The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue

Arthur Danto
(1924 – 2013)

Arthur Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1924 and grew up in Detroit. He served in the military during the Second World War, driving trucks in North Africa and Italy. “I had a really great time,” he told me, making me wonder if anything at all could not, given his fascination with life, turn into an adventure. After the war he studied art history and art at Wayne State then in Paris, becoming a printmaker of significance, a maker of images in the manner of German Expressionism, woodblocks with figures articulated in a chaotic swirl of lines, barely discernible in the intensity. At a certain moment in the 1960s he took the decision to give up art, believing his work out of step with the zeitgeist. This decision was made on philosophical grounds and without regret, for Arthur was already a philosopher dedicated to thinking through the conditions through which object, performance and gesture may become art, spinning a theory as intricately inventive as any work of avant-garde art. He had taken the decision to continue at university and gotten a PhD at Columbia, and after a brief stint working in the philosophy of science, turned to aesthetics. He was to spend most of the rest of his working life in the classrooms, galleries, and museums of New York, ending up Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia while also serving as art critic for the Nation magazine.

It is well known that Arthur’s eureka moment on the road to Damascus took place at a West 58th Street gallery, the Stable Gallery, where he witnessed an exhibition of oversized Brillo boxes by Andy Warhol. Offered in play as a way of blurring the distinction between industrial and fine art, Arthur transformed Warhol into a philosopher in gel (one who wore his gel lightly). In Arthur’s view Warhol’s boxes became revelations of the conditions that turn ordinary, real things into works of art. These conditions could not be anything visual, since the box in the supermarket was (more or less) visually identical to the one in the gallery but only the one was fine art. The man in dark glasses and a wig had hit on, with Arthur’s prompting, Leibnitz’s problem of indiscernibility: that what makes two virtually identical things different in kind has to be something hidden and abstract. That something, Arthur argued in the Journal of Philosophy in 1964, could only be a background of shared theory: a set of concepts constructing terms for the box in the gallery to “make a statement” to the art world. Warhol could press the limits of the art world (with a supermarket box) and get away with it only because these concepts, abstraction and pop, were in place at the moment of performance art. Not that Warhol’s gesture was without controversy. Many took Warhol’s antics to be the attention grabbing of a drugged out denizen of the Velvet Underground whose pasty skin bespoke the need for a sunlamp if not a two-week vacation in Miami Beach. But the very fact of controversy proved (to Arthur) that concepts were in place to allow for the argument.

It only remained for Arthur to articulate all the philosophy he believed implicit in Warhol’s gesture, and thus complete a long history of avant-garde experimentation. On his reading of the avant-gardes, they had always been in the project of self-discovery, which Warhol then brought to completion. Who needed to make expressionist woodcuts when the true thrust of art history had ended up in his lap?

Great aestheticians often stake new philosophy on the art of their time: Roger Fry on Cezanne, Richard Wollheim on British figurative art, Fredric Nietzsche on Wagner (till he got burned). Arthur’s double was Warhol. When he published his theory of art in the Journal of Philosophy no one knew what to do with it, exactly in the way no one knew how to take Brillo Box. Arthur’s thinking was ahead of the game. Utterly dedicated to making a contribution to philosophy he did so in the manner of an avant-garde artist, riding the curl of history and finding it on the streets of New York. It is not fortuitous that the book he would publish after his work on the art world in 1964 would be Nietzsche as Philosopher, which similarly befuddled the New York philosophical world—a world, which at that time believed Nietzsche a freak if not a Nazi. What followed was an endless litany of works in philosophy and art criticism, each filled with dazzling insight and unforgettable philosophical twists.

When he became art critic of the Nation magazine in 1984 (a post he held until 2009) postmodernism was in high swing, and he became its most imaginative theorist. Having completed the project of self-discovery Arthur believed (in a Hegelian manner) that art history was completed, freeing art to pursue a prism of new possibilities in the manner of a thousand flowers blooming. This was in fact what was happening in the New York art world, where the intense anxieties of the art historical movement (whose military quarters were the Cedar Bar) were giving way to a kind of populist individualism with each artist free to experiment with any style for any reason, composing paintings in which German Expressionism meets Italian Mannerism, abstraction reacquaints itself with the human figure and Duchamp turns into a TV serial. This efflorescence was tailor made for Arthur’s abundant generosity, he could be free to like everything, or at least find everything fascinating. Not that he was without complaint. In an essay in the Nation called “The Painting of Importance” Arthur bemoaned the new high seriousness whose point seemed to be to make a work of art seem important rather than be it by carrying the aura of deep meaning and struggle with form while in fact bespeaking no message at all other than size and a lot of scratching on the surface and a deep title taken from the Second World War. Certain bad boy artists of the 1980s he chided as adolescents, the kind who come out of their bedrooms in the American suburbs only to tell their parents to stuff it, and return to their television sets (now they would be insulting each other on Facebook). He had the pulse of America just as he had the pulse of art. But he never ceased to be cheerful for he found each twist in the inscrutable pattern of life a new surprise, giving him something new to think about. The worst thing in life, to twist the words of Warhol, is not having anything to think about.

