Why write about art? Why is art important enough to write about? To get truly philosophical about art, you need look no further than Arthur C. Danto, philosopher-king of American art criticism. Now in paperback, Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap between Art and Life, Danto’s fifth collection of his essays from The Nation, answers (or tries to answer) these questions and more over and over, with a diversity of subjects old and new, from Leonardo da Vinci to Damien Hirst. Ultimately, Danto’s answers boil down to a resounding “yes,” like Yoko Ono’s Yes Painting (above, from 1966), which requires the viewer to climb the ladder and look through the magnifying glass to see the tiny “yes” written on the ceiling. Fortunately, Danto makes the path to those answers easier. Seeing a shift in art criticism from interpretation to explanation, Danto believes “[w]e have to treat the art of today the way Hegel treated the art of the past, when artist and viewer constituted—or ideally constituted—an actual community.” Danto bridges the gap between art and everyday life, revealing the “elite” world of art to be just another corner of the larger global community.
Reading through the more than 40 essays in the collection, you find Danto telling many of the same stories over again and again. Rather than annoying repetition, these common threads hold the tapestry of Danto’s thought together. At the heart of Danto’s philosophy of art lies his concept of “The End of Art.” In the 1980s, “[a]ll at once movements no longer seemed to occur,” Danto writes. “The early twentieth century had seen hundreds of movements… each with its own manifesto. All this had vanished. The history of art no longer seemed driven by some inner necessity. One lost the sense of any narrative direction.” That lack of direction first dispirits Danto, then intoxicates him with possibility. Freed from that “burden” of art history’s narrative drive, artists could take their art in any direction, no longer fearing critical abuse for not carrying the storyline of art forward. Rather than finding meaning in this continued narrative, Danto finds meaning in the art itself—the “embodied meanings” of the work. “If nothing was ruled out as art,” Danto says of himself as critic, “I could rule out nothing as art.” Art thus encompassed all reality, merging the “real” world with the “art” world and recovering the sense of connection between art and life lost over time. Kalliphobia, or the fear of beauty, beginning with Dada and Surrealism, movements that made beauty “the sacrificial victim in a symbolic war against war” at the beginning of the war-torn twentieth century, created a rift between the common viewer and the artist that Danto now hopes to repair. “Art addresses us in our humanity, as men and women who seek in art for meanings that neither of art’s peers—philosophy and religion—in what Hegel spoke of as the realm of Absolute Spirit, are able to provide,” Danto concludes, elevating art and art criticism to the level of a last, best hope for the modern human soul.
One of the beauties of Danto’s critical approach is his ability to take individual artists and spin out generalities that elucidate not only the artist at hand but the art world at large. The Blood Altar of Tilman Riemenschneider (detail shown above, from 1501-1505) provides the context for the discussion of anachronistic art criticism, i.e., criticizing artists of the past for not addressing the concerns of today. The controversy over Renee Cox’s Yo Mama’s Last Supper takes center stage in a meditation on iconoclasm from Plato to the Taliban to Rudy Giuliani. Taking the measure of the latest Whitney Biennial, Danto considers the state of arts instruction: “Since art schools no longer teach skills and MFA candidates have the option of making art any way they choose, the boundary between the self-taught and the highly taught artist has all but evaporated.” This skill-less artist, however intriguing, makes the mission of the art critic explaining that art to the public that much harder.
Danto continually amazes with his ability to make you see an artist in a new light. Showing examples of sfumato by Verrocchio to demonstrate that it “was already a matter of studio practice when Leonardo [da Vinci] was in his teens,” Danto proves that “even where Leonardo was most original, he was also in effect in conversation with his predecessors, and his successors in conversation with him.” Norman Rockwell, that realist anachronism in the modernist twentieth century (his The Connoisseur, from 1962, appears above), emerges in Danto’s examination as “an eroticist of human feeling, a rhetorician of visual perception.” With the assistance of Hume and Heidegger, Danto uncovers the “conceptual pleasures” of that “unabashed mentalist” Sol LeWitt. I can even forgive Yoko Ono for breaking up the Beatles after Danto writes, “What Ono offered [John] Lennon was a more fulfilling way of making art, and ultimately she was blamed for the dissolution of the band. What Lennon offered Ono was a way of using her art to change minds not just in terms of the nature of art and reality but also in terms of war and peace.” Danto even tries to made me love and cherish Jeff Koons, giving it a valiant if ultimately futile effort.
Since these essays stretch from 2000 to 2003, the topic of conversation obviously towering over all others is September 11th. Writing shortly after the attacks, Danto saw the most apt artistic approach to the senselessness of that event to be the simple, impromptu shrines that popped up all over New York City. “What the instantaneity of the impromptu shrines has taught us is that art, at some level, is an abiding integral component of the human spirit,” Danto writes. Danto writes simultaneously as a philosopher, art critic, and New Yorker when he writes of the attacks, bringing a whole new level of intensity and introspection to the subject. “The perceived target was life—our life, in both senses of the term: the fact that we live and the way we live,” he writes. “What terrorists saw as symbolic, New Yorkers saw as a war against a form of life.” Revisiting art and 9/11 one year later, Danto surveys the artistic responses up to that point and decides that “genuine 9/11 art… had to find ways of embodying the feeling rather than depicting the events, and is inevitably oblique.” Fortunately, Danto’s analysis of that tragedy is anything but oblique.
Unnatural Wonders will restore your faith in the world of art criticism. These short essays should be taken like pills for the anxiety that modern life and modern art can inflict upon the soul. As Danto concedes, “The End of Art” both dispirits and intoxicates with the double-edged sword of endless possibility. Danto’s writing will both lift your spirits and help sober you up when facing the sometimes too wide world of art.
[Many thanks to Columbia University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book.]