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Arthur Danto, "The Artworld" (1964)

 

"an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld" (477)

 

Introduction.  In ancient Greece a painting of grapes was such a successful illusion that "even birds" were deceived, as they pecked at the grapes and tore the painting.  The idea of art as mimesis in the sense of imitation in the sense of, more or less, a mirror image—this idea was discredited as a sufficient condition for art with the invention of photography and the painting of Kandinsky.  Aesthetics could no longer accept the older approach to definition, where the goal was to find a theory that could be tested by its fit with the intuitions of the ordinary, untutored person.  "These days one might not be aware he was on artistic terrain without an artistic theory to tell him so.  And part of the reason for this lies in the fact that terrain is constituted artistic in virtue of artistic theories, so that one use of theories, in addition to helping us discriminate art from the rest, consists in making art possible." (471)

I

The late 19th- and early 20th century revolution in art is comparable to a revolution in science [as characterized by Thomas Kuhn's 1962 blockbuster, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: the previous, standard theory has so many counterexamples that ad hoc ways of fixing it by small modifications collapse into a revolutionary condition in which another—in the case of modern art—several theories come into competition.]  One of the new theories is RT (the Reality Theory of art: that art does not imitate but creates a new reality).  There is an ontological innovation when a new kind of object enters the scene—neither ordinary reality nor imitation but real. 

We need to understand the new art works in terms of RT.  Roy Lichtenstein paints 10-12' high comic-strip panels, in which scale is essential [highly exemplified in Goodman's terms] (unlike in the past when essentially the same work could have been done significantly smaller).  When Jasper Johns paints the number 3 or a map, any attempted imitation will also be a 3 or a map and hence a member of the same class of objects—but note that, classically, imitations were a set of objects ontologically different from the originals they copied.  [Remember Benjamin's angle on technical reproduction?]

Remember Plato's talk in the Republic about the bed of the imitator being different from the bed of the carpenter, which, in turn, is different from the form (which the carpenter, but not the artist, needs to know?  Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg have made beds—modified—as art works. 

II

One can't discover just by observation that the art bed is not a standard bed, since, qua physical objects, they share so many of the same predicates.  Paint streaks are part of Rauschenberg's bed, but not part of a conventional bed. 

There is a special use of the word is to indicate artistic identification: this small, black, V-shaped object in Van Gogh's painting "is a crow"; the stick figure with the smile "is me"; the figure in this painting "is Icarus" [the one who tried to fly to the sun, and whose approach melted the wax in his wings, causing him to fall to his death in the sea: an illustration of hubris and the need for moderation based on self-knowledge]; this painting  just is black paint on a white canvas. 

Two paintings might look identical but be very different art works because one represents the path of a moving particle [Newton's First Law: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it] and the other represents masses, one bearing down upon the other, which is bearing up against the one above [Newton's Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction].  If someone with no aesthetic education simply says, "All I see is paint," it's just shows that he fails to grasp artistic identification which will allow him to constitute it a work of art.  In pure abstraction (without any expression) the artist "has returned to the physicality of paint through an atmosphere compounded of artistic theories and the history of recent and remote painting, elements of which he is trying to refine out of his own work; and as a consequence of this his work belongs in this atmosphere and is part of this history.  He has achieved abstraction through rejection of artistic identifications," but in fact when he says, "That black paint is black paint" he is not just repeating the obvious but using artistic identification.

III

            It is theory that takes up, e.g., Andy Warhol's handmade Brillo boxes into the art world.

IV

A breakthrough in art adds new structural possibilities.  Let us represent the small number of alternatives a century ago as either representational or non-representational, either expressionistic or non-expressionistic.  There were examples of four types, and, though fashion prefers some types over others, "one row in the matrix is as legitimate as another" [Danto's approach to relativism].  New kinds of art make a more complex set of possibilities.  [My guitar music is now, because of the invention of electric guitars, acoustic guitar music—and hence enriched for having a significant additional predicate.] 

 

 

 


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