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Post #205 • February 3, 2004, 6:49 AM • 4 Comments

From my network of informants:

In case you haven't seen it, the Fallon/Rosof artblog has a VERY juicy post on Arthur Danto. It's like a painfully tense hot-air balloon begging to be punctured. If I had a blog, I'd be on it like a shark on blood. The guy is incredibly overrated, but then again, so is a great deal of the art world.

No argument there. Granted, we're all a little pumped up around here after the Dave Barry post on this site - which is still getting action in the comments from somebody calling himself Asesino (Sp., assassin) who seems to be aligned with the Serious Art People that Barry skewered to great comic effect. Asesino has posted on the ArtForum message boards regarding this discussion; if it takes, it will be the first time I've seen the art world print media acknowledge the existence of an art blog. Thanks! (Next stop would be an acknowledgement in print. I expect that ArtForum et al. will not so much report on artblogging as grudgingly recognize its existence after just about everybody knows about it.)

As for the Danto piece, it reminded me of a passage in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery:

The Master must have felt what was going on in my mind. He had, so Mr. Komachiya told me later, tried to work through a Japanese introduction to philosophy in order to find out how he could help me from a side I already knew. But in the end he had laid the book down with a cross face, remarking that he could now understand that a person who interested himself in such things would naturally find the art of archery uncommonly difficult to learn.

Danto in a nutshell, courtesy Fallon & Rosof:

With the role of philosopher taken over by artists, the role of the critic became all the more important, said Danto.

Art's meaning needed to be decoded by critics. No longer could a piece of art be looked at and understood all at once, the way Michelangelo's audience understood the message painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. As Hegel had said in the 1800s, art no longer satisfied our spiritual needs.

Danto also pointed out the Minimalism, Conceptualism and Pop art all undercut some of the old assumptions about art, including that it was a work of genius, that it required skill and the artist's hand, or that it had to be an object of some special kind. A work of art could be anything--a hole, a game, words.

If anything could be art, then that was the end of art as it had been historically understood. "It was the first time civilization had been in such a situation. Artists could make what they wished."

Danto's conclusion had been inspired by D.T. Suzuki, so I sympathize to some extent, but the freedom has turned out to be its own kind of tyranny. A work of art could be anything! Sounds liberating, doesn't it? But it's like tennis with the net down, as Robert Frost once put it - you trade intensity for liberation. (Artists that chose to keep some of those old parameters, which ought to be an option in this allegedly pluralist art world, have been villified with the worst possible language; accusations of populism, elitism, racism, and sexism are common if not the norm.) Ah - but here come philosophers critics such as Danto, who will, like priests in the Catholic church, serve as intermediaries between Lordly Art and lowly viewer, and make up for the lack of intensity through their magic ability to decode art. It can't be any other way, really. After all:

Art from other cultures for the most part no longer had the immediacy of understanding that religious art from primitive cultures or the Middle Ages had, thanks to globalization.

"Everyone is entering into the same consciousness structure," he said, noting similar problems for critics across the globe, including China and Japan. He saw this pass as a confirmation that his original position that art as we knew it prior to the '60s was dead and that we were living in a different kind of time.

The immediacy of understanding that religious art supplied to those cultures came from their homogeneity, of course. Now that globalization is causing cultures to become more homogenous, the immediacy of understanding is being lost, because, well, I wonder if there are any more cookies in the fridge.

There was also this:

He added that all art was "conceptual, with a small 'c,'" including Michelangelo and Artemisia Gentileschi.

My knee-jerk response is that all art is formal, with a small f. Of course, all art contains conceptual, iconographic, and formal components. Danto's approach looks like a simplistic way of dealing with art.

I would want to read some more Danto before I pass final judgment, but it's not hard to see why he's had such an illustrious career. This all fits in with the anything-goes spirit of the art world since the end of modernist hegemony. If you think that anything goes, Danto's your man. If you think that anything goes, but some things go better than others, it looks like he's not.

UPDATE: Wow, the ArtForum comments boards are going, like, nowhere.



Cinque Hicks

February 3, 2004, 5:55 PM

1. Wow, the ArtForum boards really are going nowhere! Is that typical? With all the intelligent discussion going on here and elsewhere in the blogosphere, I'm trying not to think that the level of discussion at ArtForum somehow reflects on all ArtForum readers.

2. I've always felt that Danto is widely misread. I'm no fan of pointless conceptual art and I even have my problems with Danto himself. But Danto's message was never "anything goes," but rather anything can go. The difference: previous periods in art history have dictated certain necessary formal requirements that a work had to have in order to be held within the frame of "Art." It had to be pious, or it had to be realistic, or it had to be abstract; the requirements changed with the times. In our current age, however, there is no such formal decree from on high, no necessary list of requirements that must be checked off in order for an artwork to "count."

That does not mean you can pluck any old chair out of a dumpster and call it art just because you say so. But it does mean that we're past the point where you can look at an artwork, pull out your checklist and go, "Oh, it doesn't show realistic 3D space, therefore it's not Art." Or "This sculpture is too realistic, not abstract enough, therefore it's not Art." Instead the work must answer a different set of questions (philosophical ones) and then be judged against how well it meets the problems it has set out for itself. It's been a while since I've read his writings, but that's sort of it.

You may want to check out his "After the End of Art" for a more eloquent discussion on this. It's repetitive, but I like repetitive books because their points stick with you. (After all, will you ever forget "I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam I Am?")



February 3, 2004, 7:30 PM

Of course all art was conceptual. It used to be called "narrative," and it wasn't always so arcane. Abstract art dispensed with narrative and explored pure esthetics (primitive, Dionysian). Conceptual art set aside esthetics and explored pure narrative (intellectual, Apollonian).