Arthur’s big mind was a generous one. He welcomed serious thought from all quarters whether it criticized him or not. I had, in 1992, submitted a book for publication that criticized parts of his work and when he read the manuscript he wrote me: “Rather than duking it out, what can I do to help you get this book published.” Two years later I was coming out of a shop somewhere on the east side when I ran into him hurrying to a lecture. His warmth was unmistakable. Not 10 seconds after he greeted me an artist who had been living in Italy sauntered by and was bear hugged. Arthur immediately introduced this man to me, at which point a third stopped to pay respects and Arthur said, “Three wonderful people on one day.” When we were seated at the same table with a famous Indian artist after an exhibition at New York University in 1985, the artist went on about painting a canvas ninety-six yards long. “Couldn’t you make it a hundred?” Arthur asked, with dry cheerfulness.

It is not often that a philosopher can achieve a central role in the precipitation of culture, and in the most cosmopolitan way. It is not often that a philosopher can move effortlessly through various genres of writing, and with such suave, effervescent prose, prose that inevitably finds a philosophical twist to art, and an art to the way philosophy can be imagined. It is less often still that such a person can be loved, really loved by so many. Arthur was what the Greeks call “great-hearted.” He filled the room while leaving ample space for others. The room is bare without him.

—Daniel Herwitz



Life with Art

Arthur Danto once told me that having been born on the first day of the year (the year was 1924) he felt obliged to do something important. When I asked him what I should then do having been born on January 10th, he replied, “obviously not as much as me.” He did do something important. He stands as one of the four giants of the Anglo-American tradition, with Nelson Goodman, Richard Wollheim, and Stanley Cavell, who together rearticulated the terms for how philosophers should think about the arts as part of a broad philosophical vision each had of the world. Danto held his so-described “analytical philosophy of art” as “of a piece” with his analytical philosophies of history, action, and knowledge. Before achieving world renown for his philosophy of art, he was much admired as a philosopher in these other domains. At first, when writing on art, he intended to write a work titled The Analytical Philosophy of Art to match several of his previous books. But very quickly he found himself turning away from this bland title to one indicative of the transfiguration in his thought that would allow him to escape some of the confinements of a philosophy to which, however, he remained lifelong devoted. He found a way to enhance analytical philosophy, to bring it to life by engaging in a mode of description, in perfectly crafted and entirely illuminating detours, that would result in his being recognized as the leading philosophical critic of art, most especially of his own times. With similar conviction, he imported themes he variously drew from Hegel, Nietzsche, and Sartre—he wrote monographs devoted to the latter two—and from a Zen Buddhism that he experienced at Columbia University. Of his more than 30 books and hundreds of articles and art-critical pieces, his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace marked a turning point in the philosophy of art and in the life of a man whose nickname happened also to be Art. Although he never wanted philosophically to overcome the gap between art and life—everything about his thought was aimed at preserving the difference—he lived his life in the pathways of art with a transformative joy and optimism. He turned what others experienced as nightmares—and there were plenty in the 20th century to choose from—into dreams for a better world liberated from the political and speculative tyrannies of a world that, in different ways, he regarded over, ended, and out of date.

When I first met Arthur, it was on a bus in Sweden over 30 years ago. The bus was transporting a whole host of eminent philosophers to a conference on the theme of intentionality. Why I was on the bus is irrelevant to the story. But pertinent was the fact that I had just begun my studies in the philosophy of music and finding myself sitting “next to Arthur Danto” gave me the chance to describe the paper I was writing on the relevance of Kripke’s thought to music. Arthur listened with the utmost charity, although little, he later told me, inspired him. But he also told me that he never forgot this encounter. Getting to know him later, I realized that he forgot few persons, that nearly every meeting was special to him in some way. He found something to admire whatever the age or status of his interlocutors.

My next encounter afforded me an opportunity to describe Arthur Danto in public. It was the year, if my memory serves me right, that I offered the history I had written of the American Society for Aesthetics to the Society at their annual meeting. Coming from England, I was naïve about many things to do with America. So when I read in preparation for my speech that Danto was “the art-critic for the Nation,” I assumed that meant that he was akin to “the Poet-Laureate of the United States” (for I did not know then of the magazine to which he would contribute for many years.) So this is how I described him. The audience laughed, but when I learned of my mistake, I was pleased that I had imported a suitably honorific content into what otherwise would have been a true, but bland, description. My descriptive leap perfectly fitted Danto’s theory of  narrative sentences as developed in his philosophy of history and it equally well suited a person who really did become in America the poet laureate of the philosophy of art.


