return to homepage
return to 2005

Arthur Danto


by Miles Mathis

Arthur Danto

"He will be read when Homer and Virgil
are forgotten, but—not till then."  —Porson

[Yes, as you can see from this picture, Danto is cross-eyed. Normally I wouldn't point something like this out, but I think that in this case it is a crucial fact for the reader to know. Given Danto's vast commentary, and the negative influence of that commentary upon art history, this feature is important, even telling, perhaps even fateful.]

Arthur Danto, now in his eighties, began writing for The Nation in 1984. At that time he already had a long career as a philosophy professor at Columbia University (where he still teaches). He had written several books in the field of philosophy—including one on Nietzsche—but none of them had caused much of a ripple. Danto could have chalked this up to the fact that he was a mediocre writer and a mediocre thinker, but he possessed the one trait that, in the modern world, could both transcend these limitations and save him from self-evaluation: he had ambition. Why this ambition should not have hit high gear until his 60's is not part of my counter-critique—perhaps it was residue from a mid-life crisis. It does not matter. In the 1980's Danto discovered he wanted to be famous, and said so in writing.

I have not needed some Freudian analysis to penetrate Danto's intentions or ambitions. I have not needed to manufacture them to fit my attack. Danto has been good enough to spell them out himself. Like Gerhard Richter and John Currin, Danto has felt free to state his ambitions, his goals and desires, even when they might appear to be a bit shallow or vulgar. Danto and the modern artists have no fear of shallowness or vulgarity. If they had, they would surely have chosen other fields. Modern art was the perfect pool with the perfect depth. You could swim for decades without ever getting your hair wet.

Danto correctly judged that his chances for minor fame were greater in art criticism than in philosophy. No one wanted to read extended treatises on Nietzsche anymore (and if they did they were reading Walter Kaufmann or someone who had a clue, anyway). Art criticism, though, was a growing field. Especially in New York City, the arts were everywhere. All around him people with absolutely no talent for anything were getting to be minor celebrities. Everyone was toasting one another and underwriting one another and writing about one another in a million journals. Why not be a part of all that? For heaven's sake, he had a lot of connections. He had been in New York for 35 years. He knew publishers and artists and other writers. He had a resume padded with a lot of words. Besides, he was a polite old man who seemed a threat to on one. Nothing could be easier.

And here we are, 20 years later, and Danto is one of the first names in art criticism. He lectures, sits on panels, is invited everywhere. All this without ever saying anything memorable or important. In two decades of articles Danto has successfully avoided ever having a strong opinion. He would not want to be accused of intolerance, you see. Like everyone else, he has his likes and dislikes, but they seem about as warm as the Grinch's socks. This is how it must be. His fans do not want heated debates or warm opinions. They care as much about art as Danto does—meaning very very little. For them art criticism is a bland diversion, like a cup of sugared coffee or a vanilla ice cream cone. It is a gentle coddling. What they get from a Danto article is a low drone, like the TV left on at night. It is a soothing reminder that other people are living uneventful lives, saying harmless and meaningless things, and getting paid well for it. They have just come from those nasty political arguments in The Nation, where the writer, although reinforcing all their prejudices, still has the effrontery to imply that people on the other side exist, and disagree. But here, in learning about art from uncle Arthur, we find all that dissolves like mist. Here everyone is equal. Everyone is calm. Everyone is an artist.


In my article Dante contra Danto, I have already posted a few of the most damaging quotes from Danto's career, but I feel more quotification is in order, if only to give some immediate proof to all my assertions here. The following quotes are not especially memorable, even for their being extravagantly false. I choose them because they are both false and unmemorable, and therefore highly representative of Danto's oeuvre. In an article from The Nation [June 7, 1999], Danto says this:


According to tradition the visual and the picturable must be equivalent—a picture of an object should ideally yield the same experience as the object itself. For that reason, illusion played a central role in theories of visual art almost from the beginning. Modernism, for whatever reason, separated picturability and visuality, so that a picture need no longer look like what it was to represent.


No traditional artist that ever lived would agree that a picture of an object should yield the same experience as the object itself. That definition of art could not be more pointless. Even the still-life artists who meticulously copied arrangements would not say that experiencing the painted still life was equivalent to experiencing the objects in it. And besides, artists who have meticulously copied life have been a very small minority. Most have used life only as a starting point. Illusionism has never been the primary goal of any art, even the most life-like. That this is still misunderstood by educated people is astonishing, especially people supposedly educated in Deconstruction by the likes of Derrida and Foucault. Illusionism as the definition of traditional art is the most facile and reductive (and bourgeois) analysis possible. A modern lover of pyschoanalysis should be able to find a million ways to tie the artistic impulse, in whatever age, to myriad forms of culture, socio-politics, and individual psychology. For a modern intellectual to claim that human beings in the past were painting just to make copies is to display the worst sort of double standard. Danto and contemporary critics spend thousands of pages minutely analyzing the psychological intentions and cultural implications of every last action of modern artists. But traditional artists are given a sound-byte analysis. Monkeys pushing buttons to get bananas benefit from more in-depth analysis.

Danto claims that illusionism played a central role in theories of art from the beginning. Maybe so. Maybe he has read ancient texts that have eluded my eyes. But even if this is true, it would only prove that art theorists were as clueless in the past as they are now. No matter what critics may have written, no artist has painted a picture primarily from an impulse to make a copy. This should be so self-evident to an enlightened people, I will not even stoop to expand on it here. Any small attempt at rigor or consistency would lead a thinking person into fields much richer than that of illusionism.

