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Stopping Making Art
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Arthur C. Danto

Presented at the University of Illinois, Springfield, on the occasion of an exhibition of my prints, 23 September 2009.

Once I decided to close shop as an artist, I more or less erased that entire episode from my biography, so it was as though it had never happened. Most of my philosophical colleagues had in any case thought of it as a hobby – much as my friends in the art world considered teaching philosophy as my day job. It had been easy for me to keep the two apart, since I felt they had nothing much in common. The field of aesthetics held no interest for me in any case, and when I first moved to New York to pursue a career as artist and, at the same time, to do graduate work in philosophy at Columbia, I was puzzled by how little the canon of aesthetics appeared to bear on what was happening in art, where the concept of taste, so central in the philosophical texts addressed to art, had nothing to do with the painting that shook the world, Abstract Expressionism. There was so little overlap that giving up art was like giving up smoking, so far as doing philosophy was concerned. Like many analytic philosophers, I felt that doing aesthetics, as that was officially pursued, was, well, not really doing philosophy. In 1964, I was knocked off my horse by a show of Andy Warhol’s grocery boxes at the Stable Gallery, and indeed that year I did write a piece called “The Art World,” based on the art that was sweeping the field – Pop and Minimalism. But the art that I had given up seemed to have nothing to do with the exciting work one could see at Leo Castelli’s gallery, then on 77th St., or the Green Gallery on 57th St. So, years later, when Randy Auxier, the editor of The Library of Living Philosophers, proposed that the projected volume on my work might contain an essay on art as I had practiced it, I said No: there was no connection between the philosophy I wrote and the art I made and put aside – some time between 1962 and 1963 – even if a significant part of the philosophy I wrote, from the 1980s on, happens to have been about art. I could never have generated that philosophy out of my own work as an artist.

I recall an internal dialogue that took place while I was working on a block of wood, intended for a print, in which I actually said to myself that I would rather be writing philosophy. My response was: Well, if you feel that way, it’s probably time to stop. It was not that I was getting nowhere with my work, which consisted primarily of woodcut prints. It was rather that I felt I had a shot at saying something fairly original in philosophy. I had written a book in the philosophy of history that had ideas that were at once new and fundamental. I had ideas about the philosophies of knowledge and action that struck me as leading to something important. I also thought that that there were things happening in art that were fresh and exciting, but in which I would have to change radically as an artist if I was to be part of it all. And I thought that the ideas I was working with as an artist were limited, even if the work had a certain quality. In some deep way, something was stirring in the early sixties that I wanted to be part of, and I thought that philosophy, as I was beginning to practice it, was more likely to take me there than art would – though Andy Warhol, who could not have been more central, was for a time despised since he took no position on Viet Nam. In any case, I stopped making art cold turkey, dismantling my studio, rolling my prints up, stowing away my woodblocks. And I have not so much as made a doodle since. It really was like giving up smoking, though easier. It was easier to stop making art than to change the way I made it.

It would never in a million years have occurred to me to have had a show of my work once I stopped being an artist. For the present show, I have to thank the philosopher and aesthetician, Ewa Bogusz-Boltuc, who saw one of my prints for sale on the Internet and wrote me a note about it. The note came quite out of the blue. I knew Ewa from professional meetings; I had not known of her interest in prints. (I take it for granted that aestheticians are in the nature of their calling interested in art as such.} Her note, written just two years ago, was quite a revelation. Who knows whether I might have persisted as an artist, had someone sent me a note like hers in the early sixties!

Dear Prof. Danto, I wonder whether you ever consider publishing or exhibiting again your prints. I was browsing through the Art of the Print web page, and came upon one of your prints. This woodcut, although I can see it only on the Internet, looks exquisite. Not very often have I seen woodcuts that are executed in such a painterly manner, mainly with soft patches of lights and shadows. So, is there any chance to see, one way or the other, your prints?

Ewa is a passionate and determined person, and once I said that I would be pleased to show her what I had, she arranged to make a stop in New York. She is also a person of action, and this exhibition is an extension of her personality. I am also particularly grateful to Liz Murphy Thomas for the spectacular installation she has given the work, and the brilliant catalog she designed, that makes salient the aesthetics of black-and-white that infuses the images with life. My dealer, Sylvan Cole, of Associated American Artists, used to say that colored prints were to be the wave of the future. But the only thing that interested me was black and white. I did not have the patience needed to deal with the registration of forms color printing requires. My late friend, Shiko Munakata, indifferent to tradition, simply painted his prints. But the watery splashes of color, in my judgment, diminished the strength of the black forms that lay so stark and uncompromising against the whitish paper.

