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Nov 122013
 

The late Arthur Danto was open to and appreciative of all sorts of possibilities in art, as other visual arts critics were not.

The late Arthur Danto

The late Arthur Danto — writing about art brought him into the midst of the life and culture of his day.

By Harvey Blume

Arthur Danto died on Friday, October 25, age 89, after having, over his long career as a writer, critic and educator, worked out a distinctive take on contemporary art and aesthetics, one he often termed Duchampian. By that he meant there was more to visual art than what immediately hit the eye, more than what resulted, as Duchamp put it, in “retinal flutter.” Art was unavoidably involved with concepts, meanings, questions. None were more intriguing for Danto over the long haul than the question, as Duchamp posed it in his readymades, of what distinguished pieces of art from like pieces, a bicycle wheel or upside-down urinal, for example, as deployed by Duchamp, from the ordinary item.

For Danto, this was a philosophical question par excellence, which meant that to read him as he explored it was to encounter a heady blend of philosophy, art history, and close attention to the art works at hand. You might, for example, find Heidegger rubbing up against Warhol in a piece by Danto, or run into Wittgenstein as implicated by an appreciation of Mapplethorpe. You will often find Danto flummoxed by how much he is inspired by Hegel, who, given Danto’s background and bona fides in analytic philosophy, should have been the thinker most non grata. That Danto cites Hegel’s writing about art again and again — the last sentence of his last book is yet another nod to how much he “learned from Hegel” — is an inviting paradox in his work.

None of this should give the impression that Danto’s writing was labored or pedantic. “Quite early on,” he once said, “I decided to be a literary writer, which meant that I wanted my pieces to be a pleasure to read.” And so they were. Danto might argue that visual art had left aesthetics behind, in the sense that beauty in any traditional sense was no longer a defining criterion or even necessary ingredient of an art work, but he took pains to make that argument in excellent prose. This is no more evident than throughout Danto’s last volume, What Art Is (Yale University Press). This slim, elegant book hangs on two close readings of visual works. I’ll return to them shortly but given his recent demise, I can’t but think back on my contacts with him, dating to my undergraduate days at Columbia College, where he taught philosophy.

My first memories of Professor Danto, circa 1966-67, are of someone who defied my rage to pigeonhole profs. Danto called himself an analytic philosopher and never disowned the label though he hardly looked or, as became more evident over time, thought the part. Analytic philosophy, to summarize it ruefully if brutally, was the attempt to expunge from the field anything that smacked of metaphysics, anything that might be guilty of intellectual overreach, or of passing off linguistic dead ends as deep thought.

The urge to purge is a traditional and intrinsic impulse of philosophy — how it has always critiqued and reoriented itself — but was never practiced with quite the zeal the analytics brought to it. (The famous line with which Wittgenstein poetically ended his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” — cast a sort of spell on those who followed him, sealing many a philosophical lip). Danto himself, in mid-career, delivered a scathing assessment of the stop and frisk approach to ideas employed by the analytic police.

He described papers that came out of Vienna Circle, an early twentieth-century source of the school, as, “specimens of disciplined aggressivity. The ‘final solution to the problems of metaphysics’ [as it was termed] sounds an uncomfortable echo to other final solutions being noised about in the German-speaking world in the thirties and early forties.”


Analytic thinkers tended to wear suits and ties, the dress code of the managerial class, befitting those who were whipping the wild and woolly field of philosophy into manageable shape. Danto did not adopt that uniform. He lectured in a shaggy wool sweater — green, as I recall — often dashing across the hall with an arm quickly outstretched as if to snare a thought before it sailed out of reach.

The course I took with Danto was concerned with what he dubbed the analytic theory of action: simple acts without precursors or antecedents, acts unto themselves, basic, irreducible kinetics. He later mused that since, “those were revolutionary times in universities”, he had been naive not to expect that a course on action would inevitably attract students who thought the focus would be political action. “I never saw so many bored, disillusioned people in my life,” he reflected, “as when I explained that I was interested in such simple performances as raising eyebrows or raising body temperatures.”

