My aim is to show that we have entered a period of post-historical art, where the need for constant self-revolutionization of art is now past. There can and should never again be anything like the astonishing sequence of convulsions that have defined the art history of our century. . . . In a sense, the post-historical atmosphere of art will return art to human ends. The fermentation of the twentieth century will prove to have been terminal, but exciting as it has been to live through it, we are entering a more stable, more happy period of artistic endeavor where the basic needs to which art has always been responsive may again be met.
—Arthur C. Danto, in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986)
I am suggesting that. . . there are to be no next things. The time for next things is past. The end of art coincides with the end of a history of art that has that kind of structure. After that there is nothing to do but live happily ever after. It was like coming to the end of the world with no more continents to discover. One must now begin to make habitable the only continents that there are. One must learn to live within the limits of the world.
As I see it, this means returning art to the serving of largely human ends.
—Arthur C. Danto, in The State of the Art (1987)
Long wedded to the academic traditions of philosophical rumination, Arthur C. Danto —Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and a former president of the American Philosophical Association— entered upon an entirely new phase of his intellectual career when, at the age of sixty-three, he took up the post of art critic on The Nation. It was, in some respects, an odd development. That Professor Danto took a keen interest in contemporary art had been apparent from the kind of philosophical writing he had been devoting to it for some years. But the writing itself had never left one with the impression that it was the work of a man whose habitual response to works of art was first of all a critical response. For it was not the specific artistic achievement, or lack of achievement, to be found in what artists produced that seemed to constitute a compelling interest for Professor Danto. More often than not, what captured his attention was something else: the philosophical questions that certain modalities of art—and not necessarily those that yielded the greatest results—might conceivably give rise to. Such an interest was entirely proper, of course, in the work of an academic philosopher. Yet it was bound to be an inauspicious starting point from which to make the leap into the very different realm of critical judgment. For in that realm an interest in ideas, though not to be spurned, is hardly a substitute for that faculty of sensibility we call taste. And in the matter of taste—well, it remained to be seen what the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy might have to offer us when, for the first time, he got around to the task of actually criticizing particular works of art.
It should be noted that Professor Danto came to this task at a moment when the entire field of art criticism was in something of a slump. There were some admirable exceptions, to be sure, but by and large the combined pressures of a rampant commercialism, an excessive politicization, and an incontinent academic obscurantism had succeeded in rendering the bulk of the criticism to be found in the art press and in the major exhibition catalogues either entirely unreadable, entirely unreliable, or utterly nonsensical. It also happened that Professor Danto’s appointment came at a moment when The Nation, which in earlier times had boasted a glittering roster of critical eminences, was itself at a nadir as far as its criticism of the arts was concerned. Given this conjunction of bleak circumstance, the entry of a professional philosopher into the world of critical journalism was certain to cause a stir, and it did. An audience yearning for clarity, intelligence, and disinterestedness was ready to give Professor Danto its attention.
What captured Dantos’ attention was something else: the philosophical questions that certain modalities of art—and not necessarily those that yielded the greatest results—might conceivably give rise to.
At the same time, however, his appointment to this critical post, though it gave promise of a certain seriousness, also raised some troubling questions. Since a facile and often unconscionable misuse of certain philosophical texts—Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and sundry Marxian theorists—accounted for the woeful and sometimes hilarious muddle into which so much art criticism had lately degenerated, there was naturally some curiosity as to whether the arrival on the scene of the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy would bring an effective antidote to the worst abuses or only another symptom of a malpractice that was already so noxious. Then, too, there was a further question about exactly how disinterested, in purely political terms, any critic writing regularly for The Nation under its current editorship could be expected to be. The days had long since passed when there was a discernible split in The Nation between its political pages, which in the magazine’s heyday were famously Stalinist, and its back-of-the-book arts pages, which were once conspicuously independent of that deadly influence. As a journal of opinion, The Nation is nowadays nothing if not consistent and all-of-a-piece, front and back, and so it was inevitable that a question should arise as to how its new art critic would fit into the magazine’s current ideological outlook.
To these questions, as well as to various others raised by Professor Danto’s appointment, we are now in a position to seek some provisional answers. Although he embarked upon his new duties at The Nation a scant three years ago, Professor Danto has not been laggard about collecting the fruits of his critical labors in book form. Clearly he is pleased with the results to date, and eager to share them with a wider readership. The very title he has given his first volume of criticism —The State of the Art1—speaks, moreover, for the kind of easy certainty that it often takes non-philosophical critics a much longer period of observation and reflection to acquire. In this respect, at least, there are evidently some advantages in coming to criticism from a long career in academic philosophy. If the latter cannot be said to be an aid to aesthetic judgment, it will nonetheless be invaluable in providing the critic with a sizable repertory of questions and propositions that can be pressed into service on those occasions—which in the life of a philosophical critic are likely to be fairly numerous—when aesthetic judgment is somehow deemed to be inappropriate to the work under review.
