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Winter, 2006

Aesthetics Doesn't Exist

The Institutional Theory of Art

Unlike the title suggests aesthetics does exist, but only as a tradition in philosophy. There is no aesthetic value. It doesn't exist as an actual quality.

In the 20th century aesthetics, like so many traditions, was eclipsed by positivism and analytic philosophy. No self-respecting postmodernist is going to talk about aesthetics--it's nothing but subjective value judgments. Today's philosopher is only concerned with the facts on the ground. Today's philosopher respects science--not the mysteries.

Aesthetics is for earlier generations. Volumes have been written trying to define "beauty." Not surprisingly, everyone from Aristotle to John Dewey basically just championed the accepted art of their unique cultures. Even Clement Greenberg, though not concerned with beauty, claimed art should strive for exactly what his drinking buddies were doing.

Contemporary aestheticians take for granted that art is an historical construct. That's why so much being written today has a Marxist or feminist bent. A Marxist philosopher might argue that the entire history of art is nothing but just another method for the nasty oligarchs to keep a brother down. But the stoner at the craft fair selling pottery isn't out to exploit the unwashed masses. Marxist and feminist theories are primarily historical and don't sufficiently explain the artwork being produced today.

So how can we determine the value of a work of art if we can't talk about things like beauty and harmony without facing the ridicule of the analytic philosophers?

The answer is provided by Arthur Danto in his book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace . The "commonplace" could be Duchamp's snow shovel or Warhol's Brillo boxes. The "transfiguration" is when these everyday objects become accepted as art. Danto, like most aestheticians today, finds his answer in the institutional theory of art. An object becomes a work of art when the artworld, consisting of curators, gallery owners, artists, critics, etc., agrees that it is. That's it.

The analytic philosopher's are thrilled. No metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. Art is art because we agree it's art and it's worth whatever you can get for it.

Fine and dandy but guess what--Danto's doing just what philosophers have always done. He's only rationalizing the art of his own time and culture.

This is why the whole aesthetics thing is so slippery. Aristotle wouldn't recognize Duchamp's snow shovel as art at all. The postmodernists and multi-culturists are right that it's just a cultural construct. Furthermore, the analytic philosophers might make the point that "art" is just another one of those meaningless words. But actually art does exist. . . I've seen it. If you must have a theory, the institutional theory, with its obvious contradictions, is the best we've got. And we shall, like in science, abandon it if a more compelling theory comes along.

Britannica Online defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others."

At the time of this writing Wikipedia defines art as "something that visually stimulates an individual's thoughts, emotions, beliefs or ideas. I did your mom up the ass and this page is mine I did your mom up the ass and this page is mine I did your mom up the ass and this page is mine I did your...etc. etc." (God bless Web 2.0)

Despite its dominance the institutional theory has many problems. Who exactly is to decide what's art and what's not? Mel Ramsden, in a white paper published by Tate Modern and the School of Fine Art at Central Saint Martins College, addresses this problem. Ramsden takes the example of Velasquez's Las Meninas and claims that that work of art "outranks the institution." He seems to want to claim that Las Meninas has some innate characteristic that would make it a work of art notwithstanding how people qualify it. In the same paper Michael Baldwin gives an example of what he feels "would of a kind that the artworld would find intolerable: David Shepherd's elephants."

David Shepherd considers himself an artist. He paints in oil on canvas and sells in conventional art galleries. So according to the eggheads at Tate Modern, it's not just any old art institution that can call the shots--it's guys like themselves.

Let's get real. A lot of the bureaucrats appointed by politicians to run museums and give away our tax dollars are in over their heads. Check out the credentials of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. I'd be surprised if a single one of them has even heard of the institutional theory.

To end at the beginning we have to go back to Aristotle. Aristotle would only have recognized painting, sculpture, poetry, drama and architecture as art. He would see today's conceptual art as just a bunch of crazy people setting fire to insects or videotaping their anuses. It is true that all art is an historical construct; but traditions have a way of creating their own value systems. These value systems are internally valid. A painting or sculpture can be assigned a relative value compared to other similar work within the same tradition.

Stephen Smith