Arthur Danto on What Art Is

What Art IsArthur Danto, the influential art critic and a professor emeritus of aesthetics and history at Columbia University, once famously declared the End of Art.

“In our narrative, at first only mimesis [imitation] was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the master narrative. It is the end of the story.”    

The definition of art has undergone frequent, violent revolutions since Socrates first defined art as imitation in Plato’s Republic.  The great movements of the 1960s—Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism Conceptual Art—brought with them the final revolution. The properties at various times and to various extents thought essential to art—beauty, taste, visual truth—no longer could be said to characterize what was now labeled art. In the absence of identifiable, universally shared features, art critics and aestheticians have suggested that art must forever remain an open concept.

The implications for accepting this theory, Danto tells us, are sweeping and devastating. If there are no standards according to which we can differentiate art from non-art, art is a vacuous concept. If everything can be art, nothing can be art. Art has come to an end.

In a provocative new work, What Art Is, Danto retracts his declaration that art has come to an end. Drawing heavily on the aesthetic theory found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Danto argues that we need not concede that “art” is an open container into which we are free to stuff any meaning at all. With renewed vigor, Danto takes up the once abandoned search for an overarching set of criteria for art.

At the outset of his ambitious quest, Danto draws an important distinction between the epistemology and ontology of art. The epistemology of art asks, how can one know that something is art? The ontology of art asks a more fundamental question, what does it mean to be art? In other words, the question is not how can the connoisseur recognize that Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes are art, but what makes Warhol’s Brillo boxes art and the identical factory-made Brillo boxes not-art?

My sense is that, is there are no visible differences, there had to have been invisible differences—not invisible like the Brillo pads packed in the Brillo boxes, but properties that were always invisible. I’ve proposed two such properties are invisible in their nature. In my first book on the philosophy of art I thought that works of art were about something, and I decided that works of art accordingly had meaning. We infer meaning or grasp meaning, but meanings are not at all material. I then thought that meanings were embodied in the object that had them. I then declared that works of art are embodied meanings.

For a work of art to be a work of art, then, it must embody meaning. Our task as viewers is to determine the meaning embodied in the art. From the many properties we can ascribe to a material object, we must discern which of those properties communicate meaning.

Danto‘s book is a short, beautifully written and provocative work that merits the attention of any reader curious about art and the challenges of defining it.

5 Discussions on
“Arthur Danto on What Art Is”
  • I don’t know if we can trust again someone who made the horrendous blunder of declaring art dead. More what he seemed to be saying was just that the definition of art had become so open ended that it was irrelevant. But that doesn’t mean that all art itself is irrelevant, just that particular definition of art.

    Sometimes it seems these philosophers use highfalutin terminology to made otherwise simple or obvious statements seem ponderously profound, so much so that we can’t quite grasp them. Rene Descartes would have us do intellectual back-flips through flaming rhetorical loops to declare what is undeniable to begin with. “I think therefore I am”. I’d be more impressed if he could somehow think himself into not existing.

    So now we learn that art is alive again. We needed someone to tell us that. What makes art “art” is “meaning”. That’s so open-ended it’s meaningless again. What doesn’t have meaning? Then does it all become about sentences we can elaborate about a given piece in order to ascribe meaning or significance to it?

    True, a lot of things have been classified as art that might more properly belong to theater, protest, pranks, or even gratuitous acts. often “art” is generically applied to “visual art”, as opposed to music or literature. If one’s talking about “visual” art than it should be strongly visual. Somehow performance art got lumped into the “visual art” tradition, but I think it belongs to the performing arts, and more specifically “theater”.

    To test these brave new theories of art, we can just apply them to a more popular kind of art, namely music. Nobody really needs to be told what music is, but we can confuse them if we inundate them with enough pseudo-philosophical babble. Sure, some noise is classified as music, but, most of us will weed out the kind of “music” that gives us headaches, hurts our ears, or especially does damage to our hearing. “Music” revolves around sound and has some sort of structure or organization to make it pleasing or interesting or captivating. Visual art has similar organization to make it interesting.

    Stuff like Duchamp displaying a urinal, or Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes are “art commentary” or “art criticism” or “social criticism” or whatever, masquerading as art itself. If we roll a firetruck into an auditorium, turn on the siren, and call it a symphony, that’s not actually music. That’s a discourse ABOUT music. It’s commentary. This is especially obvious in art that claims to be “about the idea”. That’s commentary.

  • Reblogged this on KELLY 2D and commented:
    Arthur Danto writes about things I like to think and read about. I often remind students in 2D Comp that we’re not teaching rules for making art, but developing strategies for making art … whatever it is.

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