Saturday, 17 August 2013



The doyen of American aesthetics returns to pet themes in this modest volume of six essays, variously contributing to a definition of art. Topics range from a brief summary of Modernism, to the necessity of framing restoration (such as the controversial cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling) with iconographic programme rather than mere chemistry of pigment, to a more tangential concern with the body and codes of sexuality and taboo, to the relation of painting to photography, of art to pictures, to a consideration of Kant’s somewhat overlooked notion of spirit as modifier of taste in a work of art, to the closing essay on the contribution aesthetics may hold for art history. It is, assuredly, an inviting array. Inevitably, the familiar themes of indiscernible or invisible properties to a work of art, embodied meaning, supported by an ‘artworld’ of cultural context and commentary, of a history of advancing self-reference or awareness of formal purity, are all revisited. But at this stage in his career, it is perhaps too much to expect him to address many longstanding objections. At best the book admits sly hedging.

Take the issue of indiscernible properties to a work, supposedly demonstrated by Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes sculptures of 1964. Danto’s account of these now runs:
The individual boxes looked as much like actual commercial containers as Andy and his helpers could make them. They were fabricated in a woodworking shop to Andy’s specifications. Real cartons were photographed and the labels stencilled onto the fabricated boxes, making them, as Gerard Malaga, Warhol’s assistant said three-dimensional photographs. Except for occasional drips, the boxes looked just like real boxes... (p. 36) (my emphasis)
But if Warhol were really intent upon an exact replica of the Brillo Boxes, why would he not purchase standard blank cardboard cartons, stencil at least four of their respective sides and fold them into the desired cartons? Why would he choose wood over cardboard, where it does not preserve the discreetly rounded edge of folded cardboard to each side – is noticeably too sharp or crisp in edges for a carton? Moreover, the wooden boxes plainly have no lids or folded tops or bottoms, and the necessary overlap or gaps to edges. Duh! A little more time in supermarket aisles and a little less time in philosophy stacks might have equipped Danto with a more discerning eye.  And since the drips or inconsistencies to the silk-screening were also discernible (even in photographs from the time – less so in the 1970 reconstruction), this surely confirms that differences between Warhol’s sculptures and actual Brillo boxes were by no means negligible, much less invisible. Nor is an argument for atypical or sub-standard packaging persuasive - Brillo’s quality control would undoubtedly reject any carton poorly printed, would hardly countenance an unopenable carton.

Danto then ponders ‘Could members of the Art World differentiate them as art? Maybe – but they would be guessing. Externally both sets were alike’ (p.37). The differences are beyond guesswork for the savvy shopper, even among habitués of the Art World and some resemblance is not enough.  Danto claims identical appearance for Warhol’s boxes, yet to most viewers, then or since, there is no confusion; the boxes are obviously not cartons but simply sealed cubes. The fact that Danto now equivocates over these pesky details (there is more handwringing over the boxes on p. 145) is indicative of a project too entrenched to retract or revise, that can only soften or fudge the argument. It is unfortunate but unbecoming of an idealist, in every way. Then again, the implications are formidable. If no indiscernibles, then no need for mysterious confirmation from an intuitive artworld, no historic convergence of art and life, no devastating riposte to the Wittgensteinians’ open concept of art. Not only that; but discernible differences to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes point to something more than simpleminded endorsement of successful packaging. Formal oversights incur errors in content, particularly expression. Differences stress that the designs are applied to cubes - not cartons - that the work distances plane from volume, packaging from product, in a teasing, even facetious disjuncture. Imperfect application of silkscreens echoes this. The work is in all senses a hollow affirmation, a passive/aggressive refusal to carry through to Minimalist modules in one direction, packaging presentation in the other. The work goes along with either, but only at a superficial level, only so far. The same deep ambivalence is found in the paintings, initially as faltering or selective transfer of common line illustrations or graphics, later in photo-silkscreens. Warhol is a yes-man, but one whose prompt but flagging ardour instantly alerts us to insincerity, to another, hidden agenda. All of this depends on the work correctly displaying salient features, on distinguishing between form and content.

