PRINT April 1993


There is a passage in the writings of Karl Marx that is as fateful as it is famous, and indeed its fatefulness is not unconnected with its fame: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” If this is indeed the second time this thought is expressed in history, it must by its own criterion be farce, and its first occurrence in Hegel tragic. And something like this did in fact come true: since every Marxist knew this line—it is the kind of slogan that gets printed on T-shirts—it was necessary for them to dismiss repetitions as farcical, as the learned revolutionaries in the Columbia University uprising of 1968 did when the learned students of Harvard underwent their uprising a year later. The overall effect was that there could be no cumulative revolutionary movement, veterans of first happenings being obliged to scorn such events’ repetitions.

Hegel’s statement is far less well-known than Marx’s, and indeed certain Marxist writers, such as my Nation colleague. Alexander Cockburn, have expressed doubt that Hegel ever said any such thing. But here the passage is, from the section on Rome in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History: “In all periods of the world a political revolution is sanctioned in men’s opinions, when it repeats itself. Thus Napoleon was twice defeated, and the Bourbons twice expelled. By repetition, that which at first appeared merely a matter of chance and contingency, became a real and ratified existence.” Marx’s jest appears in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which he began in 1851, and it refers to that year’s coup d’etat by Louis Bonaparte, the nephew of the great Napoleon, who had himself executed a coup d’etat in 1799, on the 9th of November the 18th of the revolutionary month of brumaire. Had Louis Bonaparte been a reader of Hegel, he would have seen in the repetition not farce but a “real and ratified existence.” And had the Columbia students of 1968 been readers of Hegel, they would have seen the Harvard uprising as a ratification of their own. The moral, perhaps, is that if one wants one’s writings to inspire revolutionaries, it is prudent to resist wisecracks, for one’s readers may take them as literal.

Since my writings on the end of art, which I began in 1984, repeat a thought expressed in the marvelous lectures on art that Hegel delivered in Berlin in 1828, I would clearly rather see in the repetition a ratification of historical necessity than a farcical reenactment—not the only reason I prefer being a follower of Hegel than of Marx. But in truth I am a follower of neither, for I don’t especially believe in historical repetitions. If anything, I suppose, I am a follower of Wittgenstein, who held that the meaning of a sentence is often a function of the role it plays in what he termed a “language game,” so that the same sentence has different meanings if repeated on different occasions. Or, better, I am a follower of Paul Grice and his thesis of “conversational implicature,” which says, simply put, that to understand what someone means by an utterance one must fill in the conversation in which it is uttered and see what movement of thought the sentence advanced. And since I think of history as having something of the structure conversations have, I might speak of historical implicature, which would mean that on noticing, for example, that philosophers in different periods have said outwardly the same thing, one would find that the sameness dissolved when one filled out the discussion in which the sentence was uttered. Even within a context, repetition is never simply that: Vladimir Nabokov, an admirer of Robert Frost, points out how vividly the second “And miles to go before I sleep” differs in force and meaning from the first.

As a critic, I am never put off by the fact that what an artist does has been done before. That someone did it “first,” it seems to me, is often an observation that only blinds you to what the artist did who did it “second.” The repetition need not entail a lack of originality. Of course, you might say, I would say that, to protect myself from being thought unoriginal when I say something already said by Hegel. But let’s examine another case, especially since neither Marx nor Hegel talks about things happening more than twice.

Recently I have become absorbed in the topic of photomontage, the chief artistic invention of the Berlin Dada movement of the early ’20s. There are some wonderful photographs of the “First International Dada Exhibition” of 1920, showing some of the contributors with a poster that proclaims the death of art. “Die Kunst ist tot,” the poster reads, “Long live the new Machine Art of Tatlin.” One photograph shows Hannah Höch and the “Dadasopher” Raoul Hausmann with the poster, another the great monteur John Heartfield and his colleague George Grosz.

I think they thought that photomontage exemplified “machine art,” for it assembled cutout fragments of photographs and words from newspapers and mass-circulation periodicals, and both photography and printing were exemplary mechanical processes, conspicuously contrasted with the kinds of pictures the expert hand might make by drawing or painting. It was what one might call “handmade” art that was dead, then, or fine art, or, finally, easel painting, which radiated the celebrated aura of which Walter Benjamin made so much. I am certain that when Benjamin contrasted what we might call “auragenic” art with what he called “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” he had Heartfield’s photomontages in mind.

