Music as an Art: Exploring Theories and Techniques

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The Institutional Theory of Art: A Concept by George Dickie

The ‘Institutional Theory of Art’ is a classificatory theory proposed by Professor George Dickie in his 1984 paper “The New Institutional Theory of Art.” in his paper, Dickie uses what he calls an ‘institutional approach’ which he explains as:
“The idea that works of art are art as the result of the position they occupy within an institutional framework or context.”

Dickie’s Explanation and Definition of ‘Art World’

This acts as an explanation of the paper to follow, with the purpose being to find what makes works of art count as works of art, and the answer Dickie pursues is their place in an institutional context, namely the institution of the ‘art world.

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’ Dickie puts forward that a key prerequisite for a work to be ‘art’ is that the artist creates it for a public of some sort. It is here where the concept of the ‘artworld’ is fully realized, as Dickie writes:
“The members of an art world public are such because they know how to fulfill a role which requires knowledge and understanding similar in many respects to that required of an artist.”
To put it in layman’s terms, an ‘art world’ is a community of people who learn in the medium, such as curators, fellow artists, educators, and critics. He also explains that there is not one singular ‘artworld’ but that there are as many ‘artworlds’ as there are mediums of art and that the members differ from group to group. The ‘artworld’ is the group that art is presented to and is one of two components that Dickie calls the “essential framework for art-making” The other component of this framework is the artist, whose role Dickie describes as
“[The artist’s role] has two central aspects: first, … the awareness that what is created for presentation is art, and, second, the ability to use one or more of a wide variety of art techniques which enable one to create art of a particular kind.”

Power Shift from Artworld to Creators

In short, according to Dickie’s Institutional Theory, art occupies a space within an institutional setting; the framework of this institution is held up by two pillars; first, the artist, who knowingly creates art for consumption by the ‘artworld public,’ which acts as the second pillar. This ‘public’ is composed of curators, artists, teachers, and critics learned in the given medium of the creation that the artist uses.

Levinson’s Counterarguments: “Defining Art Historically”

“Defining Art Historically” is a paper written by professor Jerrold Levinson in direct response to Dickies ‘Institutional Theory.’ In the paper, Levinson proposes what he calls “an alternative to the institutional theory of art, albeit one that is clearly inspired by it.” Levinson does keep several of Dickie’s core ideas in the fold but levels criticisms at major parts of the institutional theory. The first core idea he challenges is Dickie’s idea that art must be made for consumption by the ‘artworld public,’ an exchange that is vital to the original institutional theory. Levinson instead posits that,

“There can be private, isolated art that is constituted as art in the mind of the artist – and on no one’s behalf but his or her own.”
In short, art, according to Levinson, can be made with no target audience in mind and with no intention for public display(a la Emily Dickinson). The second challenge he makes to the institutional theory is that the ‘artworld’ specifies “the way in which an object has to be presented or treated in order for it to be a work of art.” He instead writes that the ‘artworld’ should
“Specify what the art object must be intended for, what sort of regards the spectator must be asked to extend to the object.”

This puts the power to define what art is much more in the hands of the creators than Dickie’s theory, relegating the ‘art world’ to following what the artist intends for his/her work. By taking down the ‘institutional framework’ that Dickie set up in his original theorem, Levinson expands the idea of what an artist can be and, by extension, what art can be. Further, by devaluing the command that the ‘artworld’ has over art, Levinson has created a definition in which, as he puts it:
“Yet she[a farmer’s wife in Nebraska] and the art world exist in perfect mutual oblivion.”

By putting the power in the hands of the creator, he has created an ‘oblivious creator’ one who does not know of the ‘artworld’ or its structure but makes art in spite of that fact because, according to him, the ‘artworld’ is not necessary for the production of art.

Duchamp’s Works as a Focal Point in the Debate

Marcel Duchamp’s work, and his readymades specifically, have sparked debate over what is and isn’t art since Fountain first debuted in 1917. Fountain, for the uninitiated, is a urinal, turned on its side, with the signature “R. Mutt” on the side/now bottom. It is now, in retrospect, viewed as a landmark piece in the creation of both the modern and Dadaist schools of art. Prelude to a Broken Arm(1915) is another notable one of Duchamp’s readymades, a snow shovel with the aforementioned title written on the handle. These works often find themselves in the center of the debate over the definition of art and, of course, are invoked by both Dickie and Levinson in their respective arguments. Dickie uses Fountain to explain the duality of objects, explaining:
“Here are two pairs of objects with visually indistinguishable elements, but the first element of each pair is a work of art, and the second element is not.”

