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What Art IsReview - What Art Is
by Arthur C. Danto
Yale University Press, 2013
Review by Christian Perring
Aug 6th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 32)

Arthur Danto's philosophy of art is relatively well known at least among philosophers.  For decades, he has argued that Andy Warhol's carefully constructed copies of Brillo boxes count as important art, while the original Brillo boxes that Warhol copied were not art.  Danto's view has been connected by some to the 'institutional theory of art' that says (roughly) something is an artwork if and only if it is treated as an artwork by the institutions who run the art world.  But in his first essay in this book, "Wakeful Dreams," he distances himself from that theory, saying it has problems.  He asserts that works of art are embodied meanings (p. 37).  His essay here spells out to some extent what that means, and he gives a good deal of historical context both to Warhol and also works of Duchamp that are important to his explanation. 

In the second essay, Danto meditates on the question of how the meaning of an old work of art is affected by the act of restoration, with particular reference to the work of Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  The third essay meanders on the topic of the human body in art, and relates it to come conceptions of the body and its relation to mind.  The forth considers the relation between painting and photography.  The fifth addresses Kant's idea about the importance of 'spirit' in the worth of a piece of art.  Danto ties this to his own theory of art as embodied meaning.  The final paper is about the future of aesthetics, and the relationships between philosophy of art, aesthetics and Theory.  He points out that the meaning of most modern art does not lie in its aesthetic value, and that he took his job as art critic for the Nation magazine to be discussing the meaning of the art he reviewed. 

These essays are all full of examples of Danto's understanding of the history of art, and many of them have personal anecdotes.  They are unified in revolving around Danto's existing approach to philosophy of art, yet are on a diverse range of topics.  There are plenty of interesting ideas here, but the essays do not focus on setting out and defending particular theses.  They are more in the way of collections of remarks on a particular issues.  As such, they will primarily be of interest to readers who are already very familiar with Danto's work and are looking to see how he expands his views in different directions.  Yet these essays are also approachable, written in clear English without philosophical jargon, and so it will appeal to non-philosophers. 

 

© 2013 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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