PRINT September 1989


“No ideas but in things,” declared William Carlos Williams. “Criticism,” wrote Harold Rosenberg, “ . . . can be significant only through the . . . practice of it by interesting minds and by the appearance of writings addressed to real things.” What happens, then, when the “real thing” is criticism itself? Throughout the year, in this “Critical Reflections”section of Artforum, a range of art critics and theorists will explore some of these issues: how they view their role and responsibilities; how they would articulate the unique functions that art criticism can or does fulfill; how they define the criteria upon which they evaluate art (if “evaluate” is indeed the right word); why they see these criteria as particularly relevant and important today; and what they see as the future of art criticism—where is it going; where should it be going?

A FEW YEARS AGO I undertook to write an essay on the battle memorial at Gettysburg. Initially was interested in the transfiguration of that ground into what an admired critic called a work of art. But soon enough I got caught up in the narrative of the battle itself, and especially in its climactic moment when Pickett’s division marched, as if executing a complex figure in close-order drill, into the massed mouths of weapons that made such gestures forever irrelevant in war. Pickett’s men were conscious of the picture they made in the eyes of bystanders for whom, as Sappho writes, “Some say a cavalry corps, some infantry . . . are the finest sight on earth.” They accepted a code of military esthetics while facing weapons that conformed only to the quantitative codes of slaughter. And this conflict in codes is carried forward in the familiar memorial statuary of the Civil War, in which soldiers stand erect in brass-buttoned tunics and cloth caps while holding weapons for which such a posture and uniform are no protection at all—essentially the same rifles that would also be used half a century later in the acknowledged mayhem of World War I. This contradiction must have been invisible to those who had such statues set up in towns and villages across the land. But it gives to these affecting figures a tragic dimension beyond the commonplace tragedies of war, death, and memory to which we seek to give some meaning through art.

At a certain point, it occurred to me that these metal infantrymen must have been cast in much the same mold, and been manufactured like iron fencing or grillwork in factories or foundries; and it seemed to me as if an engraving from some manufacturer’s catalogue of the era would make a striking illustration for my piece. Friendly and helpful librarians lugged volumes out of little-used stacks, including a particularly imposing one from the Mott Iron Works on Bleecker Street in New York, as solemn as an ecclesiastical tome, bound in heavy boards, opulent in gilt and green. It was filled with engravings of useful and ornamental things, from valves and fittings to hitching posts and garden furniture—and, along with sinks and tubs, toilets in varieties so far beyond what I could have imagined that I instantly realized that today’s sanitary vessels have survived a severe evolutionary trial. There were no war memorials, alas, but the name “Mott Iron Works” was teasingly familiar. For a moment there was only the recognition that it had a meaning for me without my being able to say what the meaning was—like that celebrated taste of lime tea and madeleine that sits poised, in Proust’s account, at the barrier of active memory without yet breaking through into consciousness. And then of course there was the revelation: it was from this very company, for all I know from the pages of this very catalogue, that Duchamp selected what an unsympathetic reviewer of my book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, called “that wretched urinal.” And it came home to me with an extraordinary vividness how many years and pages I have devoted to philosophical reflection upon Duchamp’s notorious work Fountain, of 1917, rejected (how?) from a supposedly jury-free exhibition and signed “R. Mutt,” in witty allusion to Mr. Mott, whom Duchamp obliquely immortalized through this legendary ready made.

A different critic, one not known for nuanced invective, perceives my preoccupations with Duchamp and, above all, with Warhol as a kind of esthetic slumming and hence a perversion of critical values—as if, with all the masterpieces of world art to pass my time among, I chose low company instead: pranksters, charlatans, con men, hoaxers, picking sows’ ears every time in preference to silk purses. There really would be a kind of esthetic pathology in swooning over Fountain as if it were a work like The Jewish Bride or even Bird in Space, or in saying “I’ll take Brillo Box” when offered a choice between it and one of Cézanne’s compotiers or some irises of Van Gogh. But taste and esthetics do not enter the picture. There are, rather, two connected reasons for thinking about these works at all: philosophical methodology and historical urgency. In fact these together define the tasks of art criticism, not just as I practice it but as anyone must who is sensitive to the discontinuities between the artistic present and the conceptually comfortable past.

