Philosopher, and art-critic, Arthur Danto’s “The End of Art” is considered one of the most important and influential essays on art in the 20th century. The influence is undeniable, the importance determined by how important people take it to be, and the underlying arguments in relation to reality bonkers.
Art ended before I was born, in 1964, when Andy Warhol exhibited his Brillo Box!
The title of the article is misleading, because he’s not talking about the end of art at all, but rather the end of a historical evolution of art that culminated with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. For many people, this would be an enormous, vigorously waving, red flag. Some people – and most famously, art critic Robert Hughes – didn’t think Andy was as brilliant a fellow as we are led to believe. Hughes called him stupid. I just think Andy was putting on an act, but even so, I find his art clinically boring. The idea that Andy’s brilliance broke history (that’s a real quote) is a bit rich for my tastes. One might be suspicious that among the competing viewpoints of the various art critics and philosophers, the one which upheld mid-century American art, which we now know in its earlier stages was being propped up by the CIA in order to promote American culture around the world, and gives credence to the most overpriced art and thus sustains the art market, would be chosen for ulterior purposes. But one puts those suspicions aside, just as one engages willing suspension of belief when reading fantasy. I assumed that even if I might ultimately disagree with Danto, surely I’d gain some valuable and lasting insights. I was sorely disappointed.
Danto’s theory of what art is, and how its historical evolution came to an end, all stems from contemplating Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box of 1964. Danto asked what makes a Warhol Brillo Box art when it is indistinguishable from an ordinary, cardboard box of Brillo pads one would find in the supermarket? The difference could not have anything to do with visual appearance, aesthetics, or quality, because a non-art object possessed all those elements in equal measure.
So what couldn’t be an artwork, for all one knew? The answer was that one could not tell by looking. You could not after all pick the artworks out like cashews from a pot of peanuts.
The difference had to be in the way the art object was differently intended, and differently understood. Art became, thus, an intention manifested in a physical form.
There are a several long-eared elephants in the room, jostling for attention, which Danto seems to have been blissfully unaware of, or just conveniently didn’t bother to address (at least in this essay).
- If an art object is indistinguishable from a non-art object, it may not be art. Danto’s entire theory is based on the rock-solid confidence that Warhol’s Brillo Box is absolutely art, when, in philosophical terms, that’s up for debate. It may not be art in the same sense the text on the box may not be poetry, even if it were published in a journal of poetry. It may be a prop, a visual aid, or some other example that illustrates an idea or argument about art (which may itself be fallacious).
- What Danto may be arguing is not the difference between art and non-art, but the difference between an object, and the same object selected to be put on display in a museum by a curator. In this case he wouldn’t be answering the question, “What is art?” but “What is curation?” The thing curated need not be art (ex., an arrow-head, vintage type-writer, a helicopter).
- He ignores the possibility of a question of degree. Can one thing be more fully art than another? Are album covers art? What about bubblegum wrappers? Doorstops? If we define art by the most minimal qualification of what can be art, that may ignore more important and defining properties, as well as a whole that transcends the parts. Are we left judging all art by the lowest common denominator? The most minimal, or essential (his term) definition of art only addresses art at the most minimal level. If we define a plane, for example, as whatever a pilot, or engineer, says it is, and even if we throw in that it has wings, we are ignoring the much more important qualification that it fly, or fly reliably so people can use it as safe transport.
- He doesn’t address genres of art as having possibly different definitions, and presumes that what applies to rarefied conceptual art necessarily applies to all other art. Is he only establishing how a theoretical variety of art works in theory? This might smack of tautology: if conceptual art is art, and conceptual art is defined as anything an artist says is art, than what the artist says is art is conceptual art, and is thus art. Conceptual art, even among its practitioners and advocates, is, if not an oddball, extreme, controversial, and alternative art practice, a radical one. We are left defining all art by a property most applicable to the most radical example. If trying to establish the fundamental characteristic of all mammals, we could identify the consistent overlap (warm-blooded), or we could just look at the duck-billed platypus, in which case we might conclude that all mammals lay eggs.
- Could it be not that art in general had come to an end, but rather the art in question was a dead end? Where do you go from a complete copy with no addition, interpretation, or modification? You can only do other copies of other things (hello Koons, Hirst, Prince, Levine…), but you can’t take it any further, because you’ve reached an endpoint. But this is only the endpoint of one avenue of artistic exploration, so why ensnare all of art in its singular limitation?
