In my view Joseph Margolis and Arthur Danto were the two greatest aestheticians of their generation, and frankly, in my life. Danto is widely recognized, Margolis less so. But what Margolis lacks in fame he makes up for both in feistiness and plausibility. He is not as much fun to read as Danto, but in the end his position is much more sensible. I have been reading his "Preparation for a Theory of Interpretation" which appears in the current issue of Contemporary Pragmatism (12, 20014, 11-37). Danto specialized, one might say, in dazzling defenses of implausible theses: the indiscernibility thesis, the rejection of deep interpretation, the idea that artist's interpretation constitutes the work of art, and the end of art thesis are examples. All of this was situated within certain intuitions that he shared with Margolis in opposition to the previous generation: for example, rejection of reductionist materialism and sympathy for Hegelian stories of historical dialectic. In this essay however Margolis systematically takes after all of the above-mentioned questionable theses. It is not an easy essay to read: Margolis is seldom easy reading. As a preliminary, here is the abstract: "This paper points to a more viable theory of interpretation on the basis of opposing the missteps in Arthur Danto's theory. By noting the incongruities in Danto's theories of art and interpretation, a theory of interpretation emerges which unifies its varieties on the basis of the view of the human person as a culturally embodied and enlanguaged primate. A feature notably absent from Danto's own account." The abstract is ironic since little of what is mentioned discussed in any detail in the article! But then, in reading the article and thinking about Margolis's many other writings, it is clear that he intends to support these theses, at least indirectly. The article is in reality, and more simply than the abstract indicates, a concentrated critique of Danto. It only waives in the direction of Margolis's own emergentist view. Start with the indiscernibility thesis. Margolis is right: Danto's key example of Warhol's Brillo Boxes just doesn't work, since these were never indiscernible from the originals. For one thing, they were made out of plywood. Second, as Margolis notes, Warhol himself showed delight in the accidental variation of looks in the individual instances of Brillo Box which would be contrary to Danto's whole point that the aesthetic qualities of the work are irrelevant.
I cannot say that I disagree with anything Margolis says in this essay, and neither am I interested in summarizing his arguments. I am interested in whether anything can be recovered from Danto after Margolis's onslaught. So consider this quote from Danto: "I shall think of interpretations as functions which transform material objects into works of art. Interpretation is in effect the lever with which an object is lifted out of the real world and into the artworld, where it becomes vested in often unexpected raiment." I agree that all of this is wrong, and I even, to be frank, feel a bit a Nietzschean disgust concerning the blatant Platonism implied here. But I'll try to rewrite Danto in a way that is truer. Here goes: "I shall think of all of the things, including interpretations, that give things aura, that take them beyond the merely ordinary to something extraordinary. This can happen with non-art objects, since all things can be seen in terms of sedimented as well as novel meaning. But in art, this process is intensified. Danto speaks of the 'artworld' and what I interpret this to mean (contrary to Danto himself) is that when something is seen imaginatively it seems as though it is carried out of this world into a world of its own, and that, in the case of art, this 'being carried out of and into' is something that is intensified deliberately, so that art, to use a Heideggerian sounding word, is a place of worlding, of creating worlds, for example the world of 'Starry Night' by Van Gogh. So it is not that mere material objects are transformed into works of art (there are no mere material objects) but that artworks intensify what happens when material objects are perceived in terms of their aura of meaning/significance. And when this happens, whether in everyday life or in the world of art, or more specifically, for example, in the concert hall listening to Handel's Messiah, there is an emergence of raiment (although not unexpected in the second place, since we paid big bucks to have that experience and are disappointed if it doesn't happen). It should be born in mind that, contrary to Danto, interpretation is just one of many ways that intensification of significance which I call 'aura' can occur: other ways include what Goodman calls exemplification, and also the other 'symptoms of the aesthetic' in his philosophy. Danto's exclusion of the aesthetic from the process of constitution unduly narrows the richness of constitution of the aesthetic object, whether it be in the world of art or outside it, i.e. in nature or in everyday life." That's my rewriting of Danto, and it is noteworthy that despite my near total agreement with Margolis I don't think that Margolis could assent to it. So maybe I have escaped the embarrassment of agreeing too much with another philosopher, as though one did not have a mind of one's own.