American Culture

ArtSunday: If everything is possible, is anything possible…?

Cover, After the End of Art (courtesy, Princeton University Press)

As promised earlier this week, this book review from my 2013 reading list looks at Professor Arthur C. Danto’s series of lectures on fine art (part of the Mellon series), Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, published as part of the Bollingen Series by Princeton University Press as After The End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.

I go to some lengths here to describe this book’s genesis and development because many who read this will have had (or have chosen to have) little truck with scholarly writing. That’s a shame, because there are marvelous scholars who write well and whose ideas about art, culture, history, politics, science, etc., deserve wider reading – and considering. That is certainly the case with this book. Danto, professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University as well as long time art critic for The Nation, is both an engaging writer and a prodigious scholar. Those are credentials that make for rich, readable prose.

Some 15 years old now, After the End of Art expands a famous article Danto wrote in 1984 to describe a historical (or rather post-historical) moment: the end of art history and the beginning of a post-historical period in art when, as he proclaims, “everything is possible.” In this series of lectures he argues that it should only make sense to move the basis of art criticism from the long narrative of “Vasarian” examination of artists’ works in terms of their historical significance and relation to the canon of “great art”  to a philosophically based critique methodology that would look at art in terms of its essentialist characteristics. This, Danto believes, is the only way that one can accept what happened when Andy Warhol first exhibited Brillo Box: unlike Marcel Duchamp, whom Danto believes was merely tweaking the nose of serious art by exhibiting “found objects” such as a urinal and snow shovel as “works of art,” Warhol, in his careful recreation of commercial art and celebrity photos as work for serious artistic contemplation not only brings an end to the last great narrative of art history, modernism, with its focus on “the elements of art” (i.e., paint, canvas, and artist application of former to latter; to understand this easily, one has but to think of abstract expressionism, modernism’s last hurrah and the work of PollockRothko, and de Kooning), he also ushers in postmodernism with its focus on art as commentary.

Danto is correct in his appreciation of Warhol’s importance as artist and cultural icon: “…Warhol made films, sponsored a form of music, revolutionized the concept of the photograph, as well as made paintings and sculpture, and of course he wrote books and achieved fame as an aphorist. Even his style of dress, jeans and leather jacket, became the style of an entire generation.” That’s as succinct and accurate an assessment of Warhol’s epitomizing of the postmodern impulse in the arts as one could ever want.

Where he errs – and, to be fair, this may be the result of the book’s age more than any other factor – is in his estimation of the potential of pop art (and by extension postmodernism) as a force that would liberate art and set loose possibilities for new forms of creativity. Here’s how he describes what he felt after seeing Roy Lichtenstein’s The Kiss“…I must say I was stunned…if everything was possible, there really was no specific future; if everything was possible, nothing was necessary or inevitable….”

What Danto does not/perhaps could not account for (in this one is reminded of the limitations of another fine, readable scholarly work, Neil Postman’s Technopoly) is the effect of distributed culture, especially a culture powered by socio-technological forces such as ubiquitous access to communication and social networking. His assumption of the ability of the serious artist to use irony (which he foresees as a comic force) to make artistic statements/comments has been so undercut by the ability of the entire population on the Web to use irony to make artistic statement/comments. And the multi-media installations and performance pieces that characterized high art in the 1990’s that Danto cites fondly are now easily replicated by any clever soul from eight to eighty. As a famous New Yorker cartoon once observed, “No one knows you’re a dog on the Internet.” One can easily replace the word “dog” with “artist.”

You can’t make fun (or art) of anything, as the postmodern artistic credo demands you must, when everyone is making fun (or art) of everything. If everyone is an artist, is anyone an artist? Is there even art? Would anyone notice if there wasn’t?

These questions deserve at least some consideration. We can hope that despite Danto’s age (he’s now 89) that he, or someone he trusts can revisit this topic and offer some further insight.

Danto may be right – we may have reached the end of art. But it may be that it is not a time to be glad, but to whimper….

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