Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On appreciating thumbtacks: Arthur Danto's "Aesthetics and the Work of Art"

My comment here will be based on thinking about the fourth chapter of Arthur Danto's great book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Harvard, 1981)Before I go on I should note that Danto recently passed away.  Sad news indeed!  He was such a wonderful man.  He was kind to me on the couple occasions I met him, as he seems to have been to everyone he met.  He has always been one of my heroes not only as a philosopher but as a world-class intellectual.  Some might think that criticizing the dead is inappropriate, but there would be no better thing for a philosopher, that is if the criticism amounts to taking his or her ideas very seriously.  These comments are therefore dedicated to Arthur Danto. 

I take it that Danto is arguing in this chapter that aesthetic appreciation means something very different when it comes to art than when it comes to non-art objects.  Much of this chapter (and much of the book) is directed against George Dickie, and Dickie argues that the only difference between appreciation of art and appreciation of nonart is that the two have different objects, Dickie holding that what we appreciate in art is the same as what we appreciate in nonart.  This is why Dickie entertains the idea that in appreciating Fountain we appreciate its gleaming white surface and other features that virtually identical urinals would have.  Danto, by contrast, insists that in appreciating Fountain we are appreciating very different qualities than we would in a urinal.  He calls these properties "aesthetic" too, but one could more usefully call them art-qualities.  One example would be Fountain's wittiness.  This quality is not shared with the urinals back in the hardware store.  Danto even questions whether "gleaming surfaces and deep reflections" are qualities of Fountain (even though they might well be the qualities of the urinal upon which this work is based.)  This goes against my own feeling that the separation between art and life should not be seen as quite so radical, that Duchamp, despite everything he said, picked a urinal for this work of art because it looked cool to him, just as Le Corbusier a few years later picked grain elevators as new paradigms for architecture.  There is something modernist about choosing a urinal to display as art:  for example the "gleaming surface" look we also find not only in Brancusi's sculptures but in most high design artifacts of the period.  (There is also something modernist in the Freudian aspects of the wit involved.)   Duchamp had to pick something that had powerful aesthetic qualities for the time just so that he could be making a real point when he insisted that he did not pick it for its powerful aesthetic qualities!  Danto takes the rather extreme position that the properties of the the urinal "deposited in the artworld it shares with most items of industrial porcelainerie [industrial objects made of porcelain] while the properties Fountain possesses as an artwork it shares with the Julian Tomb of Michelangelo."  Really? And what pray-tell are those that it shares with Michelangelo's breath-taking sculptures other than those of the sort, "its photograph appears in an Art History book," "many sophisticated people consider it art,"  and "is smaller than the sun"?  This is a thin set of similarities indeed.  Danto may be leading us into a false dichotomy, for he considers the (only!) alternative to be that "what made Fountain an artwork were only the qualities it shared with urinals" which is surely false, I agree.  But his position goes further and is clearly directed against the possibility of a general aesthetics (one that covers art, nature and everyday life) and thus is against continuities between art and nonart.  He says a work of art has many qualities which are "of a different sort altogether" (94) from qualities belonging to objects indiscernible from it but not artworks.  For example, Fountain has many qualities entirely different from the urinal that Duchamp picked up.