I realize that it is not a criticism of the work that it has nothing to do with philosophy. It was certainly an art of its time, though it hardly fit into the radical mode of art that seduced me in the 1960s, and which did, it turned out, open paths into philosophy. Lately, I have begun to see that there are two views of art in one of the great deep works that has come down to us, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. There is a view of art as providing experiences little different from those provided by nature, with which Kant opens. It leads to an empty formalism. Much later in the book, Kant shifts into an entirely different mode, in which the aesthetics of nature can play no role. This is an aesthetics of meaning, requiring a kind of interpretative perception, and it concerns what Kant calls “spirit.” It has nothing to do with taste or pleasure, the main components of his first theory. It is because taste and pleasure are too pallid to accommodate the power of the great Abstract Expressionist canvases of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Barnett Newman – or the work of a more recent master, Sean Scully – that I felt philosophy had nothing worth saying about that art. My prints were conceived and executed under the imperatives of the New York School, even if they were figurative, and mostly on a smaller scale. But the great work in midtown galleries in the 1950s was simply beyond the reach of what was taught in the aesthetics of the philosophical seminar room.

I have lately come to feel that the philosophy of art I went on to write does owe something to my having been an artist, though I cannot pretend you would find a trace of it in the work displayed here. My first book was titled Analytical Philosophy of History, later replaced by the title Narration and Knowledge. As an artist, I was exceedingly sensitive to what it meant to live with a sense of history. I wrote that book in the South of France in 1961. I remember driving up to Paris in early 1962 to go to the American Library, to check out what was happening in New York by looking at recent issues of Art News. I was stunned to see a painting by Roy Lichtenstein, called The Kiss, which looked like it came straight out of a comic book. I was stunned! It was like seeing a picture of a horse in the newspaper and reading that it had been elected as the new Bishop of St. John the Divine. It just seemed impossible. How could a picture like that be shown in a New York gallery, and reproduced in what was at the time the defining art publication in America? But I thought of The Kiss the rest of my time in France. I thought that if it was possible as art anything was possible in art. I remember drawing a church in Rome after that, and thinking: it’s okay to be doing this. I can do anything I want! It was then that I think I really lost interest in making art. That was a very philosophical response. In those days there was a program in philosophy called Phenomenalism. Its claim was that we could, or even should, translate everything there was to say about the world into terms that stood for sense data. In the sixties, there were papers about sense data, asking if they were real. I knew a philosopher at Oxford who lost complete interest in translating into the idiom of sense datum language once he discovered that sense data weren’t real. He thought: what’s the point? I began to feel that way about the figure. What was the point of doing the figure if it’s merely all right to do it? Art, as I practiced it, lost its edge for me. I remember Edward Hopper demonstrating in front of the Whitney, against abstraction. But what was the point of figuration if abstraction was still permitted? In 1959, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a show called “New Images of Man.” There were paintings by Giacometti, Bacon, Leon Golub, and others. The critical response was angry. The show was called regressive. But MoMA would not, in 1959, have shown The Kiss. When Kirk Varnedoe showed comic strips in his show, “High and Low,” he was vilified – and that was in the mid-eighties. The critical establishment was deeply out of phase.

There are, in my writing on the philosophy of art, references to artists’ responses to art. They are self-portraits; the artist was always me, trying to accommodate history. Those questions had to do with what it meant to be an artist in history, especially in the heady years of the sixties when I knew the art I had been making had no place. Maybe it would have had a place in the seventies, when Philip Guston showed his comical Ku Klux Klan figures at the Marlborough Gallery to hoots and howls from painters of every stripe. By that time my prints were sitting in rolls in a closet, and I was writing the third volume in a series of books on analytic philosophy – Analytical Philosophy of Action.

I did not really know Philip Guston, but we shared an experience. We both sat, at one time or another, in Doctor Suzuki’s seminar in Zen, at Columbia. John Cage was a faithful attendant. I know that Agnes Martin was there. I wrote about its impact on me in my essay, “Upper West Side Buddhism.” In truth, I believe that Suzuki’s teaching was crucial in the making philosophy out of my experience with The Kiss. Here is one of his stories: a monk spat on a statue of Buddha, and was reprimanded. The monk responded that he had been taught that Buddha was everywhere – so where was one to spit? In the seventies, it became clear that anything could be art. So why not make art the way one liked? Suddenly, Guston wanted to make art out of caricatures of members of the KKK, smoking cigars. He wanted to represent evil, and say what he thought about it.

