The Banality of Art? – a conversation with the late Arthur C. Danto on the proper orientation of Aesthetics- or Why beauty cannot be reduced out of Art

Aesthetics Philosophy of the Arts, Films for the Humanities and Sciences © 2004

I discovered the above video the other day on YouTube:  Aesthetics, Philosophy of the Arts, it seemed interesting and with high production values so I gave it a viddy.

This video turned out to be a very well produced and presented hour long survey of the theories of Aesthetics in Western Art since Socrates.  A narrator takes us through a well worded and satisfactory tour of the arguments, and a couple of talking head philosophers, in the persons of Alexander Nehamas of Princeton and the late Arthur C. Danto who was emereri at Princeton, add commentary and fill in some of the details.

I enjoyed what Prof. Nehamas had to add very much, he had an avuncular manner that was easy to follow, but found I was having some trouble with Prof. Danto both with his manner generally, and later with what he had to say when he moved into his own era and work as a philosopher in the 1960’s.  I found myself developing a somewhat testy dialogue with the Dead Prof. hoping to point out that even though one may push a particular theoretical or philosophical paradigm to the limit where is breaks, or is somehow formally completed, doesn’t mean that the paradigm and its various developmental modes suddenly loses utility or there aren’t other perfectly valid paradigms to pursue.

There is a difference between stretching the boundaries of a definition of a word to their logical limit, and breaking the boundaries of that definition so that there is no longer a logical use for it.

~ ϕ

I found the video presentation informative and I highly recommend it if you have about an hour for art’s sake.  I invite you to take a look now.

Ok, you’re back –  or still here.

Now you get to have that dialogue inflicted on you – if you are willing to put up with it.

To be as fair as possible to the dead Prof. I have transcribed all of his commentary from the video presentation for your perusal into blockquotes, whether or not I found them to be particularly contestable or not – with my thoughts and comments inserted between.  I’ve also placed time marks in the quotes so you can find the relevant sections in the video easily if that is your will.

The audio is also a little rough, and Prof. Danto’s halting, stammering style a little takes a bit of getting used to, I’ve tried as faithfully as possible to capture its quirks fairly without rendering all of the “uhs” and “ahs” – you can discover his gesticulations for yourself in the video.

On the subject of Plato’s conception of the role of Art and Artist

“A society would be well served not to have any of them… and in any case they should not… no be, ah… given the task of educating the youth… in the end I think he though philosophers should be, since philosophers are the ones who presumably know to tell the difference between reality and illusion.” ~ [Arthur C. Danto – 6:25]

A society of, by, and for the aristocratic Philosophers? seems a pretty fair rendition of Plato, and more or less the reason I don’t like or trust him very much.  Seems to me the youth of a society might have much to learn from Artists about how to authentically exteriorize their own internal workings, both to understand them themselves, and to communicate them to the outside world because much, or most of our interior state is ineffable, and cannot be rendered fairly in words, and because they arise out of states that are either per-linguistic or non-linguistic.

On Kant – Critique of Practical Reason

“The critique of aesthetic judgement, Kant says… there’s almost nothing you can’t treat beautifully in a painting or a poem… war… the Furies… he gives a list of things that you can actually present as beautiful even though in actual fact they are pretty ugly.  [He said] the only ugliness that cannot be beautified… is the disgusting.  Fascinating idea.  And I think…  he probably, he doesn’t elaborate on it.  I think he probably had a fairly psychological theory about beauty, in which pleasure plays a certain component, and… the disgusting… causes pain, and pain in the sense you… it’s in the nature of the disgusting we want to expel it… get it out… spit it out, vomit.  And, so… pretty interesting idea.  He talks about… he even says, beauty – not uglification – because the ugly can be beautified.  But the disgusting is the real antimony.  And he did elaborate on that, in an earlier book.”  ~ [Arthur C. Danto – 16:33]

This is a fairly straightforward, if slightly disorganized, account of Kant’s proposition that, in contrast to Baumgarten and the rationalists, that Aesthetic judgment is not rule bound, rather, as with Hutcheson, they are subjective because they are based on a feeling, which while maybe widely shared [in good taste], are subject to inevitable change.