Now easel painting was also villainized in the revolutionary ferment of the early Soviet Union. In 1921, a plenary session of Inkhuk, the institute charged with formulating a role for art in a communist society, voted to condemn easel painting as “out-moded,” and several of the institute’s leading members left to go into industry. Similarly, in 1943, Lincoln Kirstein wrote of his visit to the murals by the Mexican painter David Siqueiros in Chillán, Chile, the year before, that Siqueiros “proclaims himself on a personal crusade to destroy easel painting. To hear him talk, the caballete (easel) is the fascism of art, this monstrous little square of besmirched canvas, pullulating under the skin of rotting varnish, fit prey for those canny usurers, the speculating picture dealers of the rue de la Boëtie and Fifty-Seventh Street.” So when Clement Greenberg, in Partisan Review in 1948, warned of “the crisis of the easel picture,” he was more or less adapting a critical matrix from radical thought to the art of his time.

I think it fair to say that the villainization of the easel picture continues today, less as a claim that painting has somehow run out of steam than as an attack on social and political institutions and practices with which the easel painting has been associated: the private collection, the art museum, the art auction, the gallery, Siqueiros’ “usurers.” And the art that is to replace easel painting—the photomontage, the book jacket, the mural, the drop cloth, and more recently the performance, the installation, the video—are promoted precisely because of the difficulties they raise for the institutional embedding of the easel painting. Needless to say, art such as this opposes itself to the popular idea of painting as somehow a spirituality and a mystique, an idea that brings thousands to trudge past Monet’s serial paintings of the 1890s, or, more recently, Matisse’s stupendous oeuvre.

It should be clear that the “Death of Art,” construed as the Death of Fine Art, is a political declaration. It is a revolutionary cry, like Death to the Ruling Class! The communists, subscribing as they did to a doctrine of historical materialism, ought, if their theory were sound, merely to have had to await the withering away of painting as a practice. But revolutionaries are not famous for patience, or, for that matter, for consistency.

Now my own thesis of the end of art was not in the least an ideological one. It was almost, in fact, counterideological, in that it imagined the end of all mandated ideologies that believed themselves grounded in either the history or the philosophy of art. It in any case was not a thesis about the death of art, even though it first appeared in a volume of essays that carried the dramatic but false title The Death of Art. I used “end” in a narrative sense, and meant to declare simply the end of a certain story. It was, as I pointed out at the time, consistent with the story coming to an end that everyone should live happily ever after, where happiness almost meant that there were no more stories to tell. My thought was that art came to an end when it achieved a philosophical sense of its own identity, which meant that an epic quest, beginning some time in the latter part of the 19th century, had achieved closure.

Painting played a particular role in this epic because painting’s identity had been put in question by two factors, one technological and the other cultural. The technological mise-en-question was the invention of moving pictures, which meant that the great representational aims always ascribed to painting could be attained by a different means altogether. It was moving-picture technology that meant this rather than photography as such, for photography was simply another means of doing what painting had always done; it was, so to speak, a tie. But moving pictures quite left painting behind.

The cultural challenge came with the challenge to the ideal of veridical representation itself, and the prizing of other artistic goals, as sought in alien cultures—Japanese, Chinese, Egyptian, African. Abstraction, which emerged in 1912, was one response to this challenge, but so was a good bit of Post-Impressionist art. There was no question in artistic practice but that a certain idea of painting, in place since about 1300, had come to an end. The issue was what painting was now to be, and this in the end could only be answered with a philosophical theory, which I saw the painting movements of the 20th century as a massive effort to furnish. And I thought, in fact, that they had found what they sought by the ’60s, and that art now had to be understood as one with its own philosophy.

