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In this article I examine the relationship between Arthur Danto's philosophy of art and his practice of art criticism. Danto has said that he included many actual examples of discussions of art in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace because of the feeling that, previously, philosophers had theorized about art in a vacuum. And since the time of publishing that book, he has written on a wide variety of both historical and contemporary artists and art practices. Danto's philosophy of art commits him to an account of the practice of art criticism as interpretation. However, I question whether the Danto-esque interpretive essay can serve as an adequate model for art criticism. My primary claim is that art criticism must include a more strongly evaluative element than Danto's theory leaves room for, since on his view, the critic primarily explains meaning by examining how it is embodied in a work. This leaves open the question of which meanings count as valuable or important. In his more recent work Danto has explored a "Hegelian" view that art is primarily about art, but this view too does not allow for art to be evaluated or "criticized" on the basis of whether or how well it tackles the more profound questions of meaning.
the critic, art criticism, philosophy of art, meaning, interpretation
Among many ways in which Arthur Danto's The Transfiguration of the Commonplace has had a major impact on how the philosophy of art is conducted is through its extensive range of wonderful examples, from the fateful Brillo Box to Rauschenberg's messy Bed and back in history to works like Bruegel's Fall of Icarus. Danto explains, "When I undertook to frame the beginning of a philosophy of art, I felt it urgent to work with the most vivid examples I could find." In this, he went against the grain of what he has called the "disillusioning" aesthetics texts of the time, which conducted students "through a canon of writing that has, typically, so little to do with the art he or she is gripped by as to reinforce a thesis that philosophers philosophize in the void." Transfiguration made it much harder for philosophers of art to think and work in a void apart from the real art world.
Danto has said that at the time he wrote The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, he never dreamed of doing art criticism. He could hardly have foreseen at that time his 20+-year career in this alternative field which, he later remarked, allowed him "to philosophize in the large way of the earlier essayists." When he undertook criticism, Danto says, he aimed to do something beyond the "restaurant criticism" model of mid-1950's New Yorker reviews. My presentation on this panel focuses on this "large way" of philosophizing that was forecast by Transfiguration.
Danto's philosophy of art commits him to an account of the practice of art criticism as interpretation. Can the Danto-esque interpretive essay serve as a model for art criticism? Does the art world need or want critics in Danto's sense? To begin, I will review how Danto's philosophy of art led to his view of criticism as interpretation. Next, I will survey some examples from Danto's own critical writings. Finally, I will discuss the need for an alternative account of art criticism as evaluation. It seems Danto himself has recognized this need and moved more in this direction in some of his recent works, particularly The Abuse of Beauty.
1. Criticism as Interpretation
To the extent that he mentioned criticism in Transfiguration, Danto's remarks were easy to miss. For instance, he wrote, "It is my view that whatever appreciation may come to, it must in some sense be a function of interpretation." Just how Transfiguration paved the way for Danto's critical career is explained further in Beyond the Brillo Box:
Danto has even claimed that philosophy of art has really only ever been art criticism. He writes:
The argument suggested by this passage goes as follows:
- Philosophy of art is a theory of what counts as art.
- Philosophers have defined art (developed theories of art) based on their own views of what counts as art.
- What philosophers count as art is the kind of art they prefer or consider the best.
- The endorsement of a preferred kind of art is art criticism.
- Philosophy of art is and has always been (simply and in disguise) art criticism.
Now there is another crucial move or conclusion implied by this argument, one that Danto does not make explicitly but that I think he feels we are entitled to make, namely,
- 6. Philosophy of art cannot be art criticism in the sense of distinguishing good from bad art, because it involves instead differentiating art from non-art.
How do all of these theses apply to Danto himself? He is willing to bite the relativist bullet and allow that for him, too, the definition of art reflects his own sense of what counts or should count as art. But it just so happens that the paradigm Danto works from, Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes, is an artwork that represents a particular culmination of art history—the moment when it turned into philosophy. This means that in selecting that work as his paradigm Danto can give his own theory a unique universality or openness. The Brillo Boxes typify and help prompt his own theory of art as the development of an object to which a theory of art is applied. There is a kind of reflexivity built into this definition. It can apply equally well to works from the past that use now-outdated theories of art (as, say, imitation or significant form) and to contemporary art that has become a kind of meta-art or itself a philosophy of art. We now see artists presenting as art things that are in essence bits of philosophy, as they give us the Bottle Rack or Brillo Box or other indiscernible counterpart of some real thing "transfigured" by theory to become art.