“As long as the realms of nature and freedom are separated, the individual is torn apart, he is the citizen of two kingdoms.  Kant claimed that the aesthetic experience makes possible the reconciliation of Nature’s determinism, with Human moral freedom.  The aesthetic experience is constrained neither by natural law nor by moral law.  In that playing area sensibility and reason are brought together by means of the imagination.” ~ [narrator 15:10]

There is a certain truthiness to this formulation, one important aspect being Kant’s recognition of the aesthetic experience as being an experience – as opposed to some type of platonic, metaphysical fact to be discovered or deduced by reason.

On Hegel – Lectures on Aesthetics

“Hegel, who I think his greatest book is the Aesthetics… but the whole point of the Aesthetics is to argue that we don’t need art any longer, that it’s come to an end, actually… it was alright for a certain time when human beings were… before philosophy had become strong enough to handle the kinds of questions that art could handle… Hegle had… this wonderful idea that in terms of “highest interest of the spirit,” that’s his language… uh… ah… Art was able to present the values that defined human life… in symbolic embodiments, in statuary and images, and that human beings were deeply dependent upon images for their instruction in the meaning of life after all Hegel came at a certain point in the history of Christianity where the whole effort of the Church was to present in very vivid form the teachings of the Church.  Hegel thought that… we’d reached a point now where we don’t need that, it’s almost as if that belongs to the childhood of humanity.”   ~ [Arthur C. Danto – 16:33]

I can see I’m going to have to go back and do a close re-reading of the Aesthetics, because I feel unsure if, that while Hegel saw the historical dialectic of Art and Aesthetics as a completed process, a closed book, he didn’t think that the book was not still useful to keep on the shelf as a heuristic, or as a mode of communicating the ineffable and subjective experience of the Absolute that were otherwise impossible to communicate in words.

Prof. Danto apparently argues elsewhere along these Hegelian lines that Art about the: End of Art, which again, I’m going to have to go back for a close reading of what he actually meant by this, but I will suggest that both the Dead Prof. and Hegel may have been evolutionally myopic because a supposedly complete evolutionary process, especially one in the Human domain, may be reorganized and reintegrated at a more novel, higher, more complex level.  For instance the previous Hegelian cycle operating at the cultural level may have dropped down to the individual level, where every individual must now pass through and integrate all of those levels him or her self now that it has been made philosophically possible.

In any case, just after this, when we get into the modern avant guarde, post-expresivistic, and institutional theories of Art that Prof. Danto and I start to part company, when the discussion of Beauty is dropped from the philosophical discussion of Aesthetics completely.

On The Loss of Beauty

“Beauty has been off the table for a long time I’d say.  Certainly nobody talked about it in the ’60’s.  If you… and I think it was really interesting that Beauty disappeared, not merely… not merely from…. the definitions, the discourse… from the advanced philosophical discourse on Art.  A hand full of analytical philosophers: Richard Derheim, George Dickie… one or two others, and myself, we never talked about beauty, and I think in my case I thought it was a good thing not to; I didn’t think anybody knew how to handle it….”  ~ [Arthur C. Danto – 34:55]

But that is what the Artist and Art are there for isn’t it? – to handle it!?

Apparently analytical philosophers can no longer handle it.  And I don’t think that is a good thing for Philosophy or Art.  Danto’s predecessors certainly had some good ideas about how to handle it; what went wrong in the ’60s??  Too many drugs? the wrong sort of drugs?  Or just too much bad art?  Brillo boxes? that could kill just about any academic discipline.

“But I didn’t seem to need it any time when I was working these things out.” ~ [Arthur C. Danto]

Couldn’t figure out, or notice, that when you take Beauty off the table Aesthetics goes out the window with it?  Or, maybe this was the point.  That leaves you with what? an empty set? a blank? the banal?

“And not merely did it disappear from philosophy, it disappeared from Art in toto because by the end of the ’60’s there was a general consensus that a work of art can look like anything so its not necessarily going to be beautiful.  And since… it doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful, it just isn’t any longer considered a necessary condition…” ~ [Arthur C. Danto]

Ok, here we accept that the set Art has to stretched to include the banal, previously Art’s antithesis, which does what?  Seems to leave both the philosopher of Art and Aesthetics and the Artist without a job.