I offered, in brief, a kind of master narrative to be considered alongside Modernist painting’s reigning master narrative, which, as that very expression should suggest, was popularized by Greenberg: “Modernist Painting” is the title of one of his most important essays. Greenberg is typically regarded as a formalist critic, but his formalism is grounded in a very original philosophy of history, in place from the very beginning of his career—for example in his tremendous piece from 1939, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which he sees a certain kind of abstract painting as the inevitable absolute that the avant-garde had been seeking. “Content is to be dissolved so completely into form,” Greenberg writes, “that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself.” This is the “genesis of the abstract” (I draw attention to the historicist term). Greenberg continues, “In turning his attention away from subject matter of common experience, the poet or artist turns it in upon the medium of his own craft.” The historical dimension becomes explicit in “Towards a Newer Laocöon,” from the same year: “The avant-garde arts have in the last fifty years achieved a purity and a radical delimitation of their fields of activity, for which there is no previous example in the history of culture.” Greenberg characterizes “purity” this way: it “consists in the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art.” And the philosophy of art history is this: “The progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium.” Finally, “So inexorable was the logic of this development”—one notes the double connotation of necessity carried by “inexorable” and “logic”—that artists who wished to be part of history had little choice save to enter it under Greenbergian criteria.

Recently, Greenberg told me that he was not prescribing how art history should go, only describing how it was going. He cited the difference between “is” and “ought,” which he was pleased to learn derived from David Hume. But these early, influential papers certainly read like prescriptions; as he says, “The imperative comes from history.” And “Modernist Painting” of 1960 puts it in this nutshell:

The unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered “pure,” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. “Purity” meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance.

Both Greenberg and I see self-definition as the central historical truth of Modernist art, but his narrative differs from mine in every other respect. He sees self-definition in terms of purity, and hence the history of Modernism as the pursuit of painting in its purest possible state; my view is altogether antipurist. My idea of the end of art in philosophical self-consciousness entails no imperative to produce philosophically pure artworks. Far from it: a philosophy of art must be consistent with all the art there is and ever has been. In fact, it seems to me, an adequate philosophy of art straightaway entails pluralism, for it would be wholly adventitious that there should be only one kind of art. The Greenberg position entails a critical practice in which one can say of what is not pure that it is not art. Mine, by contrast, is altogether accepting.

The difference between the two positions can be further marked by thinking of abstraction. In Greenberg’s philosophy, abstract painting is a historical inevitability, and, moreover, abstraction has to be of a certain kind. Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract forms hang in an unmistakable pictorial space; that has to be purged, for it belongs to what, in “Modernist Painting,” Greenberg calls “sculptural illusion,” implying a three-dimensionality inconsistent with painterly purity, which mandates absolute flatness. Greenberg concedes that “the flatness towards which Modernist painting orients itself can never be an utter flatness.” So, if you are a painter, you can endeavor to drive incrementally farther toward the unreachable goal of utter flatness—or else you can become a sculptor, and seek whatever purity defines that medium. In any case, on the Greenberg model the flat painting is abstraction’s destiny, and his own critical practice reflects this, favoring, first, Color Field abstraction, then such favorites of his as Jules Olitski, whom he continues to regard as the best painter around.

On my view, abstraction is a possibility rather than a necessity, and is permitted rather than obliged. In fact the art world as I see it—and as I think it now sees itself—is a field of possibilities and permissibilities in which nothing is necessary and nothing is obliged. Heinrich Wölfflin famously ended the preface to the later editions of The Principles of Art History by saying that not everything is possible at every time. It is the mark of what I have termed the posthistorical period of art that everything is possible at this time, or that anything is.

A year or so ago, the art periodical Tema Celeste asked a number of critics and artists why a painter today would make a painting without any recognizable image. The responses took up three entire issues of the magazine. The 1990 season had featured at least five major exhibitions of abstract art, and every American art magazine had had to ask what the phenomenon meant. All this scarcely a year after a critic in the New York Times had said that abstraction was burnt out.

Whatever the explanation of this complex event, it does not seem to me that it can be assimilated to either the Marxist or the Hegelian characterization of repetition. This moment of abstraction was neither a farcical reenactment nor a ratification of an earlier one. And it seems to me that Greenberg’s explanation for the first moment of abstraction—that it was a historical inevitability and imperative—would hardly recommend itself the second or third time around. The clear truth is that abstraction is possible. The question is only what made it so vehemently actual all at once and at that moment. And the answer, it seems to me, would have to be local rather than global. It is the kind of thing one might expect after the end of art.

I think of posthistorical art as art created under conditions of what I want to term “objective pluralism,” by which I mean that there are no historically mandated directions for art to go in. For Greenberg, on the other hand, the arts entered their terminal phase when each made a mandated ascension to its own metalanguage, and when the materials of the art became the art’s only proper subject. Under the auspices of that theory, furniture-making, for example, as an art, would have as its subject wood, joinery, and finish. And the subject of sculpture would be stone and carving, or clay and modeling. And painting of course would be about paint, and the act of putting it onto surfaces. Historically speaking, painting about the way the world looks would be retrograde.

