Danto and the end of art

Arthur Danto leaves behind a legacy that has dramatically changed the art world.

"For Danto, to be an artist meant to become a philosopher," writes Santiago Zabala [EPA]

Last Friday, Arthur C Danto, one of the most important American philosophers and art critics of the second part of the 20th century, died at the age of 89. Danto was born in Ann Arbor in 1929, and raised in Detroit. After studying with the great French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Paris, he became professor of philosophy at Columbia University in 1950.

Not only was Danto a leader within the academy as the author of classical studies on Nietzsche and aesthetics and as president of the American Philosophical Association and the American Society of Aesthetics, but he was also among the most important art critics in the world. Since 1984 he was an art critic for The Nation and Artforum and received several international awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1990, the Frank Jewett Mather Award in 1996, and the French Prix de Philosophie in 2003. As contemporary philosophers Daniel Herwitz and Michael Kelly have recently written, “Danto is a Spinoza of the (New York) marketplace, a denizen of the museum, the gallery, and the lecture hall, beloved by three generations of philosophers, art critics, artists, and New York bricoleurs.”

In order to understand Danto’s contribution to the philosophy of art, it’s important to remember that in the 1960s Anglo-American philosophy and avant-garde art were both still conditioned by rather conservative intellectuals: W V O Quine and Clement Greenberg. Philosophers, following Quine’s belief that “philosophy of science is philosophy enough”, focused on a small number of analytic topics – cognitive values, semantic meanings, and mathematical truths, and avant-garde art was considered, as the influential critic Greenberg explained, a “Kantian” enterprise. Although Danto was formed within this environment, he always felt compelled to overcome its dogmatic ideology, which led him not only to study Nietzsche – who was not considered a serious philosopher within analytic philosophy – but also to favour artists such as John Cage, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol over Picasso, Pollock, and Mondrian who were Greenberg favourites.

What made Warhol’s Brillo Boxes different from commercial Brillo boxes? [Danto’s] answer was simple: the art world.

Importance of art world

In 1964, Danto wrote an article, “The Artworld”, which changed the debate on aesthetics and art forever. Following the conceptual creativity of his European colleagues, Danto coined the term to suggest that it is not possible to understand conceptual art without the help of the artworld, that is, the community of interpreters – critics, art curators, artists, and collectors – within galleries and museums. Apparently, Danto came up with this term when he visited Andy Warhol’s exhibition of Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in New York. There he asked himself a fundamental question: What made Warhol’s Brillo Boxes different from commercial Brillo boxes? His answer was simple: the artworld.

After all, if we ask how many artists it takes to switch on a light bulb, the answer is “one”, but only if there is an artworld that considers it art. This is the world that confers on an artwork respect, privileges, and, most of all, the rights that ordinary objects lack. You can do anything you want with the commercial Brillo boxes, but not with those exhibited by Warhol. This is why Danto, like Hans-Georg Gadamer, conceived of aesthetics as almost irrelevant to the understanding of art because:

“… art works have to be about something – have a meaning – and, unlike sentences, they embody their meanings. Aesthetics is not a separate condition, though it can be part of how a meaning is embodied. But I felt that it was quite possible that something could be a work of art without having any aesthetic qualities at all. I think that was true of Duchamp’s ready-mades. If there can be artworks that are not aesthetic, then being aesthetic is not part of the definition of art.”

End of art?

But Danto did not simply develop a philosophy of art without aesthetics. He also declared the end of art. Following Hegel, the American thinker suggested that in our post-historical or postmodern era there are no stylistic constraints, that is, no special way that works of art have to be. In this condition, where it is not possible to outline the meaning of art by examples, that is, as the outcome of a clear historical development, it is necessary to declare its end.

But this does not mean no one is making any good art anymore. Instead, since Warhol’s exhibition in 1964, artists have paradoxically been free to make art out of anything, out of everything, and, most of all, for anyone. This is why Danto declared in one of his last books that, “Art today is not for connoisseurs of collectors alone. Nor is it only for the people who share the artist’s culture or nationality. The globalisation of the art world means that art addresses us in our humanity, as men and women who seek in art for meanings that neither of art’s peers – philosophy and religion – in what Hegel spoke of as the realm of Absolute Spirit, are able to provide.” If art, in our postmodern condition, provides answers that were once sought only in churches, then it’s not there simply to satisfy us, but perhaps also to save us.

Danto had a deep respect for artists not only for the works they created, but also because they posed, and sought to solve, philosophical problems, at least indirectly. For Danto, to be an artist, meant to become a philosopher. This is why until recently he had been at every major international biennale and many show openings, and even took part in a performance piece, as he testified in one of the last articles he wrote. If those artists who were fortunate enough to capture Danto’s interest – Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and many others – endure in history, that history will be partly formed by Danto’s news that the history of art had ended. 

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, co-authored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press.