Monday, May 12, 2014

Danto's Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Chapter 7 "Metaphor, Expression, and Style."

What fascinates me about Danto these days is the relationship he sees between the aesthetics of art and the aesthetics of life.  Considering the way he has set it up, you would think that he would keep the two always separate.  But towards the end of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace there appear cracks in the wall, although the cracks can even be seen in the title.  Art, for Danto, does have something to do with commonplace things.  Its "transfigures" them.  So, how detached can it be from the everyday?  A lot hangs on this.  For example, if what Christopher Dowling has called "weak" Aesthetics of Everyday Life theory, which holds that the aesthetic predicates of art can be applied to everyday life (and with which I have been associated), is to hold, then something must be wrong with Danto's overall theory of a radical separation between art and life.  If Danto himself undercuts this radical separation in the last chapter of his own book then there is hope for weak AEL, or to put it more positively, for a unified aesthetic theory in which art and everyday life are dynamically interactive (the kind of thing I advocated in my book).

At the end of the sixth chapter Danto tells us that in the final chapter (chapter seven) he will engage in "intense analytical scrutiny" of the features that he began to stress in the sixth chapter, getting insight into the concepts of style and expression by way of studies in "the language of mind" whereby art is seen as externalizing consciousness or the artist's way of seeing.  The concluding comment of the sixth chapter surprisingly asserts that Canaletto's paintings of Venice capture Canaletto's way of seeing in such a way that they are "as magical as the city" and this because "they are the city, raised to self-consciousness, perhaps because the city itself was a work of art in its own right." (164) But if that is the case then expression is a matter not just for works of art but also for life, i.e. for the cities in which we live and the lives we live in those cities.  So much for the radical separation of art and mere things!  (It scarcely helps his theory of radical separation to turn cities, and later, persons, into works of art.) 

But, to play this out, we need to turn to his last chapter.  Here again, what is surprising to any reader of Danto who has spent much time on the first parts of his book is that in the last chapter he turns out to hold that works of art not only are about things but also express something about those things, that expression is a necessary condition for art.  He is not quite an expression theorist since he does not hold that expression is a sufficient condition, and he further understands the concept of expression in terms of its relation to style and rhetoric (by which he mainly means metaphor) which is a novel approach.  I think it interesting, however, that, whereas we commonly associate Danto with Warhol's Brillo Boxes, the set of paintings that play the central role in the last chapter of this, his philosophical masterpiece, consists of Rembrandt's paintings of his wife Saskia as flower goddess.  (There are several such paintings, one of which is at the Hermitage from 1634.  It is not clear which flower painting Danto was thinking of specifically.  This makes him somewhat like Heidegger who never makes clear which one of Van Gogh's paintings of shoes is at issue in his analysis of art.  As we shall see, he also shares with Heidegger an interest in what makes great art great and in how this is related to the quest for the essence of art.)  He uses the Saskia paintings to explain "metaphoric transfiguration" as distinct from "transformation" since the subject retains her identity in transfiguration:  we see both Saskia and Flora in the paintings, not just Flora.  Similarly when Napoleon is represented as a Roman emperor we have a metaphor, Napoleon as (is, metaphorically, a) Roman emperor, which is not just a representation of a Roman emperor with Napoleon as a model or simply of Napoleon wearing a toga.  All of this is supposed to show (Danto believes) why the differences between the Loran diagram of a Cezanne and the Lichtenstein painting that looks identical to it is not one of content. 

I keep feeling as I read this that Danto must mean something different than I do by "content" since I would generally see metaphorical seeing as a matter of content (i.e. the content of our perception), whereas he does not.  Why, I wonder, can't the difference between the picture of Napoleon as Roman emperor and a picture in which Napoleon is a model for a Roman emperor be a matter of content?  It must be that Danto thinks of content as having to be just whatever is literal, and that there is no such thing as metaphorical content.  This relates to the larger issue of what is meant by "seeing" where Danto tends to see seeing as a matter that excludes whatever we "see as," and I have trouble seeing it this way.