Strictly, it was not necessary by this logic, save for purposes of emphasis, that painting be abstract; it could be representational so long as it was not about whatever it represented. I think Willem de Kooning caught this point when he said, in 1963, in regard to his famous paintings of women, that it was of course absurd to paint the figure—but then it was no less absurd not to. But in 1953, when those works were first exhibited, they were widely seen as betrayals. I think it impossible to convey to an audience of today the atmosphere of dogma that defined art-world discourse in those years. Critical debate would be advanced in such phrases as “You can’t do that!,” or in a phrase that continues to appear in conservative critical writing, “That is not art!” (usually said of something that couldn’t be anything but art in any obvious sense). In painting in the ’50s there was thought to be only one true historical possibility: what one must call materialist abstraction, because it was about the materials of painting and nothing else. Objective pluralism as I understand it, though, means that there are no historical possibilities truer than any other. It is, if you like, a period of artistic entropy, or historical disorder.

Posthistorical abstraction was but one of a number of esthetic possibilities in 1990, a quarter century after a philosophical answer to the question of art became available that liberated artists to do anything or everything. Here is a vivid recollection by a German artist, Hermann Albert, of the moment when what I would call posthistory dawned on him:

In the summer of 1972 I was in Florence for a while, and one weekend I went on a trip to the mountains with some colleagues. We got out of the car and there we were standing in the Tuscan countryside, with cypress trees, the olive groves and the old houses—it was harmony. . . . The sun was setting and soon it was out of sight, but the rays of sunlight were still, illuminating the countryside obliquely, the shadows were getting longer and longer, and you could sense the approach of nightfall although it was really still daytime. We stood there, with our own consciousness, looking at this dramatic spectacle, and suddenly one of us said “Its a pity you can’t paint that anymore these days.” That had been a key word I’d heard ever since I started trying to be a painter. And I said to him, out of pure impudence: “Why can’t you? You can do everything.” It was only after I’d said it that I realized what had initially been a piece of provocation was really true. Why should anyone tell me I can’t paint a sunset?1

I want to underscore the date—1972. And I want to underscore the marvelous defiance of Albert’s “You can do everything.” The rejection of abstraction was particularly charged for a German artist, since Germans had taken up abstraction as a way of reentering the community of Western culture after World War II. They embraced abstraction, after all an American export, as a way of endorsing the values of the victors. So when Albert said “You can do everything,” he in effect was saying that it was now possible to be a figurative artist in Germany without being a Nazi.

But “You can do everything” almost defines the decade of the ’70s. The art schools then were filled with unsuccessful Abstract Expressionists, painters who sought to transmit the teaching of Greenberg and of Hans Hofmann, who insisted that a painting is not a window, and that it was a crime against painting to “poke holes” in canvas. Eva Hesse and Robert Mapplethorpe both reported having been exposed to that kind of dogmatic instruction when students. And in different ways each of them enacted in their work the belief that you can do everything.

The ’70s is a fascinating period whose art history is as yet uncharted, but it is certainly, as I see it, the first full decade of posthistorical art. It was marked by the fact that no single movement was its key, as Abstract Expressionism was for the ’50s, Pop art for the ’60s—and, delusionally, neo-Expressionism for the ’80s. And so it is easy to write it off as a decade in which nothing happened, when in fact it was a decade in which what happened was everything. It was a golden age that seemed to those who lived through it to be anything but golden. And my sense is that what gave it that character was the objective pluralist structure of posthistory: it was no longer necessary to pursue the material truth of art. Or, rather, a lot of artists continued to accept the materialist ideal, but also felt that that ideal no longer responded to anything they were interested in, and they perused what they were interested in whether it was “really” art or not. That gave them an immense freedom, and since the gallery structure, with marginal exceptions, had no place for anything except what was “really” art, they had no special expectation anyway of fame or fortune. They could live fairly cheaply, and do what they did for a small circle of like-minded persons. A lot of the cultural politics of the time in any case turned artists away from the institutions of the art world toward other, less commercial venues.

