What Art Is
by Arthur C. Danto
Yale Univ. Press (2013), 192 pages
The title of the late Arthur Danto’s final book is bold. What Art Is challenges. How could someone be so brash as to answer a question that has vexed artists, critics, and historians for hundreds—if not thousands—of years? And yet Danto is so brash.
Agree that the paintings at Lascaux, the sculpted sensuality of the Venus de Milo, Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” Ansel Adam’s landscape photographs, and Dan Flavin’s minimalist fluorescent light sculptures are all art.1 What is the one thing that makes these widely varying pieces art?
Defining art is tricky. How to characterize a notion that includes everything from the decorative to the sublime to the shocking, from cave painters to Michelangelo to Diane Arbus, from oil painting to performance art to photography? Critics have devoted considerable thought to defining this ephemeral quality we call “art,” sometimes with mystifying results.
Defining art usually falls into one of two categories, says Thomas Adajian, a philosopher at James Madison University. The first version looks at art through a comparative lens that emphasizes art’s place in history and measures art against its own genre and against other types. The second version pays more attention to art’s aesthetic properties and places it in “pan-cultural and trans-historical” contexts.2 Using these two definitions we can, for example, explain Manet’s “At the Café” (c. 1879) in a historical sense, insomuch as its cropped framing resembles that of a contemporaneous, emerging technology of the artist’s time: the camera and photography. Until Manet, paintings were complete scenes; one didn’t just cut a person’s body or face out of an image, as is done on the left and right sides of this impressionist work. Or, we can use Adajian’s second example and relate the emotions in Manet’s painting—the seeming despondency of the woman—to a universal condition of loneliness. Or we could contend that the work portrays classist conditions, which have been present from ancient times (Egyptian pharaohs and their slaves) until today (plutocratic societies).
Because art is so elusive, those who take up the challenge of defining it sometimes resort to semantic acrobats to ensure all bases are covered. In an essay for City Journal, to use just one example, Australian philosopher John Armstrong defines art as a “therapeutic instrument.” To do so, he further qualifies the definition with seven variables, such as that art is a corrective of bad behavior, or that art is a purveyor of hope. These seven provisos allow Armstrong to apply his otherwise vague definition to all works of art, be it a cave painting or Damien Hirst’s embalmed shark. There are too many moving parts in his argument, and so his act of reverse engineering fails when held up to scrutiny. Artistic intent, for one, is completely discounted. The real value of Armstrong’s essay is less in defining what he thinks art is, but rather what he perceives as art’s value, i.e., therapy.
The point here is not to dissect or contest Adajian’s or Armstrong’s cases, but rather to show just how difficult it is to define art, especially when considering the entire history of what we consider to be art.
Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599) by Caravaggio
For centuries, the mimetic quality of art, that is, its representation of nature and the known visible world, made art easy to define. The Sistine Chapel, the dramatic and fantastical renderings of Poussin or Caravaggio, and even the ancient idols of the Cyclades all captured the appearance of reality surrounding the artist: people, nature, and human-made objects (e.g., swords, cloth, castles, bottles, musical instruments). No one needed to look further than superficial meanings of a work. Paintings (and sculpture) could be allegorical, such as Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” (c. 1486), which indicates the presentation of a physical or intellectual love (depending on your interpretation of Venus) to humans. Elements within paintings could even be metaphorical, such as a sheep representing Jesus. But a woman was always depicted with the clear image of a woman and a sheep was always presented as a sheep. This is a far cry from abstract representations of the same. Consider, for example, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman, I” (1951-2), a lacerated, boxy sketching that doesn’t look exactly like a woman, or of Henry Moore’s over-sized “Sheep Piece” (1971-72), a blunt, formal, sculpture that doesn’t really look like a sheep. For de Kooning and Moore, one needs more than just a figurative understanding of the subject to understand what’s going on with the work. (What differentiates good art from bad art, however, remains a different question.)