Fountain is hardly indiscernible from the original urinal for two reasons on my account.  First, Fountain is the original urinal:  it is just that urinal transformed into a work of art. Danto would be shocked at this idea.  But although the two are in different timeslices they are no more different essentially then myself at five years of age and myself now.  We should distinguish between "identical with" and "is identified with."  I am not identical with my five our old self:  I am not even identical with myself yesterday.  But I have the same identity.  I am still Tom Leddy.  I am the same person.  This is true for the urinal that become Fountain.   So it does not even make sense to speak of Fountain as indiscernible from the original urinal.  You couldn't set the artwork and the "material counterpart" beside each other, the reason being that one thing cannot be in two places at once!  You could, Danto might reply, compare photographs of each.  Yes, but this is where the second point comes in:  they are not indiscernible even in their photographs.  The photograph of Fountain by Stieglitz shows it with a signature on it and placed on a pedestal.  Even if a photo of the urinal that became Fountain existed and even if the urinal was lying on its side, the signature would be absent.  So the we could tell which is which by looking at the photographs:  they are not indiscernible counterparts. (Sometimes Danto talks as if the material counterpart of Fountain is exactly what we see when we see Fountain but not seen as art.  So in this case the indiscernible mere thing counterpart would look just like Fountain.)  This may seem a trivial point but something very like it is quite possibly true for all of Danto's examples when they are not completely imaginary.  Very little in this world is really indiscernible.  One could have a gallery show of paintings that are indiscernible:  there was once one by Yves Kline, but this would pretty much require that all of the works be by one artist.  Multiple monochrome artists will necessarily produce works with subtly interesting differences based on their own choices.  Someone could of course argue that this does not work since Fountain is a multiple:  there are other objects called Fountain in various museums, objects which Duchamp picked from hardware stores later and signed in the same or a similar manner.  Whether Fountain is one work, a series, an edition, or of some other such ontological category, is not an issue I want to get into here:  suffice it that each time a urinal was picked by Duchamp that urinal was transformed into a work of art while retaining its identity (it is still that object that began its life in a hardware store) as well as many of its properties.  You could say, however, that it took on a new identity while retaining its old identity just as I took on the identity of being a college professor while retaining the more fundamental identity of being Tom Leddy, one that I have had from shortly after birth.  It is nonsense to say that the urinal no longer has the property of "gleaming surface" for example when it becomes Fountain.

Danto argues that "there are two orders of aesthetic response, depending upon whether the response is to an artwork or to a mere real thing that cannot be told apart from it." (94) He uses this to attack the idea that "aesthetic" should be a term included in our definition of art.  Its art nature determines what sorts of aesthetic responses are appropriate.  So there is "a special aesthetics for works of art."  (95)  But is there?  Can't a "mere thing" be witty?  Isn't witty conversation witty even though it is not part of the art of literature?  Does Danto seriously mean that beauty means something completely different when applied to art than when applied to a flower?  Danto grants to Dickie that thumbtacks can be appreciated if one makes an effort, but just thinks that the language of appreciation is going to be totally different here than in the case of a thumbtack that has been transformed into the world of art. 

Again, Danto talks about an artwork's "material counterpart" often as though we are referring here to the material substratum of the work of art rather than an indistinguishable object that is elsewhere from the work of art (back at the hardware store, for example.)  One wonders whether on Danto's view the material substratum of works of art does not entirely disappear (although sometimes he speaks as though it remains at least in aspects of the material counterpart that are picked out by the particular interpretation).  He says at one point that "a work whose material counterpart consists of three thumbtacks may have abysses of meaning" (103) to which one can only ask why the indiscernible object could not also have abysses of meaning i.e. for a Zen Buddhist having a satori experience.  If completely different language is needed for each then "abysses of meaning" cannot mean the same, on Danto's view, in each case.  But that seems strange, doesn't it?  

Let's go into this a bit more.  Consider the creative process (to which Danto plays very little attention).  The main elements in the creative process are artist, materials, and subject-matter.  (There is some possibility that in totally abstract art there is no subject-matter:  but Danto would not think so himself since he insists that all art is about something.)  Let's think of Cezanne in his studio looking at a still-life arrangement.  As he looks at a group of peaches he perceives in them certain aesthetic qualities which he tries to bring out, express, enhance or exemplify in his painting. At the same time he is noticing certain aesthetic qualities in paint and in paint splotches that he has placed on canvas, which he also tries to bring out, express, enhance or exemplify.  The amazing thing is that he tries and sometimes succeeds in doing both at once and in the same progressive act:  the same act that progresses to completion of a painting, a masterwork by Cezanne.  As Cezanne looks at the still life arrangement in front of him he sees it as art in the sense that he sees it in light of creating a work of art, not in the sense that he mistakenly believes it to be art.  What is this, again, it is a matter of noticing and imaginatively interacting with certain aesthetic qualities already there in the arrangement and already there also in the paints on his pallet and on his unfinished canvas.  There are continuities in aesthetic experience here that Danto simply denies.  I am not denying that there is a "transfiguration of the commonplace" in art, but insist that the transfiguration also occurs in the creative process and in the way that the artist sees the world and in the way that people who aesthetically appreciate the common things of our world see those things, and that these are all related.  Danto rightly sees the importance of theory in our seeing art as art but fails entirely to see the continuities between art and life.

