Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Arthur Danto Interview: 9/11 - Heroic Sublime


10/6/2005 (WBUR web site)

Arthur Danto: 9/11: Heroic Sublime

"Recall that after Schubert's death, his brother cut some of Schubert's scores into small pieces, and gave each piece, consisting of a few bars, to his favorite pupils. And this act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. And if Schubert's brother had burned the scores, that too would be understandable as an act of piety." Ludwig Wittgenstein, as quoted by Arthur Danto in his curator's statement for "The Art of 9/11."


On September 12, I visited Arthur Danto in his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side to talk about "The Art of 9/11," the exhibit he had curated at the Apex Gallery.

HB: Where were you on September 11, 2001?

AD: Here.

Oddly, Barbara [his wife, the artist Barbara Westman] and I were getting ready to go up to Wellesley to have a conversation with an artist about a show called "Obituary," based on obits in The NY Times.

As we were getting ready, I looked, as I always do, on Yahoo. It said two planes crash into World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack. I ran to [cable outlet] Channel 1, and was locked into television for the rest of the day.

I got one call from a guy writing for The NY Times. He asked: What's the art world going to do about this?

HB: On that very day?!

AD: Same day. I couldn't imagine.

Since, then, I've come across a number of artists who actually did document it. I didn't want documents in the show, though. I was interested in the idea of ritual thinking that I got out of Wittgenstein. I was interested in ritual thinking in the artistic response, which pertained to feelings of grief and community.

Anger was a legitimate response; plenty of people were pissed, rightly so. But I thought New York's response was heroic sublime.

Rather than anger, there was grief, mourning, and helping. And it lasted for a while. I was overwhelmed by the appearance of shrines everywhere in the city. There was more hugging and crying than I've ever seen. Everyone seemed concerned for everybody else, everyone volunteering to help. I was interested in whether any of that got into the art.

HB: In Brooklyn, I saw a handball court spray painted with the names of neighborhood people killed in the attack. People were banned from playing on it, and for a while, most didn't.

AD: On 9/11, Barbara had to go to Broadway. She laughed when she told me about a taxi suddenly coming up the street, and the big American flag it was trailing, the kind you pledge allegiance to in high school. She said it was so funny, and so courageous, like: Fuck You!

Later, I felt every differently about flags being everywhere. But there weren't many flags in New York right away.

HB: My impression is that you have a group of artists you've been talking to for a while, and that the show is, in effect, a survey of their work in relation to 9/11.

AD: No. The response was communicated to me by artists themselves.

I've written about some, including Robert Rahway Zakanitch, who did the lace.

He's a wonderful artist, who did a exhibition in the 90s called "Big Bungalow Suite", gigantic paintings of his central European parlor, all the fabrics and tschokes, etc.. I guessed he would have done something unusual. So I called and asked if he did anything in response to 9/11, and he said, yeah, he had started painting lace, and it was an act of defiance.

People were really moved by the show. I've gotten so much response. I think there was a capsule of feeling in a lot of people, and scar tissue that formed around it. The show broke through the scar tissue. The feelings began to flood again in peoples psyche.

HB: The artists statements were more important than they usually are.

AD: I thought they were essential. I wasn't going to say, let the work speak for itself.

HB: In your curator's statement you discuss Ludwig Wittgenstein [quoted above], and talk about the oblqueness you were looking for from artists. That reminded me of the Hebrew prayer for the dead, The Kaddish.

The prayer itself says nothing at all about death or grief or loss. It goes off in another direction altogether, praising the maker of the universe.

AD: That's a beautiful example, The Kaddish. I heard my father, who didn't know Hebrew, either, recite it for his father. I remember sitting with him in this cold basement in a shul in Detroit. He'd bring some rye whisky to the old Jews down there in their prayer shawls, and they'd carry him through the whole thing.

It's a haunting, haunting thing. It's that rhythm.

HB: But The Kaddish is also a declaration of a religious faith. Wittgenstein is not talking about specific religious consolation.

