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PRINT March 2014

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Arthur C. Danto

IT WAS A SNOWY DAY in January 1994 when I knocked on the door of Professor Arthur C. Danto’s office at Columbia University for the first time. He opened it and looked at me with his strangely squinting eyes. I introduced myself as the new guest student from Sweden. “Terrific,” he said—I should definitely meet his Swedish wife. And that very night, unlikely as this might sound, I found myself having martinis at Danto’s apartment on Riverside Drive, with his not-so-Swedish but delightful wife, artist Barbara Westman. They had just been in Stockholm, it turned out, invited by the Nobel Foundation, and had ended up at a wild party at the house of legendary art critic Ulf Linde. I was anxious to discuss my future at Columbia’s philosophy department—would I be allowed to join the meetings of Danto’s Heidegger circle? But my host preferred to query me regarding his eccentric acquaintance, wondering about Linde’s skills as a jazz vibraphonist, his grandiose drinking habits, and his collaborations with Marcel Duchamp.

I realize in retrospect that I could not have encountered a more generous guide to the intellectual circles of my new city. One weekend Danto would introduce me to illustrious friends such as Susan Sontag and Richard Rorty, and another to the editors of this magazine. I had come to New York to finish a philosophy dissertation, and eventually did, but through his own example Danto altered my understanding of what practicing this discipline could mean. He demonstrated that it is possible to be at once a first-rate analytic philosopher (and president of the American Philosophical Society), a public intellectual, and an influential critic (who reviewed art exhibitions in The Nation on a regular basis and became a contributing editor of Artforum in 1998). Indeed, he is so widely recognized for his impact on the field of art today that we sometimes forget the tremendous impact his watershed publications such as Narration and Knowledge had on the field of philosophy.

For Danto, these identities were not separate: They were all intimately connected and part of a mission that had not existed until the moment he realized its necessity and urgency. In conversation, he was the kindest and most generous of people: curious about everything, always enthusiastic about what others had to say. His philosophical self-understanding, however, was not humble. Art and philosophy had, he believed, entered a unprecedented phase. The key witness, the first one to articulate this new historical constellation, was none other than Danto himself.

In the moment of this recognition, Danto became an American Hegel. Just like his nineteenth-century predecessor, he believed that the infinitude of the Geist (Spirit), or the ostensibly universal ethos of an age, could be gleaned from its necessarily finite material manifestations. In his case, the Spirit became manifest in front of an artwork in Manhattan, a piece that looked just like a mass-produced commodity. Having practiced as an artist himself before moving on to philosophy (specializing in woodcuts, as archaic as that may now seem), Danto was at home in the worlds of both; there was nothing unusual about his casual visit to the Stable Gallery on East Seventy-Fourth Street that day in 1964, when Andy Warhol had transformed the space into something like a supermarket. And yet there is no doubt that this was the most important day in Danto’s intellectual life. It changed everything. He had seen the final state of art—the moment that art merged into philosophy and vice versa—in the shape of a Brillo box, and he fell in love with it.

Danto liked recounting the filmmaker Emile de Antonio’s visit to Warhol’s studio. Inspecting two new pictures of Coke bottles, one with a surfeit of Abstract Expressionist marks on it, the other a straightforward black-and-white rendering, de Antonio declared: “Come on, Andy, the abstract one is a piece of shit, the other one is remarkable—it’s our society, it’s who we are, it’s absolutely beautiful and naked, and you ought to destroy the first one and show the other.” This same fascination with who we are, a love of the society that others find so easy to dismiss as superficial and commercialized, is what animates Danto’s writings. For someone like myself, brought up with a gloomy Frankfurt School approach to the culture industry, his optimism was a challenge. With very few exceptions—a fierce review of Bruce Nauman is the one I remember—Danto wrote only about things he liked. He did not waste his readers’ time revealing artistic disappointments. While this sometimes created the sense that his version of posthistorical pluralism was an overly benevolent, anything-goes approach, that was not the case. Yet his enthusiasm was unique.