Professor Danto leaves us in little doubt about the relation in which he understands his philosophical interests to stand to his own critical practice. In a prologue to The State of the Art, he writes that in his view criticism “has to take the works [of art] on their own terms and find their philosophies for them.” (This is a statement that might strike a non-philosophical critic as harboring at least the appearance of a flagrant contradiction, for if as critics we are obliged to “find” philosophies for works of art, in what sense can we still be said to take them “on their own terms”?) Professor Danto also writes in this prologue that “criticism, in its highest vocation, identifies the thoughts that give life to a work or set of works.” It is, then, as a critic concerned, above all, “to articulate the structures of thought and meaning” that may be found in, or attributed to, a work of art that Professor Danto comes to his new vocation.
In this view, clearly, the art criticism written by non-philosophers is automatically debarred from the “highest vocation” that such criticism can hope to attain. And it is not only in this respect that Professor Danto is thought (if only by himself) to enjoy a special authority in this enterprise. He also brings to art criticism what he obviously regards as another indispensable tool: a completely worked out philosophy of art history. It is to his philosophy of art history, in fact, that Professor Danto devotes the last and most important essay in The State of the Art. It is to that essay, which is called “Approaching the End of Art,” that we must therefore turn if we are fully to understand the columns that Professor Danto has contributed to The Nation, a selection of which makes up the bulk of The State of the Art, for his separate review articles are properly to be read, I gather, as concrete illustrations of the general theory he has proposed in that curious text.
Professor Danto’s theory, though richly larded with appropriate references to Hegel, Heidegger, John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche, Aristotle, and Plato, is easily summarized. The crux of it is to be found in the following proposition: that with Andy Warhol’s exhibition of his Brillo boxes at the Stable Gallery in 1964, the history of art—and therefore art itself—came to an end, and everything thereafter produced in the name of art isn’t really art at all but belongs rather, if it amounts to anything at all, to the realm of philosophy! About that fateful Warhol exhibition in 1964, Professor Danto writes:
And with this, it seemed to me, the history of art attained that point where it had to turn into its own philosophy. It had gone, as art, as far as it could go. In turning into philosophy, art had come to an end. From now on progress could only be enacted on a level of abstract self-consciousness of the kind which philosophy alone must consist in. If artists wished to participate in this progress, they would have to undertake a study very different from what the art schools could prepare them for. They would have to become philosophers.
Thus, it isn’t only the art critics who, according to the terms of this theory, are judged to have been rendered obsolete by Warhol’s historic breakthrough. Artists, too, are on notice that their survival as artists will henceforth depend on their willingness to abandon their traditional (but now obsolete) pursuits in order to join the ranks of the philosophical profession. No doubt it is with this prospect in mind that Professor Danto joyfully informs his readers that “there is [now] nothing to do but live happily ever after.”
It may seem churlish to decline this invitation to happiness, but before we begin dancing in the streets I think it is worth taking a closer look at this theory of art history. Does it actually tell us something important about the art history—or, for that matter, about the art—of the present age? Or is it just another of those ingenious scenarios that are regularly concocted to relieve the tedium of the seminar room and the philosophical colloquium? One can readily understand why such a theory would commend itself to the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia, of course, for it accords to the professional philosopher—or at least to professors of philosophy—a uniquely privileged position in relation to what has heretofore been thought to be art. But the plain truth is, this is not a theory that in any way accounts for the significant achievements of the art of the last quarter century, nor does it contribute anything to our understanding of them. It doesn’t even account for the art that Professor Danto is customarily at pains to praise in his columns in The Nation. He may claim to believe that “art had come to an end” in 1964, but every fortnight or so in The Nation he continues to write about the stuff quite as if it were still being produced. And no wonder! For his precious theory is founded on a patent fallacy. Neither Warhol’s Brillo boxes nor anything else in his art can be said to have constituted the kind of world-historical event that Professor Danto claims it to have been. What Warhol’s art mainly was—and was widely recognized to have been—was something else: a further colonization of the aesthetically arid but nonetheless seductive territory which Marcel Duchamp had opened up decades before and to which the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had lately lent a new status and glamour.
