PRINT October 1999




To the Editor:
In his review of the new Clement Greenberg collection [“Peachy Cobbler,” Summer ’99], Thierry de Duve misstated George Dickie’s Institutional Theory of Art. According to Dickie, an object qualifies as art if two conditions are met: (1) it is an artifact (human-made), and (2) it is held up as candidate for appreciation by a member of the institution called the “artworld.” This was offered as an alternative to those attempts, ultimately unsuccessful, to define art using exhibited qualities only. De Duve’s statement, “Of course, the institutionalization of the art world was only just taking off in the early ’70s,” is not strictly correct, because as long as art galleries, art museums, art collectors, art critics, and artists constituted an art economy, the institution itself was alive and functioning way before the ’70s. But why was this perceived as a “danger” by Greenberg, and why should we perceive it that way? He was an integral part of that institution, as are critics writing today.

Alfred Jan
Santa Clara, CA

Thierry de Duve responds:
Did I misstate George Dickie’s Institutional Theory of Art when I said that it “basically defines as art anything the art institution calls art”? Well, here is Dickie’s well-known definition of a work of art, from Art and the Aesthetic: “A work of art in the classificatory sense 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).” The definition is circular, as is my elliptical (no pun intended) account of it. Dickie argues that it is not “viciously circular” because “the circle [he has] run is not small and it is not uninformative.” What information does it actually contain that would ruin the short version? Artifactuality can be conferred on natural objects such as driftwood “at the same time that the status of candidate for appreciation is conferred on them.” So much for condition number one. Condition number two, candidacy for appreciation, is a status—not that simple a notion, we might think. The status in question is simply what results from “treating an artifact as a candidate for appreciation.” Certainly, appreciation must be the important and informative word. “All that is meant by ‘appreciation’ in the definition is something like ‘in experiencing the qualities of a thing one finds them worthy or valuable.’” No doubt, everything will hinge on those qualities. Aspects is the key word. The relevant ones are “the aspects of a work of art which belong to the object of criticism and/or appreciation.” And so on: The definition is not “referring to a special kind of aesthetic appreciation”; the candidacy for appreciation “does not require that a work of art actually be appreciated”; etc. Dickie’s theory of art is one zoo-page-long tautology. The joke, really, is that there was no need at all for an institutional theory. Dickie’s definition is redeemed when, after having succinctly listed the members of what he calls the loosely organized core personnel of the art world, he adds: “In addition, every person who sees himself as a member of the artworld is thereby a member." I have indeed been unfair to Dickie: “The institutional theory of art may sound like saying, ‘A work of art is an object of which someone has said “I christen this object a work of art.”’” If this is what the institutional theory boils down to, then it looks very much like the one I myself upheld in Kant after Duchamp. But I’m afraid no one ever perceived the institutional theory like this, least of all its author. Had he done so, he would have changed his premise, namely, that it is at all possible to distinguish between “a work of art in the classificatory sense” and “a work of art in the evaluatory sense.”

Why did such theories emerge in the late ’60s and early ’70s? Why have they been constructed around borderline cases such as found art, driftwood, and readymades? Why did a number of distinguished aestheticians from academia who rarely visit an art gallery suddenly feel they had to cope with such cases? The whole art world was under Duchamp’s spell at the time and had misunderstood the lesson to be drawn from his readymades. They were art about art, but not in the “formalist” sense that modernist painting was painting about painting. No, they were art about the art world. And from then on, the whole art world felt immune to the demands of people like you and me who might want art to move them and to speak of the world. Greenberg had his taste to warn him of the danger, I have my ethics. If art is anything the art world calls art, then to make art, to appreciate it, to write on it, to buy and sell it, even to reflect on it theoretically, all this is reduced to the power games played in the art world. No one claims that Greenberg was an angelic player in that game, but he had his ethics too: He was a bit arrogantly convinced that he had the best taste, but he would never accept that art be called art by fiat.


To the Editor:
Having just read Thomas Crow’s review of “The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect” in your Summer 1999 issue, I would like to note that Daniel Burenvs contribution to the exhibition, To Displace, To Place, To Replace, was a variation of a much earlier artwork he realized (À Porter de là . . .) in 1975 at the Städtisches Museum Mönchengladbach. The two artworks Crow refers to in the review that I did in Chicago (one at the Art Institute of Chicago and the other at the Museum of Contemporary Art) in 1979 followed Buren’s Mönchengladbach project. Therefore Buren’s artwork for the MoMA exhibition represents a continuation of his own earlier practice and does not stem from my Chicago projects.

—Michael Asher
Los Angeles

Thomas Crow responds:
I’m grateful for Michael Asher’s attentive reading of the review, his useful clarification of antecedents, and his admirable modesty. At the same time, I don’t think that this information affects my point: Asher’s two Chicago pieces irrevocably altered the terrain—and raised the standards—for any artist who ventures this kind of displacement exercise within a museum, whatever his or her strictly individual trajectory might be.


To the Editor:
I missed the Top Ten list in the September issue. I know the lists sometimes seem to come out of the blue or to be intended for people in the recesses of the blue, but I think that’s the point. People love lists no matter how rigorously they are collected by the creator. They are also a way to find interesting writers and artists that you may not be familiar with. In the list you have a personal top ten from an artist or writer, so whether you know them or not, you can’t lose. Thank you and keep those lists coming (or humming as they often do).

—Cam Mason
Berwyn, PA