Saturday, May 10, 2014

Danto's "Works of Art and Mere Representations" the case of Loran and Lichtenstein

In "Works of Art and Mere Representations," the sixth chapter of his Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Danto seeks to distinguish between those very things found in the title.  The idea is to take two objects that are indistinguishable, one being a work of art and one being a mere representation, and discover how they are different:  this will give us another crucial part (the crucial part?) in Danto's definition of art.  That definition has sometimes been put forth, even by Danto himself, as a matter of aboutness plus embodied-ness.  But mere representations are both about something and embodied in something.  So the shorthand definition of art that Danto sometimes bandies about is not his considered position.  Actually, Danto as a philosopher is a real strip-tease artist who gradually, with many excruciating but delightful delays, reveals the true story only at the very end of his book, and there leaves us hanging anyway (somewhat like Socrates).  But towards the end of Transfiguration surprises do come fast and furious.  If we thought, for example, that Danto was someone who believed that if someone in the institutions of the artworld says it is art then it is art, we find here that we were sorely mistaken.  Actually, and here is the big surprise, Danto is an expression theorist of art (I am not, of course, the first to note this...any close reader of Transfiguration, will know that, at least.) 

Part of the fascination of this chapter is to be found in a debate Danto has with Nelson Goodman, a debate which it is not at all clear Danto wins.  Goodman, who never actually defined art, did come up with something which he called "symptoms of the aesthetic" (to be found in his Languages of Art). Central to these symptoms is something he calls "repleteness."  Repleteness is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for something to be art on Goodman's view:  let's just say that it is typical and very important.  Danto thinks he has a better idea than repleteness:  an idea that will do what repleteness did for Goodman, but better.  I am not so sure.  Consider the difference between a Hiroshige print of Mount Fujiyama and an electrocardiogram that, in Goodman's version has an indiscernible curve from the one in the Hiroshige that outlines the mountain.  The difference is that the curved line in the Hiroshige print has repleteness.  Danto's own example is a bit more interesting in that it is a graph that represents the gradients in the mountain slope, the content of the curves then being the same (if you can speak of the content of a Hiroshige line as being that!  but this is the question at issue, isn't it!)  Now, as I have mentioned, Goodman handles the difference between the graph and the artist's print in terms of repleteness:  in short, the stuff that counts in the print that makes no difference in the graph, e.g. thickness of line, color, size, and so forth.  This is the richness that gives Hiroshige's line style.  This way of talking is not available for Danto, for he can (and of course, does) imagine a modernist artist who got rid of all this stuff, calling it "hand and eye crap," gets rid of the dexterity and sensitivity that makes Hiroshige's work special.  Danto has no problem calling this person's work art, whereas Goodman would say it would at least be missing this very important symptom of the aesthetic, and so its arthood would at least be in question.  Goodman has just, on Danto's account, distinguished between two styles of drawing, one being mechanical and the other not, whereas Goodman no doubt thought that he had distinguished between drawing that had style and drawing that did not.  

Danto then turns to the case of Erle Loran and Roy Litchtenstein.  Loran had done a diagram that was supposed to capture the forces at work (or perhaps the eye of the spectator's movements) in Cezanne's painting of his wife.  Lichtenstein in 1963 then presented in his first Pop Art show a work called Portrait of Madam Cezanne which in fact looked exactly the same (except for some matters of size and materials) as the Loran.  Loran accused Lichtenstein of plagiarism, which Danto rightly thinks is ridiculous.  But Danto in trying to come up with a theory of the essence of art wants to say that what distinguishes the Lichtenstein from the Loran (which are both representations, both with the same content, let us say, for now) is that the Lichtenstein "uses the way the nonartwork presents its content to make a point about how that content is presented." (146)  so that works of art, unlike mere representations "use the means of representation in a way that is not exhaustively specified when one has exhaustively specified what is being represented." (148) In short, and put more clearly, "an artwork expresses something about its content."   Similarly, a nonfiction story that is art could, Danto argues, "use the form of a newspaper story to make a point" and in doing this would be art where the posited indistinguishable newspaper story would not be.  The difference between Danto and Goodman is that Lichtenstein does this (makes something that is art) as well as Hiroshige, or Cezanne for that matter, without having repleteness (or without the factors that go into repleteness playing any important role here.)  But to be fair to Goodman, he never saw repleteness as a necessary condition, and might well allow that Lichtenstein's piece was art if it had enough other symptoms of the aesthetic.  Danto's point, however, is that symptoms of the aesthetic can't do that job since aesthetics has nothing to do with whether or not something is art since aesthetics has to do with how things look and the Lichtenstein looks the same as the Loran which is not art.  A nice way to sum up the difference between Danto and Goodman is that for Danto "the medium is not the message, but the form in which the message is given" (146) which then becomes a stylistic device for the artist.  

