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According to (at least some versions of) the institutional definition of art, something is an artwork if and only if arthood has been conferred upon it by appropriately qualified members of the artworld. A number of writers have noted the similarity between the institutional definition of art and a definition of piety offered by Euthyphro. According to Euthyphro, the pious is that which is loved by the gods. According to the institutional theorist, art is that which is loved by members of the artworld. This parallel between Euthyphro's views and those of institutional theorists is sometimes taken to be the basis of an objection to the institutional theory. According to this objection, the artworld must love something because it is lovable. I do not believe that institutional theorists should be unduly worried by this objection, but Plato's Euthyphro does suggest a more worrisome problem for their theory, one which has not hitherto been addressed. When Euthyphro defines piety as that which is loved by the gods, a problem arises when the gods disagree among themselves. Similarly, if artworks are items which have had arthood conferred upon them by qualified members of the artworld, a problem arises when the artworld is divided over whether something is a work of art. The institutional theorist should not find this problem insoluble. It can be solved, however, only by recognizing the relativity of arthood. There is no single artworld and something is never a work of art tout court. An artwork is always an artwork for some artworld or other.
According to Euthyphro, 'what is agreeable to the Gods is pious.' By Euthyphro's own admission, however, the gods often quarrel among themselves. Frequently these differences lead to situations where something is loved by some of the gods but hated by other gods. Socrates notes that Euthyphro is committed, consequently, to the conclusion that 'the same things will . . . be both pious and impious', which is impossible. A similar argument can be made against those who maintain that artworks are those works which have had arthood conferred upon them by qualified individuals. Just as the gods disagree among themselves, the members of the artworld have their differences. We can imagine a situation where a number of people, with impeccable qualifications as members of the artworld, disagree about the status of some work. In this situation Andy, Arthur, Clement and Peggy are all fully qualified members of the artworld. Clement and Peggy, say, deny that some work is an artwork. Andy and Arthur, on the other hand, accept the work as an artwork. Under these circumstances, it seems that the work in question will both be and not be an artwork, which is impossible. The institutional theory is in danger of reduction to absurdity.
A simple way to avoid this reductio immediately suggests itself. This response to the problem may be called the simple response. Institutional theorists can deny that the arthood of some item depends on unanimity of the artworld. They can instead maintain that it is enough that one qualified person confer arthood upon an item for the item to be a work of art. Imagine a situation where a work is presented to Andy, Clement and Peggy, and they all decline to confer arthood upon it. The work is subsequently presented to Arthur, and he accepts the work as an artwork. The simple response states that, given that …