Post #506 • March 30, 2005, 7:48 AM • 54 Comments
Barry Gewen for the New York Times: 'Unnatural Wonders': Art for Arthur's Sake.
In "Unnatural Wonders," a collection of reviews written for The Nation between 2000 and 2004, framed by a few broadly philosophical essays, Danto declares: "I was in a sense the first posthistorical critic of art. . . . What was special about me was that I was the only one whose writing was inflected by the belief that we were not just in a new era of art, but in a new kind of era." Greenberg was set on his critical path by Jackson Pollock. Andy Warhol performed the same function for Danto, who argues that ever since Warhol's Brillo boxes of 1964, an art object could be anything at all (or even nothing), that for the first time in history artists were free to do whatever they wanted -- to slice up dead animals, throw elephant dung on canvases, display their soiled underwear and used tampons, mold images of themselves out of their own blood. In this world of total freedom, the actual physical attributes of a work counted for less than its philosophical justifications. All art had become conceptual art, and the job of the critic was to articulate what meaning the particular artist wished to convey and how that meaning was embodied in the work at hand.
Ah, freedom. How can you argue with freedom? As I've said before, art is free to do whatever it wants. Including suck.
To be sure, the often confounding world of modern art can wear anybody down, and Danto is not always at the top of his game. He seems most sympathetic to protean, jack-of-all-trades artists like Richter, who makes a point of working in a variety of styles, or Roth, who purposely blurs the boundaries between art and refuse -- creators, that is, who self-consciously parade their freedom in what Danto has identified as the age of freedom. One begins to suspect that in these cases, Danto's theory sometimes drives his opinions of the individual artists. (He can also, when he loses energy or feels stymied, fall back on the critic's bullying vocabulary, letting words like "sublime" and "epochal" and, most intimidating of all, "beautiful" do his work for him.) Still, Danto's extreme generosity is an important quality in a critic as prone to theorizing as he is. Greenberg went wrong when he turned rigid, becoming a prisoner within his own conceptual framework. Danto always has the image of the later Greenberg before him as a caution. As he writes, "I keep myself open."
Too much has been made of Greenberg's falsely alleged rigidity and not enough has been made of the fact that art degenerated out from under him. Danto fell down with the collapsing heap while Greenberg stayed suspended by his eye and his standards. "Generosity" is a nice way to put it, nevertheless, a gate stuck in the open position is still stuck.
And to see where we're going with this freedom, have a look at this article by Sarah Boxer from two days later in the Times about the Museum of Online Museums, which is a sophisticated gag designed by the amazingly talented people at Coudal Partners. By way of justification, here come Danto and Warhol again:
In the 1960's, deep in the age of MoMA, Andy Warhol painted a stack of plywood cubes to look like Brillo boxes. That was the end of art, the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto proclaimed. He didn't mean that after Warhol there would be no more art, but rather that anything could be art.
If anything could be art, then it follows (by about 40 years) that a collection of anything - birth-control packages, grains of sand from all over the world, Swedish magazines with Ingrid Bergman on the cover, bossa nova album covers, lederhosen, nostrums, moist towelettes, microphones, "misused" quotation marks, Japanese milk bottle pull-tabs, stickers peeled off East Village streets between 1992 to 1995 and air-sickness bags - could and will be a museum.
Free, free, free to suck.
In 1978, James Faure Walker interviewed Greenberg and challenged him that he might sometimes be fooled by his taste, "that you can dismiss original art as being local or idiosyncratic when there's no nearby mainstream to relate it to." Greenberg replied with a better idea about keeping your mind open than the one presented above.
I can't exclude that. You are supposed to make every effort, as it were, to overcome yourself. You travel abroad, you look at art with an innocent eye, no preconceptions. You may have accumulated experience behind you, but the accumulated experience only serves to make you eye more innocent, I believe. ... Relativism of taste is a construction, a received idea.
Danto's idea of freedom necessitates a class of interpreter-priests to translate artistic speaking-in-tongues into discernable meaning. Greenberg's idea has the individual becoming ever more open. The latter seems more evolutionary - a better freedom.