The idea of art being mimetic was upset in the modern era when abstraction, impressionism, minimalism, pop art, and photography overturned notions of what art is and could be. Could a painting of a feeling or emotion, rather than a landscape, be considered art? Is a photograph of a landscape art? With the concept of art broadening, what is it that makes everything under the widening umbrella art? Furthermore, if what could be art was put into question, it meant that what had always been art—and what had not previously been considered art, but now might be—must be re-examined. Artistic output in the modern era changed the understanding of art so radically as to render parts of the landscape completely unrecognizable.
These are the choppy waters into which the philosopher-critic Danto confidently wades, in what would be the last book he published before his death in October, 2013.
“There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” So opens E.H. Gombrich’s classic study The Story of Art (1950). It is with equal confidence that Danto states completely the opposite. There is Art,3 he contends, but its definition remains profoundly hidden.
The preface to What Art Is outlines Danto’s parameters for defining all art. He doesn’t limit the exercise to particular genres (e.g., impressionism, abstraction), timeframes (e.g., Renaissance, primitive, post-1945), or specific media (e.g., painting, sculpture). First and foremost, any property assigned to art “is part of the definition only if it belongs to every work of art there is” (my emphasis). Here again we see the clear division between Gombrich and Danto. The former declares that “…a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence.” Not so, says Danto. Art is art—its definition has always been the same; we’ve just had trouble discerning its meaning. “If one believes that art is all of a piece, one needs to show what makes it so is to be found throughout its history.”
Danto concludes that for every piece of art that has ever existed, there must be an invisible common property. Works of art, he contends, are embodied meanings. Embodiment is not clearly defined, but one can think of embodied meanings like one thinks of a person’s character: it is there, a foundational property, deeply hidden, manifesting in personality.
To support his thesis, the author relies heavily on Duchamp and Warhol, two artists who cracked wide open the philosophical debate on what is art. More on them later.
What separates art from other timeless manifestations of human existence? The triumph of Western art, Danto claims, is representation of human essence. “The truly astonishing history rather has to do with representing human beings through their inner states—suffering in the crucifixion, hunger in the Christ child nursing, and, above all, love in the way the Madonna holds the child.” It is Fra Angelico who, for example, “represents persons in ways that are to be understood only with reference to their inner states.” In other words, the conveyed meaning is one that is visibly hidden but instinctually perceived.
Nothing else in the human experience of aesthetics comes close to creating such unseen—but wholly felt and understood—meaning. Sure, science and technology have changed our understanding of the world, and they do so in ways that evolve, transform, and change over time. But artful depictions of the human body and human behavior, from Homer to Picasso, have never changed. Art, whatever it is, has always been art.
Photography can fully be art, Danto says, but in some ways it falls short of less technical pursuits, such as painting. “Nature’s pencil simply traces what is set before the lens, without creative imagination. The photographer can represent only what is there, whereas the painter is free to use his imagination and show things in ways other than how they are or were.” The camera captures optic truth, but not visual truth. The camera freezes moments that happen quicker than the human eye can see, but the photograph doesn’t capture the whole essence of the moment. Photography is bits, pieces, and in-between moments.
The Horse in Motion (1878) by Eadweard Muybridge
Danto spares the reader a lengthy foray into art’s various mediums, and rightfully so. Is a flag a work of art? Is a painting of a flag a flag? Is a photograph of a flag a flag? And so on… Mercifully these types of discussions are left aside. For Danto, the point is the essence, that unseen embodiment, that spirit of what art is. His point is the same no matter which art object we speak of.
For philosophical grounding he looks to Kant and Hegel. Regarding the former, Danto touches on two of his views on art. The first is what Kant calls “spirit,” which differs from Hegel’s idea of Spirit (discussed below). For Kant, this spirit is similar to beauty, insomuch that both art and natural objects can both be beautiful. Yet this spirit runs deeper than superficial aesthetics—consider how both a painting of a sunset and an actual sunset conjure certain moods: Both the painting and the actual sunset may ignite a memory in which you enjoyed a peaceful moment with a loved one, lift your spirits as you consider the multitude of colors spreading across the horizon, or they may trigger melancholy as you ponder the minuteness of your human life on a cosmic scale.
