Carey: So now that we’ve inherited this, and young artists have inherited this, and most artists living today, but where is this evolving to? Are we still operating under this new paradigm?
Danto: Yes, I think so. But people have to be taught to live under this paradigm because the question isn’t an epistemological question. That is to say, how would we tell them apart? The question is an ontological one: what is it to be a work of art in contrast with an ordinary object?
That is really the problem that I worked on beginning a little bit with The Artworld but mostly in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace because in there I’ve identified two conditions—it’s not sufficient, but two conditions of invisible things.
The first thing is meaning and second thing is what I call “embodiment.” How the meaning is mapped on to the object, but then you need a third thing which is interpretation. I think the first thing that happens is you get a real vulgarization of what Warhol did, where people say, “Oh, here’s a fuse box, it’s a work of art.” And so you have to say, “What makes it a work of art? What is it to be a fuse box?” and there what you have to do is to start thinking about the meaning and how the meaning is mapped on to the object and how we interpret it, which doesn’t come at all intuitively when we’re just talking about real things.
Carey: Would you say this is what artists are working with today?
Danto: I would think so, it’s easy to back away from it because it doesn’t seem very inspiring. But sooner or later—I like to think people read my books—they’ll begin to see that they have to work even harder than traditional artists did.
They’ve got to be able to deal with meaning. I was very eager when I was writing those things to back away from the formulas that Greenberg, for example, had introduced and where you’d hear all the docents in museums giving talks—what would that mean? What is the point of that?
My main interest was to reintroduce the idea of meaning, which was basically what Duchamp was interested in. He talked about retinal vision, retinal pleasure. He thought that most of the art that was being made—in his dialogue he says that contemporary art, everything—has been retinal art. He said that’s not the way art history was. There was philosophical art. There was religious art, etc. The primary thing was not to give pleasure to the eye. The fundamental thing was to instruct the eye and he was very adamant about that.
When he talks about that—there was a dialogue at the Museum of Modern Art where he said that with the ready-mades, that they’re surely an aesthetic, they’re picked for their absence of any retinal pleasure. That’s not so easy to find because he only came up with about twenty of them.
Carey: So today, no matter what artists are doing, whether they’re doing landscapes or different kinds of conceptual projects or performances, everything has to have this sense of meaning?
Danto: That’s right, and what I would say about that, Brainard, a good example was Marina Abramovi, performing at MOMA. I mean, anybody could sit across from another person but for it to be a work of art you’ve got to think about what it means and so forth. People responded to it as though they were aware of that, and it was in some way a very profound experience for them.
Carey: Let’s talk a little bit about art criticism today. You are writing, as you say, a bit of an autobiographical piece, and where you are coming from is very different from most critics, in my mind.
Danto: Yeah, there are very few people who’ve gone from philosophy into criticism. I just fell into it because with my history I had set myself up as a kind of a nineteenth century philosopher. I was doing a five volume work on the theory of representation and I began with a book called the Analytical Philosophy of History. I thought, why don’t I just carry that out and say that what sets us apart from the rest of the world is the way we represent it. And then I did two books, one on knowledge, the Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge. And one called Analytical Philosophy of Action.
Then I got the fourth volume, which was going to be about art. I really didn’t want it to be thought of as philosophy, but I found a wonderful title in a Miriam Sparks novel. And I never wrote the fifth because I felt that I was turning art into mainstream philosophy, which I would only get into arguments with, and there was no reason to finish. I did write a one volume work of the whole system called Connections to the World, but that was my thing.
So the treatment of art in The Transfiguration was permeated with traditional philosophical questions about action and knowledge and was not so traditional about history, because what philosophers mostly have done has discounted history as differentiating people. But we’ve got the same physiology now that human beings had twenty thousand years ago, but we’re very different. So history is a really an important puzzle factor there. So that’s not as mainstream as the other stuff was, but it was most original, it seemed to me, with my work.
Carey: Yeah. I think so, too. Your work to me has often seemed very generous in the sense that you’re probing, you’re looking, you’re trying to understand as opposed to critics that are very opinionated in the sense that they’re putting down work.
Danto: Yeah, there’s a lot of that.
Carey: Like the popular Jerry Saltz.
Danto: Oh, Jerry Saltz? Yeah, I don’t think that well of him. I mean, I think he’s a good writer more than one would think, but he does come in as a kind of ordinary person who is responding as an ordinary person will respond.
He does a lot of that, but his wife Roberta Smith is worse. I’ve got an enormous respect for Roberta but every once in a while she just goes off—just goes off on a tantrum where she bashes artists of high achievement, it seems to me. So she’s saying, “You can’t get away with that,” and so forth. Artists like David Reed or Mark Tansey, for example, or Sean Scully, and I don’t know why Roberta does that but she’s a good critic for the most part if she’s not dealing with artists who’ve gone off to a higher achievement.
Carey: And Jerry Saltz you feel is in a similar area?
Danto: I think so, yeah. I remember a few years ago I was writing a lecture for the University in Cleveland. They had a show of William Kentridge and they wanted me to write a lecture on it. He said there, “William Kentridge is an artist in deep trouble, deep trouble,” and so forth. Why is he in deep trouble? He’s trying to make art, and he is an animator, that won’t work.
Carey: That’s what Jerry Saltz said? That Kentridge was an artist in deep trouble?
Danto: Yes. Jerry said, “He’s trying to be a gallery artist using these things as drawings and so forth and he’s not going to make it.” And I thought they were gorgeous. And I thought: What’s Jerry Saltz doing something like that for? Where does he come from by saying that he’s in deep trouble? I mean, this is really one of the best artists around and is doing precisely the kinds of things that I feel artists should be doing, which is to awaken the viewer to the meaning of human life and love.
That is “making it as an artist” of many kinds, and when William showed his work and became suddenly a universal star of Documenta in the nineties, he suddenly was giving people something that they felt was deeply missing from art. That is to say these questions about the power of love and so forth. I mean, it seemed to me that Jerry thought, “I’ve got him. I’ve got him by the balls,” and he didn’t, it wasn’t within range of him. I mean, that kind of thing. It stuck with me.
Carey: Yeah. I’ve heard him speak that way about many artists. In a sense saying what they should do or what they shouldn’t do or how they should make that work, which seems an unusual position for a critic to take, really.
Danto: Yes, well I think a lot of people think that’s what a critic should do, as a matter of fact. When I got started, I have to say that my first impulses were similar to find my way. At first, I really was more negative than I ever thought I had the right to be later on, but that’s how everybody who was writing criticism for a national publication was, really mean.
There was Hilton Kramer who is a paradigm. There was Robert Hughes who was a paradigm and he’s getting off these terrific jokes, but demolishing people that way. It was difficult and at the same time that’s not the way to be a critic, and so I changed the style and really tried to say what the meaning is, how the artist lets you know what the meaning is.
That, the two things: the content and the presentation that I found in Hegel’s aesthetics. There’s a lot more of Hegel in my writing than you’d be aware of, that anybody would be aware of. I used to read Hegel as a guide to what I was doing.
He was a great philosopher and I came upon him really almost when I was retiring but students asked if I would take them through Hegel’s aesthetics. And I thought, well, it’s a nice way to wind up so I did, and I was stunned by what a great thinker he was.