I was among those for whom no theory of eyebrows could possibly matter as much as increasing opposition to the draft and the War in Vietnam, but I was never bored by Danto, never dozed through his lectures, as I did through talks by other luminaries at Columbia. Danto threw himself into thinking, was almost whiplashed by it, chasing notions as if they were line drives. Thinking was the basic act for him.

My next encounters with Danto came years later, after he had undergone his intellectual metamorphosis and emerged from it writing about art. Danto became art critic for The Nation in 1984, and it was through his pieces there that I picked up his trail. As he said in an interview I conducted with him, “there [was] an energy which came into my writing in The Nation for which I have no explanation at all.” Elsewhere he observed that writing about art brought him into the midst of the life and culture of his day.


Broadway Gas. Photo: Harvey Blume

Broadway Gas. Photo: Harvey Blume

These days I never fail to think of Danto when I drive past the gas station where I get my car inspected. Its sign boasts a red background, the lettering mostly white, except for the word “Gas”, in blue, italicized and jazzy. Red, white and blue: America gassed up and ready to go. I would never have given a second thought to this sign, were it not for Danto’s close reading of the Brillo Box — the original, supermarket, non-Warhol version — in What Art Is.

The 1964 box is decorated with two wavy zones of red separated by one of white, which flows between them and around the box like a river. The world “Brillo” is printed in proclamatory letters: the consonants in blue, the vowels — i and o — in red, on the river of white. Red, white, and blue are the colors of patriotism. . . The white river metaphorically implies grease washed away, leaving only purity in its wake. The word “Brillo” conveys an excitement which is carried out in various other words — the idioms of advertising — that are distributed on the surfaces of the box, the way the idioms of revolution or protest are boldly blazoned on banners and placards carried by demonstrators. The pads are GIANT. The product is NEW. The carton conveys ecstasy, and is in its own way a masterpiece of visual rhetoric.

Some have criticized Danto for insufficient retinal flutter, for big thoughts at the expense of seeing. There are scores of examples in his work that refute that charge. His reading of the Brillo Box is one of them, even if his goal in that case was to show that despite being a triumph of “visual rhetoric,” the Brillo Box was, in its pure state, the opposite of art.

Danto credits the design of the Brillo Box to James Harvey, an Abstract Expressionist painter who “made his living as a freelance package designer.” Harvey’s Brillo Box was absent the very things he and painters of his ilk strove for on the canvas — spontaneity, originality, emotion. Then comes Warhol, who looks at that Brillo Box and sees it not as the antithesis of art, but, just maybe, though nobody has said so yet, the very thing. In short, Warhol likes it! (Liking things made Warhol Warhol well before it made Facebook Facebook.)

It should be said, for those who don’t know Danto’s writings, that the Brillo Box was his soapbox, his platform for puzzling over what art is, the issue that vexed and preoccupied him ever since he attended the show at the Stable Gallery, in 1964, where Warhol unveiled his own, art world, Brillo Box.

What made the Warhol version different from the supermarket box? What if the boxes were made of the same stuff, were chemically identical? What if, to push the point, you could find in the Warhol box those very bristly pads so good for scouring? What then could account for the difference, if any, between the object in the art gallery and what you got at the store?

Warhol brillo

I’m not going to summarize Danto’s work, over a lifetime, on this point, because, for one thing, it varied as he refined it. I will say he was open to and appreciative of all sorts of possibilities in art, as other critics were not. Danto’s predecessor at the Nation was the hugely influential Clement Greenberg, the prophet cum commissar of Abstract Expressionism, who reserved aesthetic Gulag for those who did not follow his Ab-Ex creed. Danto’s dogma, if it can be called that, was that the age of dogma, with regard to art, was over: art could be anything, which didn’t mean that anything could be art and certainly not good art.