But let’s proceed as if the foundation of his argument were an unassailable monolith, assume that appropriationist conceptual art is incontestably art proper, and what qualifies a copy of non-art as art is the essential property underlying all art. That’s not the wacky part. That’s just radical reductionism. It’s the stuff he invents that really should raise eyebrows.
We need to appreciate that all of (at least Western) art was moving in one direction, for thousands of years, and it culminated in American art of the 50’s, with Warhol’s Brillo Boxes as the best example, and Danto himself to declare art had shifted to philosophy, and he was at the still center of the turning universe to tell us all. What happened that broke history, and brought the age-old project of art to and end, is that art became self-aware, because in an act of conscious self-reflexivity, it made itself its own subject: art became about art.
According to Danto, in the past, art was about mimesis, or imitation, and was created and judged in accordance to its trueness to representation. But with each new innovation (distortion, abstraction, non-representation…) art gradually became more subjective and self-aware, until full-blown self-consciousness arose. When a process, Danto argues, becomes aware of itself, it is complete. After this great implosion, art became free to be whatever it wanted, no longer shackled to passing the baton of innovation from one style or ism to the next, while slowly becoming more self-aware.
Robert Hughes may have been amused that the culmination of historical artistic awareness peaked in the mind of someone he thought was stupid (because he had nothing to say, either verbally, or in his art, which Hughes thought was repetitive and drab). That is something to take into consideration, though not exactly as stated. Oddly, Danto spoke of art itself becoming aware, and in so doing dodged the questions that would arise if he’d stated it in a more direct way, which would be that artists became aware of art as a subject, in addition to whatever the literal subject might be. The Brillo box is unconscious, Warhol is the self-aware artist, and we must conclude that he was a level or two or three more self-aware that his art was art – and as much about art, or more so, than anything else — than was Picasso, or Manet, or Durer, or da Vinci.
This is a bit like arguing that until a novelist wrote a novel about a novelist writing a novel, novelists weren’t self-aware that whatever they wrote about was also intrinsically about novel writing itself. Just because a work of art is only about itself, doesn’t mean that other art isn’t about itself as well as so much more. I’m pretty sure when Monet painted a lily pond, he knew he was first and foremost making art, the lily pond was just the topic, and painting the vehicle of expression. If you asked him, “Do you consider your painting, at its core, art, or a representation of a lily pond?” he would have said “art”, if he didn’t just ignore the question as insultingly shallow. It’s as bizarre a question as asking Beethoven if he conceived of one of his late string quartets as about music, or was it about something else, perhaps a couple walking in a field?
I have at least threee outstanding problems with Danto’s outline of art history.
One, as outlined above, I don’t believe Warhol was more aware of art as its own subject than was any great artist of the past, in which case that awareness didn’t gradually develop and hypostasize in his Brillo Box.
Two, I’ve never bought into the linear history of artistic development, even within just Western painting. I knew that others did, and styles developed in reaction to prior styles, and sometimes rejected or opposed them, only to be superseded themselves by following isms. People who believed in all that could try to participate in it, but I didn’t give a crap about any of that, and didn’t like art because of its historical importance, but rather for its intrinsic qualities. The this-ism-follows-that-ism viewpoint struck me as just a time-line from my survey of art history class, which I needed to memorize for a quiz. Sure, history only flows in one direction, and artists are necessarily influenced by whatever came before, but it doesn’t move in just one narrow direction, and some of my favorite artists were outliers who were difficult to squeeze into significant players in a single thread of development: El Greco, Van Gogh [there’s far more going on there than just formal development], or Francis Bacon.
Bacon remains one of my favorite artists, and this is because he is a supreme visual artist — someone who uses the full vocabulary of visual language (imagery, color, texture, composition, form…) — but I managed to only discover him after I’d already had art history courses, and poured through art magazines and books on modern art from my local library. As it happens, he doesn’t fit into the American non-figurative development of art. He was doing figurative art when Pollock was doing all-over, non-representational action painting on the floor. Bacon was irrelevant in an America-centrist view of the development of art history.
