Art Essay Future In Madonna Pluralistic World
Arthur C. Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1924, and grew up in Detroit. After spending two years in the Army, Danto studied art and history at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) and then at Columbia University.
From 1949 to 1950, Danto studied in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship, and in 1951 returned to teach at Columbia, where he is currently Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy.
Since 1984, he has been art critic for TheNation, and in addition to his many books on philosophical subjects, he has published several collections of art criticism, including Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism; Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992); Playing With the Edge: The Photographic Achievement of Robert Mapplethorpe (University of California, 1995); and, most recently, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). He lives in New York City.
By SARAH BOXER
THE MADONNA OF THE FUTURE
Essays in a Pluralistic Art World.
By Arthur C. Danto.
450 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $32.
n 1964, Arthur C. Danto had a philosophical awakening. At the Stable Gallery in New York he beheld Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes, a pile of plywood boxes silk-screened to look like real cardboard Brillo boxes. Danto was dazzled. In a famous essay in The Journal of Philosophy titled ''The Artworld,'' Danto gave voice to his epiphany. He asked, ''Has the whole distinction between art and reality broken down?'' Are all things ''latent artworks waiting, like the bread and wine of reality, to be transfigured, through some dark mystery, into the indiscernible flesh and blood of the sacrament?''
Danto's epiphany had a corollary: it is not up to the eye to decide that the facsimile Brillo boxes are art and the real Brillo boxes are not. ''It is the role of artistic theories, these days as always, to make the artworld, and art, possible.'' To the eye, the two kinds of boxes, he suggested, are pretty much the same, or, as philosophers would say, indiscernible. Danto had found his grand obsession: ''Given two things that resemble one another to any chosen degree, but one of them a work of art and the other an ordinary object, what accounts for this difference in status?'' Why is a urinal that is exhibited by Marcel Duchamp or a pile of dirt exhibited by Robert Morris a work of art, when there are plenty of potties and piles of dirt that aren't art?
In his 1981 book, ''The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,'' Danto pondered the problem of indiscernibles some more and produced a thought experiment. Imagine a bunch of identical canvas squares painted red, each of which has a different meaning, history and name. One is a historical painting of the Red Sea. Another is ''Red Square,'' a punning Communist tribute painted in the manner of Malevich. A third is ''Red Tablecloth,'' by a sour disciple of Matisse. Another is a canvas primed red by Giorgione. They all look alike, but some are art and others are not.
In 1984, still under the sway of his obsession, Danto, the Johnsonian professor of philosophy emeritus at Columbia University, became the art critic for The Nation. ''The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World'' is his most recent collection of reviews and essays, covering the years 1993 to 1999.
Like him or not, Danto is the critic we deserve now, much as Clement Greenberg, the art critic for The Nation from 1941 to 1949, was the critic we deserved then. Greenberg, like Danto, had a grand obsession. He believed that paintings should be about their materials -- canvas and paint -- and he championed the artists he thought achieved it, starting with the Abstract Expressionists, who reveled in what Danto calls the ''viscous, fluid, gummy, dripping, unctuous, slathery, ropy, brushy, pasty, opaque and splattering'' stuff that is paint.
Danto is an ideal critic for those who do not revel in mere paint. He declares we have reached ''the end of art,'' a time when the line between art objects and ordinary objects is invisible. The ''post-historical'' era demands something other than eyes. What the world needs now are philosophers. In ''an age of pluralism in art,'' when anything might be a work of art (but not everything is), we need a pluralistic critic, willing to see anything as art.
But Danto is not really as free and easy as all that. Pure formal beauty does not move him. He cares only for art that reflects on itself, which he calls the ''postmodernist birthright.'' He thinks Andy Warhol is a genius and says that ''before Duchamp, no one knew what the real questions were.'' That is pretty tough stuff coming from a pluralist.
Still, he's unbeatable at what he does. There is no one like Danto for making sense of a wad of pink clay that looks like chewed bubble gum. There is no one else who can confidently say that Damien Hirst's dead lamb is better than his dead pig. There is no one else who would think to call Jasper Johns's flags reverse ready-mades -- works of art that are used as ordinary objects. There is no one who communicates the regressive appeal of Warhol's Jackies, Marilyns and Howdy Doodys the way he does. And who can deal better with the question of why a place like Las Vegas, with its false Manhattan and false Venice, needs real paintings by Degas, Cezanne, Manet and Warhol?
