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Review of Art and Value
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George Dickie, Art and Value (Blackwell, 2001)

Reviewed by Thomas Adajian

Art and Value focuses, from various angles, on contemporary Anglo-American philosophical work on the definition of art, with special attention to questions about value. Throughout this 108-page book, some of whose chapters were, in earlier incarnations, journal articles, Dickie’s influential institutional theory of art is almost always in view, either in the background or the foreground. Art and Value contains fruitful and much-needed reflections on methodology, including a proposal for a classification-scheme for theories of art. It contains cogent responses to influential objections to the institutional theory. And it contains trenchant criticisms of accounts of art offered by contemporary aestheticians like Carroll, Danto, Davies, and Levinson. Not surprisingly, it is original, clear, forceful, and down-to-earth throughout.


In the first chapter, Dickie draws a distinction between what he calls ‘psychological theories of art’ and what he terms ‘cultural theories of art.’ On psychological theories, the nature of art “derives directly from distinctive innate mechanisms embedded in human nature” (3). On cultural theories, art is “a collective invention of human beings and not something that an artist produces simply out of his or her biological nature as a spider does a web” (10). Cultural theories are said to mark a “radical change in the way many of us now theorize about art” (10).

The second chapter, “Methodological Background of the Philosophy of Art,” argues for something analogous to the rigid-designator approach to art. The main idea is that, just as things that fall under natural-kind terms are discovered by natural scientists to have underlying essential properties, things that fall under cultural-kind terms like “art” are discovered by cultural anthropologists to have properties which are “underlying but there to be taken note of” (21). While for natural kinds the underlying properties are micro-structural, for cultural-kind terms like “bachelor” and “art” the underlying properties form a cultural structure: they are “a small part of a larger reality that is constituted by webs of relations that are or would be instituted by a society of persons” (22). Dickie notes some differences between cultural kinds and natural kinds: bachelors, unlike gold, would not exist if no cultures existed; anything with the atomic number 79 would be gold in all possible worlds in which it existed; but “an individual bachelor Adam in the actual world might be a married man in some possible worlds,” just as a particular (physical) object that’s a representational work of art in one world might not be a work of art in a possible world lacking the cultural institution of art (29).

Dickie extends the analogy the histories of the discoveries of natural and cultural kinds: the word “gold’ stands to scientists’ investigations as the word “art” stands to cultural anthropologists’ investigations. In the early stages of inquiry, investigators begin with linguistic usage: usages of “gold” got related, at least provisionally, to the properties of being yellow and malleable. Physicists went on from there to discover the underlying physical structure of gold. In the same way, usages of the word “art” got winnowed down and related to a provisional description of art. (The winnowing process began with Plato and lasted until Danto, according to Dickie.) Cultural anthropologists now can discover the underlying cultural structure of art: adapting a notion of Mandelbaum’s, who defines “exhibited features” as characteristics (like expressiveness) which can be noticed by directly experiencing works of art, Dickie holds that the cultural structure of art involves non-exhibited features (26). Some scientific definitions aim to state the essences of natural kinds. In like manner, Dickie’s well-known statement that “a work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public” is statement of the cultural essence of a work of art (28). He expresses the hope that cultural anthropologists studying the cultural structure of art will discover that that statement is true.

Chapter Three’s first section contains trenchant criticisms of Carroll’s, Danto’s, Davies’, and Levinson’s views of art. The close relationship between Carroll’s view and institutionalism is rightly, and predictably, emphasized. The second section of the chapter discusses, again, natural-kind and cultural-kind activities, which are recommended as a basis for a classification of theories of art. Here the distinction is put as follows: natural-kind activities include “gathering food, stalking prey, eating, mating, building nests”; cultural-kind behavior is “not written in the genes in the way that natural-kind behavior is” (46). Any natural-kind theory of art holds that “art first emerged as a result of natural-kind activity and has continued to be created as the result of natural-kind behavior.” By contrast, because it takes a cultural institutional structure to be the “necessary and sufficient matrix for works of art,” the institutional theory is a cultural-kind theory (49). Various natural-kind activities may show up in various artworks, but “there is no reason to think that any one natural-kind activity is or needs to be present in every artwork” (49).