“So, it disappears from Art because artists were very involved in expanding in what they were after, and it disappears from philosophy, because any philosopher who is keeping up with what is happening would realize that there was no place for it in the definitions.” ~ [Arthur C. Danto]

Congratulations to analytical philosophy for so successfully deconstructing the definition of Art that they have successfully eradicated both Beauty and its discussion from Aesthetics.  Remove Aesthetics, of which Beauty is one orientation on the scale, from the field and leave no boundary at all left between Art and the banal, and no way to say which is better. After all, how can you say that Art cannot be banal if you eliminate Beauty and Aesthetics as words without any relevance, use, or meaning?

This reminds me a bit of Sartre who somehow lost God out of his pocket while crossing the street – a very unfortunate loss.

If one were to propose a phenomenological definition of Art and the artists activity say: “Art is the externalization of the soul of the artist.”  Then one can say that a work which successfully reveals the artist to be a banal nincompoop can be Art – if not very good Art –  and there may be some beauty to found there.  See? Beauty slips back into the discussion through the keyhole.

Of course, if a work reveals that the creator has no soul at all and is simply an edifice of banal poppycock, then not-Art.  And that can apply to both artists and philosophers.

For Aesthetics to lose Beauty, is for Religion to lose God, or Philosophy Truth – its correct orientation.  ~ ϕ

What we have to recognize is that the principle of Beauty is what gives Aesthetics its proper orientation.  If you can accept an intrinsic scale of Aesthetics ranging from the disgustingly pornographic to the sublime as being the natural range of human expression, then it is the concept of Beauty which gives the Artist and Society the correct orientation in which we ought to move – without necessarily invalidating any particular expression.

This once I’ll give Prof. Nehamas’ thoughts on this topic:

“…When you like something in this way [Art] you literally change your life on its account.  And, the question is, ‘What effect does that have in the long run?’  And many people think, that well, if Art is to be appreciated then it should have good effects, and by good I mean morally good.”

~ [Alexander Nehamas – 47:10]

That’s good, I’ll add that the presentation of the vile and repulsive in Art can have this morally good effect if it leads to the turning away from the acting out of the vile and repulsive in life.  Indeed Meme Merchants have argued this directly when in Wygart’s analysis of Holocaust cinema where he declares that striking the right note of horror is a morally essential part of the Art:  A Tale of Two Secrets Part2 – The Horror – How to get it right  – to provide the right moral orientation to the work.

4’33” of John Cage

Cage, I mean, did it in a… profound, even revolutionary way… when in 1952 he, ah, presented at a concert, a piece, a famous piece, called Four Minutes Thirty Three seconds where the piano sits in front… of the piano, closes the cover… counts out how many beats for the first movement, opens it… there are three movements, there’s four, I forget… but there are four minutes thirty three seconds and the thing is that in four minutes thirty three seconds it’s not that there is silence, its just that there’s nothing that you would think of as piano sounds… its all the other sounds: the coughs, the yawns, the burps, the car horns passing in the street, the sounds of birds – all that, which we just… erase from the… our experience.”  ~ [Arthur C. Danto, 51:35]

Congratulations again, the banal successfully presented as Art.  Yes, by this measure Cage’s 4’33” very literally is the banal presented as “Art”, unless Prof. Danto forgot to mention that it was merely a critique of Art, which of course makes it not-Art.

“In Cage’s piece, that is the experience.  And very profound… a little bit of a riot when that piece was first presented, because people expected to listen to the piano.  But Cage is saying listen to the world… that’s really pretty interesting.” ~ [Arthur C. Danto]

Interesting, but not-Art.

So, what Cage was doing, was really doing, was playing formal games with the idea of Art – which is not-Art.  Now you may, if you wish, do that in an attempt to make some point about Art, or the rest of the phenomenal world surrounding around the Art, or the experience of the Art: perhaps that there may be some process of intensification of attention upon the experience, a filtering or exclusion of other sensations in the experience of Art – fine, dandy – but that is not-Art, not the ding an sich, so here we all are again, suddenly back at Kant.

My point here, is that if you do call this Art, I am allowed to bring in my previous phenomenological definition of Art – Art as the externalization of the soul of the Artist – as a razor to show how much soul has been revealed – or if there is anything of soul at all in the work, or show maybe it’s just an intellectual dodge or a ruse pretending to be Art.  Or then again, maybe we decide that the performer is being being vapid and banal, to be congratulated only for having been the first person to successfully fall into that particular pit.