But back to Brillo Boxes, Harvey’s and Warhol’s. The difference has to do with what I’ll call “aboutedness.” The supermarket box is about your pots and pans; its “visual rhetoric” summons you to the checkout counter, the kitchen, the sink. The Warhol box is about your life and the place of things like Brillo Boxes and Campbell Soup Cans within it.

Danto adds, as an aside, that Warhol was “born into poverty and . . . might therefore be in love with the warmth of a kitchen in which all the new products were used.” Who knows? It’s difficult to probe the glossy mind of Warhol, and unnecessary. More to that point, Danto writes: “Harvey created a design that obviously appealed to popular sensibilities. Warhol brought these sensibilities to consciousness. Warhol was a very popular artist because people felt his art was about them. But Harvey’s box was not about them. It was about Brillo.”

I’d like to thank Prof. Danto for teaching me, as a corollary of his main thesis, to see my gas station anew, to appreciate its logo and its sign even if they mean nothing beyond getting gas, checking oil, and, please oh please, securing an inspection sticker.

The object of the second deep reading in What Art Is falls at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum from Brillo. Danto takes up the restoration of “Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the great decoration of the Sistine Chapel’s vault, with the scenes of a narrative in which, when I first saw it, figures move in and out of an enveloping dark.” When Danto revisits the Sistine Chapel in 1996 he becomes irate at what restoration had wrought, including the fact that the “enveloping dark” has been expunged. Danto couldn’t disagree more with the credo of Gianluigi Colalucci, who had supervised the restoration, ordaining it to proceed: “Step by step and brushstroke by brushstroke [so as to arrive at] the true nature of Michelangelo’s art.”

But Colalucci starts cleansing the Sistine Chapel at the very end of the sequence of Biblical narratives Michelangelo depicted, thus annulling any sense of order or coherence the artist might have intended. “Brushstroke by brushstroke” would be the ideal way to restore a Monet, for example, but, for Danto, was precisely the wrong approach to Michelangelo, who was not, like an Impressionist, devoted to vagaries of light and color. Especially with the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo had overarching meanings in mind.

All were absent, for Danto, from the restored Chapel. Danto asks if after all Michelangelo was better served with “time and grime as benign collaborators.” Now, he says, viewers are “left with a choice of whether what has been taken away is dirt or meaning.”
***

danto-17-9-12

To summarize Danto’s last work this way makes no room for how much the book is shot through with observations and asides that season the central points.

For example: Why was philosophy spared the ravages and obscurities that Theory — Derrida, Foucault et al — visited on other disciplines? Because, as per Danto, philosophy had made a career out of ravaging, purging and at least arguing strenuously with itself. Philosophy regularly tore itself to pieces. Since that was philosophy, who needed “Theory”?

Much as I relish this book, I don’t mean to imply it, or Danto’s work as a whole, are complete. Danto never really comes to terms with the art market. Why is a Warhol Brillo Box so many orders of magnitude more expensive than the original? What does it mean that today’s art market has astronomically little relation to the place it occupied when Duchamp turned a urinal upside down? Danto doesn’t take this up; it doesn’t engage him philosophically, even though the art market has challenged and changed art.

Then there is the question of philosophy itself. In What Art Is Danto alludes often to ontology, the branch of the discipline devoted to “the study of what it means to be something.” Ontology, for example, is called on to distinguish art from resemblances and sources — the Warhol from the Harvey. But why is this not merely a question of classification? Why invoke ontology?

In short, what is philosophy, Professor Danto?

I called him to ask him this several weeks before he died. His caretaker said he could not come to the phone. Knowing how he had got on in years, I did not have the heart to call again.

We do have his works. There is nothing quite like them in the writings of art critics today, however passionate and astute they might be, nothing with the same height and depth.

Perhaps that speaks best of all for the value of philosophy.


Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.