In Danto’s view, the advanced art produced since the 1960s (Warhol’s works always provided the key example) showed that art and philosophy were “ready for one another.” And more importantly, as he put it in the introduction to his magnum opus, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), it was at that point that art and philosophy became mutually dependent; they “needed one another to tell themselves apart.” In fact, even before the Pop era, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades had instilled a dimension of philosophical reflection into the very heart of art by transforming ordinary objects into works of art. And so in almost every one of Danto’s critical essays, one finds a sentence like the following from The Madonna of the Future (2000), focusing on his central conundrum: “The difference between artworks and mere objects is momentous, but it cannot rest on anything that meets the eye.” Only philosophy can show us this difference.

Certainly, the dialogue between philosophy and art didn’t originate with Danto’s Warholian epiphany—some would even claim that post-Kantian thought all the way up to Adorno is inconceivable without perpetual attempts to bridge the gap between the realm of knowledge and that of aesthetic experience. Danto’s teacher during his studies in Paris from 1949 to 1950, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, famously believed in a fruitful exchange between philosophy and painting, especially that of Paul Cézanne. Other key modernist thinkers privileged music, poetry, or film. Yet Danto’s version of the philosophy-art conversation is different in that it involves a more encompassing transformation of the world of ordinary objects that surrounds us. It seems to redeem the mass-produced commercial environment of which most modern thinkers have taught us to be skeptical. That is Warhol’s power captured in a few words, and soon Danto would find his intellectual life drawn into what he, in his 2009 book on the artist, referred to as “the most mysterious transformation in the history of artistic creativity.”

Danto took great pride in being a thinker in the tradition of Hume and Wittgenstein, and he wanted his style to display the same clarity. Analytic philosophy can be pedantic and boring, even technocratic in its hair-splitting attention to logical minutiae. But Danto’s writing isn’t boring at all. It displays a sparkle and appeal rooted in its great speculative power. In spite of Danto’s love for the skeptical tradition, his essays on art were thought experiments—he referred to them as “pieces of disguised philosophy”—each one designed specifically for the artwork at hand. And the art-historical legacy of this experimental output has been profound. In 1964 he coined the term art world, a notion so ubiquitous today that we forget someone invented it. With this invention, he inadvertently gave birth to what has since been called the institutional theory of art, a rather dull doctrine systematized by others, whom Danto—in good Oedipal fashion—chose to criticize relentlessly, since he didn’t believe that the philosophy of art should, as he put it, “yield herself to him I am said to have fathered.”

I kept seeing Danto in New York and sometimes in Europe; I reviewed a few of his books, to which he always responded with amusing notes. I tried, with little success, to interest him in the artist Sturtevant’s repetitions of Warhol. (I remember his reply: “Oh, Daniel, that’s so interesting. It would be worth an entire footnote.” I’m sure it would have been quite a footnote had he written it.) He wasn’t so pleased, perhaps, when I didn’t take his comparison between Warhol’s boxes and the Holy Grail entirely seriously in a review in these pages and called his 2009 book Andy Warhol the “Gospel according to Arthur,” in which Saint Andy promises us redemption through repetition. The power of the Grail is that it is one. The power of the Brillo Boxes, on the other hand, lies in repetition, in the fact that there are many. But I’m not sure how open Danto was to this dimension of their influence. I remember that he was quite agitated when the scandal surrounding the production of fake Brillo Boxes erupted in 2007, which perhaps showed that there could indeed be too many of these treasured objects, one of which, I recall, he had in his own apartment.

Some of the fake boxes, now reduced to the status of exhibition material, are in the possession of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the museum that once premiered the authentic ones in Europe and that owns other philosophically puzzling objects, such as replicas of Duchamp’s readymades signed by the artist. When I became the museum’s director some years ago, Danto sent me a friendly letter claiming, in good professorial manner, that he believed me to be “philosophically well prepared” to sort out the mess. How I wish we could have done it together. It would have been such a joy!

Daniel Birnbaum is director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and a contributing editor of Artforum.