But criticism in the ordinary sense does not seem to get a foothold here. Remember that as a philosopher of art, Danto is advancing in his theory of art a view of the kind of art that he prefers (just as Plato advanced the mimesis theory, Bell that of significant form, etc.). But this is a view that functions to discriminate between art and non-art. Yet surely, given any particular historical philosophical definition or theory of art, there is room for criticism. Even if the theory itself is a kind of evaluation in the sense that it picks out art that the philosopher "likes" as distinct from non-art which the philosopher "doesn't like" or "doesn't count" as art, there is room for criticism as to how well any given artwork fulfills it. Thus on the Platonic view, greater illusionism or a more perfect mimesis will be a plus, just as on the significant form view, more significant form will be a plus.
However, given Danto's adoption of his own theory of art based on the Brillo Box prototype, there does not seem to be much room for evaluation. How can there be any kind of gradation concerning how well a given item fulfills a theory of art that it employs in order to "get off the ground" as art in the first place (in distinction to an everyday object)? Is the Brillo Box or the Campbell Soup Can better at doing this than the Bottle Rack?
2. Danto as Critic
As an art critic Danto's practice in looking for meanings in works of art has not been confined to their statements or theories about art itself. He has been unusual in covering a very wide range of art, writing not only about major contemporary figures (Koons, Mapplethorpe, Sherman, Schnabel) but about historical figures as well (Goya, Sargent), and also about non-western art (Chinese, African, etc.). He has included sculpture as well as painting and photography in his ambit, and has written on "art and culture" topics such as the Tilted Arc controversy, the meaning of the Vietnam Memorial, and the role of the museum in contemporary society.
Not surprisingly, the view of criticism as the interpretation of embodied meaning shows up in Danto's actual reviews. We do often hear things about the artist's aims and their embodiment in the material of the work. This can involve very subtle observations. For example, he thinks that Sargent's ability with the wrist is phenomenal, reminiscent of that of Velázquez—a level of skill that has now, alas, vanished. Danto comments about the artist's many portraits of women:
It is difficult to imagine a more vivid example [than Sargnet's Sulphur Match] of artistic—or sexual—alienation.
Or again, here he is writing about the outrageously vulgar work of Jeff Koons:
In reviewing Hockney, Danto first notes, uncontroversially, that his works are about love, specifically homoerotic love. He then goes on to link the works' meaning to their physical embodiment on the canvas. Commenting on the positioning of figures in a seris of portraits by Hockney, Danto notes that "the tension between the differently posed figures must then be a translation into the language of composition of something intense in the language of feeling." This analysis extends as Danto examines the complex use of perspective in Hockney's painting My Parents, where a mirror that should reveal the artist himself instead shows reproductions of paintings. This odd and surprising fact reminds us of numerous mirrors as used in prominent predecessors' paintings (like Las Meninas or the Arnolfini Marriage). Danto considers such reminders relevant because of Hockney's well-known interest in perspective in the history of art. Indeed, Danto remarks, the artist's near-obsessive studies of this topic suggest "that he comes close to blaming a great many social ills on perspective." It is also a striking fact that after doing this portrait of his parents with "commanding perspectival structure . . . Hockney abandoned such perspective almost immediately. . . . He also, for a long time, gave up painting."
We have seen that in his art criticism Danto, true to his credo, does offer interpretations of how meaning is embodied. What happens, then, to Danto's own idea that art invariably involves a theory of art? In most cases, this perspective also enters into his reviews by way of his analysis of how artists enact a theory of art in relation to their contemporaries, the art world, and/or their predecessors. So, for example, he says about Hockney that his early work was like "an anthology of the artistic themes and strategies that defined a new sensibility." Similarly, in discussing Sargent, Danto makes two moves that involve historical comparison and analysis. First, he describes the painter's affinities with Velázquez, both in the use of paint and also in showing scenes of darkness "slashed with light." And second, he places Sargent in a matrix of opposition between two models of genius, the happy successful Rubens and the tortured genius Van Gogh, and comments that Sargent was more like Rubens—a model of the artist which, while not so prevalent any more, should not be ignored or considered inferior.