With the advent of the Pop movement in the early Sixties, something important did indeed reach a terminal point, but it wasn’t art. It was the age of the avant-garde. To confuse avant-gardism with art itself, which is what Professor Danto has obviously done in this ill-conceived theory of art history, is, to be sure, a common practice. It has been a staple of art-market salesmanship—and, alas, of market-oriented art history—since Pop Art first succeeded in blitzing the media some twenty-five years ago. One hardly expected a philosopher of Professor Danto’s attainments to fall for such a shallow misconception, much less make it the cornerstone of a theory of art history, but this is what happens, I suppose, when ideas about art—or, I daresay, about anything else—are so categorically divorced from an experience of the thing itself. I am not suggesting that Professor Danto has no experience of art, or even that his experience is meager. He clearly pays lavish attention to it, and he reminds us in The State of the Art that in an earlier period of his life he was an artist himself—a printmaker—before he abandoned that vocation for philosophy. Yet on the evidence of his writings, his experience of art— however rich and varied it may be—appears to repose in a region of the mind that lies beyond the reach of his purely theoretical interests, and it is the latter that dominate his criticism and set the terms of its analysis. One has the impression, in fact, that in isolation from these theoretical interests, the experience of art—perhaps even the work of art itself—is somehow deemed to lack sufficient ontology to merit a central role in shaping his critical thought.
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As a result of the division that obtains in Professor Danto’s art criticism between the interests of philosophy and the realities of art, the essays in The State of the Art that are devoted to individual artists—especially contemporary artists—seldom succeed in illuminating anything very concrete in the art itself. It must also be said that these essays are often crammed with the most pretentious irrelevancies. Consider, for example, the following passage from Professor Danto’s essay on the recent Franz Kline retrospective. He is talking about that moment in the late Forties when Kline moved from representation to abstraction in his painting.
But then, at a certain moment in 1948 or 1949, described for us in a famous passage of Elaine de Kooning’s, Kline became Kline in a way so immediate and unpremeditated that the concept of decision has no application. The force that effected the change came from without, and was grasped with the certitude of a mystical revelation. Kline could have changed his name at that point, as Saint Paul did, so slight was the continuity between the new Kline and the old. It can be argued that this particular revelation could have been granted only to someone who had had specifically the life in art that Kline had had up to the shattering self-disclosure, but it can also be argued that had it not been for an almost entirely accidental intervention, like a fate, Kline would simply have gone on as he had been. It was a moment like the falling of the apple in the myth of Newton, or the fluorescence of a nearby barium screen in the case of Röntgen, or the flames the dozing Kekulé saw as inter-- locked snakes when he got the idea of the benzene ring. Or like Proust’s tasting of the madeleine, without which he would have remained the marginally distinguished belle époque writer of the works that preceded Remembrance of Things Past.
Or, we might add, like none of the above. What had happened was this: On a visit to Willem de Kooning’s studio toward the end of 1948, Kline had seen some of his black and white drawings blown up to wall-scale by means of an opaque projector, and this is said to have triggered his move into large-scale black and white abstraction. To describe that move as “unpremeditated” or “almost entirely accidental” is ridiculous. Kline wasn’t ignorant about what was going on in American painting that year; he hadn’t come to de Kooning’s studio to receive instruction in trompe l’oeil illusionism.
In the spring of 1948 de Kooning had his first one-man show. Reviewing that exhibition at the time, Clement Greenberg—Professor Danto’s predecessor on The Nation— noted that the paintings were mainly executed in “black, gray, tan, and white,” and then went on to make the following observations:
For de Kooning black becomes a color—not the indifferent schema of drawing, but a hue with all the resonance, ambiguity, and variability of the prismatic scale. Spread smoothly in somatic shapes on an uncrowded canvas, this black identifies the physical picture plane with an emphasis other painters achieve only by clotted pigment. De Kooning’s insistence on a smooth, thin surface is a concomitant of his desire for purity, for an art that makes demands only on the optical imagination.2
De Kooning emerged from that first solo exhibition as one of the leaders of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and he was by no means alone in that movement in according to the use of black paint a special role in the new pictorial aesthetic. Earlier that same year Jackson Pollock had also shown some new abstract paintings in which black, white, and aluminum paint predominated. This was the period in which Robert Motherwell was beginning to produce the black and white images that would shortly lead to the Elegy series. Richard Pousette-Dart, Clyfford Still, and Bradley Walker Tomlin were all working in analogous ways. Kline, who belonged to what might be called the “second wave” of the Abstract Expressionist movement, was at that moment clearly looking for a point of entry into the new aesthetic. He may have found it in de Kooning’s studio, but there was nothing remotely “accidental” about the decisions he then made about his art. All those fancy references to Newton, Röntgen, Kekulé, and Proust—not to mention Saint Paul and “the certitude of a mystical revelation"—do nothing but obscure the whole subject.
