danto abuses beauty
Post #600 • August 11, 2005, 8:12 AM • 94 Comments
I wrote the following in response to JL, regarding his Philosophy is Not Pretty post.
I care to come no closer to Danto than Modern Kicks, so thank you for the distillation.
The more I go through the what-is-art problem, the less I feel that the question will end anywhere. Art has taken many forms across time and geography, and we define it at our intellectual peril. It may sound odd to say so, but I think the problem with the question What is art? lies not in art, but in is. I can't envision a definition that would encompass all of the objects characterized as art without making it nearly synonymous with "stuff." Perhaps we classify something as art by virtue of widespread (if not universal) agreement by people who care about such matters.
If we refrain from defining it, does Danto's line of thinking still hold? Probably not, if, as you put it on behalf of Danto, "one can find a single instance of a work of art that is not beautiful, then beauty cannot be part of what defines art." But even if we went along for the ride, I suspect that at the end of that road, we would find that nothing can be a part of what defines art. I think we would find no inherent traits at all, just the above-mentioned inchoate widespread agreement.
The Goya (Saturn Devouring His Children) depicts a gruesome subject, but Goya executed it beautifully. The beauty here lies in the technique and the boldness of the composition, and the painting's ickiness doesn't defeat it. Danto finds the Matisse not beautiful, reasonably enough though I'd disagree, but again, it seems that he cannot define what he means by the term, as you point out.
We learn to detect beauty in the way we learn anything - we start with a native capacity to address some facts about the world and cultivate it. Factors innate to art and factors not innate to art inform that process. Whether beauty resides "in here" or "out there" misses the point - the physicists and theologians have already demonstrated that we make such distinctions because we don't have access to the Big Picture. If beauty occurs "in here" then everything occurs "in here."
And if "artistic beauty is an incidental attribute in most of the world's artistic cultures," then so follow all other attributes. I share your distaste for his conclusion - I would choose a stronger word than "freaky" - for all of the reasons you offer, and an additional one. He once summed up his primary thesis like so:
...the master narrative of the history of art--in the West but by the end not in the West alone--is that there is an era of imitation, followed by an era of ideology, followed by our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes. In our narrative, at first only mimesis 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.
From your report, it seems that he drove some vague terms towards a nihlist conclusion, in a manner that fits his ongoing deconstruction of the whole art enterprise. He has to strike down beauty because it stands in the way of his definition of art as "embodied meanings," which, as he says elsewhere, require the interpretations of philosophers - like himself. Beauty doesn't mean anything. We experience beauty. Since that doesn't fit his model, he blithely suggests that its hypothetical "annihlation" as it applies to art wouldn't matter much. What will people do with this notion? Justify some bad, bad art, and go make some more. You can't do much else with it.
Although art may have no intrinsic traits, we ought to consider that if we're not going to use it as an arena for the beautiful, then we're not going to get much out of it. You quote Danto:
Beauty is an option for art and not a necessary condition. But it is not an option for life. It is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it.
It follows that we could regard beauty as a necessary condition for art as we would want to look at it. But although this seems obvious, Danto sets out against it, with the perverse result that he denies one of the greatest and most powerful methods that humans have brought beauty into their lives.
PS - thanks for introducing me to silentiary.