Arthur Danto as Art Critic

Philosophy and Literature 15 (1991): 185-88.

Denis Dutton

Fine philosophic minds can be likened to beautiful machines. The trouble is that, though they may be well-oiled, precise, and sublimely intricate, they too often nowhere connect to the world — all pulleys and gears spinning a final wheel in the ether. It’s a revealing test of philosophic intelligence to see how it engages actual problems of human reality. We can forgive, or anyway ignore, scientific or artistic geniuses their incidental crack-pottery (Newton’s religion, Wagner’s racism), but we expect more from philosophers: they should be able to speak astutely — or at least not stupidly — on mundane issues that vex us, and we have every right to feel dissatisfied if they can’t. When, for example, an influential philosopher of science is suckered by News Age medical scams that wouldn’t have fooled my grandmother, I will refuse to take him too seriously. And in general, who among us can’t recall some philosopher of reknown who, when asked to deliver on a topic requiring political or more general worldly wisdom, showed himself capable of saying something perfectly idiotic?

So when a widely-esteemed art philosopher decides to turn art critic, watch out: either we’ll have painfully exposed to us the limitations of a good philosophic mind, or we’re going learn something worth knowing about the state of contemporary art. Thankfully, the work of Arthur C. Danto, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia, is as clearly in the latter category as any could be. Danto has been art critic of The Nation since 1984, and his new collection of art journalism, Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22.95) is a triumph of philosophically informed criticism and artistically informed philosophy. There are forty-one exhibition reviews that move from the Renaissance through Fragonard, the Hudson River School, African and Chinese art, to the likes of Diebenkorn, Hockney, and Mapplethorpe. The book concludes with three longer essays, “Bad Aesthetic Times,” “Masterpiece and the Museum,” and “Narratives of the End of Art.”

Arthur C. Danto

That Danto is a critic who knows art and its history, and that he is a skilled philosopher go almost without saying, but this alone cannot account for the attractiveness of these essays. There is an element here which, curious to remark, many contemporary critics either lack or won’t betray: Danto adores art. This means that when he likes something, he can carry his reader away with the enthusiasm, as he does with Warhol or with something so simple as a Raphael drawing of a head and hand. Moreover, his tastes are broad, and celebrate as much the present instant in art as its historical past. Ours, he says, is a time where “there are no outward criteria any longer of what can be a work of art: a text (any text); a plash of pigment; an assemblage of objects in any number and of any description; a facsimile of the Mona Lisa, a shopping bag of soiled aluminum foil no one dares unwrap; a package of Twinkies.” (Maybe he meant “splash,” but “plash” will do.) This is the postmodern moment, where the “quasi-alchemical” quest of Modernism to determine the defining essence of art has evaporated. Nevertheless, it is “a difficult but wonderful time to be alive, nor could anyone, knowing this would happen, will to have lived in an earlier time.”

Danto’s honest enthusiasm for what he likes gives extra boom to his demolition jobs. In the paintings of David Salle, he senses “a punk and glowering indifference to criticism so total as to constitute, for me, the chief if not the only critical interest of his oeuvre. It is not so much that the work is bad as that its badness seems willed even where there is no clear sign that the artist could do better if he wished to.” Salle’s work expresses a negativity beyond even minimalism, its nearest counterpart perhaps the Heideggerian Nothingness “that reveals the totality of Being by standing outside whatever there is.” Danto writes, “Like someone who has learned to give all the worst answers on a carefully weighted examination, Salle demonstrates a certain spectacular perversion of artistic intelligence: anyone this consistently aweful acquires a certain reverse grandeur, like Lucifer.”

Danto also finds grandeur of a disagreeable sort in Anselm Kiefer, whose work, with its “flames, ruins, charred stumps and slurried wastes,” is described as “a sustained visual lament for a shattered Vaterland, a recall to the myths of triumph and heroic will.” Kiefer has endeared himself “to the curatorial establishment while at the same time impressing the wider populace that spontaneously equates obscurity with profundity” by stuffing his work with “a farce of heavy symbolism” which curators can use to justify their existence by having to explain it. He is a man who has “recognized the benefits of incoherence.” The philosopher in Danto is rightfully offended by Kiefer’s appropriation of Kant’s famous remark about the starry heavens filling him with awe. Kiefer’s exortations about bringing us back from civilization to our visceral instincts — "the good old command to think with the blood,” Danto remarks — are wholly opposed to the noble ideal of civilized human life espoused by Kant.

