Remembering Arthur Danto
I’m not sure exactly when I met Arthur Danto, who died on October 25. I knew his daughter, Ginger, and had been to Arthur’s apartment a few times without ever meeting him, though I vividly remember a painting that Arthur had on his living room wall, a trompe l’oeil five-dollar bill. I coveted that painting.
Beginning in 1984 Arthur became the latest in a long line of Nation art critics, which began with Russell Sturgis (considered to be the father of American art criticism) and Henry James, and continued through the legendary Clement Greenberg, the artist Fairfield Porter and Lawrence Alloway. Arthur overcame these rather daunting precedents quite handily, and before he retired, in 2009, he was called the best art critic of the age. He had been The Nation’s art critic longer than anyone else in its history.
Initially, Arthur’s art criticism was mostly a lark, compared with his real career as perhaps the world’s leading thinker in philosophical aesthetics and the philosophy of history. He had been a professor at Columbia University since 1951, and a few years back, his philosophical work was the subject of a three-day (!) symposium at Columbia University. That, to my mind, put him right up there with Aristotle. But despite his fame as a philosopher, he once told me that being asked to be The Nation’s art critic was “like Lana Turner being discovered at a soda fountain.” It was that same excitement and energy that he brought to his work in these pages.
Betsy Pochoda, then the magazine’s literary editor, “discovered” Arthur, not at Schwab’s drugstore (as was supposedly the case with Turner) but through the late Ben Sonnenberg, the founder of the brilliant literary magazine Grand Street and a friend of them both (and of mine). It was for Grand Street that Arthur wrote one of his best essays, “Gettysburg,” a gripping recreation of that famous Civil War battle and its meanings, and it was thanks to Betsy that Arthur became art critic for The Nation.
Initially, Arthur and I bonded over a shared affinity for the work of Andy Warhol. In fact, what proved to be Andy’s last art opening occurred on the night The Nation held a party in Arthur’s honor at Nell’s, then a hopelessly chic New York nightclub. Nearly the whole “artworld” turned out to honor Arthur that night—“artworld” being a term that Arthur coined back in the 1960s to refer to those critics, dealers, artists, collectors and hangers-on who make art legitimate in our culture. I helped organize the party but arrived late, since I had gone to the opening, where I had got Andy to sign an uncut sheet of dollar bills, though I failed to persuade him to come to the party. Arthur heartily approved of the Warhol dollar bills. It was perhaps as close as I could get to that painting of the five-dollar bill on Arthur’s wall.
In the Nation offices, Arthur was in that special class of Nation writers who made a point of interacting with the Nation staff (not always an easy thing to do). He befriended a bunch of us, and would perform little kindnesses, like giving us review copies of books that he knew we would want, based on having discussed their subjects with us in previous conversations. One never got the idea from talking with him that Arthur was a huge deal in philosophy circles, nor that he had achieved similar stardom in art circles. But one always got the idea that Arthur was a really nice guy.
When I became executive director of The Nation Institute, one of my favorite projects involved sending Arthur to Las Vegas to write about the opening of the improbable art museum at the Bellagio Hotel. The result was “Degas in Vegas” (March 1, 1999). While he could discuss “triangular composition” and all that with the best of them, what made Arthur so unusual was his ability to discuss the actual meaning of a particular work of art, and even where it was exhibited, something that few critics dared to, or cared to, do on a regular basis.
Another Institute project that Arthur loved was Komar and Melamid’s art poll, which became the basis for a special issue of The Nation (3/14/94). The idea was pretty simple: we would commission a poll designed to show what Americans wanted in art (specifically, painting); the artists, Komar and Melamid, the pollsters and a few of us at The Nation would develop the questions; and then the artists would paint a picture based on the poll results. Arthur was delighted to learn of every twist and turn in the project, and he wrote a memorable essay for the subsequent book, Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art, which the magazine’s former senior editor JoAnn Wypijewski put together, and which The New York Times called “a wonderfully tricky work of art.”
Perhaps in return for the Vegas junket, Arthur recommended that I edit a volume of art writing from The Nation (later titled Brushes with History), and we began a series of lunches, ostensibly to discuss the book. In time, we decided that we would begin a quest for the perfect hamburger. Now, whether by this Arthur really meant the Platonic Ideal of a hamburger was left unsaid. But we valiantly scoured the city in search of it. Suddenly, lunch with Arthur seemed like part of a noble philosophical quest… one very dear to my heart.
We continued to meet over the years for burgers, never quite finding the perfect one, and talked of many things—sometimes art, especially anything to do with Andy Warhol—but always of burgers. Would anyone else in the “artworld” really care about getting a really good hamburger? Would Aristotle know where to find the best one? And was Aristotle, not to mention all those in the “artworld” as much of a regular guy as Arthur was? In one of my last e-mails from Arthur, he recalled his time at The Nation, and wrote: “What larks, as Joe says in “Great Expectations”.” That pretty much sums up what it was like knowing Arthur Danto: what larks!
Read just a few of the many pieces Arthur Danto contributed to The Nation over the years:
“Death in the Gallery: On Damien Hirst,” November 20, 2000
“‘Sensation’ in Brooklyn: On Dangerous Art,” November 1, 1999
“Degas in Vegas: On the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art,” March 1, 1999