AD: What I was thinking about in Wittgenstein's passage is his use of "understandable" -- the idea of understandablilty. It's like Aristotle's idea of moral education, where you give the child some examples and after that the child is on its own. You can't give all the examples necessary. To be a moral person is to know what to do. It's as if the child generates a theory of moral behavior.

HB: Like deep grammar?

AD: Right, like deep grammar. I allude to that in my text when I write: "We understand the meaning of gestures we have never seen performed before, as we understand sentences that have never before been uttered."

I thought Wittgenstein was speaking about a cultural grammar. Maybe a person would have to explain or illustrate it a little bit, but then, you go: Aha, I see what you're getting at.

Not merely do we get it, but we can generate a defense of what we do. There's a form of reasoning going on, moral reasoning. "Undestandability" was the key word, and I've been carrying it my head for a long time.

HB: Where is it from?

AD: From Wittgenstein's "On Fraser's Golden Bough," published posthumously. [Danto cackles] I think it's one of the most interesting things Wittgenstein ever wrote.

HB: I see you have a big Brillo Box here, under the table. Is it Warhol's?

AD: No. it's by Mike Bidlow, the appropriation artist. This is an appropriation of one of the boxes. Barbara and I had a marriage anniversary party a while back. Mike said, I left something with the doorman for you.

That's it.

HB: Can I touch it?

AD: You can do anything to it! That's part of its story.

About five years ago a friend of mine in Germany -- at the time the president of the Nuremberg Art School -- said we should have a Brillo Box conference.

I said, great, let's have a Brillo Box conference. There were art historians and artists, including Gerard Melanga, who was in Warhol's Factory, and Mike Bidlow. Gerard talked about actually making the Brillo Boxes in Warhol's Factory.

Mike said, I'm not a good talker, can I give a performance?

I said, sure.

So everybody clears out of the room. When we come back, there are two tables, each with a cloth over it. Mike pulls the cloth off one, and there's the Brillo Box -- *that* Brillo Box.

He pulls the cloth off the other table -- and there's a bucket of water, and a pile of Brillo. He dips a Brillo pad in the water and starts to erase the Brillo Box. But he couldn't. The paint was too set.

He said to the audience, C'mon and help me. All those students rush up to what they think of as an art historical event. They couldn't erase it, either.

So obviously, you can touch it.

HB: At the end of your curator's statement you write: "I am not a curator, but I felt that such a show would itself be understood not as an ordinary art exhibition, but as what Wittgenstein calls an act of piety, and serve as an aspect of the question of what art is after all for, and how it, just as Hegel had said, serves, together with religion and philosophy, as a moment in what he called Absolute Spirit."

You call yourself an analytic philosopher, so it makes sense for you to allude to Wittgenstein. But you've got to be the only analytic philosopher who simultaneously admires Hegel. Isn't it taboo for an analytic philosopher to praise Hegel as often as you do in your work?

AD: I don't know. I do call myself an analytic philosopher. Partly it's a style -- you look for the logical joints, and try to get at things where they crack. It's a way of addressing questions. I'm still a foundationalist, looking for basic unities, basic concepts.

I think analytic philosophy by people who are just analytic philosophers has become so sclerotic. People have to liberate themselves from it. There was a wonderful moment when we were going to tear down the whole structure. But then, what do you? Abandon philosophy and adopt the language of science, as the positivists tried to do?

I got involved in Hegel when I read his "Aesthetics". I thought this is so unbelievably deep and rich. I couldn't get over, just couldn't get over, that book. He is the guy, absolutely the guy, who looked at paintings, wrote criticism -- his pages on Dutch painting are unparalleled. He listened to opera, he really was taking it in.

HB: I remember taking a course you taught at Columbia years back. I was prejudiced against analytic philosophy, interested in the continental tradition -- Aristotle, Hegel, Sartre, Marx.

But I couldn't figure you out.

AD: (cackling) I couldn't figure myself out!


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