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?