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