But Is It Art?

Some time in the late nineties I encountered this photo on a poster advertising an “Art Exhibit” in Brno, Czech Republic. It caught my eye because it was my photo, taken of some neighbor kids when I was 12 or 13. Aside from the issue of how some art gallery half way around the world had found the inclination and means to steal my photo and use it for their purposes was the issue of how a kid’s snapshot had become “Art.”

The Institutional Theory of Art

The simplest answer, what’s referred to by critics as the “Institutional Theory” of Art, is that all something must do to become “Art” is to possesses two qualities 1) It must be an artifact i.e. something that’s been worked on; and 2) it must have the status of “Art” bestowed upon it by some member of the ‘art world,’ e.g. gallery owner, collector, critic etc. Ultimately, what qualifies something as “Art” is the attitude of the art community towards it. In other words, there’s no one feature the artifact must exhibit to be considered “Art”. My photo above became “Art” because some gallery owner or curator presented it as such. Cool. I’m an Artist.

The criticism of the Institutional Theory is that it doesn’t explain why the art community bestows the status of “Art” on certain objects and not others i.e. there’s no objective standard for “Art”, just the subjective opinion of some guy with a degree from some ‘Art Institute’ somewhere. Why my photo and not a velvet wall hanging of dogs playing poker or Thorstein Overgaard’s remarkable photographs of happy people at parades? [I can still make fun of people even though I’m dying, right?]


Above is a painting that hangs in my house. I did it. I consider it “Art”, if for no other reason than other people who visit me refer to it as “Art” (“Nice painting; is that a Pollock?”). Why? Frankly, it has little to nothing in common with the photo above who someone in Brno decided was “Art.” Do they have anything in common? I might claim it to be “Art” but that doesn’t matter because I’m not a person whose opinion carries any significant weight in determining whether its “Art” or not. According to the Institutional Theory, the painting isn’t “Art” because it’s not been accepted as such by the appropriate persons. It’s not hanging in a gallery. Instead, it’s hanging on the wall of my house. So, we’ve got a snapshot with no pretensions to “Art” being labeled “Art” and a painting meant to be “Art’ by its maker that isn’t considered “Art” under the ruling Art Theory.

So, am I an “Artist” or aren’t I. And if so, why? And if not, Why?

4 thoughts on “But Is It Art?

  1. Keith Laban

    Apologies, this will inevitably be somewhat of a ramble, asking more questions than giving answers, drawing as it does on our experiences within a particular oeuvre.

    My wife worked as an art therapist, working with adults with learning difficulties. Unsurprising then that we both admire so called ‘Outsider Art’ and value the examples we have in our home. Some have been sourced directly from the people who created them, people who have never been considered to be artists or associated with the ‘Art Market’, considered by many to be outside conventional society, others have been bought from art galleries, exhibited as artworks by artists.

    One of our works, bought in Morocco, created by a fisherman who spends half of his life stoned out of his mind in his small boat in the Atlantic Ocean – obvious when you see the work – and the other half of his life stoned out of his mind producing what are considered taboo works by many of the Muslim faith. Fisherman, outsider artist or artist?

    Can ‘Outsider Art’ have veracity and credibility when associated with commerce and the Art Market?

    Hirst said – and I paraphrase – “art is what is exhibited in an art gallery”. I’d prefer, art is merely the subjective opinion of the individual, regardless of who they are or what they do.

    1. Rob Campbell

      Keith –

      Your post wasn’t visible when I wrote mine.

      Interesting, then, that both of us, having spent our working lives in one or another branch of the creative industry, independently sum it up as opinion.

      I believe that musicians face the very same problems of both perception and, consequently, of acceptance, and the elusive payoff their talent might reasonably be expected to bring with it. If anything, I kinda suspect their lot to be a lot more difficult.

  2. Rob Campbell

    Jean Loup Sieff, in his last, and eponymous book published by Taschen just prior to the author’s death, writes on the subject in manner most scathing, pouring vitriol over the heads of the bearded gents who run the art circus from the thrones of their self-appointed authority, its views and pronouncements. That, from a photographer with a very long history of photographic exhibitions of his work. He clearly despised the breed.

    He must unavoidably have known many of them in his lifetime, whereas I have not. I see no reason to challenge his opinion.

    I have always had the suspicion that art (especially where photography comes into it) has been taken over by speculators and collectors with sacks of money, seeking alternative securities to those traditionally offered by the banks. I can find no other convincing reason for the success of either Goldin or Arbus, to name but two that fit into such a classification, a classification which, I hasten to add, is only my own. I guess that I make that judgement by simply having no desire to be able to produce similar “work” myself. On the other hand, there are quite a few photographers whose images, not classified under the art banner, I would be delighted to imagine had been produced by myself.

    Even the use of the word work makes me feel slightly uncomfortable when it’s applied to such photographs. The trouble it, it’s a word that has been used so much in the photographic context, that I find it all to easy to resort to its use too. My discomfort, I suppose, stems from the fact that “work” almost suggests a touch of something noble in the exercise of whatever has had that word applied to it. Patently, very little modern photography is deserving of that slight whiff of reverence that I feel the word implies.

    One of my favourite photographers, since I discovered him back in the day in a ‘59 Pop Phot Annual, is Saul Leiter. If memory serves, the feature was titled something close to A Painter’s View of New York. I remember the photos of models looking out through the windows of those horse-drawn carriages… so unlike any fashion photography I’d seen before. He then vanished from my radar except for a brief appearance in Nova magazine. The next time he surfaced in my pond was when I discovered the bounty of the Internet and, thus, his books.

    Which draws, for me, a kind of parallel to your own question as to why one example of your imagery was deemed art, and the other not: much within the Leiter books that I own, as with those I have only seen as reviews on the web, contain pictures I feel undoubtedly qualify as photographic art, but others simply as examples of not particularly wonderful photography. I guess that all of us have feet of clay, but when something is commercially hot, it gets pushed out to increase the volume, much as was the case with LPs, where you’d often be lucky to find three good numbers out of ten or twelve tracks.

    I guess that it’s all basically a subjective call: if you like it it’s art, and if you don’t then it’s not.


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