The Miraculousness of the Commonplace

Writing art criticism for the Nation, Danto developed an almost uncanny ability to look at works of art on their own terms. He was sensitive to what the art was telling him, to what each work wanted to be. He was in dialogue with every work of art he ever saw. That’s not to say he liked it all. But he always tried to let the work speak.

Remembering Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto, the art critic for the Nation who died last month in New York, was a man with a big idea. Art, he believed, had ended. Of course, it is one thing to proclaim the end of art; it is another thing to prove it. But Danto tried. He was Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, studied with Merleau-Ponty in Paris as a young man, and wrote a couple of books about analytical philosophy in his early career. Unusually for a postwar American philosopher, Danto thought a lot about Hegel. It was from Hegel that he got the idea that art could end. The idea that art ended never meant, for Danto, that art has died or that people will not make art anymore. Just like Hegel did not mean by the “end of history” that the world was going to explode. “End” here means something more like “completion.” The end of art means that the practice of making art has come to a historical culmination. The end of art means that art doesn’t have a story, a narrative, anymore. After the end of art, there is no such thing as “Art”—there is only art.

Danto came to his realization about the end of art one day in New York City in the mid 1960s. Danto was himself painting in those days. He was also, as he readily admitted later, something of a snob and aesthete. One evening in the late spring of 1964, he stumbled into the Stable Gallery on 74th Street. At the Stable Gallery, Danto came face to face with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. That’s the sculpture where Warhol took some paint and some cheap wood and made a few Brillo Boxes that look exactly like Brillo boxes. That’s to say, if you saw Warhol’s Brillo Boxes on the ground outside of a deli in midtown you would simply think that a delivery person was moving Brillo boxes into the store. There is nothing in the Brillo Boxes to suggest anything but Brillo boxes.

Danto was struck and confused by Brillo Boxes. Over time, he worked out a full-blown theory to deal with them. The theory boils down to this: There is no way, visually, to know that Brillo Boxes is a work of art. So, the Brillo Boxes mark the moment when art became philosophy. You cannot look at the Brillo Boxes without asking the question, “What makes this art?”

When art became philosophical in the late spring of 1964, it crossed an invisible line. With the Brillo Boxes, there is no clear demarcation between art and reality. If the Brillo Boxes can look just like Brillo boxes, and can still be art, then anything can be art. There is nothing inherent, nothing internal or necessary that makes something a work of art. Danto found this thought depressing at first. Art isn’t special anymore if it can be anything.

Later, Danto came to see the end of art as a great liberation. He began to think of that day in 1964 as the day “when perfect artistic freedom had become real.” The fact that art had ended meant that any artist could be “an abstractionist, a realist, an allegorist, a metaphysical painter, a surrealist, a landscapist, or a painter of still lifes or nudes. You could be a decorative artist, a literary artist, an anecdotalist, a religious painter, a pornographer. Everything was permitted, since nothing any longer was historically mandated.” Danto took to calling this new and permanent era after the end of art the “Post-Historical Period of Art.” It made him very happy.

I’m not sure the artists of the Post-Historical Period of Art are as happy about the end of art as Arthur Danto. Most of the artists I’ve known feel great anxiety facing the decision to make art with the knowledge that they can do and be anything. This kind of freedom can be immobilizing. I’m not sure that many artists fully grasp the link between the Hegelian moment when art became philosophical and the wide-open moment when art can be anything. Can’t we simply say that art became fragmented and diverse just as many other things became fragmented and diverse in the course of Modernity? Do we need to identify some Hegelian culmination of history in a moment of philosophical self-understanding in order to account for the fact that there are no firm boundaries between art and non-art anymore? Probably we don’t.

But Arthur Danto was writing and thinking himself out of a problem. He was having trouble accepting the art world as he found it. It might be said that he was having trouble accepting the world as he found it. The Brillo Boxes were Danto’s conversion moment. Danto wanted to be changed, to be transformed into a man who could see and understand the modern world around him. Danto’s eyes were open, but he felt he could not see. He needed to convert himself in order to live.

There is a phrase that appears and reappears in the essays of Arthur Danto. That phrase is “the miraculousness of the commonplace.” Danto wanted to feel that miracle. But he realized that he wasn’t going to feel it by pretending that we are still surrounded by objects of high aesthetic beauty. The modern world doesn’t make great cathedrals, stone temples, or paintings to be worshipped in chapels and shrines. The modern world makes cheap shit out of plastic. But this was not the end of the story. Warhol’s paintings of Coca-Cola bottles convinced Danto that the world of plastic and junk could be redeemed. Danto used this kind of language without apology. He said that Pop art redeemed the world. He called Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans sacraments. Danto had been converted. He had good news to tell the rest of us.