Chapter Four, “History of the Institutional Theory of Art,” usefully traces and comments upon the history of the institutional theory from its initial 1969 statement up to Dickie’s 1984 book The Art Circle, which he considers the single best account of institutionalism. Many readers will think that the heart of the chapter is Dickie’s strong point-by-point response to an influential argument against the institutional theory urged by Wollheim in Art and Its Objects. The response is convincing and is required reading for anyone with an interest in these matters.

The fifth chapter usefully summarizes Dickie’s 1988 book, Evaluating Art, and replies in detail, and for the most part convincingly, to critical reviews by Richard Gaskin, Cynthia Freeland, and Francis Sparshott.

The sixth and final chapter, “Art and Value,” discusses the question of whether the concept of art is an evaluative notion. One central focus is on the question whether the institutional theory “ignores the value component of art,” as Tilghman and Gardner claim (106). After considering the notion that being aesthetically good is a necessary condition of art, Dickie defends the claim that there is a classificatory sense of art to be defined that is evaluatively neutral.

On what grounds does Dickie think that there is a classificatory sense of art to be defined that is evaluatively neutral? One reason Dickie discusses is that the theory of art has to allow for a way of talking about mediocre and bad art (94). He notes that one might develop an institutional theory of art that makes being aesthetically good part of the definition of a work of art in the classificatory sense (96). Another possibility would be an evaluative noninstitutional definition. To account for what people call bad art and mediocre art, it would be possible to add to each of these views a new Collingwoodian category: art-falsely-so-called.

Dickie notes four considerations that would count against these alternatives to institutionalism. First, institutionalism provides a way of speaking of mediocre and bad art; these alternatives don’t. Second, on the two theories Dickie doesn’t favor, the phrase “good art” is redundant. Third, on the theories Dickie doesn’t favor, it might turn out that only one of two works is art, although they’re almost identical in every respect except that one is aesthetically just noticeably better than the other. Dickie thinks it odd to place two objects that are so similar in radically different categories (98, 99). Finally, in ordinary language, “work of art” frequently means “of the highest value.” Dickie argues that traditional theories of art would suggest that artworks have value, but “no one thinks [traditional theories] correct,” and, moreover, the value they attributed to all artworks need not be aesthetic value (104). He concludes by floating a reformulation of the institutional definition of art: “a work of art in the classificatory sense is an evaluable artifact of [a] kind created to be presented to an artworld public” (107).

Three Comments/Questions

1. Certain rival theories of art, Dickie points out by way of criticism, entail that some objects that differ only very slightly along a single dimension (aesthetic value) belong to the radically different categories artwork and non-artwork. Is there a special problem here, rather than an instance of a general problem – faced by theories of various kinds – about what to do about borderline cases?

2. The distinction between what is “written in the genes” and what is “cultural” does a lot of work in Art and Value. It would be valuable if Dickie were to further elaborate, clarify, and develop that distinction.

3. The distinction between natural-kind activities and cultural-kind activities is proposed as the basis of a classification-scheme for theories of art. Various natural-kind activities may show up in various artworks, but “there is no reason to think that any one natural-kind activity is or needs to be present in every artwork” (49). Would a more fundamental break perhaps be marked by defining natural-kind theories as theories according to which there is “present” in every artwork at least one natural kind activity, and cultural-kind theories as theories on which there are some artworks on which no natural-kind activities are present?


Art and Value demonstrates again that Dickie’s institutional theory of art has, especially in its creator’s hands, lots of powerful resources. The book is a pithy and incisive contribution to contemporary debates about the definition of art. It also provides, simultaneously, an invaluable and authoritative overview of those debates. And its admirable clarity, succinctness, and sobriety will make it comprehensible and attractive to upper-level undergraduates as well as specialists.


2003 © Thomas Adajian

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