Reading: Notes on the End of Art | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Notes on the End of Art 

You might regard the prospect with disquiet, if not alarm, but critic-philosopher Arthur Danto is delighted.

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We've all had the feeling. You're passing through some gallery, glumly taking in the latest results of art-school necrosis--here's a thing the cat could well have dragged in, only colored a la Crayola and shellacked; there's a beat-up dummy titled Womankin, possibly a victim of domestic abuse, that has Christmas lights where the nipples might have been; and over there is a series of photographs of U.S. presidents, retouched so that behind the periwigs, pince-nez, and side-whiskers you seem to see not the large and famous heads we know so well, but little heads of another sort--when your curiosity is slowly overcome, its place taken by anxiety and finally by dread. A question begins to stir within you. You try to ignore it, but it's stubborn, like a finger jabbing you in the ribs, and in the end you cry out, "I know this stuff is bad, but is it even art?"

Your cry, of course, is silent.

But the anxiety is real, and for Arthur Danto, who writes a column on art for the Nation, it is simply explained. The 1960s, he tells us, witnessed a revolution in art that opened a chasm between what had been done before, whether in the cave, the cathedral, or the cafe, and what came after. Your confusion, your unease, those barely stifled urges to clutch your forehead are little wonder, because in the new epoch "you cannot tell when something is a work of art just by looking at it." (What a history of modernist contempt for the sensuous is held in that "just".) This state of affairs, odd in itself, portends something even odder--the "End of Art." Our last 20,000 years have been no cakewalk, to be sure, but unsuccored by the immemorial impulse to create images of beauty and power they could have been a lot tougher. That impulse, reports Danto, now has nowhere left to go: "The master narrative of Western art"--Danto is American, but he knows how to imitate the croak of the Frog--"is losing its grip and nothing has taken its place. My thought is that nothing can."

This, in a nutshell, is the woeful conclusion of Danto's new book of essays, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective. His evidence is impressive and many of his arguments are subtle. His tone, however, may surprise you. If you have ever taken pleasure in an image, if you have ever felt provoked, instructed, or enlarged by painting or sculpture, if you have ever, in a word, had your aesthetic crank turned by art you might regard the prospect of its demise with disquiet, if not alarm. Danto is delighted. It could be that he simply likes the kind of thing that gets produced as art by a culture in the grip of rigor mortis, but I doubt it. More likely it's because when "you cannot tell when something is a work of art" the age-old question of the lover of art--Is it any good?--gets replaced by the new-age question of the philosopher of art: Is it, in fact, art?

And as it happens, this is a problem Danto, who occupies a prestigious chair in philosophy at Columbia, is eminently suited for. His book is actually a kind of popular philosophy, though not of the 101 Questions and Answers On . . . type. It belongs to an even older genre, that of the Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides's original guide scandalized the 12th century by telling people the Bible did not say what it obviously did--it's an allegory, see, and you have to know how to read it. But Danto's guide consoles the museumgoers of today by assuring them that--again, once you know the codes--what you see are not merely soup cans, hairs stuck to plaster, or canvases of a single (or no) color, but art; even, to use one of the professor's favorite terms, Art.

How did this happen? Must we sit quietly when we're told, "There is, of course, still a difference between . . . art and what I like to refer to as 'mere real things'"? Danto offers two sorts of reasons. First, he rehearses a lot of Hegelian hocus-pocus to the effect that "art is something which reaches a sort of historical end . . . beyond which it in fact turns into philosophy." This looks like a sly professor's trick, perhaps a way to get back at artists who never got their PhDs, but it's not. Danto really does believe it, and even recalls the moment, an epiphany at a gallery in 1964, when the truth hit him that "art, historically considered, was raising from within itself the question of its being. . . . The task for philosophy was now clear. Until the form of the question came from within art, philosophy was powerless to raise it, and once it was raised, art was powerless to resolve it. That point had been reached when art and reality were indiscernible."

The waters of eggheadism are icy, if a little slow moving, but the casual reader of this book need not take the plunge. The real action for Danto is more immediate: the 1960s. What happened to art in that glorious decade--by coincidence the era of the critic's own coming-of-age--was not just a philosophical revolution; it was also crucial to the "various modes of liberations" those years aspired to. Free love, free jazz, Black Power, women's lib all marched by, and at the head of the parade, free art: the "thought that anything could be art was a model, in a way, for the hope that human beings could be anything they chose." Today, when we are well past the point where "anything could be art" and so require experts to tell us when we're looking at it, there may be comfort in knowing that it has been for a good cause and not in vain.

