Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Danto on "Metaphor, Expression, and Style" concluding comments

Maybe even the key to Danto's Transfiguration of the Commonplace is his discussion of Rembrandt's painting of Hendrijke (Hendrickje) Stoeffels as Bathsheba.  Again, I cannot find a painting by Rembrandt that specifically matches this description, although we do have the famous "Bathsheba at Her Bath" 1654 (courtesy of Wikipedia) which has been traditionally thought to have used Hendrijke as the model.  It is noteworthy that the same Wikipedia article quotes Rembrandt scholar Eric Sluijter as being skeptical that Rembrandt used his own partner for this portrait.  It is pure speculation, therefore, that Rembrandt intended to present Hendrijke as Bathsheba rather than either using her simply as a model or using some other model from a group of models that looked somewhat similar.  But let's go along with Danto and assume that Rembrandt was painting Hendrijke-as-Bathsheba.  Danto quotes Kenneth Clark saying that the modelling was "unflinching" and that her body was "seen with such love that it becomes beautiful," the assumption being that she (the image in the painting? the model?) is not beautiful apart from this.  Danto thinks that this could only be said truly of a work of art and that this tells us something therefore about the nature of art.(That's telling!)  He thinks that Rembrandt's unflinching portrayal must be due to "his deep humanity and his catholic compassion" (195) since the "signs of age and use in her body" are portrayed not in a humiliating way but as is.  Moreover, it is that woman who is shown as Bathsheba "a woman of beauty enough to tempt a king to murder...", the metaphor being a "plain dumpy Amsterdam woman as the apple of a king's eye" -- and this, says Danto, emphasis his own, "has to be an expression of love."  (195)  Danto stresses here the contrast with Cezanne's portrait of his wife in which nothing of her character or inner life is shown, just as his cardplayers are "like eggplants...devoid of any psychological interest." (196)  It is interesting at this juncture that Danto mentions Roger Fry, the great formalist (and therefore ancestor to Clement Greenberg, the mortal enemy of Danto's own contextualist theory), as seeing Cezanne to be the paradigm of artists because of this, and Rembrandt's painting as being "polluted by psychology," as Danto puts it.  It seems at this point that Danto is taking sides (with Rembrandt and against Cezanne) athough he insists (tellingly) that his "claim is [merely?] that these are simply differences in metaphors," Cezanne's painting being no less expressive than Rembrandt's.  He concludes from all of this (rather abruptly in my view) that "the concept of expression can be reduced to the concept of metaphor, when the way in which something is represented is taken in connection with the subject represented."  

What are we to make of this?  Can it really be true that he is not taking sides? Is not Rembrandt's portrayal of his wife something of a paradigm of something for Danto as opposed to Fry?  Is it more art, or perhaps greater art?  It is noteworthy that Cezanne's work is the ancestor of Warhol's Brillo Boxes where it seems that all expressiveness has disappeared (although Danto would deny it), and yet most would say that Brillo Boxes was Danto's own paradigm of art.  It is instructive that in the penultimate paragraph of the book, Danto argues that Brillo Box is art because it propounds the metaphor brillo-box-as-work-of-art, and this is the transfiguration of a commonplace object which, once it could be made, is such that "there was no reason to make it" - which makes Warhol engaged in pointless activity...(208). 

Is there another side to Danto, a Dr. Jekyl to Mr. Hyde?  (Remember our previous reference to Danto's characterizing Cezanne as monstrous.) Is Danto deconstructing himself a bit?  Note, on another but related point, that Danto's theory entirely erases the importance of the senses from the constitution and meaning of art.  For him, that two paintings look exactly the same to the sense of sight means nothing as to the meaning of each, or even as to whether one is art or one is not. (Of course, as I have said, this depends on the sense of sight being reduced to something totally denuded of meaning.) Danto insists that art must be embodied, but it does not really matter how it is embodied.  The body practically disappears.  Danto even disappears our own bodies when he says that "we are systems of representations" (204) and that his view is an expansion of Peirce's that man is the sum total of his language and that we are just signs (205)  And yet the other side of Danto takes up a portrait of a woman whose body is object of concentrated sensuous apprehension, and which portrait shows her as seen through a deep and compassionate love.  Could it be that Rembrandt in looking at his partner saw her with a certain aura, the aura that compassionate love gives, and then was able to capture that in his painting?  But that would mean that a non-art object, a "mere thing" in Danto's language, was not a mere thing at all, but rather something rich in meaning.  Could it even be said that Rembrandt saw something aesthetically powerful in looking at his partner while painting her, that he was able to see her as Bathsheba, and hence that the aesthetic predicates of art are applicable to non-art things too under some circumstances?  Could it be that the commonplace can be transfigured in perception and not just in being represented in art?  Is there perhaps no strong cut-off point between what the artist sees as he paints and what he paints as he looks?  For Danto, sensation is denuded, stripped of all of its imaginative and cognitive power, something merely passive.  But that can't be!  Perhaps Danto's interpretation of the way Lichtenstein's interpretation of the way Cezanne saw his wife is Danto's own nightmare of what art becomes when sensation is stripped of emotional power and aesthetic presence per his own theory. 

When Danto comes to discuss style he sees is as a matter of the relationship between the representation and the person who makes the representation and notes that, as with rhetoric, the representation does not "penetrate the content." He then recognizes that "only in an act of ruthless but necessary abstraction can we sunder style from substance" (198) which is so telling since ruthless abstraction is precisely what Cezanne, and even more, Lichtenstein has done.  Danto goes on to explain the difference between style and manner as being one in which the former is a gift, coming from a person's character, and a "basic action," but the later is by knowledge or art, except that, ironically, the first is characteristic of art and the second is not.  The distinction is fine.  But the problem is, going back to Goodman's example of Hiroshige, that one cannot tell which is the master and which has style when you are talking about two paintings that are indiscernible.  I am not talking about "nearly indiscernible" since there are monochrome paintings that are masterpieces of style and subtlety (for instance all-white paintings by Robert Ryman) as well as ones that are boring, trite, and mannered.  Near-indiscernability tells us much more about style than actual indiscernability.  The fact that a replication of a work of great style does not itself usually have style is because of the subtleties that the work of great art has that it does not. (This should be obvious, a touchstone fact without which we cannot do philosophy of art.)  If the replication is really good (as in a good digital image of a Rembrandt) it is just false that it does not have style and only shows style, as Danto would have it. (204)  Rather, it just operates as one way of seeing the original Rembrandt with the very style qualities that Rembrandt himself put into that work.  If the painting disappeared but the exact digital rendering of it did not we would not have lost Rembrandt's style.  It would still be possible to fall in love with the painting just as we can fall in love with Greek works of which we only have Roman copies.

Danto ends his book by saying that Brillo Box does what artworks have always done, externalize "a way of viewing the world, expressing the interior of a cultural period, offering itself as a mirror to catch the conscience of our kings."  The last comment is a reference to Shakespeare, whose Freud-like imitation theory Danto accepts while vigorously rejecting Plato's.  But again, if art does externalize a way of viewing a world then the way of viewing the world can trace aesthetic properties in the world.  (I have no problem with Danto's idea that there is both an outward and an inward side of personality and of cultural periods.)  The expression of the cultural period can already be there in the models portrayed and the way they are seen, which would mean, to use Heidegger's language, that the thingly nature of the thing and the equipmental nature of equipment is unconcealed when truth happens in the great work of art.  So, it turns out that they two philosophers are much closer than we previously thought, although only if the body and the aesthetics of the everyday are brought back along with the continuities between art and life that can be found in the creative process itself. 

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 32 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it from Broadview. 

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