It would be tedious to recount the many similar passages in The State of the Art that divert the reader’s attention from the actualities of art for the sake of indulging in all manner of irrelevant allusion. It is in such passages, I suppose, that Professor Danto believes himself to be identifying “the thoughts that give life to a work or set of works,” but the only thing really being identified in writing of this sort is the author’s incurable pedantry. And it is not only in relation to contemporary art, moreover, that Professor Danto is pleased to exhibit such pedantry. Historical exhibitions also afford him ample opportunity to play the cheerful academic. Professor Danto evidently believes he has made an astounding discovery: that certain exhibitions have the effect of distorting or enhancing the significance of the works of art they contain. Just imagine! You or I might regard this observation as—well, somewhat commonplace. It is, after all, the sort of thing that experienced museumgoers pick up on quite quickly. But that response would only show how unphilosophical we are. In Professor Danto this commonplace observation inspires the need to adumbrate a theory. He appears, anyway, to be under the impression that in the course of writing the articles collected in this book he began, as he says, “to articulate certain theses regarding the logic of exhibitions themselves.” With what he calls “a certain mock seriousness,” but which I should describe as an involuntary tendency to self-parody, he gives to this writing about “the logic of exhibitions” the august name of Ausstellungskritik. “My thought is,” he writes, “that an exhibition stands to works [of art] as a sentence stands to words, and that it says something of great philosophical meaning that works should be thought of in terms of the syntax of different exhibitional structures.” But is it in any sense true that an exhibition bears to the works of art it encompasses the same relation that a sentence bears to the words it contains? I doubt it. Because works of art have a specific aesthetic gravity—an independent aesthetic existence—that words in themselves can never have, works of art are not at all like words. Nor are exhibitions in the least like sentences, and only a professional philosopher could bring himself to believe such a thing. All that this overblown notion of Ausstellungskritik amounts to, I am afraid, is another comical misapplication of Structuralist theory—always, nowadays, a telltale sign of academic obfuscation.
Remember the “end of ideology”? It made quite a splash in its day. But as a theory, as we were soon to learn, it turned out to be one of the really spectacular misapprehensions of history in our time.
But let us return to Professor Danto’s “end of art” idea. What effect, if any, does it have on his own critical judgment of the new art he encounters in the museums and galleries? At first glance, it would seem to have none. His critical opinions are mostly the received opinions of the moment. The paintings of Leon Golub are said “as if in answer to his prayer, [to] touch at last on artistic greatness.” Jennifer Bartlett is said to be in command of “an exceptional creative force and an unmistakable authenticity.” Eric Fischl’s paintings are found to be “beautifully brushed and deeply intelligent,” whereas Julian Schnabel’s, though said to exhibit “genuine talent,” are dismissed as “fuel for the engines of the art market.” (In the fuel-for-the-engines-of-the-art-market department, do we really have instruments fine enough to measure the difference between Jennifer Bartlett and Julian Schnabel? If Professor Danto has made a discovery here, I wish he would disclose it.) In other words, more commonplaces. But it hardly matters. Critical judgment is not really Professor Danto’s forte. And it is interesting to observe that even in this “post-historical” period when the “end of art” is said to have occurred, the works of Golub, Bartlett, Fischl, et al. are discussed by Professor Danto as if they are works of art, after all. For reasons that are perfectly understandable, even Professor Danto is evidently reluctant to welcome Jennifer Bartlett into the sacred precincts of philosophy.
On a closer examination, however, it will be readily seen that Professor Danto’s “end of art” idea does have a role to play in his critical outlook. By announcing that there are now to be “no next things” in art, Professor Danto can comfortably philosophize about whatever aesthetic phenomena the art world happens to be packaging at the moment without having to bother very much with questions of quality. In a period that Professor Danto has heralded as “post-historical"—his not very useful term for what others call postmodern—critical judgments are finally unimportant, for even bad art, even non-art, can be found to have a “meaning.” And Professor Danto is never so happy as when he can “find” a meaning to convey to us. For him, indeed, art has been effectively pre-empted by meaning. Which is why, perhaps, this happy critic had to wait until he believed the “end of art” had occurred before he could undertake to offer us criticism “in its highest vocation.”
Thinking about this “end of art” theory, I am reminded of another, earlier “end of” theory that once enjoyed a certain intellectual vogue. I mean Daniel Bell’s quaint notion that in the Fifties we had happily arrived at the “end of ideology.” Remember the “end of ideology”? It made quite a splash in its day. But as a theory, as we were soon to learn, it turned out to be one of the really spectacular misapprehensions of history in our time. My prediction is that Professor Danto’s “end of art” theory will meet with a similar fate. Except perhaps in the realm of philosophical rumination, neither history nor art is so easily disposed of. Certainly art criticism cannot dispose of them without rendering itself utterly fatuous.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 1, on page 25
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