The redeeming power of art--it's a romantic, even archaic idea. But for all of Danto's toiling hipness his book is soaked in just this kind of piety. Maybe Philip Larkin was right when he said that to lose touch with modern, or current, art in a humanist society is parallel to losing one's faith in a religious age: to restore our faith in an artistic life gone dead, Danto the critic postures as Danto the divine. He administers funeral rites to all hitherto existing art. He stands, like Paul on the road to Damascus, underneath the flapping plastic pennants of a used-car lot in Anytown, USA, transported by all the ads for deals, superdeals, and megadeals into a blissful realization that he's up to his ear hairs in the humus of American Pop, when suddenly signs in the window of a supermarket across the street propel him into the unspeakable ecstasies of the postmodern college circuit: "Velveeta, Sealtest, Chicken of the Sea. . . . I thought, Good heavens. This is just remarkable!" He meditates on people milling through a museum show in Boston and finds that what moves them could not be mere "visual pleasure, since the paintings were difficult," but rather the feeling that "they were in the presence of things of great moment. . . . And they wore their green or lavender metal badges the way pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela wore cockleshells, signs of having participated in an endeavor of great meaning." And he anoints the perfect avatar for this spiritual rebirth--Andy Warhol.

It was the showing of that artist's famous Brillo Boxes that induced Danto's critical epiphany back in 1964, and he is still dazzled. As presented by Danto, Warhol is not quite the Messiah, but his powers are impressive. He's able to turn wholesale shipping cartons ("24 GIANT SIZE PKGS.") into art--an act, if not truly magical, then mysterious, and as awesome in its way as the transubstantiation of the host: "What Warhol achieved with the Brillo Box, as with almost everything he touched, was to transform means into meanings. He intuited the immense human significance of what to others [was] invisible." Andy has a few Old Testament tricks up his sleeve too. A series of hammer- and-sickle silkscreens done in 1977--"a political, diagnostic statement of extraordinary subtlety and penetration"--foretells what no one then could know. Danto's own statements on these paintings are quite subtle themselves, but I gather that by using ordinary tools bought at a hardware store ("How crucial to its meaning the brand names are!") the artist cuts to the rotten heart of the Soviet system and, lo: "The recent replacement of the Communist flag by the Russian flag confirms Warhol's prophetic powers."

Immense! Extraordinary! Prophetic! In India Rama and Krishna still get reincarnated from time to time as country boys whose most winning claim is always their innocence: they don't try for miracles, but the god's face shines irrepressibly through the child's. So did Warhol cultivate an aura of distraction and utter superficiality: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol," he said in the early days, "just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am." There were always others to tout for him, as there still are. About Hammer and Sickle Danto says discreetly, "It was characteristic of Warhol not to advance any special interpretation for this body of work." Remove the philosophical gloss and you have a truism of the modern market for art, a market that Warhol knew just how to please: if they've got the dough, let the boobs think what they want.

This is the first principle of the American huckster, and Warhol, with his exquisite nose for goods that move, was nothing if not a superb example of the type. To Danto, however, he's not only a demigod but a democrat: his subjects were just the homely things of everyday life, but hallowed by the artist's touch they "redeemed the world in an intoxicating way." Danto writes, apparently feeling the effects, "We are soft drinks, canned soup, hamburgers. . . . We are Pop." Warhol, according to this gospel, annihilated all those elitist distinctions about what art was supposed to be and opened the way for works pitched at all levels of brow. This is the political lesson Danto draws from the "End of Art," and the main reason he's so happy about it.

The lesson is bogus, sure, but comforting to those who buried their secret hearts with the 1960s. Danto may indeed believe that "[Warhol's] soups are in sacramental celebration of their earthly reality," but to the stiffs who actually eat Campbell's Andy was just a weirdo, a fag in a funny wig, and art is what you buy at the church auction because it looks nice. Like a lot of ex-rads, however, Danto hasn't kept up since Woodstock. In his raptures over Warhol's "sweeping egalitarianism" he forgets to mention that Andy put his lips to celebrity breeches so fast he had to start his own gossip magazine to keep pace, and that his greatest ambition in the 80s was to be admitted to the Reagans' court as a kept artist, a service he had performed, con amore, for the Shah of Iran the decade before.