Sometimes Danto's historical analysis goes beyond this to examine more of the art world surrounding a particular figure. In discussing Koons' work, Danto notes that we have more immunity from its awfulness in the museum than in the gallery setting "where there's nothing else but Koons it's more threatening since it looks like he's taken over the world." Or again, in writing about some early work by Eva Hesse, Danto shows how wrong Hilton Kramer got it when he argued the work was a translation of Pollock's drip paintings into sculptural randomness. This involved disregarding things that should have counted as elements of the work and taking them only as supports or backdrops: "[Kramer] left out the regularity of the drilled panels and the base, which link Hesse not to Abstract Expressionism but to Minimalism and hence back to Constructivism."
3. The Need for Evaluation or, What Happened to Art Criticism?
Danto's conception of criticism as reflection on embodied meaning puts so much focus on interpretation that there does not seem to be room left for evaluation. The issue for a critic, as I see it, may not be simply thumbs up or down (what Danto dismisses as "restaurant review" criticism)— but neither should it be confined to assessing how well a work achieves its intended aim. I once heard an art professor state proudly that her goal was to get her students to express themselves, "even if it is only about chocolate chip cookies." Surely the critic must also assess whether the artist's aim is itself worthwhile or interesting.
Now, it is true that one can find evaluative claims in Danto's reviews. For example, he thinks that Sargent's earliest portraits were his best work and that, "He lost the poetry though after the fiasco of the portrait of Madam X," so that, "Except for the portraits, in the years after 1884 the work seems to me dry and flat." Similarly, Danto tells us that Hockney went through a period that was "artistically thin", but that he recovered in 1977 with his My Parents—"among the masterpieces of the century." As a last example, I cite a characteristically witty passage, this time about the painter David Salle:
To consider the alternatives to a position on criticism like Danto's, which takes the task mainly to involve the interpretation of embodied meaning, I want to mention the recent charmingly small but provocative book by James Elkins, What happened to art criticism? Elkins presents a wide array of evidence suggesting that art criticism has little use in the world today and that almost no one really reads it. It is not read much by ordinary folks, nor is it catalogued and used in research by art historians. As for artists and galleries or museums, they treat the critics who write extended catalog essays as hired workers whose products are only acceptable if they serve the purpose of promotion. This means critics are regarded as waiters asked to bring in a different dish if what comes out of the kitchen does not satisfy them.
It is not altogether clear that Elkins thinks this current state of affairs can be changed. Nevertheless, Elkins does suggest his own ideas about what is needed from art critics. Before explaining those ideas, he does some botanizing and sorts art criticism (and critics) into seven camps. These are as follows (I use his labels): the catalog essay, the academic treatise, cultural criticism, the conservative harangue, the philosopher's essay, descriptive art criticism, and poetic art criticism.
- The catalog essay is generally descriptive in its focus and favorable in its tone, because it is commissioned by the gallery or museum. Elkins comments these take up a lot of the space of art criticism, but are probably the least read of critical essays; since they function to fill out the coffee table book.
- The academic treatise typically cites many scholarly, impressive names and abstract, equally impressive terms, but in a somewhat random order that Elkins calls collaged or kaleidoscopic. Concepts are used apart from standard scholarly references or sources and applied in an idiosyncratic fashion to the work under consideration. This is why such art critical academic writings are not taken seriously by the 'real' academics, art historians.
- The cultural critic puts art into a social context and sometimes relates it to current popular phenomena like TV shows or social movements.
- Hilton Kramer is the paradigm conservative haranguer, someone who focuses on moral qualities of an artist's work and is always in search of "quality" (often with a capital "Q"). (This corresponds to Danto's own take on Kramer.)
- The fifth of Elkins' seven categories is the philosophical essay, art criticism that essentially treats artworks as bits of philosophy. Danto is listed here, not surprisingly, along with Thomas Crow. Elkins considers Danto inconsistent in writing historically about art, despite having pronounced that we have reached the end of art or of art's history. He alleges that, "Danto has not theorized the different force of the new, allegedly non-historical art criticism, and it seems to me that it cannot be theorized. . .." Elkins finds Danto inconsistent to the point of what he calls "illegibility" because of his combination of art criticism as usual with a supposedly a-historical and pluralist perspective. I am not altogether sure of Elkins' point here but I suspect it is related to my own concerns that Danto's view of art as work that theorizes about art is not truly consistent with a notion of criticism because it is not susceptible to gradations of value.