Throughout Danto’s work indiscernible properties to an artwork are linked to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. Danto understands the readymade as a transformation in meaning for the object, but curiously not the acquisition of beauty into the bargain. The reasons for this are not clear, even in the present volume (pp 23-28, 143-4). Certainly Duchamp emphasises that his choice of object must avoid being beautiful or firstly aesthetic, but choice is only the first part of Duchamp’s task. The object must then be reoriented in some way, allowing it to be seen differently, function differently. Even in 1917, advocates of Duchamp’s readymade ‘Fountain’ - an inverted urinal - urged that this ‘disinterested’ attention to plumbing allowed for appreciation of formal beauty to shape, size and colour. It basically renders the object as an abstraction. It makes sense that Duchamp would avoid beauty in the objects chosen, if some reorientation is to convincingly reveal hidden or otherwise indiscernible beauty, and it makes sense that re-presenting the object may prompt metaphorical readings, when regarded as sculpture. And Danto certainly welcomes the erotic interpretations often made for Duchamp’s work, but why should this transformation be without beauty when the work clearly appeals to the category of sculpture?   
Again, an indifference to formal aspects leads the author badly astray. In part it is perhaps Duchamp’s scorn for ‘retinal’ painting – approaches derived from Impressionism and a concern with the literal – and preference for more imaginative and hypothetical themes that foster a false distinction. Possibly the artist’s convictions here encourage Danto to suppose a disregard for beauty in the interests of higher, more rewarding meaning, although Duchamp’s diagrams for motion and arch metaphors for sexuality must still enlist the retina, appeal to the literal if only to redirect it to other realms. So the artist’s complaint is naïve at best. But nothing in the linear and tonal austerity of Duchamp’s pictures or sculptures suggests a rejection of beauty. On the contrary, they rely upon it.  But in part Danto hurries to his conclusion because it furthers a more ambitious agenda, allows an audacious declaration – the eventual dissolution of art - and answers to his own, essentially literary inclinations. He is happy that a reorientation of the readymade ‘creates a new thought for that object’ (p.28) without actually looking too closely at how. Danto has no patience with the ‘retinal’ either, not because he is an idealist, but because he would rather read interpretations from the artworld than measure them against his own experience of the work. This is a regrettable consequence of his definition of art, in allowing the artworld to bear the burden of meaning to works that supposedly ‘embody’ reference without discernible traits. It also nurtures a dubious esotericism.

The error more directly results in careless exaggeration:
Where are the boundaries for art? What distinguishes art from anything else, if anything can be art? We are left with the not very consoling idea that just because anything can be art, it doesn’t follow that everything is art. Duchamp managed to condemn pretty much the entire history of aesthetics, from Plato to the present. (p. 26)
Well, the history of art, at best here, aesthetics is a little broader than art. Later the claim is repeated unhappily:
Today art can be made of anything, put together from anything, in the service of presenting any ideas whatsoever (p. 128)
But clearly, two molecules will not be enough to make a sonnet; the temperature of last Tuesday can hardly stage a ballet or opera. Nor is it easy to see how it might usefully combine with The Roaring Twenties, the smell of victory or the span of The Brooklyn Bridge and necessarily present an idea of procrastination, discolouration or quantification, as movie, sculpture or music. Art plainly cannot be made of anything, put together from anything and mean anything. If not exactly rules, there are precedents and practices and artists and audiences, critics and patrons variously seek to extend and amend, break and remake some in the interests of others, so far as their respective avenues allow.  Installations certainly permit a daunting array of material, but in as much as that they are successful or effective, must also demonstrate a consistency to how material is displayed, in relation to theme or subject disclosed. We still need to know what it means and how it means before we judge how well it does. This is a fairly traditional criterion. While difficult and inevitably controversial, we need hardly resign ourselves to ‘anything goes’, or an absence of history in the face of such challenges.

A comprehensive definition of art is unlikely to settle such disputes, in any case. Even if it could provide specific application – a lot to ask of a general theory - in all probability it would disintegrate under irreconcilable interpretations. But Danto’s definition has problems before applicability.  He proposes that a work of art has indiscernible or invisible properties, although ‘invisible’ is surely misleading in regard to music and unhelpful in regard to literature or radio drama. The definition is best confined to painting, sculpture and printing – the plastic arts, more or less. These indiscernible properties provide reference to the artist’s expression and prevailing practices for such branches of art, their customary themes and styles. In other words, there is a reflexive component to the reference. Such meaning is said to be ‘embodied’ by the work and is only to be detected by the artworld, its publications, commentary and so forth. But how does the artworld discern it? Granted it looks for precedents, favoured moves, popular motifs – but if the work can be identical to its ostensible subject matter, as in the case of Brillo Boxes, how do they even know where to look, much less how to look at it? Someone will have to tell them, but this is not part of Danto’s definition. The argument at best becomes circular; allowing that someone already knows it is a work of art. Moreover, an actual Brillo carton may also embody reference to standards or tastes in design, to product and brand qualities, for industry experts, quite apart from mere text to packaging. Embodiment is not sufficient for definition of art.

