The Philosophy of Art
Art has concerned philosophers from the beginning. In The Republic, Plato denounced art as mere imitation. For Hegel, too, art was subordinate to philosophy; in 1828 he wrote that art "in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past." More recently, philosophy professor Arthur C. Danto announced "the end of art" in 1984.
But Danto didn't mean that artists were no longer making art; rather, he was referring to the end of art history. Throughout much of this history, artists--from Hellenistic sculptors in ancient Greece to academic realist painters of nineteenth-century France--sought to realistically depict the natural world. But with the advent of Modernism, realism devolved in a rapid denouement--brush strokes became visible and bold, color was expressive rather than authentic and the figure became increasingly sketchy and crude until nothing remained but pure abstraction. By the 1980s, however, this linear progression came to an abrupt end as the art world entered a new, pluralistic era. This era was not defined by a dominant school or movement but was characterized by its lack thereof.
The same year he declared art history to be over, Danto became The Nation's art critic. With no dominant movement to champion or art-historical future to prophesize, he redefined art criticism as the "first post-historical critic of art."
In some ways, Danto's midcareer shift to art criticism is unsurprising; after studying art at Wayne State University he moved to New York, where he had a short-lived career as an artist in the 1950s. "I showed around a lot," he recalls, painting like "Franz Kline but figuratively." But Danto was studying philosophy in addition to pursuing art. "I liked writing philosophy better, so I just stopped cold," he says. "Doing philosophy and art at the same time was like living two lives--and one life was enough." From that point on, Danto was "single-mindedly a philosopher," as he wrote in his book After the End of Art, eventually becoming a professor of philosophy at Columbia in 1966.
In the 1960s, Danto "got bowled over by Pop Art," a movement that embraced the brash visual imagery of consumer culture. An encounter with Andy Warhol's Brillo Box in 1964 at the Stable Gallery in New York inspired him to write on the new movement--but for philosophers. "I thought, If that's possible [for a Brillo box to be perceived as art], anything is possible. It then occurred to me that I could write philosophically about this," he recalls. Danto was intrigued by the problematic relationship of the two Brillo boxes--the "real" Brillo box and Warhol's Brillo Box installation. Since the Brillo boxes look identical, Danto wondered, what makes one a work of art? This question led Danto to write his first book on art, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.
Since then Danto has published several books on the philosophy of art as well as five collections of his writings for The Nation. In 2003 The Madonna of the Future won the Prix Philosophie, and his latest book, published this year--Unnatural Wonders: Essays From the Gap Between Art and Life--has received widespread praise. He is currently curating "The Art of 9/11," an exhibit at Apex Art in New York, which will open on September 7.
Today Danto lives blocks from Columbia in an apartment built like a house. It's a striking space--airy, colorful and eclectic--with art displayed prominently (not surprising for an art critic and his artist wife). More surprising, perhaps, is the diversity of his collection: There's a trompe l'oeil painting in the style of the nineteenth-century realist William Harnett, abstract paintings by Sean Scully and exuberant artwork by Danto's wife, Barbara Westman. This diversity suggests that he practices what he preaches. Danto extols the virtues of pluralism, the idea that there is no single way to make art. Abstraction, realism, Minimalism and Expressionism all have equal claim; each is a means among many.
What had seemed like a linear progression was really a kind of Möbius strip: The progression of art began at Lascaux only to end, some 15,000 years later, with artists aspiring to paint like cavemen. Now, after the end of art, anything goes.
You've been a professor of philosophy at Columbia for almost forty years. How did you become interested in art?
It was no part of my life plan to be an art critic. I found what I regarded as my calling in analytical philosophy, and I had, and have, considerable philosophical ambitions. My writing was aimed primarily at a professional philosophical audience, and my main endeavor was to set forth a philosophical system based on the concept of representation in a variety of fields. I did, however, start out as an artist, and came to New York with an artistic career in mind. I was drawn here by Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, but abandoned that when I found I was more interested in writing philosophy.
I had no philosophical interest in art until the advent of Pop Art, which showed me how to think philosophically about art in general. In 1964 I presented a paper to the American Philosophical Association, based on the work of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as the practitioners of Minimalism. It was called "The Art World," and it tried to redirect the way the philosophy of art was practiced. I did not, however, develop the ideas, as I was occupied by my system, on which I went on to publish several volumes. But at the end of the 1970s, I began to write a volume with the title The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, which applied the ideas of the system to the philosophy of art. That book was aimed not only at philosophers but at the art world, where the questions had arisen.
How did you first get involved with The Nation?
In 1984 Betsy Pochoda, after working for a spell at Vanity Fair, returned to The Nation as literary editor. The Nation at the time was without an active art critic, since the regular critic, Lawrence Alloway, had become seriously ill. Betsy started looking for a replacement, and my name was suggested to her by [former Grand Street editor] Ben Sonnenberg, who admired The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. He said I seemed to know a lot about contemporary art, though, in truth, I only knew a lot for a philosopher, and that was mostly the art of the 1960s. One day, out of the blue, I received a call from Betsy, whom I did not know, inviting me to write on art for the magazine. I had never considered doing that, but I was deeply moved by the prospect. I proposed writing on a show named "Blam! New York Art 1957-1964," at the Whitney Museum. That, after all, was the art that had engaged me philosophically, and my review was well received. I was given $100, and had the satisfaction of seeing it in print almost immediately, neither of which had ever happened with anything I had published in my usual venues. I loved writing art reviews, and I was soon on the masthead as art critic, which I've been ever since.