When 20 years ago I came to teach at Columbia, I became very close to Arthur, although this doesn’t mean that he was always content with my approach to aesthetics. On one occasion, he remarked that my gaze was far too focused on Europe and that I should open my eyes to the world around me—by which he really meant New York. And so, reading between the lines, I began to write about his work, American to the core, although still in deliberate juxtaposition with the work of a German aesthetic theorist, Adorno, in whom I retained a devoted interest. For a decade, I worked tirelessly on Danto and Adorno to the point even of naming these two figures as one: AdorDanto (and by then I really did adore Danto). My intellectual project was difficult for many reasons, but for this reason in particular: that whereas Adorno felt like a figure of the past, having died in 1968, Danto was very much alive and living next door. Because I wanted to get his views right, it became all too easy for me to call him or pop over to his apartment and ask him what he had had in mind when writing this or that. One morning, he called me on the telephone to tell me that although he was willing to talk to me about everything else in the world, I should, in writing my book, treat him as I was treating Adorno, as unavailable as far as his intentions were concerned. Since I knew Danto was an intentionalist, my first response was to laugh and my second to wonder whether he was offering me a telephone version of the intentionalist fallacy—that all the intentions I needed to know were there to be read from his work, so no telephone call was needed in addition. Finally, however, I came to understand something else: that though Arthur was an intentionalist, intentions had been the last thing he had ever really appealed to in interpreting the art of his contemporaries. Much more, he had drawn on facts of friendship and, more importantly, on “being there” in the right place and time—as he was there to see those Brillo Boxes, which, stacked up on the gallery floor, allowed him to take final stock in his philosophy of art. More even than becoming an eminent critic of contemporary art, he became a storyteller of his life with artists whose company he so much enjoyed. To be an intentionalist might be the stance of the philosopher, but how this translated into an art criticism was never as obvious as Danto sometimes claimed it was. When I finished my book, Danto said almost immediately that he did not recognize his views. I told him that it served him right, that he should have been more forthcoming on the telephone. He laughed and reminded me of how intentionality had been the way our long friendship had begun.

At Columbia, each year and for many years, I offered a year-long, graduate aesthetics survey that was nicknamed “From Plato to Nato.” Nato was of course Danto, who generously agreed to come to the last class to present his work. The students sizzled with excitement when he appeared, even to the point where one very sweetly came up to me after class and said, “Oh Professor Goehr, it was so nice to meet a real philosopher face to face.” That Danto was the real thing was true; that he was the culmination of a long road that had begun with Plato was also true; he even, in his early life as a woodcut artist, produced an image that uncannily depicts Socrates as Arthur himself would later look. Artistic depiction always also, he argued, transfigures. Even if I was a little miffed by not even being a candidate, in this student’s view, for entry into the philosophical-world, I blamed myself for offering a syllabus that rendered all the philosophers I taught almost indiscernible in appearance. So, as years passed by, I increasingly stressed the teaching to which Danto was most committed, that in the face of indiscernibility, don’t be taken in merely by what you see: work out wherein the differences between things lie. For then things that look the same will no longer stubbornly be assumed to be the same sort of thing. And when we come to understand that, so many more ways of appearing will be granted entry into the hallowed halls, be they the halls of philosophy or of art.

In the last months, weeks, and days before Arthur’s death, I spent many hours in his company. Often we turned to opera as a medium for communication. I would take my iPad over to his apartment and play him arias from operas. He recalled having seen many of the great singers, but above all, he told me, he loved Amelita Galli-Curci. On one of these occasions, Arthur began to sing, in perfect Italian, the opening love duet from La Bohème. The last piece he had read by me was an essay on this opera set into comparison with the red squares with which he had begun his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Not able to hear very well anymore, he watched me listening to the aria and began to describe what he was seeing. He saw me not as listening but as singing to him. I did not know that this would be the last image he had ever of me. Two days later, he received the first copies of a book for which he had been waiting a long time: the book that was his life and his work, produced by the Library of Living Philosophers. A few hours later he lost consciousness with the joy of knowing that he had left his world in good order and that he would meet again the friend with whom he had spoken every day for 60 years, Richard Kuhns. Not the belief but the image I have of Art and Dick taking a walk somewhere each morning in deep conversation is a comforting one in this time of mourning the loss of two friends who meant so much to me and so very much to each other.

Danto was born the year Puccini died. I had always wanted to write about them both together, which is what I have recently been doing and will continue to do. My book is not about endings and new beginnings, but about beginnings, which is where Arthur always was, given the excitement with which he woke each day to write. A year or so ago, he called me one morning when writing his last book, What Art Is, to tell me that he had suddenly understood something that he had never understood before: why Warhol and his Brillo Boxes were so central to him in allowing him as a philosopher to know what art essentially is. I did not dismiss his thought as repetitive; on the contrary, I thought back to how he had begun his Transfiguration with a red square that had been described by the philosopher who had so famously reversed the terms of repetition. Danto’s last thought about art had all the freshness of spring. He named the thought a wakeful dream. He had the ability to look at something so profoundly familiar—almost commonplace—as though he were looking at it for the very first time. His work now stands before us, asking to be read again, filled to the philosophical brim with the spirit of Art.

—Lydia Goehr


Daniel Herwitz and Lydia Goehr


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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