Arthur C. Danto Remembered
The Age of Danto
Arthur Danto was the most important Anglo-American philosopher of art of the second half of the twentieth century and his influence continues today. Interestingly, Danto’s earliest philosophical reputation was not primarily based on his work on art, but upon his contributions to epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophies of action and history.
Danto’s career as an aesthetician began with his encounter in 1964 with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. Thinking about that work led Danto to develop both a theory of art and a philosophy of art history, both of which, in turn, underwrote his stellar career as an art critic for the magazine The Nation.
The insight that Danto derived from Warhol’s Brillo Box was that art was not something that the “eye could descry.” That is, you cannot tell that something is an artwork simply by looking; art is not a perceptual category. After all, Warhol’s Brillo Box, which is art, looks just like Proctor and Gamble’s Brillo Boxes, which are not art. The difference between an artwork and its real world counterpart, in other words, can be indiscernible. What makes something art is something you cannot see--a context which Danto called the Artworld--an atmosphere of history and theory.
This approach to theorizing rejected dominant formalist approaches from Clive Bell to Clement Greenberg. It signaled a momentous change in Anglo-American philosophy of art that began to take the history and context of art far more seriously.
At the same time, because philosophers--such as Nelson Goodman, Richard Wollheim and Danto, who had established reputations in arenas of philosophy other than aesthetics--began to write about art, the discipline of the philosophy of art itself gained unprecedented prestige.
Because of Danto’s forays outside of analytic philosophy--including books on Sartre, Nietzsche, and Hindu mysticism--many readers tended to miss the fact that Danto is an essentialist. That is, his philosophy of art seeks to define the ahistorical essence of art. He has not claimed to have nailed down the concept of art completely, but only that he has identified two necessary conditions that anything that is an artwork needs to satisfy. Namely, something is a work of art only if it is about something and only if it embodies or articulates whatever it is about in an appropriate form. For example, Warhol’s Brillo Box is about, among other things, the commodification of art, a theme it embodies, appropriately enough, by being indiscernible from a commercial object.
As should be evident, this formula for identifying art is also serviceable as an elegant recipe for pursuing art criticism. On this view, the task of the art critic is to determine what the artwork is about and then to explain how the stylistic choices the artist elected embody (or fail to embody) the meaning or content of the artwork. And this, of course, is the patent for the art criticism Danto produced so magnificently as during his tenure as an art critic.
If Danto’s philosophy of art sounds like Hegel’s, the same can be said of his philosophy of art history. For, like Hegel, Danto argues that art history has come to an end. What Danto means by this is that the kind of progressive, modernist narratives of art history propounded by Greenberg and his followers are no longer available--that is, can no longer be told. Why not? Greenberg thought of modernist art as a reflexive adventure of self-definition--of artists exhibiting the essential features of their medium, like the flatness of the picture plane, by means of painting in a way that exemplifies those very features. But this assumes that art status is a perceptual property. And Warhol, according to Danto, stopped this story in its tracks by showing that artworks could be indiscernible from real things, like Brillo Boxes.
In other words, Brillo Box showed that art could look like anything. And if artworks can look like anything, then artworks do not possess some unique manifest properties that painters can show forth emphatically or foreground. For Danto, Warhol liberated artists from the allegedly historic responsibility to define the medium of painting by means of painting. Art history with a capital H – art history with what the Greeks called a telos or guiding purpose or end--is no longer feasible. Instead, artists can explore whatever purposes they choose and in any visual style they fancy. We have entered what Danto calls a post-historical period of art, a phrase perhaps more apt for the pluralism of the present period than the notion of postmodernism since it is not tethered narrowly to certain privileged themes such as pastiche and the representation of representation.
Danto’s philosophy of art history is intimately connected to both his theory of art and his art criticism. In order to deliver up the ahistorical essence of art, one must defend one’s definition of art from the future--from artworks now unimagined. Danto thought he achieved this by establishing that post-Warhol art can look like anything. That means that future artists cannot make anything--anything visual--that would refute his theory.
But Danto’s philosophy of art history also suits his mode of art criticism. In fact, his history and his criticism are made for each other. The critic Danto can handle anything the art world can serve up, no matter what it looks like. The work just has to be about something and to be embodied in a form that Danto can explain successfully in terms of the way in which it articulates its meaning or content (its aboutness). In short, Danto’s critical approach, as derived from his theory of art, is perfectly adjusted to the pluralism of the post historical period of art history that Danto himself has both discovered and christened.
The intricate, unified package of art theory, the philosophy of art history, and the practice of criticism that Danto has constructed is arguably unrivaled any other contemporary commentator. That it so perfectly fits the contours of our post-historical condition warrants thinking about ourselves as living in The Age of Danto.