Duchamp’s Fountain and Institutional Theory

The first item in the pair is a work by Duchamp; the latter is simply a run-of-the-mill urinal. The duality of these two items, in Dickie’s eyes, validates the existence of the framework he set up in his theory, arguing that the fact that one item can be elevated to the status of a work of art while the other remains a normal, distinctly non-work-of-art item, shows that there must be a framework, and an ‘artworld’ in order to give Fountain such a status. Levinson works along the same vein, taking a stance akin to ‘art is in the eye of the beholder.’ Explaining that “An object can be an artwork at one time and not another,” and in the specific case of Duchamp’s work, he writes
“The snow shovel used in Duchamp’s Snow Shovel, or the bottle rack in his Bottle Rack, became works of art at a certain time owing to Duchamp’s appropriating them with a certain intention, whereas they existed but were not works of art before that time.”

Levinson’s Perspective on Duchamp’s Works

Art, according to Levinson, can be anything; what is required for something to become art is the appropriation of it by someone for use as art, thus creating the pair of objects earlier described by Dickie.

Following the institutional theory, as laid out by Dickie, the appearance of something in a museum does not automatically make it art. The institutional theory and its framework would disqualify objects such as primitive, prehistoric, or ancient works from being considered art. Art’s creation is facilitated, in Dickie’s theorem, by a performance of the artist for consumption by the ‘art world.’ A display of Roman coins, for example, would not count as art, according to Dickie, due to the lack of this dialogue between the two pillars. Such artifacts, however, would count under Levinson’s theory and his expanded definition; under his school of thought, pieces in a museum have been appropriated by the curator for the specific use of “being art,” and by that virtue, they would be considered art during the time they are used as such.

Understanding the Dual Pillars of Music: Emotion and Technical Skill

Music, as a medium, is quite hard to pin down; like most art forms, it has formed countless subdivisions in its millennia of existence, with each division having its own style of sound and its own set of instruments to produce said sounds. There are, however, two pillars that form the foundation of all music. The first of these pillars is emotion; music can be made to convey or make the listener feel a certain emotion, feeling, or experience they share with the performer. The second pillar is a technical skill; all music requires some degree of technical skill to perform; however, throughout history, skill has formed its own genre, one filled with songs not made with emotion in mind but made to flaunt the skill of the musicians at their given instruments.

Analyzing Music Through R.G Collingwood’s “The Principles of Art”

f This duality can be viewed through the lens of “The Principles of Art” by R.G Collingwood. In ‘The Principles’, Collingwood attempts to differentiate between ‘Art as Craft’ and ‘Art as the expression,’ similar to the two pillars that I laid out above. According to Collingwood,
“Any craft is a specialized form of skill, and those who possess it are thereby marked out from the rest of mankind.”

This definition of craft falls in line with the technical aspect of music. It is undeniable that instruments require a degree of skill to play, thus marking artists as special. The parallels to musicians as craftsmen go even further, as Collingwood goes on to explain:
“If art is the skill to amuse people, or in general arouse emotions in them, the amusers and amused form two different classes.”

This class schism can be found in the way music is typically performed. Musicians are usually on a stage, elevated above their captive audience, who listens to them play. The elevation separates the two groups, and marks the musicians as special, the center of the audience’s attention. While music is undeniably a craft in this sense, the inherently expressive nature of music creates a dichotomy. Collingwood explains that:
“If art is not a kind of craft, but the expression of emotion, this distinction of kind between the artist and audience disappears.”

In Collingwood’s theory, art can be one or the other, expressive or evocative, expression or craft. Music is a marriage between these two forms; it can exist on both extremes, expressive and emotional, raw and technical, or, most likely, a blend of the two.

The inauthenticity of a piece or performance rests on the goal of the piece. Post-production and artificial enhancement of sound are only a problem if the song is basing itself on the technical pillar. If a pianist plays a technical marvel like Flight of the Bumblebee at half speed and edits it to sound like he is playing at full speed, that is inauthentic because the focus of such a performance is squarely on the musician’s skill, which he artificially enhanced. If the medium of song is being used as an outlet for emotional expression by the artist, however, the authenticity of the expression matters much more than the authenticity of the technical expression of the given song. In that case, a fabricated expression of emotion is what would deem the song to be inauthentic. In short, the artificial enhancement of music is not necessarily wrong; judgment of if it is wrong boils down to the intent of the musician. It is only wrong in cases where the artist’s intent is focused on displaying their technical proficiency if they are, according to Collingwood, treating the medium as a craft. If they are treating the medium as expression, however, then the artificiality of the music is not wrong because the technicality is taking a backseat in the context of the song.

Engaging with Music: A Dialogue Between the Musician and the Audience

The schism between the types of performance, inevitably, has created two different kinds of listening to music. These two types of listening are closely tied to the two pillars that act as the building blocks of the music that is being listened to. The first way to experience music is akin to Philosopher John Dewey’s writings on the subject[of experience] in the “Having an Experience” chapter of his 1934 book “Art as Experience.” According to Dewey,
“Perception is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy.”