Danto adores postmodern pranks, but he reviews artists of all ages, artists on the cusp between modern and contemporary art (Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg), as well as modern artists (John Heartfield, Salvador Dali, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Florine Stettheimer, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Richard Diebenkorn, Fernand Léger, Chaim Soutine, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock) and a few older ones (Vermeer, Tiepolo, Delacroix, Sofonisba Anguissola).
But how does a critic who thinks that eyes no longer matter look at art that was made when eyes did matter? He learns to look beyond the paint. Danto is a content hunter. In that he is quite old-fashioned -- not so much postmodern as premodern. He searches for the philosophical meaning in paintings the way children look for Waldos in a ''Where's Waldo?'' book.
This will frustrate those who believe in visual experience for its own sake, but for those who are more skeptical or simply less visual, Danto offers a kind of access to art that few other critics do.
His favorite method is to compare art and non-art. In an essay about Rothko, Danto looks for the meaning in a real Rothko painting by comparing it with ''a ready-made Rothko,'' a sunset he sees while flying 33,000 feet over Iceland -- a heavy purple at the bottom, separated from the upper band of light blue by a band of rose and orange.'' What distinguishes the ready-made Rothko from a real Rothko? There must be ''crucial differences that do not meet the eye.'' But ultimately Danto is disappointed. He decides that Rothko's paintings are all surface, just about beauty. One of them ''shows what materiality comes to when it does not evoke something deeper than itself.''
Danto is so blasé about what the eyes alone can see that he makes a few visual boo-boos. For example, he says that the paintings at the Rothko chapel in Houston ''were originally red -- indeed, red on red -- and hopeful rather than tragic,'' but have since turned black, inspiring dire interpretations. Actually, the paintings have always been dominated by gloomy black rectangles floating on a maroon ground. At another point, Danto says that Mondrian used diagonal lines in his late work when in fact he never used them in his abstract work at all, although he did paint on diamond-shaped canvases -- for decades. Well, no matter. If art is just embodied philosophy, do the features of the body really count?
Sometimes Danto's obsession with indiscernibles evolves into a more ordinary game: why is one thing different from another? Although he often appears distracted when dealing with just one artist, he never tires of pairs. What distinguishes nakedness from nudity, television from video, Warhol from James Coleman, Warhol from Rodchenko, Warhol from Robert Morris? Some comparisons are fruitful and others fizzle. An ambitious comparison between Picasso and Bertrand Russell yields only this: ''I cannot imagine what a portrait by Picasso of Bertrand Russell would look like.''
In the game of compare and contrast, the figures who are called into action time and again are Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Cage, Bertrand Russell and Marcel Duchamp. And of course Warhol. Danto gives a grand description of Tiepolo's ''delicious drawing at the Morgan of a group of 17 (by my count) Punchinellos preparing a meal of gnocchi and parmesan cheese for a hungry Punchinello sitting disconsolately on his hat, looking as if dinner will never come.'' What does it remind Danto of? Warhol, of course! Tiepolo has multiplied the figure of Punchinello ''with the wit with which Warhol iterates 'Mona Lisas' in his 'Thirty Are Better Than One.' ''You have to admit, that comparison takes guts, or something indiscernible from it.
Danto's title, ''The Madonna of the Future,'' comes from a Henry James story about a failed artist named Theobald who sees a beautiful woman and is inspired to paint her as a Madonna. He studies Raphael's ''Madonna della Seggiola'' for so long that his own model, as Danto writes, grows ''coarse and stout and sexual.'' Theobald dies, leaving behind a blank canvas.
Danto, a lover of hypotheticals, imagines the story a little further. A curator from the future looks at Theobald's blank canvas and declares it ''a masterpiece.'' He tells Theobald that ''the history of the all-white painting, which includes Rodchenko, Malevich, Rauschenberg and Ryman, begins with him.'' What would Theobald think? He would probably still see himself as a failure, but if he's smart, Danto suggests, he might also glimpse the beginning of the end of art, the glorious time when the failures of today are transfigured into the successes of tomorrow and everything is potential art.
Sarah Boxer is a reporter for the Arts & Ideas pages of The Times.
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