Thursday, November 20, 2014

More on Danto's "The Artworld"

This is another day thinking about Danto's "The Artworld." 

Philosophers sometimes see this essay as somehow dissolving the distinction between art and life.  On close reading this seems far from his intention.  One could even argue that he was mainly interested in making the distinction between art and life even more dramatic, and actually securing it from the tendency of contemporary of art to undercut it.  On this view, Danto was not so much acting in tandem with Warhol but against him insofar as Warhol's work could be interpreted as dissolving that distinction.  As I mentioned in my last post, Danto presents us with an implicit theory of art in this work.  He is shy about giving an actual definition but we do know that it has something to do with the idea that something is art if it can be seen as art by someone with appropriate art historical knowledge, and it also has something to do with the “is” of artistic identification.  The trouble is that the definition may be too broad, as an artist might be able to see a subject he or she is looking at (or perhaps painting in the studio) in such a way as to see it “as art” (not literally) and to also see it with the “is” of artistic identification.  At one point in his essay Danto worries about whether Warhol is like Midas in turning everything he touches into art.  Well, some artist who was able to see things as art with appropriate art historical knowledge could possibly be like this.  And then the line between art and life would in fact dissolve at least in that anything in life could be brought by such an artist into the artworld.  Moreover, doing so would not even require that it be put into a gallery or set on a pedestal and be declared art.  To put it another way, if mastering the is of artistic identification allows us to constitute certain things as art then doesn't its application always involve such constitution? And if so, then isn't seeing a stick as a horse (as in a child's game), which also involves the is of artistic identification, also a matter of constituting something as art?  This would imply that any imaginative seeing involves constituting an object as art...which of course Danto can't hold.  On his considered view, to constitute something as art this act would have to be imaginative seeing that is also under an artistic theory. 

Danto also mentions the 10th Street abstractionist who is able to see No. 7 as art only because of "an atmosphere compounded of artistic theories and the history of recent and remote painting," an atmosphere that acts, seemingly, like a colored lens, or better, like 3 D glasses, enabling him to see the object in a completely different way from Testadura, his identification of the painting depending on the very theory he rejects, so that he says "That black paint is black paint" using the "is" of artistic identification, but in a very different way.  

But how can we see black paint imaginatively as black paint?  In what way is seeing black paint as black paint like, or can be like, seeing a stick as a horse?  It looks like we have a case of imaginative seeing where the imaginative dimension simply is whatever raises the object into the realm of art.  Maybe seeing black paint as black paint is seeing it as transfigured into art?  Danto sees this maneuver as somewhat like the Zen adept who after studying Zen for thirty years has gotten to the very substance of the mountains, no longer seeing them as not mountains but now seeing them "once again" as mountains.  But if the point is a Zen point then, again, isn't the difference between art and world dissolving at least for the 10th Street abstractionist and for the Zen adept?  Is the Zen adept seeing the mountain now as art (or at least as transfigured into another realm) because he is seeing it as a mountain with the is of artistic identification?  Perhaps the mountain is now seen as itself metaphorical, as its ideal self, as itself in its inner essence, which is both itself and not itself, and so the itself that it now is seen as is a metaphor for itself?   If "the Brillo box of the artworld" is "just the Brillo box of the real one, separated and united by the is of artistic identification" then is the mountain that is now seen as a mountain a sign that the original Brillo box can actually have the "is of artistic identification" applied to it without even having to journey into a gallery or pass through the hands of an artist?

Right after Danto makes the Midas comment he says "And the whole world consisting of latent artworks waiting like the bread and wine of reality, to be transfigured, through some dark mystery, into the indiscernible flesh and blood of the sacrament?  Never mind that the Brillo box may not be good, much less great art.  The impressive thing is that it is art at all."  What a contrast:  first it looks like the latent artworks are going to be "transfigured" (a term Danto returns to again and again) which means that they are going to be spiritualized in some way, and then we find that this does not even require that they be good, much less great, which seems a pretty major tension in his thought since to spiritualize something is surely to make it great in some way. (And why bring in the religious imagery if it is just a throwaway?)  Heidegger, by contrast would say that Van Gogh has transfigured the shoes into great art through spiritualizing them, i.e. through the unconcealment of Being.  (It is kind of fun to mix Danto and Heidegger in this way.)  

Danto tells us that we cannot "separate Brillo cartons from the gallery they are in, any more than we can separate the Rauschenberg bed from the paint upon it" and that "outside the gallery, they are pasteboard cartons" and "scoured clean of paint, Rauschenberg's bed is a bed, just what it was before it was transformed into art."  But surely this is false.  If you take the Brillo box by Warhol out of the gallery (say, after purchasing it!) it is still a work by Warhol.  Perhaps, it brings the presentation of itself in a gallery with it, and this is the way to save Danto's point.  Similarly, if you scour the Rauschenberg of its paint it does not become what it was before but becomes a largely ruined work by Rauschenberg! Ironically, Rauschenberg himself created a work called "Erased De Kooning" in which we carefully erased a drawing by De Kooning.  This piece now appears to be two things at once:  a ruined De Kooning and an original Rauschenberg (although it is only listed as the second in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.)  

Some of my students have wondered how art theories that are not valid, for example, Imitation Theory and Reality Theory, can have value.  This is an interesting question.  Danto thinks that artistic theories always made the artworld possible.  Clearly he thinks that being able to see something as art under IT was required for art to exist during the reign of IT.  Maybe it still does the trick today for those who hold to IT.  But IT is false, as Danto has shown, as not all mirror images or photographs are art and not all art is imitation.  Can IT make mirror images and all photographs art if it allows us to see these things as art and see them according to the "is of artistic identification"?   Do IT and RT really transfigure things into the realm of art or do they lack the is of artistic identification that would allow this to happen?  

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