Philosophers understandably are troubled by the lack of detail, but troubled also by the way works of art assume primarily a philosophical content under such a definition.  Duchamp and Warhol are claimed to raise philosophical inquiry within art to a priority, ultimately to turn art into philosophy. But this is silly, not least if one listens to interviews with the artists, but mostly because the argument then allows that philosophy can just as easily be taken as art, or that the disciplines merely exchange names. Patently, this has not occurred and is pointless to contemplate. However Danto has famously declared an end to art as a consequence of such a history of progressive self-awareness and the issue resurfaces in What Art Is (pp. 49-50) perhaps a little ruefully, since his subsequent publications have tried to amend this to the end of art history. But since art assuredly has not ended, the end of its history looks equally premature.

The first essay, or Chapter One, ‘Wakeful Dreams’ (pp. 1-52), briefly retraces a history of Modernism in order to once more establish the outstanding contribution of Duchamp and Warhol and to streamline the storyline. But the account runs into problems in explaining pictorial abstraction. These have been noted before, for example by philosopher George Dickie in Danto and His Critics (1993) (pp 73-8) in discussion of Danto’s hypothetical abstract painting, a monochrome square titled ‘Untitled’ (in ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33, 1974, p.139). For Dickie the issue is whether the work is about something, given that embodied meaning asserts that a work of art refers to something. Danto’s article initially allows that ‘Untitled’ is not about anything, only to later concede such works (abstractions) are about ‘aboutness’. But they are either about something or they are not, reference is a condition of embodiment or it is not. Pictorial abstraction is often taken as the crowning achievement of Modernism, where it is understood as a project toward optimum self-reference or autonomy. But Danto is not quite convinced of an absolute abstraction and surveys degrees of abstraction or implicit derivation from an object for a picture (pp 11-20). 

For Danto, a full abstraction must no longer be any sort of picture but simply a painting, but where to draw the line? Danto distinguishes between two types of abstraction, geometric abstraction which reduces objects to basic - usually straight - line, shape and single or flat colour, and spontaneous, automatic or organic abstraction, which favours free rendering of fugitive or mystic entities. One denies its means are strictly pictorial, the other its ends. But neither declares it has no object, or is not about something. Yet to be about something, suggests to Danto that it is still a picture in some way and that for some reason a picture is incapable of referring to only its pictorial properties, or achieving full self-reference. Despite various anecdotes and digressions he makes no real headway here and with it the claims for Duchamp and Warhol as supreme Modernists lose some of their conviction. It is one thing to recognise rival projects, another to decisively dispose of them. In the essay ‘The End of the Contest ‘(pp. 99-115) about the recognition of photography as art, photography is seen as inheriting picturing as its essence and with subsequently ‘flattening’ perspective through long lenses, less depth of field or focus, confirming the programme for Modernism outlined by Clement Greenberg. But it is unclear what notion of two-dimensionality this then leaves for painting, or the status of photography’s own full abstractions or non-objective works.

What Art Is sketches some additional issues for a definition of art, considering the aims of restoration, the iconography of nudity and sexuality and Kant’s ‘spirit’, amounting to something like an artist’s cognitive imagination for Danto (an alternative would simply be the artist’s talent) but none provide the opportunity to supply sufficient conditions for his definition, so that it lingers as yet with only the necessary condition of embodied self-reference, as a consequence of indiscernible properties. His definition is seen as a necessary refutation to a Wittgensteinian open concept of art, which accepts ongoing social modification to the use of the word art or fine art. But a full essentialist rationale is not attempted either, although the preface dwells on Plato’s views of art to no great return. Finally, this book, as with preceding ones by the author can offer only an unfinished or incomplete definition of what art is, as an alternative to an open concept. It does not seem much of an alternative.

Arthur Danto – What Art Is – Yale University Press, New Haven & London 2013