I suspect that what Danto really means by "from the beginning" is "from the beginning of Modern criticism." From the beginning, modern critics have facilely dismissed traditional art on the grounds of illusionism. According to the limits of my own reading, that noun "illusionism" was coined or perfected by Clement Greenberg. For Greenberg, pre-modern art could be dismissed out-of-hand as illusionist, since illusionism was so obviously limited in its psychological complexity. More recent critics like Danto and Adam Gopnik have simply borrowed this slander from Greenberg. They did not feel it necessary to give him a footnote, since everyone knows that "from the beginning" traditional art was simplistic and moronic, just a parrot mindlessly repeating the forms of his master Nature.

Modern critics have found complexity in contemporary people and artifacts because they have sought it (or manufactured it). They have failed to find complexity in traditional art and artists because they have not sought it. The attitude of modern criticism to pre-modern art is analogous to an anthropologist who postulates that tribal people have sexual taboos because they are frigid and are trying to avoid it. Or a biologist who speculates that penguins became flightless because they ate too many fish and put on too much weight. Or an archaeologist who theorizes that the pyramids were built as garages for slightly smaller pyramids. The theory that traditional art is illusionist is precisely as profound (and true) as these theories.


So far I have only failed to comment on the last sentence in Danto's quote. Why did I include it? I included it to show you those limpid and precise words "picturability" and "visuality." Clearly we are in the presence of a master of the language, and all his theoretical and factual fuzziness must be forgiven in the light of this greater artistic good.

Let's find another quote to have fun with:


It [Modernism] was rather something that slowly dawned over the face of European art, possibly having to do with the growing awareness of different representational systems, coming from other cultures, which were free of the optical constraints of traditional Western painting.


This is another one of the false truisms of modern criticism. That is, it is universally accepted that the influx of art from other cultures led, at least in part, to Modernism. As stated by Danto, it is even more false, for he tells us why these non-European influences led to non-representation: they were free of traditional optical restraints. Unfortunately for his argument, they weren't. Not even the most primitive influences (from tribal Africa, say) were at all free of being representational. None were formalist, none were abstract, none were straight politics or propaganda. I defy anyone to show me a work of art from any culture in the world before 1900 that is primarily formalist, abstract or political. The influences from around the world were doubtless enriching to art and art history in many ways, but mainly because they widened the field of representation. They showed a greater variety of ways of joining a strictly physical experience to a broader psychological or cultural experience. If this were the claim of modernism, I would have no reason to counter it. But this is not the claim. The claim is that this early multiculturalism somehow led to where we are. It does not. The art of non-European cultures, where it was interesting to artists, was always interesting for its content, not its lack of content. Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin, did not incorporate world art into their own creations in order to distill them or conventionalize them or minimalize their impact. Just the opposite. World art was incorporated to revivify European art. But this revivification was short-lived. Modernism is not primarily concerned with or defined by this late 19th century and early 20th century multiculturalism. It is defined mainly by formalism, abstraction, and politics. These categories were not supplied by world art. They came from within the culture—from Western sociopolitics. They came from critics and other middlemen who wanted to coopt art for their own purposes.


A bit later in the article, Danto floats once again into that favorite haunt of the modern critic, the grotto of art and culture:


So it is a simple enough matter to distinguish Art from Culture. The paintings are paradigmatically Art. If audiovisual technologies are required to show something, it belongs, roughly, to Culture. So Tiffany lamps might be considered Art, since we can show examples and not just photographic reproductions of them. We can also show handsomely designed coffeepots and vacuum cleaners, as MoMA began to do decades ago. But most of Culture is displayable mainly through secondary means, like photographs of performances, posters, playbills and the like.


Another quote that does fine double duty, I must say. Look at that word "paradigmatically." I swoon at the loveliness of its use. Loveliness that is commensurate with the content of the paragraph as a whole. Anything we can show a sample of is art. If it requires a slide presentation, it is culture. Brilliant.

But the true beauty of the definition is how it is contradicted in the following paragraphs:


Once we reclassify Culture as Art, we are no longer obliged to ask what the relationship is between objects of Art and of Culture or what knowing about Culture helps to explain about Art. If Culture is already Art, then it no more provides a context within which Art is to be understood than painting provides a context within which vaudeville is to be understood.


Whew, that's good to know. So, despite its precision and usefulness, we don't have to be limited to the definition of culture as "things that require audiovisual technology." Culture is already art, which means that audiovisual technology is art, and the reverse:


There is another way to think of the matter. This is to treat art as culture. That means, of course, treating high as well as low art as indexes of and openings into the American mentalité at a given moment. Here are their songs, their dances; this is what they wore; these were the pictures they looked at; this is how they lived. From this perspective, there is nothing to choose between paintings and MetroCards or $5 bills or IRS 1040 forms or lottery tickets. These all help to open the American spirit up for cultural analysis.


Who would have thought that Danto could continue to crescendo after defining culture and art in terms of audiovisual technology? But yes, he did it. There is nothing to choose between lottery tickets and art. They may all be defined in terms of audiovisual technology, one supposes. Culture≡Art≡Audiovisual technology≡American spirit≡Cultural analysis.

Danto must find art criticism so comfortable. In such a situation one can say just about anything and readers will not complain. Everything equals everything else, all is undifferentiated, there is nothing to choose between one thing and another, no matter how diverse. The only problem is not getting lost in absolute non-distinction. In remembering that ultimately a pen is not a piece of paper, a computer screen is not a keyboard, and a noun is not a verb. Danto appears very close to achieving this final freedom, in fact. The sentences are precariously near to gibberish; a gentle shove and the whole lot will tilt into farcical art, like the writings of Dubuffet. Danto’s prepositions will pose as gerunds, his participles will switch with his pronouns, and there will be nothing to choose between the letters of the alphabet.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.