Stepping out of this historical imperative of successions of art styles reacting directly to the last incarnation, he just did whatever he wanted using all the available tools. While Americans were getting trapped in narrow monopolies of methods of applying paint non-representationally [Pollock had drips, Rothko patches, Jenkins spills, Frankenthaller stains…] Bacon used imagery, vigorous brushwork, abstracted shapes, thick impasto paint, and everything at his disposal. Why would I limit myself to reacting to whatever the prior generation of artists did, rather than what I wanted to do irrespective of all that?
Additionally, I’d been heavily into rock music since my teens, when I used to buy cheap used records and could experiment with all sorts of material that wasn’t played on the radio. I knew then, and know now, that what gets labeled “classic rock” is aptly labeled, because some of it is great art, and it has little or nothing to do with Stravinsky, or Stockhausen, or Cage, or the official time-line of the development of Western music.
Three, I don’t just accept that when a process becomes aware that it ceases. The process is not itself aware, here, to begin with: people are aware of the process. I am aware that I am aging, but that doesn’t stop the process. It might make more sense to understand Danto’s premise with a scientific analogy: once gravity was discovered, the process of trying to understand why objects fall to the Earth ceased to be necessary. This is a dangerous way of thinking about art, especially when it’s intertwined with a reductionist definition of art. IF the function of art was to become self-aware, and become its own subject, and if the early stages included mimesis, distortion, personal expression, abstraction, and so on, than those practices have served their function and are no longer necessary. I’m quite sure a lot of people see art history in this way, hence concepts such as that painting is dead.
I agree with Danto’s ultimate conclusion, oddly enough, but not with how he came to it, or what the implications are. At the end of the day, we learn artists are free to make whatever they want, and are not caught in an irresistible current pointing in one direction.
The difference is that I don’t believe there ever was such a current, unless people believed in it, subscribed to it, and made art accordingly, in which case it was real for them. We still have that today, and in spades, and incorporating Danto’s theories to justify it (I’ll explain). What is real for believers of any faith is not necessarily real for anyone else, or real full stop. I see Danto as a true believer in a fictitious history of art, who crowned Warhol as the second coming of the Art Messiah.
There was in consequence, a break in history, and the advent of a new period of art, the one in which we find and shall find ourselves.
We almost need to restart the calendar at A.W. to reflect Warhol’s breaking history. That’s the part I find loopy.
Where we differ in regards to artists being able to do whatever they want is that he’s positioned some practices, such as painting, as having lost their primary purpose, and thus being antiquated, in which case you can’t exactly do whatever you want and be considered at all relevant. You can do whatever you want, but some things are, according to his historical outline, automatically less relevant.
That past mythical linear history of art, that he thinks is over, is still absolutely real, according to him, up until about 1964, and indelibly imprinted on the past. This is part of his enormous influence, and it leads people to think, like he did, that conceptual art is more self-aware, and evolved than painting.
This is what happens when philosophers take it upon themselves to tell artists what art is. People who follow my blog know what my next mini-lecture is going to be, and I’m grateful for that, but Danto didn’t.
The purpose of painting was not to push the ball forward in art being increasingly only about itself, in which case it made certain innovations but was limited and gradually became redundant. Rather, painting is part of our shared, human, visual language, and reflects our visual intelligence, visual literacy, and visual imagination. It communicates all sorts of things beyond itself, and along with musical language, serves as an alternative to, and a checks-and-balances on, spoken and written language. Painting is just the most obvious example of visual art, which is the creation of, and communication through, imagery. Visual art, like music, is a timeless genre, and can not be replaced by some other genre (ex., conceptual art) that offers no imagery and no tangible communication in visual language (nothing to look at with any real interest in respect to its appearance, and what that communicates through visual language).
Danto, like so many of his contemporary theorists, art critics, and artists alike, have reduced one of our primary modes of communication to an outmoded artistic style. We are to understand that visual language (expressed via thousands of years of employing images, shapes, color, line, movement, perspective, rendering, anatomy, and so on to create and convey meaning) was eclipsed by a visually mute object.
Under the guise of rejecting a linear history of art, and opening the door to any kind of art, Danto did the opposite. He imposed an irreversible, singular lineage of artistic development and relevance where there was none. He stripped art of all its most important qualities and capacities (aesthetics, beauty, quality, and any subject or content other than itself…) in favor of the most reductionist and trivial one. He consigned one of our three most valuable modes of communication — visual art — to the garbage heap. And he limited artists to making art that reflects his bogus conclusions as a new historical imperative.
I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!
I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!