Arthur Danto on What Art Is
“In our narrative, at first only mimesis [imitation] was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the master narrative. It is the end of the story.”
The definition of art has undergone frequent, violent revolutions since Socrates first defined art as imitation in Plato’s Republic. The great movements of the 1960s—Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimalism Conceptual Art—brought with them the final revolution. The properties at various times and to various extents thought essential to art—beauty, taste, visual truth—no longer could be said to characterize what was now labeled art. In the absence of identifiable, universally shared features, art critics and aestheticians have suggested that art must forever remain an open concept.
The implications for accepting this theory, Danto tells us, are sweeping and devastating. If there are no standards according to which we can differentiate art from non-art, art is a vacuous concept. If everything can be art, nothing can be art. Art has come to an end.
In a provocative new work, What Art Is, Danto retracts his declaration that art has come to an end. Drawing heavily on the aesthetic theory found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Danto argues that we need not concede that “art” is an open container into which we are free to stuff any meaning at all. With renewed vigor, Danto takes up the once abandoned search for an overarching set of criteria for art.
At the outset of his ambitious quest, Danto draws an important distinction between the epistemology and ontology of art. The epistemology of art asks, how can one know that something is art? The ontology of art asks a more fundamental question, what does it mean to be art? In other words, the question is not how can the connoisseur recognize that Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes are art, but what makes Warhol’s Brillo boxes art and the identical factory-made Brillo boxes not-art?
My sense is that, is there are no visible differences, there had to have been invisible differences—not invisible like the Brillo pads packed in the Brillo boxes, but properties that were always invisible. I’ve proposed two such properties are invisible in their nature. In my first book on the philosophy of art I thought that works of art were about something, and I decided that works of art accordingly had meaning. We infer meaning or grasp meaning, but meanings are not at all material. I then thought that meanings were embodied in the object that had them. I then declared that works of art are embodied meanings.
For a work of art to be a work of art, then, it must embody meaning. Our task as viewers is to determine the meaning embodied in the art. From the many properties we can ascribe to a material object, we must discern which of those properties communicate meaning.
Danto‘s book is a short, beautifully written and provocative work that merits the attention of any reader curious about art and the challenges of defining it.