He sees experiencing as an active process that the viewer, or in this case, listener, engages in; in order to experience work,
“We must summon the energy and pitch it at a responsive key in order to take in.”

This field of listening requires the listener to engage and release energy to take the song in. This style of listening is much more suited for the expressional pillar of music, as actively listening to an emotional song creates a bond between the musician and the audience. The connection that gets established is further explained in R.K. Elliot’s “Aesthetic Theory and the Experience of Art” (1967), as he writes:
“We may not experience them as if they were issuing from us, on an analogy with the voice, but as coming into being in us, … at some time we feel ourselves to be inwardly articulating or “containing” a passage.”

With expressional music, we come to the point as listeners when a song is no longer solely the expression of an artist but a vessel by which a listener can express their own feelings as well. The sharing of a song as a vessel furthers the parallels with Collingwood’s concept of expressional art, given that the musician and listener are equal when this style of listening is employed.

Diverging Listening Techniques: Insights from Philosophers

The second listening technique requires a more focused form of energy, concentrated in a narrow fashion. This style of listening is what I have dubbed ‘concentrated listening.’ In concentrated listening, the listener is not focused on the expression of the song or the emotions on display; rather, they are keying into the technical sphere of the music. This can go as far as to focus on a singular instrument, picking out and separating a drum line or a guitar riff from the remainder of the song, and deconstructing it on a solely technical level. ‘Concentrated Listening’ is bound to the technical pillar of music; the listener is not listening for an expression or putting out energy into a shared emotion, but instead listening for technical skill, quality of composition, and the like. Guy Sircello, in his 1972 writing “Expressive Properties of Art,” cites the work of John Cage as an example of something that can only be listened to with ‘concentrated listening.’ “These “anthropomorphic qualities” of Cage’s music depend on the very fact that the sounds themselves are completely lacking in “human” properties. … Cage offers this “noise” for us to attend to and concentrate upon. … with no intention that it evokes, represents, or suggests anything beyond itself.”
Raw technical music, whether it be Pagani’s Caprices or Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, is not made to create the bond between listener and artist that was aforementioned. They are made as a raw display of the musician’s skill in their craft. Thus, it cannot be engaged with Dewey’s style of experiencing; it requires the listener to be focused yet passive, not to engage on an emotional level, but rather on a critical and appreciative level. To apply ‘concentrated listening’ to Collingwood’s theory, this technique highlights the unique talents of the artist, clearly putting the artist on a different plane from the listener.

Understanding this duality of listening techniques enables one to figure out what goes into a listener’s perception of a song, as well as what is capable of destroying said listener’s perception. Learning that a song and the techniques therein have been enhanced digitally, edited, or are in any other way disingenuine, only destroys the perception the listener has of a work if they are examining it on a technical level with ‘concentrated listening.’ The perception is not destroyed, however, if the listener is instead listening for expression and emotion. In this case, the primary focus is not on the technicality; thusly, the need for the musical performance to be genuine is diminished, if not destroyed entirely. What can destroy a listener’s perception, in this case, is learning that the emotion that the artist is expressing is not genuine, that their feelings, and, therefore, the bond that they forge with a listener is fake, fabricated, or all for show.
In closing, the correlation between the use of post-production editing, mixing, and any other method to enhance the musical performance, and its inauthenticity, exists in the same continuum as the music itself. That is to say, its factor in the music’s authenticity and the listener’s perception of the song all comes down to which pillar the song is more closely bound to and which listening technique the listener is employing. It is only truly deemed inauthentic for cases in which the point of the song is to display skill or proficiency with a given instrument. If a song is more closely bound to the expressive pillar, however, the authenticity of the emotions expressed matter much more to its perception and authenticity than the artificial enhancement of its sonic qualities, and therefore, such a song, having said enhancement, does not make it an inauthentic piece of art.

The Timeless Nature of Fiction: Understanding Our Responses to Imaginary Worlds

As long as Humankind has been able to communicate with one another, it has created fictional universes, stories, and myths to share with one another. Fiction is not a fad or a recent creation but a thread that acts as a throughline for all of civilization’s history. Never has a society existed without creating its own fiction, whether they be the ancient Sumerians Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. From this correlation between society’s existence and fictional worlds existing alongside them, it can be posited that fictions are a very natural occurrence to imagine, and make-believe is a part of human nature.

The responses that a person has to any given work, or any event in a fictional world, differs from person to person, depending on how they process said work. The rationality of the response is called into question because of the fact that what is happening in the work is, in objective terms, not true, a complete fabrication. A mechanical, perfectly objective view from the outside looking in would argue that such reactions are not rational responses. A reader/viewer is claiming to feel a genuine emotion or have a genuine reaction to something that they know is fake. This, however, is viewing such a reaction at face value, assuming that the audience member is experiencing the work with the same ‘outside looking in’ outlook. It is also an assumption that the audience member is not simply mislabeling the emotion they experienced.

