The Commonplace Raised to a Higher Power
* This is only a brief excerpt. The full text is available in the book. *
When I first read Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, now more than 10 years ago, I knew I had to make a change. I was finishing a PhD in moral psychology at the time, but was so taken with what Danto had to say, and how he said it, that I decided to leave behind my research in this area and focus exclusively on philosophy of art and aesthetics. I have never regretted the decision and have not looked back since.
I am, of course, not the only one to have fallen under Danto’s spell. The Transfiguration is generally considered one of the most important works of philosophical aesthetics of the 20th century and has had a tremendous impact on several generations of aestheticians. In this one book Danto tackles a whole range of philosophical issues related to art and manages to make a game-changing contribution to almost all of the debates he participates in. He does so, moreover, by consistently and creatively applying the same simple but elegant method. This so-called ‘method of indiscernibles’ starts from a problem that has various guises and that arises, according to Danto, not only in the field of aesthetics but in all other areas of philosophy. Philosophy is supposed to address its subject matter (knowledge, action, art, etc.) by seeking the conditions that make the things under scrutiny the kinds of things they are. The appropriate way of seeking these conditions, Danto suggests, is to examine how the thing, whose essence it is the task of philosophy to reveal, differs from an object or event that is ostensibly indiscernible from it. Accordingly, one will find the definition of action by considering how an action like raising an arm differs from a visually indiscernible bodily movement, like a tick or a spasm. Similarly, one will arrive at the definition of art by considering the distinction between an artwork and its visually indiscernible counterpart.
Take the work that Danto has obsessively thought and written about ever since he first laid eyes on it at the Stable Gallery in New York in 1964: Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. These bright boxes in white, red, and blue look just like ordinary boxes of soap pads, but while the former are art, the latter are not. What the Brillo Boxes illustrate so well, Danto argues in his seminal essay ‘The Artworld’ (1964), is that we can no longer rely on perceptual or aesthetic features to separate artworks from commonplace objects. Objects are art, he concludes, not because of some intrinsic perceptual quality they possess, but by being connected to the theoretical atmosphere of the art world. It is ultimately a theory of art that takes Warhol’s Brillo Boxes up into the world of art and keeps them from collapsing into ‘mere real things’.
The crucial role that is assigned to a broad, theoretically informed art world has remained a constant in Danto’s work and ties in significantly with another central feature of The Transfiguration – its emphasis on the contextual and historical nature of art. For Danto, art is essentially a historical undertaking, in the sense that there are historical constraints on what sorts of objects can be considered art at given historical moments. This is an aspect of art that, in Danto’s opinion, receives its most illuminating expression in Heinrich Wöllflin’s claim that ’not everything is possible at every time’. For example, the equivalent of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes could not have been an artwork in 15th century Florence, since a certain kind of historical development in the theoretical atmosphere of the art world was needed before an object of that kind could be considered a proper candidate for art-status.
Danto’s focus on the historical and contextual nature of art has had a decisive and lasting impact on the way the definition of art has been approached in 20th century aesthetics. But the historicist nature of Danto’s philosophy of art should not make us forget that he is also at heart an essentialist. He believes there is an essence to art and while he does not claim to have nailed down the definition completely, he does propose two necessary conditions that any artwork needs to satisfy. ‘Embodied meaning’ is what sums it up. Something is art only if it is about something and only if it embodies or articulates whatever it is about in a suitable form. Consider Warhol’s Brillo Boxes again. As Danto points out in our conversation, there may be a thousand interpretations of this particular work. But it’s safe to say that, among other things, the work is about the commodification of art – a meaning it embodies, appropriately enough, by being indiscernible from a commercial object.
Given this conception of art it seems obvious what the task of the art critic should be, namely, to find out what a work is about and then explain how the stylistic choices of the artist embody the meaning of that work. What was not obvious, however, was that Danto himself was to take up this task and become one of the leading critics of his age. Yet that is what happened. In 1984 he received a call from the literary editor at The Nation, Elizabeth Pochoda, who asked him if he’d be interested in writing about art for her magazine. The timing couldn’t have been better as Danto was seriously thinking of retiring from academic life after having reached the height of his profession as a philosopher. For a man with such exceptional writing skills and longstanding interest in art, this was just too unique an opportunity to pass up (he once compared it to Lana Turner being discovered at a soda fountain). So he happily embarked on his second extremely successful career, winning multiple awards and holding the prestigious post of art critic for The Nation longer than anyone before him.
When I got in touch with Danto for an interview it was only shortly after he had stepped down from his post at The Nation. He immediately and very kindly agreed to meet me and so, at the end of August in 2011, I arrived at his spacious apartment in Manhattan filled to the brim with art, including, I couldn’t help but notice, some original paintings by very famous artists. A daunting but fitting setting for a conversation with the man who, unbeknownst to him, had been responsible for my conversion to aesthetics and philosophy of art.