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  9 Responses to “Fuse Remembrance: His Soapbox Was The Brillo Box — Arthur Danto, 1/1/1924 –10/25/2013”

Comments (9)
  1. Thanks for the write up on Danto. I didn’t realize that he had passed on. I only discovered him in the last 10 years and continually go back to read random pieces and chapters for that occasional ‘ah, ha’ moment.

  2. With due respect to the late Arthur Danto’s impressive intellect, I want to point out one of the problematic (even troubling) aspects of his understanding of arts criticism. Harvey asserts that “Danto’s dogma, if it can be called that, was that the age of dogma, with regard to art, was over: art could be anything, which didn’t mean that anything could be art and certainly not good art.” But the thorny issue of what is good art, and if a critic should make those kinds of judgments, was a non-issue for Danto. He didn’t believe that critics should make negative value judgments about visual art – they were around to simply explicate why something was considered the real thing by museums, gallery owners, etc. He did not write any reviews of inferior art while he was a visual arts critic at The Nation. Here is some of his reasoning for abstaining from pointing out the second-rate in his 2005 essay “The Fly in the Fly Bottle: The Explanation and Judgments of Works of Art”:

    Quality is not an aura around a work or body of work, and nimbuses in any case were shorthand for holiness, which refers a complex body of actions and certain relationships to invisible and perhaps unrepresentable forces. One primarily reviews exhibitions, and the fact that an artist’s work has been selected for a museum exhibition, for example, is evidence that a number of individuals, who have undergone training and acquired the experience that entities them to make such decisions, have come to the shared conclusions that the work merits display, and that the public will benefit in various ways by seeing the work in this format. The work will have made its way somehow into the consciousness of the art world, and a consensus will have emerged as to where it stands and what it does.

    For Danto, the critic is essentially an educator, explaining to the skeptical public why the artistic consensus, somehow arrived at by experts, is right. The reviewer is not supposed to challenge artistic decisions (dogma?) made by the powers that be – he or she helps consumers accept institutional fiats. Why can’t value judgments be part of the process of enlightening the public? That question and others, regarding the complex reasons behind why certain artists end up being presented by galleries, are not taken up in the essay. The debilitating limitations of Danto’s approach for criticism are obvious – in his monthly column, Danto chose not to review artists he didn’t like. Not only did he use this tactic to elude the inevitable heat of “mental combat” in the highly politicized art world, but it means we don’t know why he disapproved of certain artists. Silence is not an argument. Negative as well as positive verdicts (backed up detailed reasoning) give readers invaluable insight into a critic’s thinking.

    Danto could be critical when he wanted to – he wrote an incisive piece on the strengths and weaknesses of Clement Greenberg as a critic in his book After the End of Art. But his decision to marginalize value judgments, to accept the strictures of the status quo, is a reminder that even first-rate critics find ways to mitigate their elemental duty to render independent and fearless judgments. That sets a bad example for others. Today, the duty to educate and market are squeezing out serious criticism of the arts. Editors and critics no longer believe in writing or publishing negative reviews – why not recommend the good and ignore the rest? Or just have the critic describe what he or she sees or reads? Let readers decide. The idea that the critic is charged, at least on occasion, to proclaim that the emperor has no clothes carries little weight in these days of Branding gone amuck. Danto, alas, would agree that the critical load should be lightened. Apparently, reviewers should not question the institutional dogma of their time. Find something to like, explain why it is good to the disbelievers, and shut up about the rest.

    • **Bill,

      About Danto I couldn’t disagree with you more. More to the point, I think you miss the point.

      First let me deal with your saying Danto ducked writing negative reviews, and adhered to the view that: “The reviewer is not supposed to challenge artistic decisions made by the powers that be”.

