The institutional theory of art is a theory about the nature of art that holds that an object can only be(come) art in the context of the institution known as “the artworld”.
Addressing the issue what makes, for example, Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” art, or why a pile of Brillo cartons in a supermarket is not art, whereas Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes (a pile of Brillo carton replicas) is, the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto wrote in his 1964 essay “The Artworld”:
To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.
According to Robert J. Yanal, Danto’s essay, which coined the term “artworld”, outlined the first institutional theory of art.
Versions of the institutional theory were formulated more explicitly by George Dickie in his article “Defining Art” (American Philosophical Quarterly, 1969) and his books Aesthetics: An Introduction (1971) and Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (1974). An early version of Dickie’s institutional theory can be summed up in the following definition of work of art from Aesthetics: An Introduction:
A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.
Dickie has reformulated his theory in several books and articles. Other philosophers of art have criticized his definitions as being circular.