Kant’s second view of art, the one Danto prefers, is that it consists of making meanings, which Danto suggests “presupposes an overall human disposition not just to see things but to find meanings in what we see, even if we sometimes get it wrong.” This is the spirited challenge of abstract art, in which the viewer is forced to impart a meaning on the ill-defined image before her. To do so, the viewer relies on a well of experience, emotions, history, knowledge, and argument to come to a decision, or at least to approximate one. If not—and this is me extending the argument, not Danto—the abstract image risks becoming simply a benign shape, not much more than a cultural signifier, such as that of the octagonal shape of a stop sign. Interpreting art, then, is a deeply involved exercise, even if it happens in the blink of an eye (snap judgment; visceral reaction). Art, according to Kant, uses experience to carry us beyond experience. Art takes us out of the moment.
Danto also relies on Hegel’s interpretations of art in The Phenomenology of Spirit and in his Lectures on Aesthetics for philosophical grounding. Art, according to Hegel, is a moment of Spirit, together with philosophy and religion. In the Lectures, he suggests that art displays the highest reality sensuously, here quoting Hegel, by “bringing it thereby nearer to the senses, to feeling, and to nature’s mode of appearance.” Danto continues:
And it [according to Hegel] “generates out of itself as works of fine art the first reconciling middle term between nature and finite reality and the infinite freedom of conceptual thinking.” We can put this yet another way: the artist finds ways to embody the idea in a sensory medium.
This is important. Because art can take on just about any form and be composed of just about anything (including bits, bytes, and sounds) and can occur in just moments (e.g., indoor clouds) for days and weeks at a time (e.g., where an artist is present) or permanently (e.g., in Utah), there is tremendous pressure on the viewer to draw some sort of interpretation. If the artist is a known entity, then the viewer must reconcile her own reaction with perceived intention of and previous experience with the artist, in addition to using the filter of all her knowledge and life experience. If the artist is unknown, as is likely the case in most instances where viewer meets art, then an infinite well of ideas must be considered to discover any idea of what that work might be trying to say. Each work of art potentially carries an infinite number of meanings. And yet all art is art, no matter the meaning of the individual piece. This is the spirit of art.
The artist Chaw Ei Thein in a performance piece, NARS Foundation Open Studios, Brooklyn, New York (2010) Photo: Aung Moe Win
A central question in the contemporary philosophy of art is “how to distinguish between art and real things that are not art but that could very well have been used as works of art.” That does not mean that anything and everything can be art, as Joseph Beuys argued. The revolutionary act of the 21st century, as embodied by Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, was to bring reality into art, rather than the other way around. Abstracts, readymades, and pop art destroyed all previous conceptions of art. The definition of art suddenly took on much deeper, reflective tones. Indirectly, reality also came into sharper contrast.
In 1915, Duchamp purchased a snow shovel from a hardware store and presented it to his New York patron, Walter Arensberg. On the handle Duchamp wrote the “title” of the work, “In advance of the broken arm.” The gesture signaled his disdain for what he called “retinal art,” art that relies solely on aesthetic judgments of beauty. Of course, up until that moment, that’s how most art was appraised. In a speech he later gave at the Museum of Modern Art on his so-called “readymades,” Duchamp asserted “a point I want very much to establish is that the choice of these ‘readymades’ was not dictated by aesthetic delectation. This choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste … in fact a complete anaesthesia.”
Two years later Duchamp fully destroyed longstanding aesthetic theories of art. His most famous readymade, “Fountain,” is a urinal lying on its back with “R. Mutt 1917” scrawled on the porcelain rim. The piece was denied entry in a show sponsored by the Society of Independent Artists on the grounds that the urinal was plumbing, not art. So Duchamp took the piece to be photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, who did so in sepia tones. Stieglitz was a forerunner for the photograph-as-art movement, so who could deny that his picture of a urinal was art? (A work of modern art depicting a work of modern art.) Stieglitz’s photograph was entered into the Society’s exhibition, and the rest is art history.