      Really? Here’s what he wrote about art star Jeff Koons:

      There is an order of imagery so far beyond the pale of good or even bad taste as to be aesthetically, and certainly artistically, disenfranchised. Objects that belong to it are too submerged even to be classed as kitsch. . . . Koons has claimed this imagery as his own, has taken over its colors, its cloying saccharinities, its gluey sentimentalities, its blank indifference to the existence and meaning of high art, and give it a monumentality that makes it flagrantly visible, a feast for appetites no one dreamed existed and which the art world hates itself for acknowledging.[from Encounters and Reflections, pp. 280-81]

      Negative enough for you? How about this, by Danto, about David Salle:

      It is not so much that the work is bad as that its badness seems willed even when there is no clear sign that the artist could do better if he wished to . . . Salle demonstrates a certain spectacular perversion of artistic intelligence: anyone this consistently awful acquires a certain reverse grandeur, like Lucifer.[Encounters and Reflections, p. 200]

      And then there is Danto taking on and taking down the celebrated and expensive restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, as discussed in my review of What Art is. If that doesn’t show he didn’t see his role as accepting ” the strictures of the status quo” I honestly don’t know what would.

      I think Danto was fierce and fearless in what he took on. I also think the manner in which he praised, when he did, was an object lesson in art criticism and art education.

      As for the “impressive intellect” you attribute to him, please. It would be more instructive to consider historical context. Danto was the critic of and in large degree shaped by the sort of art critics before him lacked the language to encounter and describe intelligently.

      If you want to say he erred on the side of keeping the door to art too open, I would disagree though you wouldn’t be alone in making that claim. The problem is those who make that claim tend to lend their weight to keeping the door shut, except to the slivers of light they have grown up adoring.

      Danto was more daring about the sorts of things he was willing to encounter and describe — from Duchamp, to Mapplethorpe, and yes, to the Sistine Chapel.

      • I need to clarify Danto’s point. “The Fly in the Fly Bottle” is his response to a National Arts Journalism survey in which 75% of 169 practicing arts critics surveyed around the country agreed that “rendering a personal judgment is the least important factor in reviewing art.” Many critics were shocked by this — Danto argued that minimizing the exercise of judgment in criticism was fine by him for the reasons I quoted from in his essay. His definition of reviewing visual art places value judgment at the bottom, with education and explication at the top. (How he sees criticism as educational is another topic.) In the NYTimes obit Danto is said to have characterized negative criticism as “cruel.” But he provided reasons for his sunny approach — I have not read anything of his that contradicts his take in “The Fly in the Fly Bottle.” That is why, for me, Danto on the duties and responsibilities of criticism is problematic. His trust of the “institutions” of art encourages the slide of visual arts criticism into description, neutrality, and hype.

        As for Danto disliking artists, it would be surprising that after decades of reviewing he didn’t find some sour apples. Why could he be negative (in short bursts, and not in his column in The Nation) while discouraging others to let loose? All major critics contradict themselves. And perhaps there is some snobbery involved. Reviewers elsewhere should stick to being as encouraging as possible — negative discrimination is reserved for the big boys.

        Finally, in your examples, it is revealing that Danto writes that Jeff Koons provides “… a feast for appetites no one dreamed existed and which the art world hates itself for acknowledging.” How does Danto know that the “art world” hates itself? In New York? Europe? Who? Danto’s friends around town? Isn’t he implying that somehow, somewhere, the art world is betraying a (mythical) bedrock of taste and judgment?

  3. still don’t think you get danto much at all. you are transplanting a paradigm fit maybe for lit crit to art crit. danto was the art critic for his day, of art which, as i keep saying, though it doesn’t seem to penetrate, hadn’t yet found a commensurate critical response.

    the parallel to lit crit is imperfect at best.

    btw, how many really crappy books or shows do you devote yourself to reviewing, as percentage of total reviewing time? bet you, like most anyone not geting paid the big $$$ by the new yorker for sitting viewing reading through dreck, pick your targets.

    i do. i’d rather be intrigued and come up with second thoughts than know from the get-go this is absolutely awful.