AESTHETICS: PAST AND FUTURE
Hans Maes: In your book Nietzsche as a Philosopher, published in 1965, you call aesthetics and philosophy of art the least advanced field of philosophical inquiry and speculation. Would you say that’s still true today?
Arthur Danto: No, I don’t think it’s true anymore. Don’t forget this was 1965. The profession here in the United States was basically logical positivist. There wasn’t a lot of room for art. There were a few interesting people, I thought. Nelson Goodman, for example. He showed how, if you want to do that kind of thing in philosophy of art, it’s possible to do it. What was the title of Nelson’s book again?
Hans Maes: You mean Languages of Art?
Arthur Danto: Yeah. I thought Nelson was wrong about almost everything in that book. But he did have a professional interest in art, because he was an art dealer and his wife was an artist. So he had that as a reinforcement to his philosophical interests. And then you had Stanley Cavell, who was doing philosophy at Harvard. So there were two or three people that were doing serious work in aesthetics. Of course, when you take Cavell and Goodman, that’s already an important group of aestheticians, even if they’re only two. Nobody did really get along with Nelson, though. He was a very difficult man.
Hans Maes: In what way?
Arthur Danto: We were together at some conference and he said, ‘Let me tell you what’s wrong with your book, Arthur.’ This was The Transfiguration of the Commonplace and he was carrying it with him. He just opened it up and started criticizing this and this and this. He was a killer that way. You had to really think hard to get around Nelson. But I was constantly involved in that sort of thing with people because what I was doing was pretty different from anybody else.
Hans Maes: Which developments since the 1960s have really changed the landscape of the discipline in your view?
Arthur Danto: Well, my work did. [laughs] No point being modest about it. The Transfiguration changed things. Even the article that I wrote, called ‘The Art World,’ changed things. (Pauses.) Then I thought Richard Wollheim was a wonderful philosopher. Anything he did was interesting. But he brought a lot of psychoanalytical ideas into aesthetics and he was psychoanalyzed, in a very important way, and I never felt very much involved with that.
Hans Maes: Because you had doubts about psychoanalysis?
Arthur Danto: It had no interest for me. I come from a family of psychiatrists, so that explains certain things. My brother was a psychoanalyst, my two first cousins are psychoanalysts, and then everybody else in New York was being psychoanalysed. I never felt like sitting down and talking about my difficulty at being weaned or something like that. I thought I was beyond that.
Hans Maes: Let’s look at the future instead of the past then. How do you see the future of aesthetics? Does it have one?
Arthur Danto: Oh, I think it better have. A lot of it depends upon what happens in art. There were these fundamental movements in art that were really philosophical: Duchamp, Warhol, you name it. But Duchamp had those ideas at the time of World War I and Warhol in the 1960s. I don’t know anything that knocks me cold in the same way now. I think Jeff Koons is a really interesting and even important artist. But I’m not so sure I could think of anybody else. I don’t feel as though something’s happening in art. And I think it’s difficult for something to happen in aesthetics if it hasn’t happened in art in some way.
In my case, I got very involved with pop art and Warhol. I mean I’ve thought consistently about the Brillo Box since 1964. All the writing I’ve done on the Brillo Box… if somebody had done that with the Sistine ceiling, they’d say, ‘My God, that’s an obsessed human being!’ But I did feel strongly that there were deep, fundamental aesthetic issues raised by Warhol that had to be addressed.
Hans Maes: You say that the future of aesthetics depends on what happens in art. But doesn’t it also depend on what happens in other fields of philosophy or in science? For instance, some people think that aesthetics might eventually become just a branch of cognitive science. What’s your view on that?
Arthur Danto: I don’t believe that. Works of art need to be interpreted. There’s something to what Derrida would say, that there is an infinite number of interpretations. It may be very difficult for anybody to think out more than one or two. But if somebody is intelligent and motivated enough, they probably could do it. I like to work with old master paintings like the Resurrection by Piero or the Death of Marat by David. I have an interpretation of both of those and I think that they fall into place when you realize that these paintings are doing the same thing. Marat is in the bathtub in a Jesus-like posture. And just as they say of Jesus, ‘He died for you. Now, you have to practice Christianity,’ David’s painting seems to say, ‘Marat died for you. Now, make the revolution.’ You got these two almost super‑imposable paintings. That’s a very powerful interpretation.
