PRINT February 1988

Arthur Danto


IS: Now, how should we begin? Should we explain to Arthur all the different reasons why we want to do an issue on age, with all the many ways one can take the word—from art history, to contemporary art, to ourselves, to our sense of this age—or shall we just throw the word like a ball in the air?

AD: Why don’t we just throw the ball in the air and then if it doesn’t work you can tell me what the rules are.


LS: Age.

AD: I don’t know whether it’s true or false but whenever anybody lives, they assume they’re living in an age of X, in which case we have a question of asking, Which age is the age we live in, but I suppose that you can really question that premise.

IS: See, in a way that’s why I wanted to do this issue. If we could show how the definition of age has loosened, we could loosen the sense of things becoming obsolete. We could discuss modes of time other than the linear model of history, which virtually plans an obsolescence for art and is rooted in apocalyptic structures that push toward concepts of ends.

AD: It would be an interesting thing if the age of ages was finished in a certain kind of way. That would maybe move us into a different conception of history altogether, where we wouldn’t mark it that way. I wonder the degree to which our usual understanding of age is an artifact of a certain way of doing history, so that you get the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Romanticism, and so forth. What interests me is what people’s consciousness would have been in those periods. Was it a form of historical self-consciousness? There’s a beautiful essay by Kant where he talks about “what is Enlightenment.” He says, “It is mankind’s coming of age.” You have the sense of moving, of living in a really new age, the sense that mankind has had this long, tormented adolescence and childhood and now it’s reached maturity and that’s it—history’s over. Well, probably now people might also think history’s over, in the sense that there aren’t going to be any new ages.

Modernism was a lot like the Enlightenment. You felt again that sense of We’ve arrived, we’re finished with the past, the only way in which we’re going to be interested in the past will be if we can redeem parts of it, redeem some of the predecessors of Modernism. Now, post-Modernism suddenly feels that that is not true, and wants to reconnect with rather than repudiate the past. Really that word “appropriation” is a good word, not in the narrowest sense, but it’s a good word, it’s a reappropriation rather than a repudiation of the past. I don’t think Modernism came to an end because we said Let’s go on to the next thing. There was some kind of disillusion with it which I don’t think anybody can really put their finger on. But we know it went wrong. “Progress” of a certain kind was supposed to utopianize existence and people would be leading lovely lives and so forth. That seemed to be very barren suddenly, didn’t it?

IS: That transition from the fullness that we projected into emptiness and suddenly the realization that this is barren and leading nowhere good is rather mysterious, isn’t it?

AD: Yes, it is a switch of a really deep sort, but was it an internal or an external thing? That’s a fascinating question.

TME: What about the term “posthistorical,” which you used in your 1984 essay “The End of Art”? I suspect it’s very related to what we’re talking about—the idea that things would become ahistorical. It seemed that what you wrote in that essay —I read that book a long time ago, but as I vaguely recall, it seemed to me that what you meant was that the kind of Hegelian paradigm of history had passed, or had run out.

AD: Had come true, had fulfilled itself.

TME: In the Greco-Roman period this was a very common ambition among poets and artists: Horace called his verses aere perennius, more enduring than bronze, as indeed they have proven to be. There was this Imperial Roman poet from whose oeuvre only a short epigram remains that says, My works will live forever.

AD: Beautiful idea. In the Renaissance, when Raphael was the head of archeology, they were constantly yanking things out of the ground, but mainly to copy them. I don’t think that they were deeply involved with preservation of those things necessarily, and I know that the Barberini were constantly dismantling certain kinds of things. So I’m interested in, At what point did one begin to think that a thing of beauty is a joy forever? Did they think in terms of eternity? I once read in a book about Arab poetry that the bedouins considered it a tremendous blessing if a poet should be born in the tribe because then they knew that they would be remembered. It wasn’t so much that the work itself would be eternal as that they would be remembered.