Danto bases his thinking on a radical distinction between the physical senses and what one might call the value senses: i.e. an aesthetic sense, a moral sense, and a sense of humor.  (96-100) For him, the sense of sight is innate and cannot be refined, unlike the value senses.  So, on his view, seeing something is not tinged by values.  But this is false.  As Marx Wartofsky has shown in his writings on historical epistemology, perception changes historically.  There is no pure seeing: seeing is always "seeing as."  David Hume famously explained aesthetic taste by showing its continuities with physical taste, in particular, taste in wine.  This is a good example that Danto fails to follow.  Danto insists that the sense of taste and the sense of humor are culturally conditioned.  Fine, but this is also true for the physical senses.  Danto thinks that the big difference between the two types of "sense" (physical and value) is that in the case of humor for example we are responding to something because it is amusing.  The idea is that in the value senses we attribute a value to an object and act in relation to it.  Yet, in seeing, we are constantly connecting the act of seeing with the act of looking:  the two cannot really be separated except in theory.  Seeing is tied to a variety of practical actions and evaluations.  How could it not be?   Danto says that having a sense of humor affects one's life globally:  but then so too does the way one sees things, the texture of one's perceptual life.  Moreover, there are important phenomenological similarities between the seeing involved in looking at a landscape and the seeing involved in looking at a landscape painting.  Isn't it obvious that there is a connect, even between very abstract landscapes such as those of Diebenkorn. 

Danto's position seems to be tied to agreement with Wittgenstein that values are not in the world, and that there is a radical distinction between evaluation and observation.  But I would hold, in a more Deweyan spirit, that all observation is value-laden, that values are to be found in the world-as-we-experience-it, and that these perceptions can be inter-subjective, the reason being that others can see the same objects in the same value-laden way that we can; and that, yes, Danto is right that "values involve a relationship between ourselves and the world," however it is wrong to see all of this as simply projection of our value responses "back onto the world" as Danto seems to think.  Thus Danto is just wrong when he says that "responsiveness does not go with the so-called five senses."  We never just "sense red" as Danto implies, but rather notice or say that something is red within a specific context of life and action:  "red" is definitely not a matter best understood by whether someone says "red" when asked for a color identification in a psychological lab.  So there is something disturbing about Danto's sentence "Mirroring the transformation of nature" is a natural and suitable metaphor for minds equipped solely with the five senses." (97) since those minds would be very much unlike human minds, and in these circumstances "five senses" would mean something very much unlike what we mean by "seeing" for example. 

Danto thinks that the ordinary senses cannot admit of perversion whereas the value senses can.  At first this seems plausible, but the problem lies in the radical abstraction of "ordinary senses" from value senses.  All of our ordinary senses are value senses, and so, if there is perversion, there is perversion of both.  It the Marxists are right, for example, that there is false consciousness this cuts across this supposed divide.  It might be thought that "seeing" is not subject to intervention of the will (as Danto thinks), but looking, noticing, and observing are subject to will, and it is not clear how these are to be distinguished from seeing, in the end.  So, when Danto says "no knowledge of an object can make it look different" and "an object retains its sensory qualities unchanged however it is classed and whatever it may be called" (98) one can only think that it is the failings of his theory that leads him to say things that are so obviously false.  He wants to say that the aesthetic sense is a function of one's beliefs and that the ordinary senses are not.  That's the big distinction, but it just doesn't hold.  The only way he can get around the fact that we do change our perceptions of wine, for example, based on knowledge is to insist that when "told that a certain wine has the taste of raspberries, I may learn to discriminate this taste" which he did not at first even though it was there to be tasted, and so "the object did not acquire these qualities by being described" whereas the art object has qualities completely different from its indiscernible counterpart.  This is the crux of the issue. 

