For What It’s Worth: Artistic Evaluation and the Institutional Theory of Art




Abhainn, Michael

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For most of its history art has been mimetic in nature; not surprisingly, mimetic theories of art held sway for a long time. By the middle of the twentieth century art had departed so radically from the mimetic traditions that philosophers were forced to shift their focus away from functional theories (which typically drew on the formal features of artworks) to procedural ones (which are concerned with the imperceptible, relational properties external to the work of art). This breakthrough would eventually culminate in the Institutional Theory of Art, a perspective that provides the most exhaustive classificatory definition of art available, and which (despite the objections of its critics) remains the most persuasive theory of art on offer. The same logic that makes the Institutional Theory of Art a satisfying classificatory theory can be applied, in a similar manner, to questions about the source of the terms by which we evaluate works of art. In other words: the Institutional Theory is capable of serving not only as a powerful classificatory theory, but also as a highly effective evaluative theory of art. Moreover, if the Institutional Theory can be shown to provide a satisfying account of artistic value, it may also be equipped to deal with the related problems of subjectivism (i.e., that artistic judgments are a matter of personal taste) and cultural relativism (i.e., that artistic judgments are culturally specific). Presently, no theory of art can explain away these difficulties; accordingly, an institutional account of artistic value might offer – as does the Institutional Theory of Art itself – an explanatory framework capable of dealing with seemingly intractable problems of subjectivism and relativism in artistic judgment.



institutional theory of art, artistic evaluation, classificatory theories, artistic value