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.