    still, there are times when it is our responsibility to go for the absolutely awful. i can think, in my own case, pretty recently, of my response to camille paglia’s last and unspeakably dreadful book.

    and: by saying why something is good, or engaging, or worth attention, you also, can, if you are good at what you do, make a case for why other things might not be.

    so many pedestrians, so little time.

    danto, as you keep refusing to acknowledge, went after the big travesties — koons, salle, the restored sistine chapel. he didn’t just praise; he praised for a reason.

    for me there’s no question about the unique example he set — in art — visual art — criticism — but plenty of question about who can come close to taking up where he left off. i suspect no one, that he was splendidly of his time, defined & in some measure definitive of it. this is not to say that he’s dated but perhaps to say that we who come after can be dated as post-danto.

    as i’ve said, we do not lack for passionate and informed writers about art. i can name a bundle. but some of the best are so suspicious of the door duchamp opened — which is to say, the frame he took off the art work, the art he let run wild — that they condemn all sorts of innovative work as being nothing but a function of an art market hungry for sales.

    (to reiterate, duchamp did not have to deal with such a thing as our voracious art market & danto did not take it up.)

    but it was on account of the market gone wild in his day that robert hughes, in many ways an estimable and invaluable critic and art historian, slammed jean-michel basquiat, as nothing but an element of the art bubble.

    i happen to appreciate basquiat and don’t like being told i’m a dupe of the market for doing so. basquiat brought on something fresh and interesting and well worth seeing.

    or take jed perl, the art critic for the new republic. i enjoy his writing immensely, even if his views most often try to devalue — if not insult? — my appreciation of work he dismisses.

    if you like, with regard to perl, let us get to particulars, as in this undoubtedly eloquent statement:

    There is a recalcitrance, an unlikeableness, an imperiousness, about art, and that is what really counts. The artist is absorbed by forms that are archetypal, elemental, totemic.

    if you read enough perl, you sometimes find him “liking” art he sees at the galleries, and then smiting himself sorely, on the ground that such works were not “archetypal, elemental, totemic”.

    give me danto any day.

    • We are talking at cross purposes. Not trying to get Danto or speculate about a post-Danto era — simply register my disagreement with his idea of visual arts criticism as dependent on the judgment of museums and galleries. In this set-up, the critic plays an institutional role — to educate the skeptical of the value of the choices made by the powers-that-be. Perhaps Danto accepts the role so easily because he was part of an academic institution. This is not to say he could not be negative at times — only that his educational approach was, as he writes in “The Fly in the Fly Bottle,” to explain why something is good in its own way. And that tends to overlook why something is inferior in its own way.

      I have no idea where lit crit comes into this … earlier American visual arts critics, such as Henry McBride and Clement Greenberg saw critics as judges. They were supportive of art that they felt needed to be championed and critical of artists as well as institutions that produced mediocrity. Danto departs from this tradition, I think at his peril. For example, he gets into trouble in “The Fly in the Fly Bottle” when he writes that “what we are increasingly dealing with in the visual arts is what I would call visual thinking; it is the thought that has to be unraveled and assessed in addressing the work of our time, and then the way the thought is embodied in the work.” The word “assessed” is pretty close to judged — but that is not what, according to Danto, a critic is supposed to do. A critic describes the ideas …and how they are embodied in the work.

  4. bill, sorry, still don’t think you are getting it. i brought in lit crit because it’s a terrain you know well as you evidently don’t that of art crit.

    to say “clement greenberg saw critics as judges” is a bit like saying andrei zhdanov, stalin’s minister for culture, saw his job as discriminating with regard to quality. sure, that’s stretching it. greenberg didn’t have the power of the state behind him, but summoned what power he could to enforce a line. that line was *not* about quality. it was a dogma he’d arrived at — as a disappointed marxist / trotskyist — about how painting comes to its inevitable conclusion by referring to nothing — psychological or physical — beyond paint on the canvas (similar strictures applied to sculpture).

