The Art/Non-Art Binaries:
The Logic of the Artworld and the Art Market

Art/Not-Art: The Artworld at Work

  • The political economy of the artworld depends on the ability to maintain "art" as a cultural category and to differentiate it from non-art.
  • A primary social function of the artworld is thus producing the consent of the wider society and of economic actors outside the artworld for the authority to construct the category of art and to be the guardian of the art/non-art differentiation for the rest of society.
  • The artworld and all its institutions depend on the ability to reconfigure or reinstall the art/non-art differentiation at any given moment in the production and reception of art.
  • Since the artworld and all its institutions are configured around a largely unquestioned belief or acceptance of "art" as a category to which the institutions refer, there must be a set of strategies for determining the institution's objects and activities while differentiating these objects and activities from everything else.
  • The artworld elicits and requires everyone's participation--the tacit cooperation of the various agents or "actors" in all the interdependent institutions--to be able (at any level of awareness or sophistication) to circulate the artworld discourses that constitute art as a category in the art/non-art binary.
  • Like all cultural binary oppositions, the artworld binary constitutes a structure of mutual entailment, one term deriving meaning and existence from the opposite term. This structure forecloses any appeal to an extra-institutional, permanent, or transcendental ground for art as a name for something with essential trans-historical properties.
    • That is, there is no possibility of art as a cultural category or of individual art objects to appear as such, outside the institutional network in which the art/non-art opposition exists.
  • But the binary model has severe limits in describing the full operations of the artworld and the micro-cultures of reception and production within the artworld.
    • In a complexity system of contingent relations and binary oppositions of mutual entailment, there is no "there-there," no independent space outside the meaning and value constructed in the network of differentiations (see the network complexity model for completion of the binary structure).
  • The construction of "art" at any given moment within discourse is a network activity--cf. Foucault's "discursive practices," Bourdieu's "fields"--not a simple binary, even though the results may be a reinstallment of the art/non-art binary.

The Traditional Model of the "Semiotic Square" or Structure of Differentiation and Mutual Entailment

Logical structure of the semiotic square:
mutual entailment and structure of contraries and contradictories


Example of cultural binaries

Artworld binaries (fill in terms)


Some Examples of Dialogic Interplay Among Categories

(Positioned against Not-Art)

(Sometimes looks like Art)

Ironization, subversion, hybridization, or deconstruction?
Non-decorative, non-functional (non-service, non-entertainment, non-visual enjoyment [Kosuth]) Decorative art, mass media images Yes: Warhol, Salle, Koons, street art
Intentionally non-mass media, difficult, requires insider coding Advertising, pop media art, popular codes Yes: pop art, Warhol
Unique objects, carrying signs of artist's work, intervention of hand (view of Frank Stella); marks of activity of artists as artworld functionaries barring outsiders Mass-produced (decoration, imitation high design, "Ikea," posters, shopping mall galleries, commodities, poster reproductions) Sometimes: ironic use of consumer objects and images
Avoids beauty and aesthetics (as kidnapped by mass culture). Strategies used: intentions and interventions often unfinished, coarse, rough, inelegant, primitive, outside the perfection of mass produced commodities Mass culture, middle class notions of beauty, design, and "aesthetics," arty look and materials Sometimes; seduction of the image, pleasure of the visual
Non-sentimental, against mass culture emotions. Subversion of nostalgia and received ideologies. Kitsch (easy and easily reproducible visual clutter, often sentimental or politically correct). Visual Muzak. Yes: Koons

Working with Case Studies: Encoding of Material Medium
  • All art media is subject to the already-encoded value system from traditional high-art media (oil paint, marble, etc.) through modern materials (acrylic paint, steel/metals, plastics, lighting, film, video, etc.) to outside and newly introduced materials (organic, industrial, found, biological, excrement, food, digital processes).
  • All are constantly being repositioned in a network of systemic relations (mediology).

Andy Warhol
  • The Piss Paintings (Oxidation Paintings): acrylic ground, metallic paint, urine on canvas panels.
  • Especially the Oxidation Painting of 1978 with diamond dust: a Warhol tour de force.
    • Merging of high/low, sacred/profane, ideal/excrement, diamonds/urine
  • Warhol's revenge on abstract expressionism? Piss and cocks as painting tools, humiliation of action painting and macho swagger of Pollock and company.
  • In the process, created amazing abstract works with metallic and chemical oxidation.
  • Commentary on the "piss works" tradition in painting.

Next: a "network complexity model" for interpreting art in the artworld context.

Martin Irvine
© 2004-2009
All educational uses permitted with attribution and link to this page.