The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld
Martin Irvine
Georgetown University

The function of the Artworld as a social-economic network

The primary function of the Artworld is continually to define, validate, maintain, and reproduce the cultural category of art, and to produce the consent of the entire society in the legitimacy of the artworld's authority to do so.

The Artworld is distributed through a network of institutions (schools, museums, galleries, commercial market systems, and professions), all of which participate in constructing a global, international system or network of networks for Art.

The Artworld is thus part of our system of professions, and many parts of the artworld network are now highly professionalized and careerist.

As in all institutions as interdependent networks, you don't need to know you are participating in the Artworld, or in the function of one of its nodes, to be carrying out its primary cultural function.

Compare Arthur Danto's and Pierre Bourdieu's views:

Danto: The artworld as the provider of an operational theory of art that participants use to distinguish art from non-art. Although not his vocabulary, Danto is describing an "interpretive community" that learns the codes and categories for art, codes which are not visible or perceptible properties or qualities in things or artefacts themselves (as assumed in older aesthetics). This view is mainly interpretive and conceptual, not sociological, though compatible with Bourdieu's fuller description.

Bourdieu: The artworld as conditioned or determined by social and economic lived positions in institutions, requiring knowledge and ownership of cultural capital as part of social class identity. The theory or concepts of art follow learned professional and social class distinctions. Institutions function as socializing structures for reproducing cultural capital for its "owners."

Conclusion: The artworld network is the ground of possibility for anything to appear as art for us today.

Think of the artworld institution as the complex field of forces which constitute art works as such, providing the context and rules for the possibility of something appearing to us as art per se.

The artworld also provides the structure of symbolic capital (Bourdieu): value, prestige, and other intangible factors that are fungible values--exchangeable for money.

All the actors (players, roles) and institutional functions collaborate (with greater or lesser levels of awareness) on creating symbolic value for art, artists, and collections: there is only value add or value extract in the economy of symbolic value.

What makes something an artwork is invisible: there's no "there there" outside a position in the artworld network.

What makes something an artwork is not an observable property in an artwork itself.

The work is a node in a network of forces without which it would be unrecognizable-- literally invisible.

The Artworld is constituted by many institutional functions that are already in place and independent of any individual actors (people taking up positions) or implementations in specific organizations. Examples:

The Artist function (compare Foucault on "the Author function")
The museum function
The curator function
The art school function
The gallery and dealer functions (brokers for the art economy)
The patron and collector functions

Value of an institutional approach for understanding the Artworld and the Cultural Category of Art

  • Provides a way of describing the social and economic conditions that make art possible today.
  • Can be plugged into a complexity or systems model like mediology and other sociological models.
  • Opens up analysis of the art work itself as being constituted by a complex field of forces that are not visible in art object itself, but are the grounds of possibility for art to appear for us at all.
  • A constitutive, contingent, and interdependent view.
  • Situates art, art making, art exhibition, and the art market in a large social and economic field of interdependent communities of social actors, whose exchanges and working agreements constitute the art world as such.
  • Removes solitary individual agency (artist, art viewer) from the question of art (what is art? how does a work become art? does it have to be good to be art?).
  • The artworld is a social and economic network, and, like all networks, has externalities or network effects that create more incentives to be connected to the network than disincentives to remain disconnected.

Background on Contributors to the Institutional Theory of Art


Arthur Danto first gave the notion of the "artworld" a philosophical definition: the artworld provides the theories of art which all members of the artworld tacitly assume in order for there to be objects considered as art (see "The Artworld," Journal of Philosophy (1964)).
  • Approaching the question from the point of view of epistemology, definitions of concepts, and interpretation (hermeneutics).
  • The artworld does circulate theories about art, and expects members to know them, but there's more to the artworld "club" in operational, social, and economic terms.

George Dickie's institutional theory of art (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois-Chicago), stated and restated in two books: Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis. Ithaca: NY: Cornell UP, 1974. Art Circle: A Theory of Art. Chicago: Spectrum Press, 1997.

Dickie's first attempt to construct an institutional (social-contextual-relational) definition of art (1974 version).
"A work of art in the classificatory sense is:

  • (1) an [original] 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)." (p.464)

Revision of basic definition in 1997:

  • "A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public.
  • An artist is a person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art.
  • A public is a set of persons the members of which are prepared in some degree to understand an object which is presented to them.
  • The artworld is the totality of all artworld systems.
  • An artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an artworld public"

Explanations of terms in Dickie's argument:

  • "artifact" - means that human intentionality is present, including the case choosing a found object or "readymade"
  • conferring of status by an artworld agent or context (analogy to conferring of knighthood, legal indictment)
  • "candidate for appreciation" - also means a candidate for consideration as an artwork; object may not be appreciated at all, but is offered up as such by the artworld
  • the institution - who does this include?
    • "essential core" vs peripheral group (dealer, curator, collector)
  • Prime examples of the theory at work -- Duchamp's readymades, Warhol's appropriated images and Brillo boxes.


  • The first theory which does not appeal to a feature of the art object (some essential recognizable "artness" in an object).
  • Only interested in the classification of an art object as such, how an object becomes art, not in quality, value, or any other traditional art problem.
  • The first theory which takes into account the context of the work of art--specifically, the artworld, the social context of reception and the construction of meaning and value.
  • Art status and value separated--non-prescriptive definition in terms of what should be valued or whether any object has value.

Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)

  • Written after Dickie, attempts to define what makes up an artworld using sociological methodology.
  • Important points: Artworlds involve collective activities and shared conventions.
  • Defines art by collective activities that constitute the production of art, not by the end products (art works).
  • Circumvents the pseudo-problem of defining art by some essential property in the works themselves.
  • Defines artworld members and the cooperation of individuals in creating a whole artworld system.
  • The system, not any individual, constitutes an art object. An art object as such only lives within a social system.

Basic assumptions in Becker's theory:

  • "The existence of art worlds, as well as the way their existence affects both the production and consumption of art work, suggests a sociological approach to the arts". (p.1)
  • "The artist thus works in the center of a network of cooperating people, all of whose work is essential to the final outcome." (p.25)
  • "The artist's involvement with and dependence on cooperative links thus constrains the kind of art he can produce." (p.26)
  • "Conventions regulate the relations between artists and audience, specifying the rights and obligations of both." (p.29) "Conventions make possible the easy and efficient coordination of activity among artists and support personnel." (p.30).
  • "[A]rt worlds typically have intimate and extensive relations with the worlds from which they try to distinguish themselves. They share sources of supply with those other worlds, recruit personnel from them, adopt ideas that originate in them, and compete with them for audiences and financial support." (p.36)

Pierre Bourdieu's view of the Art World

  • Social class education, "ownership" of art environments, shared social-class expectations.
  • Social class values determine what gets in and what stays out, who's inside and who's outside of the art world.
  • See Pierre Bourdieu, "The Production of Belief," 1977/1983.

Summing Up:
The Artworld as Social-Economic Network

  • The Artworld is made visible in the activities of art world institutions (social and economic networks, organizations, corporations).
  • The art work is always presented in institutional context, an art world "container" (galleries, museums, alternative art spaces, biennials, large and small curated exhibitions, catalogues).
  • The Artworld is really an aggregation of art worlds, a network emerging from many smaller micro-worlds, subcommunities, all with greater or lesser knowledge of the entire network.
  • Artworld institutions create the visible structure and hierarchies in the presentation of art in a sliding scale from:
    • the blockbuster museum shows of canonized artists (e.g. "Matisse-Picasso" at MoMA)
    • the major artist's retrospective (e.g., Richter) as capstone to career and institutional valorization
    • first museum shows for rising stars
    • major gallery shows in the art power cities
    • gallery shows in lesser cities
    • first shows for artists beginning their careers in alternative or university art spaces

Artworld Network: The Political Economy of the Artworld

The artworld is structured as an interdependent network of social-economic actors who cooperate--often contentiously or unknowing--to enact and perpetuate the art world, while at the same time negotiating kinds and levels of cooperation in a mutually understood careerist and competitive context.

  • art schools, colleges, and professional art teachers
  • artists
  • art historians and academic art theorists
  • art critics, art writers
  • art periodical publishers, magazine editors and professional production staff
  • book publishing industry for art books, monographs, museum exhibitions
  • professional associations for artists, educators, and dealers
  • art dealers and galleries
  • curators, museum directors, other museum professionals
  • public and private art collection managers
  • international art fair organizers, corporations, supporters, funders
  • managers and organizations for international art exhibitions (biennials, Documenta, etc.)
  • art collectors
  • art patrons, donors, public art funders
  • private arts support foundations, both direct grants to artists and funding of art organizations (museums, non-profit spaces, university galleries, etc.) (connected to general economy through invested endowments and private contributions)
  • all staff levels in art funding organizations: public (local, state, and federal government) and private (foundations, corporate art funding)
  • auction houses and art business professionals in the auction companies
  • art consultants
  • art investment advisors
  • art insurance companies
  • art market data companies and publishers
  • art advertising and art marketing specialists
  • directors of non-profit and alternative art spaces
  • art materials suppliers and materials fabricators
  • conservators, art materials specialists
  • museum and collections security systems, climate control, archiving

Doing research:
Build out the network when studying an artist, an art work, a movement, an art genre

  • Situate an artwork in the constitutive network of relations to disclose how the work came to be included in the artworld.
  • Investigate: Who were the necessary actors, what institutions and artworld containers defined the work, what were the social-economic conditions (follow the money), how was the work/artist received in the artworld, what were the contexts for interpretation, what positions in the networks were taken up by a work and body of work?
  • Overall: what makes a work, artist, or collection nodal? Was/is it a node connecting all kinds of activity, capital, attention, interest, discourse?


Becker, Howard. Art Worlds. 25th anniversary ed., updated and expanded. Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press, 2008.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
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--------. The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008.
--------. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Cambridge, UK; Stanford, CA: Polity Press; Stanford Univ. Press, 1996.
Danto, Arthur. “The Artworld.” The Journal of Philosophy 61, no. 19 (1964): 571-84.
--------. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Dickie, George. Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.
--------. The Art Circle: A Theory of Art. New York: Haven, 1984.
Grampp, William. Pricing the Priceless: Art, Artists, and Economics. New York: Basic Books, 1989.
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