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subtitle of The Madonna of the Future, the most recent collection
of art criticism written by the philosopher Arthur Danto for The Nation,
is "Essays in a Pluralistic Artworld." The first and last essays are philosophical
essays which define what Danto means by a "pluralistic" artworld. The rest
of the book is devoted to art criticism. Danto's writing is clear and accessible,
intended both for the most discerning art critic and the least art historically
educated viewer. Whether or not these works of art criticism ultimately
succeed in demonstrating or elucidating Danto's philosophical points, the
essays provide deep insight into the character of contemporary art and
the task of interpreting its meaning.
The two philosophical essays act as bookends
to bracket the essays in art criticism within. They serve as the context,
or, to use his term, "history" within which to interpret the meaning of
his art criticism, and so serve as a sort of meta-criticism for the book
itself. The first, "Art and Meaning," sets out three criteria something
must meet to count as an artwork: a) it must be about something, it must
have a content or a meaning; b) it must embody that meaning; and c) it
must derive its identity (which I take to denote its meaning or "aboutness")
from a "network of meanings."
Danto cashes out the notion of a 'network
of meanings' as "belonging to a history." The latter is the subject of
the second philosophical essay, "The Work of Art and the Historical Future."
In this essay Danto spins a story about Theobald, the fictional late nineteenth
century ex-patriot American painter from Henry James story "The Madonna
of the Future" (from which Danto has appropriated the title of his book).
In Henry James' story Theobald travels to Florence to paint a Madonna that
would rival Raphael's "Madonna della Seggiola." But in the course of preparing
studies for his masterwork, his model grows old. He tries to paint from
recollection his original intention, but becomes blocked. Theobald is left
with nothing but a primed canvas. He considers it a failure, and, of course,
in the context of his nineteenth century Raphaelite aspirations, it is.
But we are to imagine that Theobald is
visited many years later by the curator of the fictional Museum of Monochrony,
established 100 years in his future in 1973. The primed canvas is now cracked
and discolored with time. Theobald tells the curator that it has been referred
to as "The Madonna of the Future." The curator tells him that it is an
intriguing painting, a brilliant title, and that he is far ahead of his
time. The curator insists that he will be hailed as the father of all-white
monochromatic painting, the precursor of Malevich, Rauschenberg, and Ryman.
What is the philosophical parable? The work, within the context of nineteenth
century painting, is a failure. But the same work, within the context of
twentieth century abstraction, is an art-critical success. Our evaluation
of the work changes radically relative to which history we say that the
work belongs to.
Danto concedes that this move raises a
difficulty. Whereas, within the context of the artworld, this can help
explain the broadening of the definition of an artwork, i.e. of what can
count as an artwork - combs, painted goats, and tire swings can become
art if we place them within the correct art-critical history - it is not
clear that the criteria suffice to distinguish art objects from other designed
objects. Consider the case of Warhol's "Brillo Boxes," a case that Danto
has used in the past to elucidate just this distinction. Danto argues that
Warhol's work distinguishes itself from the "ordinary" Brillo boxes of
the time in that it is a criticism of the methods and ideas associated
with Pop Art's immediate precursor, Abstract Expressionism. The clean commercial-art
aesthetic and mundane subject matter of Warhol's Pop Art would have been
an anathema to Abstract Expressionism's drips, puddles of paint, and metaphysical
But, as Danto says he has been forced to
concede, the original, ordinary Brillo boxes are about something too. They
are about marketing Brillo pads. The bright colors were intended to convey
excitement over the product. The wavy red and white stripes across the
box were intended to represent both water and the American Flag. This double
meaning implies a connection between cleanliness and duty. Brillo had hired
an Abstract Expressionist artist named Steve Harvey to design the box,
and Danto exclaims that the design "is in its own way a masterpiece of
visual rhetoric, intended to move minds to the act of purchase and then
application." (xxv) Within the context of a particular marketing strategy,
Steve Harvey's Brillo boxes embody their meaning. They too stand as works
The problem does not stop here. In some
sense everything is about something. For instance, the big toe on my left
foot is about the gravity that I must fight here on earth to remain standing
through my lectures. In fact, within the context of evolutionary theory,
we might be tempted to say that my left foot, with its prominent big toe,
is the embodiment of this aboutness. Is my left foot, as a result, a work
Danto resolves this conundrum with a fourth,
yet not explicitly so stated, criteria: "appropriate placement." An object
becomes a work of art, he says, if it derives its meaning/identity from
an appropriate art-critical or art-historical context. "What does
it mean to live in a world in which anything could be a work of art?