I want to emphasize how important this example is for Danto's entire project.  He stresses that, in focusing on the way content is presented, he is "on the threshold of having our definition" (147) and he also says that he has tried to identify a property "to the appreciation of which I intend to devote the remainder of this book" (147).  

Normally we think of the way of presenting in terms of style in the sense that Hiroshige had style and the mechanical work that got rid of all that "hand-and-eye crap" did not.  But Danto thinks of the second as having style as well, even though indistinguishable from something that has no style at all because not a work of art.  Lichtenstein has style in that he "uses the diagrammatic idiom rhetorically" which is to say that he is using Loran's diagram as a metaphor for something else.  Danto takes it as a metaphor for the way in which Cezanne painted his wife:  "it is about the wife as it appeared to Cezanne as so many labeled areas, as so many arrows..." (149)  It is interesting here that this was not how Lichtenstein himself represented his meaning.  In public comments, he described what he was doing as a response to Loran, not to Cezanne.  See this fascinating discussion of Wikipedia, which includes the following:  "According to John Coplan's Roy Lichtenstein, the artist was fascinated by the drawings: 'isolating the woman out of the context of the painting seemed to Lichtenstein to be such an oversimplification of a complex issue as to be ironical in itself'; the oversimplification referred to was Loran's representing Cézanne's work with nothing more than black line."  But it is quite possible that Lichtenstein was also thinking about and commenting on Cézanne's style.  Danto even takes this off in a Freudian direction saying that it is interesting that Cezanne treated his wife like a Euclidean problem given his passionate and violent relationship with her and, he tellingly says, "if the source and focus of all this feeling should be reduced to a kind of formula, how much this must tell us of the final triumph of the artistic impulse in his soul, even if it entailed a certain dehumanizing transfiguration of the subject; as if the person were so many planes..." (143)  I want to dwell on this for a minute since just as Danto is engaged in a kind of Freudian deconstruction of Cezanne so too can we indulge in the deconstructive thought that Danto (or a part of him) is excited by art that dehumanizes in this way, which perhaps explains why he can never be satisfied with an essential aesthetic element in art.  (The last chapter, however, undercuts this too by showing that it is Rembrandt's sensitive picture of his lover that takes paradigmatic meaning here.  Danto could never erase the aesthetic from Rembrandt!)  So Danto thinks that Lichtenstein shows us in his work what sort of monster Cezanne has become (and what sort of monster, Cubism and maybe modernism itself in its dehumanizing tendencies?)  The relationships is complex here:  Lichtenstein's work expresses something about its content because of the connotations diagrams have in our culture (148) and, by way of this, expresses something about the way Cezanne was expressing something about his feelings about his wife.  So the diagram in Lichtenstein is a metaphor for a metaphor for a metaphor.  And this does seem to be rich, although there is a question whether it is rich enough to do the job that repleteness and aesthetic qualities generally usually do in art.  Another question also is whether metaphor insofar as it is a form of story-telling and has dramatic as well as rhetorical qualities is not itself also aesthetic, so that one could argue that Lichtenstein is replete anyway, just in a different way, a way in which the layerings of references takes the place of richness of rendering.  Danto suggests (although later rejects) the idea that these could be matters of second-order contents, of incorporation of self-reference.  He wants to say that the Loran and the Lichtenstein have the same content just because they look the same and are about Cezanne's painting, but after all they do not have the same content since content is not just a matter of how something looks.  Danto thinks this is a deep objection to this theory and hence devotes the last chapter to resolving it.  I will write more on this later. 

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 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview. 

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