I have written – I don’t know what got hold of me (laughs)– but I’ve written a piece on the Sistine ceiling. I was in Italy at that time. I was staying with Cy Twombly. This was when they finished the cleaning of the Sistine vault. He was very keen on that, but I was not sure. So I thought, ‘I’m here, I’d better go see it.’ The first thing that hit me was that the birth of Eve is in the middle. Before that, it’s cosmology. After that, it’s history. Suddenly you realize it’s not Adam that’s so important, it’s Eve, because she divides everything in two. And you think to yourself, ‘How on earth did he put Eve there, and the drunkenness of Noah at the end, and so forth?’ So I tried to work it out. But you could never have given this interpretation if you didn’t live in a culture saturated by feminism. I don’t think there was any whiff of feminism when Michelangelo was doing that, but living in this moment, in this culture, it suddenly becomes the first thing to strike the eye. So you never know where a new interpretation is likely to come from.
Hans Maes: And that is part of the reason why philosophy of art can never be fully reduced to science?
Arthur Danto: That’s the kind of thing I have in mind. I think that there’s a tremendous amount that science has to tell us about the way the physical body is and how it functions. And there may be some aesthetic ideas that will be hit on. But the most important fact is that the human body hasn’t changed for millions of years and yet people like David Hume were totally different in their way of thinking about beauty and art than people living today. Even though Hume was a womanizer, and was interested in women, he never had to deal with the kinds of feminist arguments that men certainly had to deal with, well, around the time the Brillo Box was created! I don’t say there’s any connection. [laughs] But I got involved with somebody who was one of the founders of feminism and I realized that I never thought about those things at all, and I should have. But I couldn’t have, because of the cultural moment.
When Marat was assassinated, by a woman incidentally, they said, ‘Take up thy brush, David, take up thy brush!’ They would never have said, ‘Pick up your Bunsen burner,’ or ‘Pick up a test tube,’ or something like that. They said, ‘Take up thy brush,’ because they felt that David would say something of very deep meaning. You wouldn’t get that out of science at that time. Meaning in terms of human life: that comes from art, I think. So, I don’t find the idea of aesthetics as a branch of cognitive science compelling at all. Why should it be?
Hans Maes: Perhaps one reason why it might be so tempting to think of aesthetics in scientific terms is that many philosophers, including many philosophers of art, model their way of writing and thinking on the way scientists work.
Arthur Danto: I think that’s true of Quine. I think that’s true of Davidson.
Hans Maes: Is it a good model to have?
Arthur Danto: Those two are wonderful models to have — at least in terms of the writing. But it’s a very limited way of doing philosophy. Davidson gave a series of lectures at Columbia that clearly he had worked on very hard, but he never got much further in it than seeing the tree. OK, that’s an important piece of perception. But what happens if you look at a painting of a tree? There’s a lot more going on there: interpretation, meaning, embodiment … At least you should give it to Wollheim that he felt there was a need for a kind of pictorial psychology. And look at some of the great art historians, like Aby Warburg. There’s a series of enigmatic frescoes in Ferrara, and he cracked it. He really cracked it! But it wasn’t cognitive psychology that did it, it was the zodiac, finally, that gave him the clue. Absolutely wonderful.
Hans Maes: One of your latest collections of essays is entitled Unnatural Wonders…
Arthur Danto: Exactly. Because there’s no natural law that covers what goes on in art. You know, at the beginning of my career, I was very involved with the philosophy of science, probably because the best teacher I had at Columbia was Ernest Nagel. Then Sidney Morgenbesser and I did this anthology on the philosophy of science and I thought that way for a while. I don’t know just when I changed. Let me put it this way. I had a great time writing The Analytical Philosophy of History. I really admired George Santayana, and he did this five‑volume thing, so I said, ‘I’m going to write a five‑volume work.’ This was in the middle of the ’60s. I was full of philosophical feelings and thoughts, and the next book I wrote was Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge and then I wrote Analytical Philosophy of Action. I thought the fourth volume would have to be on art. I hadn’t written much on art, except for ‘The Art World,’ but when the time came to write my book I wasn’t interested in calling it Analytical Philosophy of Art. I thought whatever is called Analytical Philosophy of Art has nothing to do with what seems to me to be on the cutting edge of art. I finished that book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, in 1978, although it was published, I think, in 1981. I was going to have a fifth volume on the philosophy of mind, but then I thought, there’s no point in writing a book on mind at this moment, because that’s what everybody else is doing.
But when I went into the Warhol exhibition, it was in ’64, I had my head full of history, action and knowledge, but I wasn’t thinking about science any more at all. I was interested in what was happening in art and I wasn’t sure that you were going to get anywhere by treating the mind scientifically.
 In our conversation he will say that he was interested in sex when he wrote his book on action. This will sound less strange if you consider that men in particular can be visited by a bodily event that resembles the raising of an arm but cannot be considered a voluntary action.