    hence greenberg becomes the appointed prophet of abstract expressionism, which, let us not forget, with a little cia money thrown in, becomes the american line on art, the free world aesthetic.

    this not to dismiss pollock et al — not at all — but to say why greenberg dismissed, say, even surrealism, as aberrant, deviationist, backward, regressive. surrealists weren’t about just the 2 dimensions of paint. neither, was de kooning, for that matter, which bugged greenberg, or even early jackson pollock. the greenberg line was full of holes.

    it’s weird how the dialectic a la marx/hegel insinuated itself into art crit, but so it did. people who retreated or were beaten back from the goal of dialectical/totalistic finalities on society at large brought them to art. greenberg was a hegelian par excellence, in the most indecent way. danto came after all those debates about marx and revolution, stalin and trostsky. that danto came from analytic philosophy helped him. he could be surprised, jolted, whacked upside the head by hegel.

    the greenberg line became a dogma in art schools. warhol and pop were rebels in that context, dissidents, if you will, as was danto, their critic.

    >a critic describes the ideas …and how they are embodied in the work.

    yes, that was part of danto’s view of visual art. art for him was thought/philosophy with a retina, thinking in action, meaning plus eyes. feel free to disagree.

    the institutional theory of how to define art given the miasma clutter and confusion (oh thank you & fuck you duchamp) was something to which danto contributed and tried to refine, as in his last book.

    it actually didn’t at all mean for him that whatever the curators said was art was art. it didn’t mean for him that the institutional seal of approval was worth approval.

    i think i’m over and out about this subject. if you want the last word, it’s yours.

    • Nobody is joining in, alas, so I will end it by saying that my approach in this consideration of Danto has been more “meta” than specific. I am aware of how politics become part of the critical judgment (or not) of artistic ‘quality’ — it happens in lit crit all the time.

      You believe that Greenberg was a judge in a certain way (Danto would agree with you), others would disagree, arguing he was a judge in another way. My disappointment with Danto has to do with his essential redefinition of a critic’s duty — foremost is not a judgment of the quality of the work (in whatever way the critic, as well as his champions and detractors, want to define that value — let the games begin), but a description (of the artist’s intent? the critic’s sympathetic recreation of the artist’s intent?) for the sake of education with a strong commitment to the “institutions” of the art world. Not my cup of tea …

      • I was an art student at Bennington College in Vermont in the early 60’s, when Clement Greenberg was making trips back and forth to campus, keeping an eye on his boys, some of whom taught there, like Jules Olitsky, and others who just hung there, like Kenneth Noland. Greenberg’s dogmatic idea about what could be called Art, excluded everything other than the materials from which it was made. It felt like a game to me then: flat surface, no illusionistic space, no allusion to anything other than the paint and the surface of itself. I was never entirely clear about sculpture either, since anything 3 dimensional is generally perceived as an object, and an object is a thing. Sculpture was second to painting at best.

        No wonder we were hearing that art was at the end of its road. This was a deadening aesthetic. It died, but art did not die. Even at the time, Pop Art was happening on the West Coast. Figure painters continued to paint even when their work was entirely out of vogue. I remember how hard Philip Pearlstein worked at fitting into the Greenberg aesthetic, saying that his figures were formal and not about the human condition at all. What a time of denial.

        I couldn’t adhere to this rigid, and so far as my life was concerned, arbitrary set of dos and don’ts, as an artist coming up. And, as it turned out, neither could most of my generation. I have heard since from good Art World sources that Greenberg’s dogma froze a great many of us back then, challenging us to invent unique ways out.

        I think that Pop Art, going on at the same time primarily on the other coast, offered a lifeline for Art and for artists. Arthur Danto’s sensitivity to the ideas present in the best of that work, like Warhol’s Brillo Box, helped significantly to point the way back towards an intelligent way of thinking about Art, both for its viewers as well as for artists.

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