- Descriptive art criticism is, Elkins reports, the type that most American art critics now list as their main goal. But such an approach cannot help identify quality or even pinpoint which artists and works are worth writing about in the first place. This form of writing would never manage to get art history off the ground, since it "begs the question of what criticism is by making it appear that there is no question." Here again, Elkins seems to be calling for a notion of criticism as evaluation.
- Elkins' final category is what he calls 'poetic' art criticism, the sort that involves an essayist using art as a platform for personally expressive writing. Peter Schjeldahl and Dave Hickey are Elkins' representatives of this form of art critical writing. Their emphasis is on "voice, tone, and style". Although Elkins applauds good writing, he thinks that this alone cannot supply us with an adequate definition of art criticism.
Having surveyed these basic types of criticism, Elkins clearly is seeking a discourse of reasons that involves some process of evaluation. Of course, this need not amount to the model of "restaurant review" criticism that Danto departed from in his own work. Elkins does conclude his book very briefly with some recommendations for reform, and he lists three qualities that ought to be delivered in good art criticism: (1) ambitious judgment; (2) reflection about judgment itself; and (3) criticism important enough to count as history, and vice versa. These seem to me perfectly good criteria for the kind of art criticism I also would like to see, evaluative and rational art criticism.
4. Transfiguration and Transformation
Criticism in Danto's work does may in fact involve something beyond interpretation as the search for embodied meanings. In The Abuse of Beauty, Danto spells this out; I have in mind in particular Chapter 6 of that book, "Three Ways to Think about Art." The first two ways are the traditional paths of formalist and cultural interpretation. The formalist looks at art by focusing on design. This attitude enabled art criticism and theory (as well as art itself) to break from the mimesis view which had brought with it an idea of art as progressive. The second way is to regard art as a window into a culture. Often art historians now treat art this way, enabling us to see vanitas paintings in Dutch art, for example, as windows into Dutch views on morality and death.
But now, somewhat surprisingly, Danto speaks of a third model of art writing as "poetic and subjective" and admits that he is himself drawn to such an approach. As an illustration, he cites a Rilke poem on a powerful ancient Greek sculpture of a male torso. In this role, art is seen as transformative on a personal level. Though seems rather far from Danto's treatment of art as a form of philosophy, in elaborating on this third idea, Danto reiterates his commitment to criticism as a rational account of embodied meanings:
I think there has been a form of slippage here, which arises in trying to understand how Danto both uses and disagrees with Hegel's idea that art, at its end, turns into philosophy. Danto insists that this cannot be taken to mean that philosophy supersedes art; far from it. He writes,
In other words, art offers explorations that have great depth and profundity, and that often deal with what Danto calls "the large human issues." Hence, the critic's role as the interpreter of art's embodied meanings encompasses discussion of the approach artworks take to such large human issues as the nature of marriage, the purpose of life, the meaning of death, and so on. But this seems to range far afield from the account I initially derived from reading The Transfiguration and its claims that every philosophy of art is just a confession of the kind of art the philosopher prefers. That, I took it in Danto's own case, meant that the definition of art as an object accompanied by a theory was somewhat narrowly construed, because the relevant theory was—it had to be—a theory of art. This is why Brillo Box was his paradigm. It is a kind of art that, on Danto's view, has as its main message or meaning the point that "this too can be art." Transfiguration suggested that the kind of meanings embodied by art objects were, generally, meanings having to do with views on art. Certain artworks from the past presented the fundamental message that art was imitation, or beauty, or form and significant design, etc.
However, for art to be fundamentally about art—for art to be in its essence a philosophy about or of art—is very different than for art to be philosophy in the sense Danto has in mind in The Abuse of Beauty where he has in mind discussion of the "large issues" of life. If art can do this broader thing, then the "embodied meanings" it is the task of the critic to distill for us in art are meanings of all sorts on almost all topics, and not simply meanings having to do with what counts as art. And this entails that the role of evaluation has been greatly expanded. Rather than showing us how various artists manifested their theories of art in their works, the critic has the more intriguing task of helping us grasp artists' comments on "large issues" of life. Presumably it is fair to assess these artists for the profundity of the issues they tackle, and not only for their success at embodying a meaning. To revert to my example from above, an artist who embodies his or her views on chocolate chip cookies is likely to be dismissed as insignificant no matter how these views are embodied—even should they be embodied in the most excellent of cookies themselves! (I mention this because it strikes me as a quite likely project of a performance artist.)
