The Miraculousness of the Commonplace: Remembering Arthur Danto

Our own multiple-award-winning art critic Morgan Meis in n + 1:

ImageArthur Danto, the art critic for the Nation who died last month in New York, was a man with a big idea. Art, he believed, had ended. Of course, it is one thing to proclaim the end of art; it is another thing to prove it. But Danto tried. He was Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, studied with Merleau-Ponty in Paris as a young man, and wrote a couple of books about analytical philosophy in his early career. Unusually for a postwar American philosopher, Danto thought a lot about Hegel. It was from Hegel that he got the idea that art could end. The idea that art ended never meant, for Danto, that art has died or that people will not make art anymore. Just like Hegel did not mean by the “end of history” that the world was going to explode. “End” here means something more like “completion.” The end of art means that the practice of making art has come to a historical culmination. The end of art means that art doesn’t have a story, a narrative, anymore. After the end of art, there is no such thing as “Art”—there is only art.

Danto came to his realization about the end of art one day in New York City in the mid 1960s. Danto was himself painting in those days. He was also, as he readily admitted later, something of a snob and aesthete. One evening in the late spring of 1964, he stumbled into the Stable Gallery on 74th Street. At the Stable Gallery, Danto came face to face with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. That’s the sculpture where Warhol took some paint and some cheap wood and made a few Brillo Boxes that look exactly like Brillo boxes. That’s to say, if you saw Warhol’s Brillo Boxes on the ground outside of a deli in midtown you would simply think that a delivery person was moving Brillo boxes into the store. There is nothing in the Brillo Boxes to suggest anything but Brillo boxes.

Danto was struck and confused by Brillo Boxes. Over time, he worked out a full-blown theory to deal with them.

More here.