The Institutional Theory of Religious Art

By Ben Schachter

I recently read On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art by James Elkins. In it he defines Art using the institutional theory of art made famous by Dickie. The Institutional Theory of art holds that the art market contributes not only to the notion of what is good or valuable art but also to what art is. Those who buy it, sell it, advocate for it, invest in it, admire it, study it and promote it comprise the body of people who influence what it is.

There are several limitations and objections to this theory. I’ll only mention a few that are related to my main idea. First, artists bristle at the idea that someone else encroaches on their sensibilities and vision. Second, the theory delimits a certain kind of art. Other forms of art such as outsider art, ethnic arts, etc. sometimes garner the attention of institutions but they are not the primary form of art circulated within the system otherwise known as high art. That’s fine, and in fact, the institutional theory purports to define art but it also defines a particular audience.

And that audience, in this case, rejects religious art. And therefore it is not surprising that Elkins writes:
As a rule: ambitious, successful contemporary fine art is thoroughly non-religious. Most religious art – I’m saying this bluntly here, because it needs to be said – is just bad art.

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