If artists can legitimately be evaluated based upon the profundity of the meanings they attempt to convey or grapple with, it could turn out that art that is about art is in fact more trivial than art that is about "the large issues" of life and death. This is a result Danto might not be too happy with. Perhaps a breakthrough artist like Duchamp or Warhol could be credited with an originality of vision in resisting the dominant views about art in his era. But does this make his resulting work, whether Fountain or Brillo Box, truly "transformative" in the sense of the term introduced in The Abuse of Beauty? Is an encounter with either work likely to be personally enlightening? Does it force you to become a new person; Can it make you better? I understand these questions to be rhetorical and to be clearly expecting the answer "no." For me there are no tremors of profundity in encountering these works. But Danto, fairly obviously, did experience some kind of transformation in seeing Brillo Boxes for the first time—this is something that he has returned to and written of repeatedly.
There might, of course, be a link between art that is about art and art that offers us insight into life. This can happen if, when the artist makes us think about art, he or she also inspires us with a new attitude or approach to our lives. Here it is instructive to recall one of Danto's reviews, his piece about Cartier-Bresson. After explaining the influence of Surrealism upon the photographer, Danto comments that in his work, Cartier-Bresson managed to reveal the surrealism that exists all around us in nature. That is, the artist discovered visual juxtapositions that reveal the fundamental surrealism of life. In doing this, Danto says, Cartier-Bresson showed us our own "visual pedestrianism."
This is getting at the transformative power of art as part of an experience that is also transformative of vision and, through this, of our experience of life itself. All this is surprisingly reminiscent of the pragmatist line of Dewey and Goodman, of the experience of art as enhancing.
As my final point, it is also worthwhile to reconsider the role of aesthetics in the philosophy of art and art criticism. In discussing the claim that art is an object with a theory, or a meaning embodied somehow, I have focused mainly on the issue of the relevant theory or meaning. I should also have paid attention to Danto's point about embodiment. When the art critic tells us about meaning, especially if that meaning is philosophical or involves a theory of the nature of art, this appears to involve a pursuit of something lofty and mental. "Meaning" transpires on a plane far above that of the good or bad dinners that restaurant reviewers tell us about. (It's only the rare and academic restaurant reviewer who launches into reflections about the meanings of cuisines under examination.) But the Danto-esque art critic will also talk about embodiment. And in my view, it's the embodiment of the Warhol or the Duchamp that seem so lacking in aesthetic appeal and that make the encounter with these works less fully transformative. But on this point Danto's own art criticism seems to have taken on a direction of its own, maybe a bit apart from his theory of art and its philosophy. For he has always talked about embodiment. Recall his mentioning the unique use Hockney makes of perspective, or Sargent and Velázquez's inimitable wrist flicks. The meaning is in the embodiment just as the soul is in the body, just as Danto has adduced on numerous occasions. This factor is probably what explains why there is still room in the Danto lexicon of art criticism for us to use those old-fashioned terms like beauty, as well as the more new-fangled ones that speak of art as a theory of art. Theories of art may be striking and original but they will not be able to be truly "transformative" until they are embodied in something real—in something sensuous and skillful, that exists in paint or stone, in a realm more concrete than theories ever dreamed of.
He adds, "In my view, a philosophy of art worthy of the name must be worked out at a level of abstractness so general that you cannot deduce from it the form of any specific style of art. It should have application to modern and ancient art, to Eastern and Western art, to representational and abstract art" ("Learning to Live with Pluralism", in Beyond the Brillo Box, pp. 230-31). Note here that, since everything which is art has to conform to the theory if it is any good at all, no art better exemplifies it than any other. Danto says something similar in the Prologue to The State of the Art: "In fairness to [Harold] Rosenberg, it must be stressed that philosophies of art down the ages have often been little more than critical responses wildly generalized." The State of the Art, p. 3.
This point is related to criticisms that state that there is no room for any relevant notion of aesthetic properties of objects on the institutional view of art Danto endorses; see Noël Carroll, "Introduction" to Theories of Art Today (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000).
Ibid., p. 137.
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston
Houston, Texas, USA
Published March 8, 2008