Another kind of politics began to ascend in that period, its best example a certain kind of feminism, one that calls in question the sort of painting that culminated, on Greenberg’s theory, in materialist abstraction. The question began to be raised as to whether such art was at all the appropriate vehicle for feminine creativity, whether, in fact, it was not a form of false consciousness for women to seek to excel in something that was possibly just a form of expression created by males as the instrument of a male ethos. And analogous arguments sprang up through which various excluded minorities sought to express themselves in terms they felt corresponded to their condition, or, alternately, to their identities. I don’t say this was altogether explicit in the ’70s, but the tendencies emerged then, and crystallized, at least in New York, in the “Decade Show” in 1990 at the New Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art—a show that marginalized (guess what?) easel painting. The reasons, certainly, were different from those that prevailed in Berlin in 1920 or in Moscow in 1921 or in Mexico in 1942. But it has been the mark of a certain form of politicized art in this century to villainize easel painting, and the charge that such art is a Eurocentric white-male expression is only the latest form the politics has taken.

So the slogan “You can do everything!” is often politically qualified in practice. In my own contribution to the Tema Celeste colloquium, I talked about abstract painting as a possibility in the accommodating framework of objective pluralism, and a correspondent scolded me for underestimating the kinds of pressures there are on an artist who wants to be an abstract painter to produce work more feministically acceptable. (The writer was a woman.) There is beyond question a great deal of such pressure in the art world today, especially when one factors in the understandable desire to make art acceptable to critics and institutions and programs with a clear political agenda. To this I have no response. Causes are causes. The only respect in which “You can do everything” is true is that of a philosophy of art history of the kind I have tried to develop here, but it is consistent with this that all sorts of causes, political and otherwise, should be entering into the explanation of art.

I want to conclude on two notes. The first concerns abstract painting today. Abstraction is no longer the bearer of destiny in anyone’s mind; it is but one of the things an artist can do. Many representational artists feel no conflict with it, and certainly none of the ostracizing kinds of conflict they felt in the ’50s. Indeed, since a feeling of marginalization within the art world is felt by painters both abstract and representational, the two camps, bitterly divided in the Greenberg era, find the differences between them negligible today by comparison with the differences between either of them and performance, say, or installation.

And there is in any case a difference between abstraction and formalism. Some of the best abstract artists I know feel that one does not leave meaning behind when one becomes an abstract painter, and that abstract art can often carry meanings of a kind unavailable to figurative art. In an interview with Carter Ratcliff, Sean Scully says of his ’70s abstractions that he needed to paint “severe, invulnerable canvases, so I could be in this environment [New York] and not feel exposed. I spent five years making my paintings fortresslike.” The statement connects formal properties with personal feelings, and confessionalizes the work in an extraordinary way. And when Scully says, “Recently I’ve been more interested in having my painting be more vulnerable,” he makes plain that a great deal more than a shift in style is involved in the transition from his relentlessly thin stripes of the ’70s to the almost organic dilating and brushy stripes of his later work. It marks rather a shift in life.

My second point is that “doing everything” is distributed across the whole face of the art world, as if by a division of labor. But the most interesting artists in this respect, I think, and artists who, moreover, have no easily identified predecessors, are those who do everything themselves, and in whose oeuvre there is in consequence a certain magnificent openness. Many of these artists are German—I have in mind Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and perhaps Rosemarie Trockel. Richter’s abstractions are in shows of contemporary abstraction; Polke does large cloudy abstractions, almost as if exemplars of the material abstraction of an earlier time. But we have to ask in both cases what abstraction means, given that one of these artists did breathtaking images of the deaths of the Baader-Meinhof leaders, and the other has produced montages using photographs, but also engravings from other times, paintings from other cultures, and what look like stylizations of 15th-century calligraphy. A show of Richter or, for that matter, of Trockel looks like a group show, and in their resolute self-distancing from a marked visual style, their readiness to use whatever they require for whatever purpose, their blank disregard for purity, and their spirit of absolute free play, these artists embody the posthistorical mentality We are about as far from material abstraction as can readily be imagined.

Arthur C. Danto

Author’s note: this essay was delivered as a lecture at the School of Visual Arts, New York, on 18 February 1993. I am grateful to Jeanne Siegel for having given me this chance to pull together some thoughts on the end of art.


1. Hermann Albert, quoted in T. Krens, M. Govan, and J. Thompson, eds., Refigured Painting: The German Image, 1960–1988, exhibition catalogue, New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Munich: Prestel, 1989, p. 252.