What Art Is

Reviewed by Ed Schad

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I think Arthur Danto is right.

This is dangerous to say, because Danto is so often oversimplified and his views are often turned into hollow clichés. “That’s the end of art guy, right?” Well, yes, but it is not that simple. Danto is a proper philosopher in that he has a few very profound insights that he repeats over and over, and the so called “end of art” is indeed part of the mantra. This is not bad, it is simply the acknowledgement that the deepest things seem the most simple and require constant dedication and contemplation to understand.

Danto’s basic claim for art, which you will find repeated yet again in What Art Is, is that art is now in a philosophic age and that this is an epochal, essential change. What he means by this is that the systemic and structural ways by which historically people saw art (as imitation, beauty, form, composition, taste) are now secondary concerns to the key question, the ontological question, of what art is and how it is so.

For Danto, this question emerged in his famous encounter with Warhol’s Brillo Box, which was similar to but not exactly a readymade. There was no visual difference between the Brillo Box and its mass market cousin. The original one designed by a gentleman named James Harvey was in “the world,” while the other by Warhol was in the world, but also, decidedly, in the world of art (Warhol praised consumer culture, but all he had to do was repeat its materials). It seemed at the time, to Danto, that only argument made the difference between the two boxes explicit and only context confirmed it. Thus, the end of “art” as it was (something that was first imitative, then in service to the beautiful, then caught up in Modernism’s formal endgame) and the beginning of art as it shall and has to be (philosophy or the place where anything is possible).

The new book, which reads like a series of essays, goes deeply into this idea, establishing a philosophical precedent for Warhol’s radical idea through Descartes, Kant, Peirce, and eventually Hegel, as well as developing a definition for what is at work in the Brillo Box, namely Danto’s twin concepts of art as “wakeful dreams” and as “embodied meaning.” After a chapter of art history which the initiated will find a bright refresher course on well established but often clumsily presented (by other people other than Danto) ideas, the reader finds chapters on the Brillo Box itself, the Sistine Chapel, Descartes, Photography, and Kant, all ultimately in service to wrap our heads around how that the concept “embodied meaning” may not mean what you might think it means. The going can be choppy and perhaps it’s not the tightest of books, but you should not be deterred.

One important part of the argument is that Danto takes great pains to refute the intoxicating but ultimately false idea that the art world (the institution) determines the difference between Warhol’s box and Harvey’s box. Using Hegel, Danto argues essentially that there is more to life than institutions, that Warhol’s Brillo Box is “conscious of itself” in a philosophic way (it refers both to itself and something fundamentally not itself) that doesn’t need the artworld to validate it as art. It is art, conscious art, philosophical art, whether the artworld thinks it is or not. Now that Warhol has presented his Brillo Box and the idea has been had, there is no turning back.

Danto’s definition of art is important, correct, and has implications far beyond his books. To let “the world in” in the understanding of art and the diminishment of standard criteria of judgment in terms of whether or not an artwork is doing what it thinks it is doing, opens criticism and individual responses to art up to such an extent where one wonders why one doesn’t see a concomitant change in writing on art. We still use the remnants of the old judgments and we use them all the time. Questions of an artwork’s nature rarely arise.

When Warhol presents a Brillo Box to praise consumer culture and there are no physical details which distinguish it from store bought Brillo Box, it is proof that the medium is coextensive with its meaning, that its meaning is embodied. Therefore, Warhol’s technique of praising consumer culture stands right alongside anything else that praises consumer culture. It’s status as art no longer protects it from having to be fundamentally philosophical and answerable for its ideas as they emerge in physical details.

If an artwork, for instance, would better make its point as a book, it should be a book. This certainly helps criticism in those moments in galleries where you are reading a text in an artwork. Is standing or reading essential to the point of the work? If so, why is this on the wall and not someplace more comfortable, where a person may be more disposed to spend time? Why is it visual? Does it have to be visual to make it’s point? Does the visual bring something to the table that the text cannot? Did the artist think of these issues at all? These are some of the questions that arise in Danto’s gambit, getting to know and ultimately judge an artwork is directly bound to its essential nature: what it is has to suit what it wants to mean.

Danto’s philosophic mode requires large exertions from both viewers and artists. If it is so that anything is possible, as Jeff Wall once put it, nothing is guaranteed. We should not be content with making little amendments and comments on beauty and taste. Visual artists now have the opportunity to use any medium possible to weigh in on any subject and the only criteria is the depth and clarity by which that “embodied meaning,” as Danto calls it, reveals itself. This is liberating and scary. Artists are required to be better and viewers are required to be smarter.

An art book is only valuable according to how useful it is to the experience of a work of art. If it is not useful, it functions according to the rules of text, which is a different game entirely (not a bad one either I’d say). What Art Is is not a great book, not remotely Danto’s most important book, but its implications run far into the future. The challenges it poses to writing and art making are further books I dearly hope Danto has the momentum to write.

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Arthur C. Danto, What Art Is, (Yale University Press, 2013) 
Images: Cover of What Art Is and Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964-1969

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