is to imagine what could be meant by the object if it were the vehicle
of an artistic statement." (xxix) The goal of the critic, Danto says, is
to furnish the reader with a thought they can bring with them into the
galleries so that they can become critics themselves, active viewers engaged
in discourse with the art. To this end, the goal of Danto's reviews for
The Nation are to describe a) what the artworks are about and b) how this
meaning is embodied by the work.
Consider Danto's essay on Bruce Nauman's
work series of works titled "PAY ATTENTION!" which are an example of what
Danto calls a "strike-proof game." This is a game whose rules (at least
within the context of the game) we cannot fail to obey. In baseball the
manager can refuse to send a batter to the plate, thus refusing to play.
PAY ATTENTION! is not like this. The works mentioned are a collage and
a lithograph whose content is just the phrase "please pay attention please"
and "pay attention motherfuckers" respectively. The work engages the viewer
in a narrow discourse that he or she cannot avoid. This discourse is what
the work is about, and as a result, no matter what form the works in the
series take on, they embody their meaning.
Danto argues that PAY ATTENTION! is fairly
shallow. He sees it as about nothing more than this narrow discourse. I
am not sure that we have to agree with Danto on this point. I can imagine
that these works are about the implicit demand Danto attributes
to contemporary artworks -- that we take notice of them not as aesthetic
objects, but as the embodiment of a message. And I can imagine that the
content is itself a commentary on the tacit (or sometimes explicit) tone
of self-importance, like the insistent cry of an ignored precocious child,
that sometimes accompanies this demand.
The essay about John Heartfield's photomontage
which opens the book may offer a better illustration of Danto's art-critical
work. Heartfield was a political satirist in Berlin between the wars and
a member of the Dada movement. Danto describes a 1929 piece in which Heartfield
shows himself cutting off Police Commissioner Zorgiebl's head with a piece
of scissors. Danto argues that the work is self-referential on two levels.
First, it is about its own medium, the process of cutting and pasting pictures
in photomontage. Second, it is about political satire, the artist using
the medium of art to "decapitate" the political figures of his or her time.
The work, by rendering its own process transparent, is the embodiment of
Danto's fourth criteria raises what seems
to me a troublesome and unaddressed difficulty. Identifying an appropriate
art critical context seems crucial to his program. But given that, as Danto
has argued so well over the years, the traditional restrictions on art-critical,
and as a result art-historical, contexts have been eradicated by contemporary
art, how are we to identify what counts as an appropriate art-critical
context. For that matter, how are we to identify art-critical contexts
Although some knowledge of art history
would often be helpful in tackling this book, and occasionally Danto employs
his imagination quite freely (and he does so openly) in the task of inventing
an art criticism for the work, all in all his clear style is accessible
and quite insightful. The bulk of art criticism is read after the fact
by people who cannot, as a result, see the work it refers to. Danto believes
that, for this reason, art criticism should be written as a form of literature,
as essays that can be read simply for themselves. At this task I think
he has succeeded.
© 2001 Bill Seeley
Seeley is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Philosophy at CUNY
- The Graduate Center working on the neurophysiology of aesthetic perception.
He also has an M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia University. His work has
been exhibited in New York City, at Yale University, and at The Addison
Gallery of American Art in Massachussets. He is currently teaching aesthetics
at Hofstra University.