But royalty, in general, are no more important than hoi polloi as a market for artists like Warhol. Their best customers have always been cognoscenti on the lookout for art that defies received standards by being too commercial, pornographic, ugly, dull, profane, or whatever, and so allows them to parade their own meager cultural capital ("We are soft drinks . . . ") as the key to good taste. They may claim piercing insights for the work, as professor Danto does for Pop (those of you who skipped Anthro 101 hold on to your hats): "it was abruptly revealed that popular culture is a massive symbolic system that condenses the meanings of modern life as lived by modern men and women." But more often what holds them in thrall is the idea that it is the first duty of the artist to test the limits of his form, for they believe that is how great art is made.

Nowadays this view is itself pretty standard, at least among the review panels that ladle, or spoon, out the gravy. To Danto, of course, it is dogma, and his "End of Art" turns out to be nothing less than its apotheosis: "It was a moment--I would say it was the moment--when perfect artistic freedom had become real." He thinks this is radical (and on the back of his book we read, in rather large italic, that "Arthur Danto is the most radical writer on art in America"), but at bottom the notion of "testing the limits" is merely a liberal shibboleth, a mild blend of the uplift and indulgence peculiar to that sect. Nevertheless, its recent results have been striking, as we all know: the bodies smeared with chocolate, icons bobbing in excreta, whip handles up the ass, et cetera.

Even if you regard these exploits as aesthetic triumphs, there is still room for doubt about the principle behind them. Although it sounds daring, "testing the limits" takes the line of least resistance: as long as artists remain fearless they are guaranteed progress--or novelty, at any rate, and the power to shock an ever receding frontier of good taste. This can have its moments--Warhol did, briefly, hold a mirror up to the pandering insipidity of his time, though when he replaced it with clear glass few seemed to notice--but real progress is another matter. It comes, if at all, by accepting the integrity of an artistic form as necessary and beautiful, not by hating it as a shackle to be broken. Did Homer suffer because he kept six beats to each one of the 28,000 lines of his poetry? Was it mere professional pique that moved Miles Davis to say about free-form jazz, "If something sounds terrible, man, a person should have enough respect for his own mind to say it doesn't sound good"? Classics are not made by testing the limits, but by finding the center.

An early father of the Catholic church who did his best to defend the wickedly absurd proposition that slavery had been ordained by almighty God was later chided with the words, "his learning is too often borrowed, and his arguments are too often his own." The same might be said about professor Danto, who is operating under similar handicaps while trying to defend the absurdity of contemporary art. This he does not by saying that it is good, mind you, for there is no distinction between good and bad in Dantoland, but simply by saying that it is art. Is Danto then just another scholastic, scribbling furiously as he tries to bend the decadence around him to fit his philosophy?

If you look for it, you can certainly find the dried-out spoor of the schoolman as you make your way through these essays. There are, for example, several pages devoted to a detailed exegesis of two small press invitations sent out by museums ("the exclamation point belongs, fairly clearly, to an earlier graphic period than the . . . ampersand does") showing that, like Modern Art itself, the Modern Art Critic can apply his talents to anything. We find a large entirely black canvas by a specialist in "single-form, single-color paintings" described in this way: "Everything inessential had been leached away, leaving only the essence of art behind." How Warhol came up with the idea to paint a Coke bottle six feet tall is "one of the deep questions in the social history of modern times." And Danto's defense of public subsidies for artists inspires logic that would make a Jesuit smile: "There is room for the right to a meaningful life," he assures us, "and with this room for government support of art, just because access to art has come increasingly to be regarded as part of a meaningful form of life for modern persons." Translated into English, this is yet another appeal to the Declaration now back in vogue, but revised for the 90s: You have a Right to be Happy. The Robert Mapplethorpe set-to over funding and obscenity elicits the only real invective in the book, but it's not directed against the yahoos who prosecuted the curators of his last, infamous show. Stirred by rivalries too esoteric for laymen to comprehend, Danto assails his own colleagues in the art racket who testified for the defense--successfully, as it turned out. He calls them "arrogant Kantians" (Danto is Hegelian) and says bitterly, "I found that I hated the experts." There is no anti-Semite, as they say, like a Jew.

But it's too easy to simply dismiss a man like Danto as an academic claqueur. He may also be right. When he says that today "you cannot tell when something is a work of art just by looking at it" it's hard to deny that the facts are on his side. But does that mean we're in for the End of Art? Just a few years ago, when Eastern Europe started to chant "democracy" and Gorbachev laid plans to join the lecture circuit, there was a lot of hoo-ha about history, or even History, coming to an end as a result. But we've seen how nicely it survived the death of communism, just as it had spit in the eyes of Karl Marx and his epigoni by surviving its birth. So may art survive Pop, the National Endowment, and even philosophy. Amen.

Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective by Arthur C. Danto, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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