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?

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17 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.

      1. Keith Laban

        Rob, yes, interesting that we both signed off with virtually the same statement.

        Can you imagine a world with an “objective standard for art”?

        Let me out…

  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.

    1. Dan Newell

      The Leiter foundation is releasing The Unseen Saul Leiter next month. His Foundation has been releasing new works over time….should be interesting.

      1. Rob Campbell

        Thanks, Dan, I’ll hold my purchasing fire until I get to see a preview of the forthcoming book. I really do hope they turn out to be pictures I have not already bought. My X’mas gift to myself 😉


      2. Rob Campbell

        Hi Dan,

        Just ordered it today from Amazon in Spain. They should send me a free print of choice now, having bought a few of his books!

        Thanks for the early warning to the credit card. 😉

  3. Brian Sweeney

    Art is in the eye of the beholder. I post a lot of lens tests when converting Sonnars to Leica mount and correcting the focus on a J-3. I’ve had a couple of requests to use the photo. Yes, on the condition that you agree to me terms: “Free, Eternal until the end of time, Irrevocable rights, you cannot just delete the photo- you must keep it in some form”. A lot of Web Site owners would like my terms.

  4. Dan Newell

    I can comment as I am of the Pollock Clan (the other side of it) so I have been accorded special dispensation to establish that it is Art.

    One might say that I have no criteria for the endorsement….but nay, you would be wrong.

    #1-good color palette
    #2-you knew when to stop
    #3-you had no idea what to do so you just started and let it fly (yeah, I know, it could have been shit but it isn’t)

    So, there you go, direct from Pollock DNA Land (yes, we all drink).

  5. EdB

    I’ve no idea if your painting is “Art” or not. I do know I quite like it. That is enough for me.

    Greatest thanks for your continuation,

    1. Dan Newell

      It’s probably related to where you’re coming from…..

      Here’s a picture of “Indian Wall Art”

      So at first glance it looks like somebody got into the peyote jar and went to town. Turns out that it’s a planting schedule based on a sundial principle. See that rock projecting out at about 12:30? That was put there to create shadow. That shadow falls down on various symbols during various solstice periods to help guide the planting of beans, squash and corn.

      So, one mans art is another man’s planting schedule.

  6. John Mellor

    On Institutionalism and Art: Meet Andres Valencia. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/26/style/andres-valencia-art-paintings.html

    Not content to produce a snapshot that 40 years later ends up on some poster in a former Soviet republic, he, at age 10, is minting a mint in the here and now. Where the quaint claim that art is an artifact plus an institution, Valencia proves the point where hypercapitalism meets anything in this world, it turns art into not just a commodity but an investment vehicle.

    He’s producing cubism folks, whether or not cubism is at all a vital theme in painting in the last 90 years. And that’s because, armed with lawyer parents’ money and ambition, he’s got a marketing machine behind him. It makes you feel sorry, and long for the days when some kids could dress up in Batman Halloween masks, snap a few photos, and grow up learning a craft… or if you want to be hoighty-toighty about it: an art.

  7. Rob Campbell

    Well, John, I can only say that I wish I’d had a marketing machine behind me, too. Retirement would have come without the worry about keeping up with inflation. As it was, I discovered that I’d wasted time, money and chunks of my life trying to build up a stock photography catalogue in order to help the pension provide for myself now, as an old guy.

    Whether it’s art or anything else, marketing makes it flourish today. I’m not sure that it has ever been any different, either, and certainly not during my lifetime. What I do believe is that the speed and growth of information technology in the past thirty or so years has helped enormously those with both the instinct for publicity, as well as with the understanding of new media outlet systems.

    There was always a public interest in the lives of music, screen and stage personalities, and what has happened recently is that that interest has been pandered to via social media to an extent that former PR units could only dream about. Best of all, there is a huge reservoir of impressionable young minds wallowing in all this guff for free. These publicists are selling their product to an eager audience that can’t get enough. My daughter and her husband are both school teachers; I’m told that some kids, when asked about career dreams, say they want to be famous, and to be influencers… quite what they have to offer in order to become famed is, apparently, beside the point. Maybe it’s the kids who have got it right.

    1. John Mellor

      Wanting a good retirement is all well and good. We should try to build a world with a little less precariousness.

      But it’s not art. The precariousness of early 21st century and the financialization of Everything, including this poor 10 year old is something to abhor.

      To say this is the way it always has been is to miss the point. The point it has always been something akin to this, but there’s a vast difference between Medicis and what we got here.

      1. Rob Campbell

        Well, the Medici family was composed of successful bankers, using “art” and artists as a means to buying a place in heaven. That they were brilliant politicians, who managed to be so without holding office, says something about their skills that has perhaps inspired today’s billionaires… maybe Trump’s cardinal sin was to break cover and assume office, rather than peddle influence in the shadows in the normal manner we have all come to expect.

        Much the same is going down, quite brazenly now, in Britain and Italy, where the front men and women in politics are all seen to be beholden to small cliques that decide who will be proffered as candidate.

        Brexit was such an event, where public lack of depth of imagination led to slow suicide by a thousand cuts: I live on a Spanish island that is hugely popular with Brit tourists: you’d be amazed that so many of those find it surprising that they, now, post-Brexit, can no longer just waltz into Spain without any seriously applied controls at the points of entry. It beggars belief of how little some know about travel beyond their own patch. Their indignation would be amusing were it not so indicative of what’s amiss with the general public’s sense of reality. The last thing the public seems to desire is a political figure who speaks the truth; it seems it desires to put in place only those who sell the unfiltered oil of snake. But then that goes back to biblical times…

        As I mentioned before, I honestly think that all you are seeing today is nothing more than the fruit of accelerated levels of communication. Repeat something often enough on social media and it becomes fact, reputations no less so. How else can one account for the phenomenon of influencers, where especially in photography, having only feet of clay would have been a bonus?

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