Draw an axis, with pure concept on one end, and pure esthetics on another, then pick the mix you enjoy in your art. Mostly esthetic? Seek out self-portraits, still lifes, or landscapes. Mostly conceptual? Seek out political works, social commentaries, or broken chairs. (Iconography is a conceptual quantity too. An icon is inserted into a work solely to send a message, regardless of its esthetic quality.)

I found it interesting when Danto said Michelangelo required no interpretation, then compared it to the current day, where all art requires interpretation. I think this is insightful, but maybe not quite the whole story.

Michelangelo was understood by local people in his area, of his faith. An African or Asian visiting Italy, even at that time, would have required an extensive explanation. A non-European visiting Italy today would also need an explanation. So what's the difference? Today, in our multi-cultural world, and one where we are all so many generations removed from Michelangelo's meanings, all art requires explanation. There's very little chance an art student today, anywhere in the world, could examine a volume of works pre-dating the 19th century and understand the slightest thing about them outside their esthetic and compositional quality.

Given that backdrop, if I were an artist in the year 1901, and it seemed to me that all classical art nowadays required explanation anyway, and if I were seeing the art of other cultures more often in my country (e.g., African masks), all of which obviously needs an explanation for the people of my culture to understand as well, then what's the difference if my art were to need a text too?


Michael Betancourt

February 3, 2004, 8:22 PM

Crucial to understanding Danto is the claims made by Geroeg Dickie's Institutional Theory of Art, something that Danto critiques because his own theory is very close to it.
It's not that "anything goes" or even "anything can go" but that the definition of Art depends upon its context: our ability to recognize certain objects as Art is a direct result of their being exhibited as Art. This is the reason interpretation is required. Because we cannot know what art is in an a priori fashion (as was possible in Michaelangelo's time) our ability to recognize it is dependent upon both philosophy and criticism. Danto's argument, for those who work within different frameworks than his, in effect, usurps the position of artist by the critic/philosopher. There is no philosophical reason for artists to make art (a suggestion he makes following his own Hegelian logic.)

[I'm not endorsing this position by explaining it, so please don't blame the messenger.]

This position depends upon our accepting several premises that may not be valid. These assumptions are interlocking, and are derived from established art history, so they aren't controversial execpt to people who have issues with avant-garde art generally.
(1) That a definition for Art such as that proposed by George Dickie's theory (even if ammended) is the appropriate way to understand what Art means
(2) That since the development of found-object based Art (take your pick of artists ranging from Duchamp to Steinback or Koonts) the distinction between an art object and a non-art object has been effaced, requiring a new definition for art
(3) A philosophical self-consciousness of what is Art was established by the end of the 1960s, and like any other philosophical critique reachign its terminus, there is nothing to add by any further development (this comes from Danto's reading of Hegel's lectures--it is an argument that figures prominently in his three books of art philosophy)
(4) Art made after self-consciousness has been achieved no longer must "play by the rules" established during the critique and so is free from history (i.e. the argument from The End of Art)

What this set of premises produces is a situation where no artist can make anything more than a commodity-object. It forecloses on the avant-garde, eliminating its potential for making changes in the future. Danto's work has exactly the same deadening effect on art that French Theory does since it is a philosophical position that reifies nihilism and justifies a complacency with the status quo. (Why fight the system when it immediately incorporates the critique launched against it?) Any artist who would uncritically accept this theory (and I suspect there are a lot) become ensnared in an art system that strongly resembles a translation of the French salon system into the terms of marketplace capitalism at its most incestuous. It doesn't take a marxist (I'm not) to recognize that the economics of the art world in its current configuration, and the globalized version that has been emerging since the late 1980s, relies on theories such as this one to justify itself to itself. Theory of this type also serves as important propaganda to artists because it discourages a learned, contemplated assault. Instead, we get artists who imitate earlier avant-garde movements, styles and positions, but without being able to recognize that both their reuse of earlier (assimilated) methods, and the institutions which support their activity are the reason their critiques and attempts fail to really connect.
By the 1960s a knowledge and engagement with art history had become the definition of serious artist; by the 1980s this had expanded to include critical theory. I'm not sure where this leaves us today, but it is clear that in order to find a "way out" of the contemporary requires something that exceeds and disrupts the status quo to the same effect that the historical avant-gardes did.
Personally, I don't know what this would be; however, it suspect it has to do with a complete rejection of both the commodity aspects of art and the insistent positioning of oneself in the spaces outside the art world. Some of my own work has tried to do this, but its impossible to tell yet what the result is. My feeling is artists need to investigate open source as a model for art (and culture), as well as look into using the internet's potentials to be more than a bulletin board or storefront. (It's doing those things already, but art has not explored the distribution potentials.)



February 4, 2004, 6:20 PM

I don't expect my views will matter much to Arthur Danto, if at all, but I'd like him to know he can relax. He can take up philosophy full time if he likes, and leave art criticism to lowlier minds. The public will be just fine, really. I know I will. I'm touched he's so intent on decoding the meaning of things for me, but his time would be better spent on loftier pursuits--such as becoming the new Hegel.

Seriously, I don't need or want Danto's "help." His opinions are so irrelevant to my relationship with art (which is just that, MY relationship) that he might as well not exist. I wonder how such people manage to inhale so much hot air. Too many clueless and insecure artsy types stroking their egos, perhaps. Anyone whose take on art hinges on some epiphany induced by Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes is simply not credible to me, because Warhol never has been. I don't care about fashion or art establishment dogma or "correct" theory; either something rings true to me or it doesn't, and if not, I reject it. If I have to depend on Danto or anybody else to deal with art, I'm in the wrong game. Bottom line: It's between me and the art, period.



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