January 12, 2010

Critical Fragments: Definitions

“A work of art…is (1) an artifact (2) a set of the aspects of which has had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation by some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld).”(1)

Not forgetting that the “social institution” of the artworld consists of sister institutions (museums, art schools, commercial art galleries), we could safely say that an object’s “institutional” definition as a “work of art” depends utterly on this system of institutional analysis. These systems make up the parameters by which we address an object’s intentions by way of its maker’s conceptual definitions framed within the institutional analysis. What the maker intends is thus enveloped within these institutional systems and runs a kind of critical gauntlet before it attains “institutional validation.”

I think it relevant to distinguish between “institutional validation” and “definition” here. An object’s status as a “work of art” is dependent upon its “institutional” validation” but is still extraneous to its true “definition” as art. Although “institutional validation” seems to confer a measure of “success,” one can tally countless artists that never attained either institutional favor or success in their lifetimes. Their measure of “worth” as artists was surely “defined” by themselves, if not by others that they knew during life, and we assume they continued making art, regardless of whether they made a living at it, for other reasons. Their reasons for “being” and for making rest with themselves. As the “social institution” of the artworld plays “catch up” and validates those “starving artists,” our perception of their artwork falls under the institutional spell of canonization which effectually colors the art’s “definition.”

So what is art? David Carrier has written that the determination of art is established by historical precedence. We now know that history is yet another “institutional” system, not a “fixed” ordering of events but time as manipulated through texts. Books, journals, newspapers and now digital media “report” on events not objectively but through the filters of agenda, bias and taste. One cannot rely on “fact” being ascertained through either an appearance in “print” or photograph.

The supposed determination and definition of art remains in question. It is fraught with perplexities, rife with controversy, fading in age. We are temporarily dazed by the spectacular, infatuated with the new, titillated by the glitz. We have forgotten that there used to be reasons for making art, that the art object was eviscerated, that artists had challenged the very institutions that granted them access. What is left now is to eradicate the dross and exhume the body; to conduct a thorough and unapologetic autopsy of art and its definition once again.


1. Dickie, George. Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis, Ithaca, 1974, 34.

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