Dickie’s Aesthetics

by Tom Ingram

I recently finished reading Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach by George Dickie. It’s a fascinating read, and Dickie’s institutional theory of art seems to me to be on the right track. Instead of focusing on labelling certain items as art and not-art, he concerns himself with describing the social institutions that make up the artworld. Indeed, his definition of art is unimpressive and arguably tautological, which has the effect of downplaying the uninteresting question “is it art?” and emphasizing the much more useful “how is it art?”

The first part presents a brief overview of the history of aesthetics from Plato through to the twentieth century, with Kant, Hume, and Schopenhauer as highlights. It gives a simplified account of the back-and-forth between philosophers and culminates in Dickie’s institutional theory. There are still tweaks to be made, of course. Perhaps the biggest criticism is that Dickie is somewhat parochial. I assume that he is mostly concerned with the visual arts, because reading as a musician made me feel alienated at times. His theory also doesn’t account for the segmentation of the artworld; it has no place for mass art, for instance. But these are minor changes that represent refinements, not paradigm shifts.

The second part deals with four problems of aesthetics and strikes me as a little bit shaky. The chapter arguing against intentionalism, especially, has convinced me more than ever that anti-intentionalism is not just confused, but utterly bankrupt. In any case, even when Dickie’s arguments fail, his summaries of the debates are useful.

The third part, on the evaluation of art, is pretty much entirely nonsense. None of the theories Dickie discusses, including his own, seem even remotely convincing, and many of them are so vague that they would be incapable of usefully evaluating anything. For example, Beardsley’s three criteria of unity, complexity, and intensity are only valuable if you don’t try to apply them in real-world scenarios. Unity of what? Intensity of what? I cannot think of any cases where these criteria linearly track with aesthetic goodness: it’s a bell-shaped curve in all three cases. And this was the theory that was the most coherent—Dickie’s own was just gibberish.

A correct, or at least defensible, theory of the evaluation of art will probably look like a cop-out, much like the institutional theory of art. The fact is that we will probably never be able to satisfactorily define beauty or aesthetic goodness. Yet we know why reviewers say what they do, why artists present some works to the public and hide others, and why audience members seek out or avoid certain works of art. In other words, we know all the relevant facts, even if we can’t define the concepts behind them. In his theory of art, Dickie largely avoids the question of what art is; instead he points at the bustling world of galleries, theatres, and concert halls and says “that!”. An effective evaluative theory will probably do the same.