I was living in New York when the issue of Life Magazine appeared, asking whether Jackson Pollock was America’s greatest artist. That was in April 1949, and it clarified for me why I was in New York. It showed, I felt, what modern drawing had to be like. It was alive and energetic. The question was how to translate it into the print medium in which I was working. That kind of drawing went – well – against the grain of woodcut, and hence against the grain of Modernist theory, which demanded that each medium should seek what was essential to itself, eliminating everything else. That was the idea of Clement Greenberg, the great critic. But by that time I was deeply into Zen, and saw no reason why one should not be able to carve the most energetic characters into wood, as with letters, for example. Once that obstacle was removed, it was a simple matter to raise the next question. I was not, despite my philosophical education, interested, as an artist, in abstraction. In 1953, de Kooning had done his paintings of frightening women, with heavy breasts and goggle eyes, and rows of menacing teeth. These were shown at the Janis Gallery, and they caused a huge sensation. Pollock’s response, true to type, was anger: “You’re going back into the goddam figure,” he said, following de Kooning’s lead a few years later.

I was a competent draughtsman, as you can see. But it was rather rare that I undertook to draw anything for its own sake. Rather, I would start out with scribbles and brush strokes, in the spirit of Pollock and of de Kooning, and watched to see what emerged. It was as if I was looking for messages, and what came out, mainly, were images of something that was part of my world – of something I knew or had read about and been moved by. I was waiting for something that was part of my world – my children, women I loved, some animals, some scenes from fiction, poetry, history, the newspapers – like the suicide effort of Brigitte Bardot, who fascinated me by her beauty and danger. They looked modern because the artists I drew upon were modern American artists. But they also looked abstract – tangles of wiry black, anchored by heavy brush marks. I went into my studio, usually at night, eager to see what turned up.

The next thing was to translate them into woodcuts. The main task was to preserve the drawing by destroying the drawing. That means: keep the spirit of the drawing by taking it from the paper to the wood. I did not trace, but did something that was better for my purposes. I painted the wood white, using water-soluble paint. Then I pasted the drawing face down with rubber cement. I wanted the drawing to be the way I made it, not its mirror image, which is what you typically get in graphic processes. I then made the paper transparent by soaking it with linseed oil. And I cut it out using X-Acto knives and gouges as routers. I used the cheapest material: shelf paper, pieces of lumber I picked up. I drew with sticks and big brushes. I never used color. What interested me in color would have been the washes of John Marin, or the touches of Cezanne’s watercolors. But that would have been fussier than anything I liked in woodcuts. So I kept it all simple, making bold images that hit you in the eyes. I have said how my dealer kept trying to get me to make colored prints. But that would have required careful registration of multiple blocks that would have looked like something else. I defined myself pretty narrowly as an artist. I really did what I was able to do. I kind of perfected that. I do know that I also got larger and larger as I went along, which suited the times. In truth, I write philosophy in the same way, scribbling until something emerges, and then seeing where I can go.

All this was done by me alone. I did have help with printing, though. Two students, Gary Goldberg and Michael Kelman, helped me out. And I did use expensive Japanese papers – rice paper or mulberry paper. You lay the paper on the block and rub the image through the paper. They lay on the floor all night and were dry next day. After that, one sent them out or carried them around to the galleries. The money meant a lot to me, but it was not the sort of work I loved – shipping the prints out or keeping track of them. I loved making them, but anybody could have handled the business side. When I gave it all up, I used to say that being an artist never got in the way of being a philosopher, but being a successful artist did. I do remember being upset when I heard Liz Manning, the salesperson, at Associated American Artists, referring to a work of mine as “a Danto.” But I had no interest in just making art, I wanted them to enter life, and hang on other people’s walls. I wanted them to be part of life, but life had changed. I saw no place for what I did in the art of the sixties. Happily, I was flat out a philosopher then, and became an art critic exactly twenty years later, in 1984.

When I became a critic, I met everyone under the sun. But I knew very few artists when I was an artist. Some printmakers, some second generation Abstract Expressionists. I mention Pollock and Guston, but I never knew them. They were the great figures of my world, like Achilles and Agamemnon in ancient times. The heroes today are very different, and so the artists for whom they are heroes have to be very different. I could never have been an artist shaped by such heroes, though as a writer, I like their art well enough. I am glad to see that my work holds up despite that. In a way, I feel like an old master.

2010 © Arthur C. Danto

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