Originally appeared in Art New England 10/05
Arthur Danto: The Original Endowment
“Contemporary” has come to designate something more than simply the art of the present moment. In my view, moreover, it designates less a period than what happens after there are no more periods in some master narrative of art, and less a style of making art than a style of using styles.
After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History
After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History
HB: In After the End of Art, you write, apropos Duchamp and his followers, that “I must count myself among them.” In what way?
AD: It seems to me that when advanced artists were trying to reopen the question of what painting was, Duchamp realized that there was a deeper point, which was to reopen the question of what art was. In that sense, at least, I am a Duchampian.
AD: Warhol awakened me to the questions about the distinction between an art work and what I call a real object. That certainly had been raised by Duchamp but Duchamp was not certain what he achieved. It was a kind of a joke, and he was isolated. Now, suddenly, it was happening everywhere, all across the art world, Cage with the question about music and sound, the Judson group with distinctions between dance and mere bodily movement, and, radically, in the visual arts.
HB: Your writing focuses on the Duchampian syndrome: what’s art, what isn’t? How, in this century, do we make the distinction or accommodate to the uncertainty?
AD: It really is one of the marks of the intellectual history of the twentieth-century that people have been interested in the discovery of limits. It’s as though possibilities were opening up but at the same time closing down. One of the things closing down was the prospect of constant advance. For example, the discoveries of Godel were deep discoveries about how far logic could go, how far, in a certain sense, reason could go. Since Godel’s discovery, mathematics in a funny way has been pluralized. You find the limits and there’s no choice but to move in some lateral kind of way, to explore across a wide boundary.
That takes place in art and in the academy. Pluralization has taken over in such a way one no longer knows what discipline something belongs under.
HB: In your critique of Clement Greenberg, you say art has now divested itself of philosophical underpinnings. The effort to define art — what you call the Age of Manifestos, coinciding with the age of political manifestos, in which you situate Greenberg — is finished. Art can be anything.
AD: That’s right. There’s been this tremendous birth struggle. Art is liberated to do anything, and if philosophers want to deal with it, they can — not that many in philosophy have been trying, I’m afraid.
HB: This pluralization energizes you in a way that’s palpable in your writing. But it wears out a lot of other writers, who seem exhausted by the endless mutations of this retrovirus called “art.” From their prose, anyway, it seems they just grow tired of tracking it.
AD: I gave a talk at the College Art Association, and afterward, one of the questions put to me was, what do you really like? And I said, you know, I never think about that but if I were to just write about things I like, well, I’m a really conservative person. I really like little paintings, luminous little paintings, but feel that as a critic I constantly have to deal with things that I don’t like. And that is energizing. I think to myself, do I have to take that on too? Then I do, and I’m grateful afterward.
HB: You ask what can guide art criticism in a pluralistic age such as ours, an age when the traditional critic would have been blown away by “the slashed felt, the shattered glass, the spattered lead, the splintered plywood, the crudely twisted wire, the latex-soaked cheese cloth, the vinyl-soaked rope, the neon signs, the video monitors, the chocolate-smeared breasts, the tethered couple, the slashed flesh, the torn garments, or the sundered house with which artistic statements were made in those years [the ‘60s and ‘70s] and since.”
But what are the standards for judging this new art? You haven’t convinced me you’ve come up with them.
AD: That’s probably right. At least, they are not just visual standards. It gets to be like the analysis of texts. You have very complex criteria. You find out what it’s about, how well it embodies what its about, how successful it is in transforming perception.
HB: Recently someone said to me, “Duchamp has a lot to answer for.” There is still plenty of anti-Duchampianism around. Let me phrase my own worry about what Duchamp has wrought: if art can be everything, what’s to stop it from being nothing? What prevents it, say, from dissolving into advertising? Don’t you think there’s a danger?
AD: I don’t. If there’s anything to my theories at all, it’s that Duchamp doesn’t have a lot to answer for because those changes were built into the structure, the historical structure of things.
People are always going to be making art. To think of art stopping is a lot like thinking language will stop, like saying, for example, Lenny Bruce has a lot to answer for. It’s too much part of the original endowment of human beings that they need to embody meanings. As long as they need to embody meanings, it seems to me there’s no possibility of art disappearing.
What disappears is the sense of narrative, progress — things that were momentarily identified with the making of art and of beautiful objects.
HB: You, too, are a mixed breed, a hybrid of sorts, not unlike the sorts of installations you describe. You call yourself an analytic philosopher — supposedly given to tight logical analysis and to ridding the world of metaphysics — but your fundamental influence with regard to art is Hegel. I think of you as a closet Hegelian
AD: The agenda was so exciting when I became a philosopher. What made one feel good being an analytical philosopher was that you were going to solve the problems of the world. That agenda has all collapsed. What’s left is a certain style, a commitment to logical consequence, to the idea that you can, by pressing hard enough, get important problems to collapse, so you see their true character.
At the same time, the boundaries of what you can take on have widened tremendously. Aesthetics, as a philosophical discipline, has failed to keep abreast of the subject it is supposed to deal with, namely the way art has expanded and developed. People are still writing commentaries on Kant, Nietzsche or Heidegger. But the art world is so extraordinarily rich. That’s just where you want to go forth, armed with your analytical tools, and take it on, which is what I’ve tried to do.
HB: You write, “The world of contemporary art is the price we pay for philosophical illumination.”
AD: And I’m open for everything. Hegel put things so beautifully so often and so powerfully, but he was deeply a rationalist and saw a rational structure in the chaos of history. He felt the world was through and through rational. I’m not as optimistic as that, but I do think it’s a good way for philosophers to be — not to paint their faces and go dancing around the camp fires, if you know what I mean.