The Philosophy of Art

The Philosophy of Art

Arthur Danto talks about art in America, the rise of pluralism and how The Nation changed his life.


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.

Was it difficult to make the transition from academia to popular art criticism?

I began writing art criticism by writing art criticism. It came to me easily and naturally, but I could never have presented myself as a possible candidate for such a position. I would have been considered overqualified, and too academic. Nobody outside philosophy knew who I was. What I found was that I could do something as an art critic that I could not do as a philosopher, namely philosophize. Betsy’s phone call changed my life. It was like Lana Turner being discovered at a soda fountain. What I brought to my criticism was something I learned as a philosophical writer–to write clearly, concisely and logically. Too much art writing was and is jargonistic and windy. I had a good time writing the pieces, and I wanted the reader to have a good time reading them. And, because I am a teacher, I wanted readers to learn new ways of thinking about art.

Why is art criticism important for a magazine like The Nation?

Professional art criticism, as opposed to belletristic essays on art, really began at The Nation in the 1860s. Peter Meyer and I put together an anthology of The Nation‘s critics, beginning with a letter to the editor by P.T. Barnum. We called it Brushes With History, for one can follow art history in America through The Nation‘s response to exhibitions and controversies. The founders of the periodical were disciples of John Ruskin, who believed that if the art is sound, society will be sound. To reform society one must reform the art, and everything will follow as a matter of course. Nobody quite believes that today, of course, but there can be little doubt that artists, especially today, are addressing the main questions society faces, so that if we confront the art, we are bound to think about the issues that face us as a society.

The art world today is highly globalized. More and more, the same artistic values are globally shared, which must mean that ultimately other values will be shared. In this respect, things have changed drastically in art since I began writing. Recently, I got a letter from Khalad al-Hamzah, an artist in Jordan, who received funding to execute a conceptual work based on some of my philosophical ideas. I was quite overwhelmed that in a country where we mostly are aware of political matters, the avant-garde works with concepts that would be grasped by the avant-garde anywhere and everywhere. Islam prohibits images, but is open to conceptual art–and today most art is conceptual. The landscape is made to order for philosophers!

Since this is for The Nation, I should ask at least one political question. In an article last year in Artforum, you wrote, “In America, the separation of the art and the state is almost as strong as that of church and state.” What role should government, and our government specifically, play in supporting art?

The National Gallery in Washington is perhaps the only national museum that is not also a monument to the national spirit. It has no patriotic aura. That is typical of the American governmental system, that our art is viewed as a matter of individual rather than national interest. It is, in my view, a blessing that the government does not care what art looks like. It is through and through a matter of individual freedom, and hence falls under one of the fundamental rights, the right to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness. Even Mayor Giuliani acknowledged this, asking only whether it is proper for our taxes to go to support work that is contrary to our values.

I take it for granted that my taxes go to support a government whose decisions often go counter to my values, and that is how things are in an open and free society with a representative government. The First Amendment protects freedom of expression, but there is a good argument that freedom is in the national interest, since free and open discussion is essential to arriving at decisions. The museum is a forum, and most art is political. But a lot of education is needed to get citizens to willingly accept that their money goes to support an art they often find repugnant. Some of the education should help dull the repugnance but may never entirely eliminate it. There is no a priori rule that all art will ultimately be loved by everyone.

I also want to ask your thoughts on the philosophy of art. Duchamp placed everyday objects on exhibition as found art. Moholy-Nagy’s telephone paintings were made in a factory; the canvases remained untouched by the artist’s hand until their delivery. Artists from Donald Judd to Jeff Koons have turned over the construction of their art to engineers and craftsmen. Since it’s generally accepted that artists can make art without actually making anything, does artistic ability and technique have any value?

As a member of Dada, Duchamp was deeply opposed to the idea of the Great Artist as cultural hero. He felt that the overheated adoration of the artist had had disastrous political consequence. So he was anti-art, which meant that he despised the artist’s eye and the artist’s touch or hand. Handless creation was a Dada ideal–thus the ready-mades. The consequence was that craft dropped out of the concept of art, the way beauty did when Dada set out to destroy beauty. That opened the way for the artist to turn the making of things over to others, as in the case of Koons or, for different reasons, with Donald Judd. The art was in the idea, whoever executed it. In Judd’s case, there was a kind of machine-shop aesthetic he made it possible to appreciate. He knew he could not make edges and corners the way machines could. But of course there is art where we admire the touch–as in Guston or de Kooning. These enter the meaning of the work. The beautiful thing about pluralism is that there is no one way of doing anything. I subscribe to an aesthetic of meanings rather than an aesthetic of forms. My interest is in finding the meanings and explaining how they are embodied in works of art. That is what my writing is mostly about.

Finally, what artists or artworks do you love?

I have fairly conservative tastes. I love eighteenth-century French painting, Watteau and Chardin especially. I love Morandi and Modigliani. Among contemporary artists I like abstract painting a lot–Robert Mangold, Sean Scully, David Reed. But not all important art is especially lovable. I can’t say I love Jeff Koons’s work–but I think it’s important. Who can actually love Duchamp’s work? What I hate is being manipulated. I hate Francis Bacon for that reason. But I forgive Norman Rockwell, since I am given to sentimentality. I really wish the world were a lot more like his world than it is. I love Robert Rauschenberg for erasing a drawing of de Kooning, just because of its brashness. I could go on and on about this!

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