Philosophers typically work with examples that may strike those outsiders anxious for philosophy to be grand or edifying as unacceptably trivial or bland. The great epistemologists generate their accounts of perceptual knowledge by pondering how round pennies can look elliptical; theorists of human action have pursued the question of free will by seeking to draw a line between simple acts like winking and involuntary bodily movements like blinking. The effort is not altogether different from that of science, which looks to the simplest creatures—sea slugs, say—in order to concentrate on the fewest number of neurons consistent with the possibility of the system being modified by learning. The strategy in philosophy, moreover, is to seek the basis for drawing its boundaries by identifying objects on either side of the boundary that have as much in common as possible, in order to focus on what they don’t and can’t have in common if the boundaries are real. Sometimes, nothing can be more like a lived experience than a dream of it, but the difference, crucial in building up our concept of reality, cannot be found in what they may share. Similarly, only when we can imagine works of art that outwardly resemble ordinary things—like urinals or packing cases—can we begin to draw the line between reality and art, which has concerned philosophers from ancient times. If Fountain is an artwork, there must be an answer to the question of why the other urinals in Mott’s inventory are not, even if the resemblances are perfect. If Brillo Box is an artwork and the ordinary Brillo carton not, surely the difference cannot lie in the obvious differences, such as one being made of plywood and the other of corrugated cardboard, not if the differences between reality and art must divide art from reality on a serious philosophical map.

Now these are questions that could not have been easily gotten to arise with The Resurrection of Piero della Francesca, or with the Medici tombs or the cathedral of Beauvais. It is not just that these are too complex, as the human brain is too complex alongside the simple neural network of a sea slug. It is because when these objects were made, no one could have imagined there would be, or could be, works like those of Duchamp and Warhol. Indeed, to have asked, in an earlier century—pointing to one of these great works—why something like this was art though another thing that looked just like it was not, would have been conceptually impossible. Pretty much anything that looked like Beauvais would have been a work of art if Beauvais was, except, of course, for mirages and illusions and architectural dreamings, where the problems are altogether different. It would have been like asking why something was an elephant when something else, looking just like an elephant, was not. For it must have seemed as though “work of art” was an expression much like “elephant,” one that we learn to apply on the basis of perceptual criteria. Duchamp’s great philosophical achievement was to demonstrate that “art” is not this kind of expression at all, and that learning to apply it to things involves a far more complex procedure than anyone would have believed necessary. But this could not have been shown until history made it possible: Duchamp would have been impossible when the kind of conceptual imagination required by his gesture was itself historically impossible. When it did become possible, it became plain that the Beautiful and the Sublime did not, by essence, belong to the definition of art.

I have always had a passion for painting, and from an early age art was something I looked at and thought about and even tried to make. But even after I became a professional philosopher, I did not find art philosophically interesting—nor did I find what philosophers had said about art philosophically interesting either—until the 1960s, in connection with Pop and, to a lesser degree, with Minimalism. I have often written about the great impact upon me of Warhol’s exhibition of “Brillo Boxes” in 1964, and I take a wry satisfaction in the fact that through my first philosophical article on art, Warhol’s name appeared in the austere pages of The Journal of Philosophy late that year, long before he became such a superstar in the culture of glamour and high gossip. But from the perspective of a quarter century’s evolution in the artworld, I have come to think that the analysis I wrote of the distinction between artworks and what I termed “mere real things” could not have been written at an earlier moment, for it seems to me that in the mid-1960s a deep revolution in the history of art took place—so deep, in fact, that it would not be an exaggeration to say that art, as it had been historically understood, came to an end in that strange and tumultuous decade.

It may be asked why it did not come to an end in 1917, with the advent of Fountain and the other readymades. But Fountain is, among other things, a parody of a work of art, with signature, title, and date, and a complex esthetic theory to go with it. In 1917, Fountain defined a margin of a world of artworks, whose central members were easily recognized by some of the criteria Fountain played with. In the 1960s, Brillo Box was a central member of an art-world in which every criterion was under challenge.

In retrospect, then, it is possible to argue that there is a far greater continuity between Modernism and the artistic tradition than anyone might have thought in the years when abstraction and Cubism were being hammered out. The Cubists, after all, adhered to the standard Beaux-Arts subjects—the nude, the still life, the landscape, the interior—and it was not all that difficult for Picasso, when occasion arose, to extend his discoveries to the execution of historical paintings. The early abstractionists never completely forsook illusionism or pictorial convention. The great American abstractionists persisted in enacting their strategies in pictorial space. But the ’60s, in art, were an age of rupture and discontinuity. And that meant that a great many things thought to belong to the philosophical definition of art proved adventitious and peripheral. The meaning of “work of art” could no longer be taught by example or understood through precedent. Not only could works of art no longer be told apart from real things; they could not be seen as obviously like things that had always been regarded as works of art.

