Arthur Danto Interviewed
The next interview was one I conducted with the late critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, shortly before he died. Danto wrote for The Nation for twenty-five years and is credited with inventing the term “the art world.” He is a critic I very much admire since he writes through the lens of being a philosopher, and I am very fond of philosophy myself.
In reading this interview and applying it to studio practice, he gives a background of how he observes and thinks and thus, what a critic might be thinking in your studio when looking at your work. He also talks about what it means for an artist to have a “meaning” for their work.
Carey: To begin with, let me ask you what is it that you’re working on these days, is there a particular article or writing?
Danto: I’m working on a couple of things. I’m writing an essay on going from philosophy into art criticism. How I suddenly found myself, at a certain age, writing in a very different way for a very different audience. I did art criticism for The Nation for twenty-five years. So I’m writing a little, so to speak, an autobiographical study of my own feelings about that.
I really had a twenty-five-year career when basically I was at the edge of retiring from philosophy. Well, it took another ten years. Then I’m trying to write a sort of a little book, about the scale of the book on Warhol that I published in 2009, about really the simplest question: What is art?
I’d like to do that because it seemed to me that in my profession, the thoughts were laid out, like in the Transfiguration of the Commonplace—and that I’m part of the tradition, the traditional set of answers to the question of what is art. I think the history is that you can’t get the definition of art until it’s all happened, and it seemed to me that those great and important things happened in the sixties but have to be taken into account in any definition of art all through history. And so that’s a kind of a culmination of all the arguments I’ve been making down the years on the definition of art, beginning with The Artworld but then basically to the Transfiguration of the Commonplace.
Carey: That was when you talked about After the End of Art as well, which was really when you began talking about Warhol and a whole new world of art which really carries us up to the present.
Danto: That’s right.
Carey: We’re still operating in this world of not reproducing, but where almost anything goes now. It’s based in theory—which is was part of your theory, isn’t it?
Danto: That’s right. I mean, when you began to get the kind of cases that came up in the middle sixties where you couldn’t blankly look at it and think, “Oh, that’s art.” You’d have to have a little bit of theory and you’d have to have, as I say, a little bit of history to see it as art. You’d have to know something about how a thing like that got to be considered art.
So that was what the theory is and how the history contributes—those were not traditionally taken into consideration, it seemed to me. My own experience of walking into the Stable Gallery and seeing all these things, boxes in particular, I thought, “I think I’m ready for that.” I could see that experiences in my own history prepared me for that, but I also thought there are a lot of people who are not going to be prepared for it.
So I had this experience which I think I transcribed in one of the books. I had a friend out of Columbia who was the head of the art department, Andrei, who was a fine artist, a wonderful artist. But he told me a couple of years later, he said, “You know what I wrote all across the guest book?” He said, “I wrote, ‘Shit,’” and I said, “Andrei, I wrote The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.”
Carey: Was this the Warhol show? Brillo boxes is what you’re talking about, right?
Danto: Yes, but what people called different things—there were not that many Brillo boxes by comparison with others. There were eight different kinds of boxes but the Brillo Box was by far the star of that show. I mean, it’s the only one that ever gets talked about. Nobody talks about the Del Monte Peach Halves Box.
Although all of the same questions come up with those as with the Brillo Box but the Brillo Box was originally designed by James Harvey who was an abstract expressionist, second generation abstract expressionist and he was a master of lettering. You could see how influenced he was by the hard-edged abstraction of what was in the air and it’s a magnificent piece of rhetoric for the contents of the box, whereas Warhol got no credit and Harvey got no credit for that at all.
Carey: We’re now almost fifty years from the sixties, when this huge shift happened in work. Now, we have students graduating school that are steeped in the theory from that time. As you look at art, as you look at all this time, where do you feel that has brought us now? Is it just a continuity of the past?
Danto: I don’t think it’s brought us sublimity. You know what I mean? I think that was in a way the end of art as far as I was concerned because you have a situation where anything could really be an artwork and the paradigm of that was Warhol’s making a facsimile of an ordinary utilitarian box, and that they at least looked enough alike that you could think of them as indiscernible and, at that point, what’s the difference between art and reality?
The answer to it is that what separates the two has to be invisible. You can’t tell by looking at them. You can’t tell by picking them out—if you read philosophy in those days and could talk about what art is, you would get a kind of Wittgensteinian answer which says that you can, anybody can just pick them out. If you had a warehouse of pieces of furniture and artworks, you could just pick them out. You don’t have to have a definition. And I thought that with Warhol and Duchamp you really did have to have a definition.
Wittgenstein was very, very eager to get rid of the millennial question of what is art. Which was raised by Socrates in The Republic and has been going along for centuries. You can’t just get rid of it by saying you can pick it out because we now know that you can’t pick it out. You’ve got to have other ways of thinking about it.