pp. 162-163.

(17) Ibid., p. 163.

(18) Ibid., p. 163-164.

(19) Ibid., pp. 165-166 (my italics).

(20) Dickie, The Art Circle, p. 63.

George Dickie, 5901 N. Sheridan Road, Apt 9A, Chicago, IL 60660, USA.
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Title Annotation:Richard Wollheim, institutional theory of art
Author:Dickie, George
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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