Monday, November 17, 2014

Puzzles about Danto's "The Artworld"

I have been thinking about "The Artworld" Danto's famous essay, which comes at the beginning of his career.  One has to think about it if one is teaching it (as a classic text) and yet it necessarily falls out of thought in the context of academic discussions as it is overlaid by so many other works by Danto on the same topic.  But, for now, let's act as if there were only this one text, cast up perhaps by the sea after a disaster of civilization...something like how we experience the great presocratic texts.  What can we make then of Danto's theory as presented here?  Let's assume also that we know something about what led up to the theory.  And so we have Danto responding to at least two things.  First, he is responding, most obviously, to Weitz's Wittgensteinian attack on the idea that there can be a real definition of art.  Danto, although cagey about it, seems here to be giving us a definition of art, although quite different from what Dickie later saw in it.  Second, and perhaps more obscurely, he is responding to another Wittgensteinian, i.e. William Kennick (whom he quotes without naming.)  His attack on Kennick is on the notion, which he (incorrectly and anachronistically) associates with Socratic dialogue, that one can solve philosophical questions simply by getting getting clear about what we already know, i.e. about the meanings of certain words.  This would seem to allow us to go into a warehouse and sort art from non-art....but in fact it fails to do this. (Danto does not consider that his own theory would also fail to pass the warehouse test, as we would not be able to distinguish between actually warehouse brillo boxes and Warhol's Brillo Boxes especially if Warhol didn't bother to use plywood rather than cardboard...which Danto himself considers unimportant...if the Warhol's were truly indistinguishable from the others then even someone armed with Danto's theory would be unable to tell which was which.)   Danto himself can be seen as Wittgensteinian in some respects, and so this essay can be seen as in some sense internal to the world of Wittgensteinians.  The response to Weitz is in part in accord with Weitz's theory.  Weitz thought that the purpose of art theory was really to come up with honorific definitions which are really redefinitions of art in terms of some preferred quality.  Weitz put this somewhat into a historical context:  each theory is presented in response to previous theories, each theory is attacked and shown insufficient as a real definition of art, and yet, since art is an open concept, the theories actually involve promoting an extension of the concept of art, perhaps by eliminating a necessary condition, or adding a sufficient condition, or setting up "similarity conditions."  Art critics play a special role in Weitz of deciding whether or not to extend the concept of art to cover new cases, for example collage and mobiles.  Danto similarly sees the relationship between the various theories of art as historical.  His version is more spare, however.  First, there is Imitation Theory, which dominates the artworld from the time of Plato, and then, after the assault of Postimpressionist art, there is Reality Theory.  This in turn is followed by Danto's own theory, call it DT or Danto Theory, which is unclear but involves the "is" of artistic identification, art historical knowledge, being able to see something as art, and seeing something under or according to a title.  Imitation theory turns out to be false since it cannot cover the plethora of counterexamples offered by the Postimpressionist and Abstract painters, imitation proving to be neither necessary nor sufficient for art.  Reality Theory is also proved false, given that the new art examples do not really give us something real in the same sense that the carpenter's bed described by Plato is real.  But what is Danto Theory?  As I have suggested, it is not clearly set forth, but seems to be of the following sort:  something is art if it can be seen as art by way of the art appreciator's knowledge of art history insofar as that history leads up to this work and insofar as the appreciator can see it according to the "is" of artistic identification.  The "is" of artistic identification is really an imaginative "is" since it includes not only works of art but also cases in which a child says that "I am the circle and she is the triangle." It indicates imaginative identification in which the first item is a physical object, for instance, this stick "is" a gun for the child.  Now the puzzling thing about Danto's theory of art is that there are two things called theories.  On one level, one can see that the painting called "Newton's First Law" is a work of art since it can be seen as Newton's First Law (as Danto shows in detail) and that the indiscernible "Newton's Second Law" is a work of art since in this case the identical physical object is seen as Newton's Second Law.  So on this level, it is the titles, "Newton's First Law" and "Newton's Second Law," that allow that viewer to "see" the two otherwise indiscernible works with the appropriate imaginative dimension thus transfiguring them into the realm of art.  But this is not enough yet to see either as a work of art.  The title itself is not theory (although Danto sometimes speaks as though it is.)  It is that certain things that happened in the history of art, in particular in the development of abstract painting towards the minimalism of Barnett Newman (mentioned by Danto in this essay) that provides the historical context for seeing both of these imaginary pieces as art.  So "Newton's First Law" is seen as or in terms of Newton's first law, and is also seen as art because of the art viewer's knowledge of art's history up to Newman, just as Newman's Vir Heroica Sublimas 1951 is seen in terms of heroism and the sublime because of the juxtaposition of the title and the work, the title being really a part of the overall work just as the work's presence in a gallery or museum is also part of it...but then is also seen as art only by those who have enough knowledge of the history of art not to see it as just a piece of canvas with painted lines on it.  Testatudura, according to Danto, can't see "Sea and Sky" ("a white painted oblong with a black line painted across it") as art until "he has mastered the is of artistic identification and so constitutes it a work of art."  Is it that he can't do it until he sees it as sea and sky (following the title) or is it that he can't do it until he sees it according to an artistic theory (for example, RT, or perhaps DT?).  Or is it that he can't see it as art until he does both things in combination?  Danto seems to think Testadura's accomplishment would be like that of a child who comes to see sticks as horses, but it must be more than that.  It might be that when we ask a person to see a canvas of this description as sea and sky we are doing something like asking a person to see a stick as a horse, but neither of these are yet asking a person to see this as art.  This may be related to the mistake of calling the "is" in question the "is of artistic identification."  The "is of artistic identification" must be different from the "is of imaginative identification," and it is surprising Danto did not see this.

There are at least two additional puzzles in the "The Artworld."  The first is that Danto believes that theory constitutes art as art, but does not distinguish between true and false theories or, to the same effect, between his own theories and the theories he rejects, for example IT and RT.  It might be that Danto intended to say that IT and RT both help to constitute art as art, although perhaps they were more successful at this during their heyday, and that DT has the advantage of not only including the same works as IT and RT into the realm of art but also including Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art works neither of which types of art fit either IT or RT.  It could be that Danto just thought that DT replaced IT and RT, doing all the work.  Or it could be that he thought IT and RT did the work of entering works into the world of art during their heyday and that DT can do the job from now on.  The second puzzle is, how does one deal with a switcheroo.  For example, let's say that all of Warhol's Brillo Boxes were moved out of the gallery and into the Brillo Box warehouse where they are used to store Brillo Boxes, and the Boxes in the warehouse are moved into the gallery, specifically by Warhol.  Is it now the case that we simply have one group of artworks wrongly housed in a Brillo Box warehouse and another new group of artworks designated as art in the gallery?  Danto implies that once something is art, it always is.  So it seems the the Warhol Brillo Boxes can't stop being art even if they come to be used and seen as things that are not art.  But that seems odd.

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