Analyzing Emotional Responses to Fiction: Insights from Kendall Walton

Kendall Walton’s 1978 paper, Fearing Fictions, looks heavily into the viewpoint of the aforementioned audience member, what their headspace is, and what they are truly experiencing. Walton’s main case study is a man named Charles, an imaginary viewer of an imaginary horror film, twisting in his seat, heart pumping, sweating buckets, and the later labeling of his experience as’ fear.’ Walton cross-references this example with that of a child playing monster with his father. In the second case, Walton explains:
“The game is a sort of theatrical event in which the father is an actor playing a monster, and the child is an actor playing himself.”
He subsequently applies the same line of thinking to Charles’ situation, writing:
“It is make-believe that Charles is threatened. And as a result, Charles gasps and grips his chair, make-believe he is afraid. Charles is playing a game of make-believe in which he uses the images on the screen as props.”

Both the child and Charles are adding to the fictional world that is being portrayed to them. They are using the world that is being given and imagining a fiction in which they, too, exist in the given world. The responses are a subconscious participation in their own charade; Charles is acting terrified because the imaginary version of him that exists in the movie’s imaginary universe is terrified. Walton dubs the emotions felt during this charade’ quasi-emotions,’ or, in the specific case of Charles, ‘quasi-fear.’ This validates the question of mislabeling from earlier; the emotions that are experienced are ‘quasi-emotions’; however, perhaps because the phrase ‘quasi-emotions’ is not in the lexicon of the masses, they are being misinterpreted by those experiencing them as true emotions. This conclusion resolves the question of the rationality of such emotions in the imaginary universe in which they happen; these ‘quasi-emotions,’ whether they are fear, sorrow, joy, or anger, are rational responses to the happenings of the imaginary universe, and thusly are rational emotions to feel.

The ‘quasi-emotions’ theory also helps answer the question of why we care. Whether the Jedi or the Sith reign supreme has no true bearing on our universe; world politics and current events wouldn’t change if Voldemort defeated Harry Potter and Rome’s existence didn’t hinge on Aneis’ journey being successful. So why do the success or failure, and the trials that the protagonist undergoes on his journey, cause us to feel certain emotions? The answer lies in Walton’s theory; the reader/viewer is not merely experiencing the fictional universe presented to them but creating their own version of said universe where they exist within it. Their imaginary selves’ existence, unlike their real selves, does hinge on the success of the protagonist; it knows the characters presented and is sad when they fail or die. Once again, these feelings are rational, as they come from the imaginary self, one who is a passive participant in the given story.

The Emotional Landscape of Tragic Fiction: A Study by Alex Neill

Professor Alex Neill explores a much more passive way of experiencing media in his 2005 paper Tragedy. In Tragedy, Neill focuses on the emotions of enjoyment and pleasure that come from one viewing a work of tragedy. This study is in a much narrower field of interest than Walton’s work and draws different conclusions, although this is a product of the way Neill goes about his exploration. The first key to these differences is that Neill is not dealing in ‘quasi-emotions’ or ‘imaginary selves’; he is instead exploring the emotions that one’s real self experiences in reaction to a Tragedy. By extension, Neill takes the audience to be passive experiences, rather than each audience member creating their own world the way Walton takes them to be.
The feelings that a person experiences in response to a work of fiction and the actions of the characters in that fiction are rational. The audience member creates their own fiction out of the one presented to them, one in which they exist as a character. Their imaginary selves in that universe feel emotion based on the trials and outcomes achieved by the world’s main cast, and the emotions that their real selves feel are ‘quasi-emotions’ ones that are truly felt by their imaginary selves.

Works Cited

  1. Collingwood, R.G. (1938). The Principles of Art. Oxford University Press.
  2. Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. Perigee.
  3. Elliot, R.K. (1967). Aesthetic Theory and the Experience of Art.
  4. Sircello, G. (1972). Expressive Properties of Art.
  5. Walton, K. (1978). Fearing Fictions. The Journal of Philosophy.
  6. Neill, A. (2005). Tragedy. In: Handbook of Contemporary Aesthetics
  7. Levinson, Jerrold. “Defining Art Historically”. The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 19, Issue 3, Summer 1979, Pages 232–250.
  8. Dickie, George. “The Art Circle: A Theory of Art”. Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.
  9. Collingwood, R.G. “The Principles of Art”. Oxford University Press, 1938.
  10. Dickie, George. “The Institutional Theory of Art”. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 79, 1978-1979, pp. 57-66.
  11. Levinson, Jerrold. “Refining Art Historically”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Winter, 1989), pp. 21-33.
  12. Stecker, Robert. “Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: An Introduction”. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.
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Music as an Art: Exploring Theories and Techniques. (2023, Jun 18). Retrieved from