So, on Danto's view, Lichtenstein's painting takes or treats Cezanne's painting Portrait of Madame Cezanne (which is the subject of Lichtenstein's painting, according to Danto) as a diagram.  So the metaphor, spelled out, is "PMC is a diagram" (It is not clear, by the way, why it isn't "This diagram is PMC.")  Cezanne's portrait is "transfigured."  Of course, in this case, it is an art work that is transfigured and not, at least directly, something in everyday life.  However, we shall see that indirectly there is a transfiguration of Cezanne's wife, and hence more indirectly yet, the way women or more generally humans are seen, in all of this too. (This could all be seen as an instance of feminist critique of male perspectives exemplified by Cezanne but deconstructed by Lichtenstein.)

Now there is another theme in this which we have to keep track of, which is that, to put it crudely (but certainly in line with the idea of feminist critique of the male gaze), Danto favors Rembrandt's humane treatment of his wife over Cezanne's dehumanizing treatment of his.  This is important, and we can't lose sight of it.  So, our eyes are directed rhetorically by Lichtenstein to Cezanne's painting so that we see it as a diagram, and then we see something else, i.e. Cezanne "as seeing the world as a schematized structure."  As I said in my last post, it is a metaphor of a metaphor, and perhaps of a metaphor again. 

Important also in all of this is that in order to see the Lichtenstein as art we must not only have a concept of art and be able to see it in the way intended by the artist (required by Danto's other writings) but know something about the associations people in the 1960s had with diagrams so that the portrait can be infused with those.  Danto sums up the point:  "the artwork is constituted as a transfigurative representation rather than a representation tout court" and this is true, he believes, for all artworks.  Thus to grasp the artwork is to grasp the metaphor that is there, for example to see the women in Gainsborough's painting as transfigured into flowers, and also, through this, the painting is seen as "a metaphor on time and beauty." (172)  That is, for Danto, artworks are such as to make us see another metaphor on a philosophical level (much like Kant's notion of "aesthetical ideas"):  Gainsborough's painting as time (or again, time as Gainsborough's is not clear whether or not the metaphor goes both ways.)  It looks like the tranfiguration is metaphor contains within it usually (or always?) a philosophy of life, for example a feminist one in Lichtenstein's case (critiquing the male gaze).

Danto further writes: "the greatest metaphors of art I believe to be those in which the spectator identifies himself with the attributes of the represented character" (172) for example seeing oneself as Anna Karenina, or perhaps as Saskia.  In this case "the artwork becomes a metaphor for life and life is transformed." (172)  Fine, but that means that not only is Saskia transfigured but so too is the viewer and life itself.  The metaphor reads "the Saskia painting as life" or perhaps "life as the Saskia painting."  Further, Danto writes that "to see oneself as Anna is in some way to be Anna, and to see one's life as her life," not obviously in being a Russian woman but in possibly being "a victim of duty and passion" (173) (As Aristotle said, tragedy gives us knowledge in giving us what is probable or possible and in bringing us to catharsis over this).  So the wall between art and life that Danto tried so much to build up and make firm dissolves right here.  He goes one: "the experience of being taken out of oneself by virtually the enactment of a metaphoric transformation with oneself as subject:  you are what the work ultimately is about, a commonplace person transfigured into an amazing woman."  (173)  This sounds so much like Heidegger.  So much is packed into this it is hard to parse it out.  If transfiguring is also a matter of self-transcendence, of identification with (following Aristotle once again) something nobler than ourselves, or with someone amazing at least, then a lot more is happening here than one would suspect if one saw art as simply a class of things made art by some act within the context of the artworld or even as a matter or seeing something as art because one as art historical knowledge (a nice way to characterize Danto without taking into account the significance of these pages.) 

Danto worries in the next paragraph about the exalted nature of these reflections and then says that we must think about "what makes art an exalted activity" that is universally respected.  Great art for Danto is not exalted because it makes objects of beauty, but this is largely because he limits the concept of beauty to something more like what we mean by "pretty" and tries to keep it isolated from anything deep, unlike Plato, for example, who makes it the deepest thing of all.

No wonder that Danto finds it "intoxicating" to "ponder the masterpieces" after discussing "squares of bare canvas" so much in this book, even though one risks the danger of sounding portentous. (173)    

I plan to write one more blog entry in which I discuss the last part of Danto's last chapter.

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