Monday, June 3, 2013

Danto on "Kant and the Work of Art'

I have been reading Arthur Danto's new book What Art Is.  What you expect from such a book is a theory of the nature of art, and Danto does give us something like this.  Here I will comment specifically on his chapter on Kant and the work of art.  This is just a first pass.  Danto rightly sees that Kant's theory of fine art in his discussion of genius, aesthetic ideas and spirit, is the meat of Kan's theory of art, this contrary to Clement Greenberg who found Kant's theory of art in the analytic of the beautiful.  It took a long time for Danto to figure this out, but he got it as last...although he still has it a bit wrong since he says that Kant had two theories of art, which is not quite right since Kant never claimed that he was defining art in the analytic of the beautiful, and he did claim that he was defining art in the later passages to be found in the analytic of the sublime.  I also have a small problem with Danto's tendency to fetishize periods in history, acting as though these ideas were somehow not quite Kant's, who, on Danto's view, is really an enlightenment philosopher, and thus who is simply accomodating romantic ideas here.  Why not just see this as an important aspect of Kant's own thinking?  After all, the Critique of Judgment was written to bridge the gap between the phenomenal and noumenal realms, and this is how this is to be done, i.e. through the aesthetic ideas provided by in part or in one instance by art.  Danto makes a good point that aesthetic ideas would have seemed a contradiction in terms to the typical enlightenment philosopher of the times, however.  Danto thinks that Kant's idea that fine art is a matter of the genius coming up with aesthetic ideas (what we might well call symbols, for example the eagle symbolizing Zeus) is quite similar to his own idea that art is embodied meaning, which Danto takes to be an eternal unchanging philosophical truth about art.  I do not think that there are any definitions of art that are eternal and unchanging in the way Danto thinks there are and so do not see Danto as solving that problem.  In fact, I think Danto's mistake was in misreading Weitz's anti-essentialism and failing to recognize that honorofic definitions of art are the best things that we can get from art theory or the attempt to define art, and yet honorific definitions will have to come up again and again in art history...there is no end of the process.  And, although Danto thinks he is unlike Greenberg in that he has found the true definition of art, one that is not tied to a particular historical epoch of art itself, in fact his notion that art is embodied meaning is really just tied to the art of his time, or the art that originally inspired him, i.e. in particular the art of Andy Warhol.  The notion that art is embodied meaning, at least that this is a necessary condition for art, is nice and has some power...but notice how different it is from Kant's own notion largely because the purpose of art is left out...there is no evaluative component in this.   Kant of course realized that many things could be called art which are not productive of aesthetic ideas, but the purpose of fine art is to produce aesthetic ideas, ideas which give us access to the supersensible realm of God, immortality and the soul.  (I would like a definition of art that is more Kantian than Danto's but not committed to literal belief in a transcendent God....more Nietzschean in its reading of Kant.)  So Kant, like Aristotle in his definition of tragedy, defines art in such as way that we can tell what art is good.  This is exactly what Weitz meant honorific definitions of art to do.  Danto in just talking about embodied meanings leaves out this evaluative dimension.  For Danto it is enough for a definition of art that it says that there are two sides:  the physical side and the idea side, the idea side making many physically indistinguishable things different works of art.  But for Kant the idea that is embodied is not just any idea:  it is an idea that gives one a sense of self-transcendence, basically an idea that connects us to the supersensible, but not one that is itself an idea of reason, not something for example that could prove the existence of such a realm.  Danto adopts Kant but secularizes him so much that fine art becomes something mundane.  But perhaps a problem with contemporary art is that it does aspire to little more than embodiment of just any meaning, that it lacks courage of convictions.

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