Danto is making two mistakes here.  First, he underestimates the role of imagination and value-perception in the tasting of wine.  Fine wine is more like art than he is willing to admit.  The descriptors ("tastes like raspberries" for example) and their accuracy are to a large extent socially and culturally determined:  the claims and experiences are no less real for that.  These are complex relational qualities.  Second, he underestimates the imaginative capacities (the value-laden perception) of the artist when observing the subject-matter or materials that are part of the creative process that goes into making a work of art.  He thinks that "the qualities an object has when an artwork are in fact so different from what an indiscernible counterpart has when a mere real thing that it is absurd to suppose I missed those qualities in the latter."  Well, it is not absurd.  Some of Duchamp's Dadaist friends, maybe a few years after Fountain's creation, might reasonably have said to themselves, "how could I have missed the aesthetic possibilities for our project in a urinal!"  They didn't see what he saw when he walked into that hardware store.  (A more complex story could be told but to the same effect if Duchamp actually was inspired first by the idea of submitting something to the show that would be rejected and then thought of Fountain as the perfect response. Here, the urinal comes to mind imaginatively first, and this is followed by the trip to the hardware store to find the right thing.) 

So when Danto says "no sensory examination of an object will tell me that it is an artwork, since quality for quality it may be matched by an object that is not one" (99) my reply is that a sensory examination of the object will necessarily carry with it concepts and values (as Kant say, there are no percepts without concepts) so that there just isn't anything indiscernible or matching Fountain quality for quality. (Incidentally, his claim here contradicts his other claim that quality for quality there is no match at all between Fountain and its indiscernible counterpart in the hardware store.)  Our responses to artworks and to the things that are their causal sources (chosen subject matter, materials, etc.) are different, I agree, but I also insist that they are continuous and, in most instances, otherwise related.

Danto writes "learning it is a work of art means that it has qualities to attend to which its untransfigured counterpart lacks" and so our aesthetic responses will be "an altogether different order of things."  (99)  Partially true, but not quite right.  He is missing the transitional moments, for example when Duchamp beings to see the object differently in his mind, when he is working on Fountain in the studio but before he has presented it as art, and so on.  Moreover, there is no reason why the original appropriated object couldn't carry with it into the artworld context many of its properties enhanced and otherwise transformed in such a way as to retain their identity.  Duchamp had to insist that the aesthetic qualities of the urinal were left behind in Fountain precisely because this does not normally happen in the transfigurations of art.  This might be a case where really rare cases just do not make for good philosophy.  If, for example, Fountain was the only artwork in existence for which the artist denied that the aesthetic qualities of the subject matter or materials were of no relevance to its value, interpretation or identity as a work of art, then to make claims about art in general based on this would be absurd.

Interestingly, Heidegger's "Origin of the Work of Art" could be read as in direct opposition to Danto on this point.  Danto sets up the artworld as detached from the thingly nature of art (the material substratum).  Heidegger sees the nature of art as revealing itself through the way a work of art can reveal the "abysses of meaning" in a pair of peasant shoes, whereas Danto would deny that "abysses of meaning" could apply with the same meaning both to Van Gogh's painting and to the peasant shoes it portrays.  For Heidegger, art happens as truth happens, truth being the non-scientific truth that is the unconcealment of Being.  As we learn about the equipmental nature of equipment we learn about the thingly nature of a thing and thereby the work-nature of a work of art.  The relationship between the painting of shoes, the shoes, the peasant women who wears the shoes, the artist who paints the shoes, and we who look at and are moved by this painting, is intensely intimate.  This is surely a case in which an analytic philosopher (one who, interestingly, was widely read in continental philosophy) and a continental philosopher deeply disagree....they are not just talking past each other or using different kinds of language.  (It is also interesting that no one I know of has commented on this deep disagreement.) However although Danto was clearly trying in this book to refute major views held by his analytic philosopher contemporaries (Dickie, Cohen, Beardsley, etc.) he seemed unaware that he was in direct conflict with Heidegger.  Who was right?  Danto, like Plato (on most interpretations), leaves the world of mere things as a kind of dross, best to be forgotten when we enter the ideal realm of art (of Forms, in Plato's case).  Heidegger finds the value of art to be deeply interrelated with everyday life.  Currently I lean towards Heidegger on the question, but am open to counterarguments as I have a certain fondness for Danto, who was, at the very least, a  nicer man.

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