Noble ideals also figure in the review of an exhibition which had attempted to establish Goya as an Enlightenment figure. The catalogue argued that the Caprichos are “the crowning and most purgative visual statement of the Enlightenment.” Danto shows that Goya’s “satunine vision” is the very antipodes of the Enlightenment faith in the better possible human world. “The Caprichos,” Danto says, “which show whores and fools, bawds and ninnies, thieves and asses, all engaged in mutual exploitation, with menacing birds and animals as witnesses and metaphors, are visual inscriptions of greed, vanity, lust, sloth, stupidity, envy, generalized cruelty....there is not even a God to save us.” Although Goya could be put to use by reformers and meliorists, he himself was “utterly pessimistic.” Danto describes him as showing us “as we are in a dark vision of ineluctable depravity.”

I can imagine how any number of academics writing today might handle this one: a review of the exhibition could easily serve as a podium for both Enlightenment-bashing and for routine accusations of Enlightenment-imperialism (and who knows what other crimes) on the part of the show’s organizers. Danto has none of that. His case against Goya as an Enlightenment artist is conclusive, but he is at pains to give credit to the appeal of the opposing position and, more importantly, he expresses his heart-felt gratitude that the exhibit has been mounted. Danto knocks his opponents dead, but in the end makes it clear that the occasion is not properly one for scholarly squabble, but for the appreciation of Goya, an artist whose “greatness was to reflect his times and to be for all times.”

There is so much Danto treasures in art that it is perhaps misleading to emphasize those artists he dislikes. Yet while there is not a bad page in this book, many of the best pages are written against something or someone. I doubt if anyone can talk meaningfully about the current state of art without having a nose for the phony, and part of Danto’s appeal lies his hovering sense of the possibility of fraudulence, again almost as a defining presence, in the art world. In “Bad Aesthetic Times,” he diagnoses the state of art in the 1980s. Painters such as Salle and Julian Schnabel were responding early in the decade to a certain desire or demand to “get art history back on track,” to regain an impetus that had begun in the nineteenth century, continued through Cubism and the New York School, and come to an end with Pop and Minimalism. This petering out of the modernist impulse happened, it turns out, just at the historical point where there was a larger than ever public audience — along with cultural journalism, education departments in the major museums, etc. — demanding to be kept artistically informed: everyone wanting more information “ironically, at a moment when there was nothing to report.”

So, according to Danto, the seventies ended with a tolerance of pluralism that amounted to “a tacit confession that there was no direction to speak of,” and the eighties began with a renewed claim for something new: “the new thing it seemed we had the right to expect.” In all this there was an implicit brief: “The new thing had to look important. Scale was essential — no one wanted paintings-to-be-hung-over-the-mantelpiece. It had to look mysterious enough to demand interpretation.” This required juxtaposing represented images, as juxtaposed abstractions are still abstractions. Add to these requirements a sense of experimentation — not real experiments, but works like Schnabel’s smashed crockery that are “in the received language of experiment: mixed media, melded genres.” And the work had above all to look important: “it had to be there all at once, made to order for the museum or the great collection....The Age of Importance had begun.” Danto says that there “has never, I am certain, been a period in which works of art, of vast dimension and seeming ambition, have been produced in such overwhelming numbers” as the 1980s. “By ordinary indices, ours should be read as one of the great moments of artistic flowering.”

Collectors who had missed out on earlier trends were eager to get in on the ground floor of this one: “That is why the art had to look historically new and artistically important — why it had, so to speak, to wear its importance on its sleeve.” This, we were to understand, was the art of the “historically next thing,” “the next thing everyone was waiting for.” Danto’s view is that this was an illusion, that this kind of art-historical progression was over. We are, as Danto puts it in “Narratives of the End of Art,” in the posthistorical phase of art. Not to worry, “Art does not end with the end of art history.” How we could be certain of such a broad claim as that art history has ended is still unclear to me, even after Danto’s argument. But his general characterization of the recent epoch (epochs don’t last more than a decade these days) is incisive. It even applies, in ways he may not intend, to the writhings of fashion in scholarship, including literary theory.

These meditations are so uniformly perceptive, judicious, modest, and shrewd that it is plain that, had he never published any philosophy, Arthur Danto could have established himself as an important art critic. I almost wrote “influential” art critic, but the manipulative connotations of that word that would have been false to the spirit of Danto’s writing. In an art world full of salespersons, Danto’s last intention is to influence us to do anything, save think more wisely about art. It has been a pleasure to read this immensely intelligent book.

Copyright 1991 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.