Among the many things written about the recent Matisse retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, none was more bizarre than the “Memo” to President Clinton that appeared in The Nation of February 1. Published on the occasion of the Inauguration festivities in Washington, which took place just after the Matisse show closed in New York, this “Dear Bill” memorandum was written by Arthur C. Danto, the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, who made his debut as the art critic of The Nation during the first Reagan administration. It was ostensibly a plea to the new incumbent at the White House “to declare your aesthetic allegiance now” and thus become “the Arts President.” Yet what made this document at once so strange and so interesting had little to do with what we normally think of as politics. It was what this memorandum had to say about art and its public that made it so extraordinary.

Like many others who observed the immense public response to the Matisse retrospective, Professor Danto was moved to speculate about its significance. What he concluded was that it was “not the pursuit of pleasure that drove these crowds, nor was it aesthetic delectation.” In his view, it was something akin to religious experience that the crowds had come in search of at the Matisse exhibition.

They came to New York [Professor Danto wrote] for the express purpose of some mysterious communion with works they may not understand, because they view them as vehicles of the greatest spiritual meaning. . . . A people prepared to undergo hardships for the sake of art is clearly not one that thinks of art as frivolous, or elitist, or the pastime of their leisure moments, or an ornament of the cultivated life. They are there with the same drive and dedication that bring pilgrims to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.

If this sounds like too large a spiritual burden to be borne even by an artist as great as Matisse, it turned out that in Professor Danto’s view Matisse was only an accidental accessory to the kind of spiritual pilgrimage that was being evoked for the benefit of our new President. True, art of some sort was deemed to be a necessary object or occasion for the kind of pilgrimage Professor Danto had in mind, but other artists were said to be able to perform the same spiritual function—Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, who may not stand as high in Professor Danto’s pantheon of artistic geniuses as Andy Warhol, say, but who is nonetheless a special favorite of this philosopher-critic. Thus, in his “Dear Bill” memorandum to the President, Professor Danto wrote:

My sense is that much the same pilgrim spirit would disclose itself were the Museum of Modern Art to mount a show of the artist the enemies of art in our country have made world-famous, Robert Mapplethorpe. They would not be there, for the most part, with prurient appetites or moralistic attitudes, or even because they are interested in what makes for good photography. . . . No: They would be there, like those who came to see Matisse, because they believe art confers a meaning on their lives and that their lives would be infinitely poorer for its absence.

There are several things to be said about this remarkable claim. One, obviously, is that it totally negates the special aesthetic achievement of Matisse’s art in its general assessment of the exhibition’s appeal. According to this “spiritual” scenario, it hardly matters what kind of “meaning” art confers on our lives as long as a meaning of some sort can be attributed to the work. In recent years we have heard a lot about the question of quality in art, but this preposterous comparison of Mapplethorpe and Matisse goes further in its dismissal of the concept of quality than anything else we have seen. It also reduces the idea of the spiritual in art to something utterly facetious.

There are several things to be said about this remarkable claim.

Another thing to be said about this claim is that it eliminates from the discussion the specific feature of Mapplethorpe’s work that has made it a subject of widespread controversy—what Professor Danto has elsewhere approvingly called its “megaphallolatry.” Perhaps out of deference to Presidential delicacy, Professor Danto makes no mention of what this “megaphallolatry” consists of in Mapplethorpe’s photographs, nor is there any reference to the special sexual practices that are essential to this particular form of worship. Everything that is specific to Mapplethorpe’s work simply gets subsumed in Professor Danto’s invocation to some vague “Republic of the Arts.”

Missing, too, from this discussion of Mapplethorpe is the political meaning of his work that Professor Danto insisted upon when he wrote about the photographer at the time of the Whitney Museum exhibition in 1988. “It seems clear to me that these photographs were political acts,” Professor Danto wrote on that occasion, “and that they would not have been made as art were it not the intention to enlist art in some more critical transformation.” It would certainly have been indelicate for Professor Danto to have spelled out for our new President the exact nature of the “critical transformation” he was referring to. The closest he could bring himself to speak of unspeakable things in his “Dear Bill” memorandum was to invoke the sacred cause of “pluralism,” and then suggest that “we may be required by its ethics to support artistic values alien to our own.” What makes certain artistic values “alien,” however, sort of got lost in Professor Danto’s upbeat concluding reference to “the aesthetic consciousness of mankind.”

What was very touching about Professor Danto’s memorandum was the way it continued to refer to “art” and “aesthetics” as if they could still be thought to exist. For he had made his reputation as an art critic by telling the world in article after article that the history of art had been effectively terminated when Andy Warhol produced his “Brillo Box” masterpieces, and that it is now permanently supplanted by what it pleased the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia to call—well, “philosophy.” Yet here he was in his “Dear Bill” memorandum writing just as if art might still exist, after all. Perhaps it was the public nature of the occasion that made Professor Danto shy about imposing his arcane distinctions upon an aesthetic innocent. Or was it that in the aftermath of the Matisse retrospective he knew he would have sounded the fool if he had once again insisted that art had come to the end of its history?

As for his invitation to President Clinton “to declare your aesthetic allegiance now,” Professor Danto seemed not to notice that in the Inauguration festivities in Washington, our new President had done precisely that. These Inauguration festivities were nothing if not a cultural statement, and I doubt that even Professor Danto, with his large tolerance for “pluralism,” could have mistaken that statement for a spiritual pilgrimage.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 7, on page 1
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