I have the most vivid recollection of standing at an intersection in some American city, waiting to be picked up. There were used-car lots on two corners, with swags of plastic pennants fluttering in the breeze and brash signs proclaiming unbeatable deals, crazy prices, insane bargains. There was a huge self-service gas station on a third corner, and a supermarket on the fourth, with signs in the window announcing sales of Del Monte, Cheerios, Land O Lakes butter, Long Island ducklings, Velveeta, Sealtest, Chicken of the Sea, … Heavy trucks roared past, with logos on their sides. Lights were flashing. The sound of raucous music flashed out of the windows of automobiles. I was educated to hate all this. I would have found it intolerably crass and tacky when I was growing up an aesthete. As late as my own times, beauty was, in the words of George Santayana, “a living presence, or an aching absence, day and night.” I think it still is that for someone like Clement Greenberg or Hilton Kramer. But I thought, Good heavens. This is just remarkable!

How many times have any of us had the peace and acceptance to be able to look around us, confront the crap of daily life and say, “Good heavens. This is just remarkable!” Before you raise your valid objections, let Danto have his moment. He achieved something there, as a man, as a human being on earth trying to live in a world not chosen by him, but given. Thrown into a world of Velveeta and Chicken of the Sea, Danto found joy. Did he find too much joy? Did he surrender his critical edge in order to be amazed by Velveeta and Cheerios? That will always be the question with Danto.

But it is hard to fault him, since Danto’s conversion made him into such a profoundly generous man. He had no bone to pick with art or artists anymore, not after he was redeemed by Pop. Writing art criticism for the Nation, Danto developed an almost uncanny ability to look at works of art on their own terms. He was sensitive to what the art was telling him, to what each work wanted to be. He was in dialogue with every work of art he ever saw. That’s not to say he liked it all. But he always tried to let the work speak.

You might think, for example, that Danto would have had trouble with the art of Jenny Holzer. Holzer is best known for her electronic displays of short, often amusing and ironic sentences. A typical Holzer sentence is, “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise.” It would be fair to say that much of Holzer’s art is openly critical of the consumer society that Danto was trying to make his peace with. Here, however, is what Danto had to say about two Holzer exhibits in 1990. “I find both exhibitions extraordinary and extraordinarily powerful, and though I am uncertain whether the bitter voices at the DIA or the platitudes at the Guggenheim have made me a better person, they have transformed me into an unqualified enthusiast for this odd artist.”

I love the fact that Danto takes his shots here. He is “uncertain” whether he has been made a better person. In some ways, he doesn’t like Holzer. We wouldn’t expect him to. But he goes further. He forces himself into the work. He allows himself to be transformed. He wants to be transformed. By the end of the essay, Danto has said some incredibly penetrating and sensitive things about Holzer’s work. He notices that Holzer resembles William Blake in taking language to be a physical thing, language as something you can see, and sometimes touch. The fact that Holzer put words onto surfaces made her, in Danto’s eyes, a special kind of visual artist. Danto saw Holzer as an artist who “exploits the tensions and sympathies between word and nonverbal medium.” In the end, Danto realizes that Holzer’s work operates on two different levels of aesthetic illusion. “Art,” Danto says, “was thought to be an illusion—fooling the senses. … Here, just because speech is the medium of truth, there is another order of illusion: we falsely believe the words are addressed to us, and that, with most words, they are asserted by the speaker and believed by her to be true. The work is consistently deeper than the words.”

The collected essays of Arthur Danto are a sustained exercise in the kind of critical generosity he extended to Jenny Holzer. He always saw something fresh, startling, transformative. Every time. In talking about art, Danto was able to teach, a little bit, about how to live. I don’t think anyone writing about art today can ignore what Danto achieved. He taught us how to be intelligent participants in the world as we find it. For those of us who still want to resist aspects of the world as we find it (politically, aesthetically, ethically), it has got to be done in Danto’s spirit, with the tools he left behind. Is that a way of saying you have to learn to love the world, even if, especially if, you want to change it?

I will say one last thing. In my personal encounters with Arthur Danto, the redemption was for real. He had found something beautiful. You could see the twinkle sometimes in Danto’s eyes. He was having fun loving the world. He was a man of grace. Strange grace manufactured through an unholy concoction of Hegel and Andy Warhol. But grace nonetheless.

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