AD: I haven’t had a sense of living in an age, I must say, for a long time, probably not since sometime in the ’70s. People who are close to art really do think in terms of ages, or somebody like myself who’s lived close to universities, where you’re getting a new generation all the time, has thought that way. The ’60s were such a powerful decade that they defined the ’50s as a special kind of decade and led to an anticipation of what the ’70s were going to have to be, and so forth. I think maybe because I live close to two things that are very conscious of ages, the art world and the university, there’s a certain expectation. People like that generally have that internal sense that we’ve got to move into another age and what is it, let’s find out what it is as quickly as possible, like moving into a new land, and let’s get the lay of the land, let’s see where we stand, like homesteading practically, we’re going to find this open space, which I think to a degree we all feel when we move into a new year. I do, because my birthday happens to be tomorrow, on New Year’s Day, so I always have a heightened sense of entering a blank space.

LS: If you were to resurrect the idea of age, and tell us about today?

AD: If we are living in an age—now I say “we,” I mean people who sit around tables and talk about age—it’s the age of Virginia Woolf, really. Our attitudes toward art, our attitudes toward morality, our attitudes toward politics, our attitudes to personal relationships, sexuality—this is Virginia Woolf’s age. Artists among Woolf’s contemporaries were into, as we say, decoration, into weaving. It was a kind of total thing that art should penetrate life across a far wider spectrum than the concentrated production of masterpieces, which is what van Gogh, Cézanne, those guys did. As I say, van Gogh is different because he was utopian, but in such a 19th-century way. We can’t believe those utopias. We shouldn’t. Whereas we can really believe that Virginia Woolf, Bloomsbury, offers us a form of life that we can live in. We’re trying to live it in some sense.

Today, the demand for art is so overwhelming—I think, you know, that’s probably what goes with this sort of democratization of bohemia—that everybody wants to have art part of their life, and artists have been extremely obliging in producing a lot of it. I’m certainly not original in remarking on it, but in some way the museum has replaced the church as the social center of life. When people try to recruit executives for corporations they’ll talk about the local museum. The museum has got to have a gift shop, it’s got to have a cafe, there’s got to be lectures, there’s got to be concerts, plays, rotating exhibitions. It’s a very barren town if you don’t have that. And the church wasn’t just worship on Sunday, there were men’s groups, women’s groups, strawberry festivals, thrift shops, and so forth. Now it’s all done at this level of culture. So inevitably people have to make lots of works, which look a lot alike because we’ve got a certain conception of what a work of art should be. Maybe this is in part what all the copying of past historical styles is addressing. It’s like at the end of the Renaissance, where you move from people like Michelangelo to people like Vasari. There’s plenty to do, there are halls to be decorated, there are wedding chests to be embellished, there are portraits to be painted, there are pageants to be put on in the street, there’s a lot of work for artists, but they don’t have to drive forward a history any longer.

Just one last point about that thought I had some years ago when I wrote that we were moving into this posthistorical period. I thought, How nice, artists could now be liberated from the burden of history. They no longer have to carry forward this progress thing. And then I had that thought of art being returned to basic human ends.

If one’s interested in something really new, one is praying for an external event as powerful as the Reformation was, where you really have to adjust to it, and, you know, where salvation is on the line, and it’s a very powerful thing. The only powerful thing that we can think of, I mean anything comparable to that, would either be political or physical. That is to say, either a war, a really serious war, or revolution of some kind. Now my hope would be there won’t be any such external events because I don’t know what they would be like. I don’t think we can handle very many anymore.

I think of esthetics as sort of an 18th-century invention and art is basically there to give us pleasure but not to try and penetrate into life, and I feel that right now artists are not satisfied with making esthetic things and that’s part of the overcoming of the Modern, which was estheticism as deep as estheticism could go. And a lot of these people want art to be somewhat more invoked in life, much more transformative of life, if it’s possible for it to be.

Arthur C. Danto, sixty-four, the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, is the art critic for The Nation. His books include The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art and, most recently, The State of the Art.