Duchamp’s readymades demanded artists and critics ask new questions about what art is. No longer was it sufficient to discuss the merit of a technique or the proximity to reality. Aesthetics in art were no longer supreme. Meaning—embodied meaning—became the grander question.
For me, Duchamp’s philosophical discovery was that art could exist, and that its importance was that it had no aesthetic distinction to speak of, at a time when it was widely believed that aesthetic delectation was what art was all about. That, so far as I was concerned, was the merit of his readymades. It cleared the philosophical air to recognize that since anesthetic art could exist, art is philosophically independent of aesthetics. Such a discovery means something only to those concerned, as I was, with the philosophical definition of art, namely, what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for something being a work of art. This, readers of this book, will recognize, is what the book is about.
Fountain (1917), photograph of a sculpture by Marcel Duchamp, by Alfred Stieglitz
Then came Warhol, and in Danto’s book, the most thoroughly engaging and clear argumentation for a definition of art I have yet to encounter. If Duchamp’s “Fountain” forced the public to rethink the meaning of art, it was Warhol’s “Brillo Box” that made us reconsider the difference between art and reality.
The 1964 “Brillo Box” is made of plywood and is brightly screen printed with the logo and advertising mark-ups of the Brillo soap pad company. “Brillo Box” looks like a facsimile of a commercial Brillo box. One makes a statement about art and consumerism; one sells and packages consumer goods. It is as simple as that. It is as deeply confounding as that. Danto calls Warhol’s sculpture a “philosophical Rosetta Stone, since it allowed us to deal with two languages—the language of art and the language of reality.”
The question at hand: what makes Warhol’s “Brillo Box” different from the factory-made Brillo box? For all intents and purposes, the cartons were identical. Perhaps they were not painted exactly the same way, and they may have been made of slightly different materials, but these differences are superficial and inconsequential. “Brillo Box” is made of plywood while the Brillo box is cardboard, but those properties could have been switched without changing the meaning of either of the products. Even if you stuffed Warhol’s box with Brillo pads, his would still be called art while the Brillo factory boxes full to the brim would not. Why?
Brillo Box (1964) by Andy Warhol
For Danto, the answer lies in the hidden properties. Confronted with Warhol’s “Brillo Box,” we must consider not just aesthetics, but what art means and how it differs from commercial uses of similar techniques and products. That is, we must define not only what art is, but also what non-art is.
My sense is that, if there were no visible differences, there had to have been invisible differences—not visible like the Brillo pads packed in the Brillo boxes, but properties that were always invisible. I’ve proposed two such properties that were always invisible. I’ve proposed two such properties that are invisible in their nature. In my first book on the philosophy of art I thought that works of art are about something, and I decided that works of art accordingly have meaning. We infer meanings, or grasp meanings, but meanings are not all material. I then thought that, unlike sentences with subjects and predicates, the meanings are embodied in the object that had them. I then declared that works of art embodied meanings.
It was on seeing Warhol’s work that Danto was struck with the thought that there had to be a theory that could explain the differences between the artistic and commercial products. No longer could art be determined by a matter of decree. There has to be something deeper. Fifty years after he encountered Warhol’s “Brillo Box” we have What Art Is. It is a vital contribution to the philosophy of art. One can hardly imagine a better send-off from someone who spent a lifetime searching for an answer.
- 1. To say nothing of the cultural contributions of, say, Martin Scorcese, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lady Gaga, Larry David, Marina Abramovic, or David Blaine.
- 2. Thomas Adajian. "The Definition of Art," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed. (Winter, 2012): http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/art-definition/.
- 3. Danto doesn't refer to art with a capital A in this book.