James Ackerman, a distinguished historian of art, sees this, as does his fellow art historian, Hans Belting, as a crisis for their discipline: “There will have to be either a discipline for before 1960 and a discipline for after, or a history that has stopped forever a few years ago to be followed by ahistorical happenings.” It is certainly a crisis for the philosophy of art, inasmuch as the features through which something can be counted art must be located at a level far more abstract than the philosophical tradition would have dreamed necessary. It is a crisis for art education and for art-making, for the immediate question is, What do we teach those who want to become artists in order to assure proficiency? If all the rules and standards are down, what happens to drawing, composition, the materials of the artist, and the like? And finally, of course, it is a crisis for art criticism itself: how does one judge, what are the appropriate responses, where are there standards, how can one evaluate? Small wonder that a lot of criticism simply consists in piling up words in front of art! In any case, for the past twenty-five years there has been a single omnibus problem that I have designated in the term: artphilohistocritisophory. It is a historical moment in which art makers, art historians, teachers, philosophers, and critics of art are so interlocked in one another’s activities that the making of any artwork whatever—even if it looks absolutely traditional—demands a complex philosophical justification and a critical apparatus it is often up to the artist also to furnish. One cannot raise a question of the role of criticism in abstraction from the entire complex. The right question to ask, I suppose, is: what is the function of artphilohistocritisophory? You cannot separate art from the complex and ask what its function in the society is: you have to take the whole complex and ask about it as a functioning whole.

It is a mark of the present moment that there are no outward criteria any longer of what can be a work of art: a text (any text); a plash of pigment; an assemblage of objects in any number and of any description; a facsimile of the Mona Lisa; a shopping bag of soiled aluminum foil no one dares unwrap; a package of Twinkles. There is no longer any special virtue in the quasi-alchemic pursuit of the pure distilled essence of art. Anything, if a work of art, is as much one as a square of uniform black paint. Nor is there any validity in the critical charge that something is not art because it fails to meet some standard of esthetic purity. Both these asceticisms colored art world attitudes within the memory of even relatively young persons; but if there is anything to the theory that art is in the avant-garde of culture, we can now see this being acted out in the revulsion against ideological rectitude in the political spheres of the world, where the demand for looseness, détente, democratization, is everywhere being expressed. But insofar as the history of art in the Modern era has been exactly that quasi-alchemic pursuit of the essential, defining attributes of art, we have with Post-Modernism in fact entered the Post-Historical phase of the history of art. It is a difficult but wonderful time to be alive, nor could anyone, knowing that this would happen, will to have lived at an earlier time.

Hegel, with characteristic profundity, spoke of beautiful art as the Idea given sensuous embodiment. As a start, this gives us the rudiments of a philosophical concept of art, and a first stab at a theory of criticism: the critic must identify the idea embodied in the work, and assess the adequacy of its embodiment. “Embodiment” is a difficult concept, and here is not the place to deal with it directly, but it helps to draw a distinction between the expression and the embodiment of an idea. Perhaps every meaningful sentence expresses an idea, true or false, which is its thought or meaning. But language achieves the status of art when our sentences embody the ideas they express, as if displaying what the sentences are about. A picture becomes art when, beyond representing its idea, properties of itself become salient in the work of embodiment. Rembrandt’s paintings embody and do not merely show light.

CRITICISM, AS I PRACTICE it, consists in finding how the ideas expressed by the works I discuss are embodied in them to the degree that I can discover this. As a philosopher I am struck by the way in which idea and embodiment in art parallels the way in which our minds are embodied in ourselves as persons. But works differ from one another as personalities differ from personalities. There are better and worse ideas given better and worse embodiments in works, and so there are two dimensions of critical evaluation built into the philosophical structure of the artwork. But greatness in works is like greatness in human beings, and though this may no more be a standard against which to measure other work than greatness in human character gives us the moral measure we need for judging one another, critical evaluation is not deeply different from moral evaluation (and I suppose art education might be thought of in the same sorts of terms as moral education). As a further incidental parallel, there are certain works, as certain persons, one likes or dislikes for reasons having nothing much to do with their excellences or failures. Liking, even loving, belongs to the personality of critics, but not to the structure of criticism, even if inseparable from it. There are painters I know are good and even great whom I cannot like, Poussin and Ingres being two. I also incline to the view that when someone actually likes or loves these artists, he or she must he a very different person from me.

Arthur C. Danto is the Johnsonian Professor or Philosophy at Columbia University, and art critic for The Nation.