Ok, it is fair to explore the white spaces around the edged of the map of Art, so now we all know ‘there be dragons there’ and not venture too far into the void ourselves unless we want to wind up as footnotes in somebody’s survey course in Great Mistakes in Philosophy.  This begs to a profound question about Art that analytic philosophy seems to have abandoned:  how can Art evoke meaning in the Artist and others participating in experiencing it when other incidental phenomena: like car horns and belches ordinarily do not? [and did they suddenly in this case?]  What attracts our attention so?  What is the source of this appetition?  What is its faculty?  Where resides the will to Art?   Why do some of us feel so violated when our expectations about this are disappointed?

Consider the difference between Music and noise for instance, well, signal theory for one tells us that music is latent with a signal, a detectable patterning encoded with meaning, which can be transmitted and read.  On the other hand noise almost by definition has no signal.  For instance, even if you wanted to use a random string of arbitrary length as simple on/off signal it must, be distinguishable from other random strings to be interpretable as the correct signal, which means guess what, its a signal, it is encoded with meaning and no longer completely random or arbitrary it is governed by some kind of a rule.

Art is a verb, it is the intentional imbuing of meaning and intention into matter or time that is sensible to self and others.  ~ φ

Does drawing attention away from Music itself make the otherwise incidental and unintended noise meaningful as Art?  Is that distraction sufficient in and of itself to call it Art?  Is a pretty sunset Art?  A sunset can be supremely Beautiful, but is that what makes it by this new definition Art?  Does someone calling you away from the piano to the window to see the sunset become suddenly the artist and the window the frame of the exhibit?  Is everything else in the phenomenological world suddenly promoted to Art by this interpretation?  Or does Art have something to do with our human intentional productions in response to the interplay between the phenomenal world and our interior life – our souls in other words.

There is so much more that can be said about all of this, there is work for both Artists and Philosophers yet to do apparently.  And the Scientists are starting to weigh in on the subject – so watch out!

Now, just to be fair, I will now rescue Cage from the soulless abyss.  What Prof. Danto forgot to talk about was that 4’33” was a performance, and therefore could be examined as such:  was it any good?  did Cage convincingly pantomime the actions and noises of a pianist?  Was he able to evoke any sense of meaning, or his own soul as artist and performer, or even just entertain us?  Suddenly all of the two thousand plus years of Aesthetic theory and judgement come fully back into play, and Beauty too through the keyhole.  So here we all are again back at Aristotle’s Poetics.

Did John Cage succeed?  Judge for yourself:

Myself, I prefer Jorge Bolet

I get boredom and irritation from one piano performance – tears for the other.  How about you??

Prof. Danto’s famous Brillo box encounter

“In the ’60’s in particular, things changed in a pretty radical way… uh… ah… I had this very powerful experience, which I’ve written about more than once, going to this exhibition of… Warhol, Andy Warhol, at the Stable Gallery, which was East 74th St. in New York.  That was a show that everyone was talking about’.  They say, ‘Have you seen Warhol’s show?’  It was that… it created like the tom-toms in the art world, you couldn’t function without seeing that show.  So, ah…  I went into this show, and these piles, of what looked like… cartons from the supermarket… I’ve written about the Brillo box quite a lot, but there was a Kellogg Cornflakes box, Heinz Catsup box, a Delmonte Peach Half box.  There they were all neatly piled up, in the two rooms of the Stable Gallery.  Which has since become, by the way, incorporated into the Whitney Museum, that space but, at that time it was a very important avant-garde gallery, the Stable Gallery.  And, I just, just… it was a revelation to me, because I thought that… for the first tine I could see how to think philosophically about Art… I’d never known how, and as I said, there was nothing in the literature that would have taught me how. But, here was this question just made to order.  I mean here were these Brillo boxes and they were in an Art gallery, and they were being sold as art works, and they looked exactly like… supermarket cartons, that had no standing as art at all.  They were just what I call, “mere real things,” just utilitarian objects out of life and so.  And, I thought well, “Where is the  difference between the two?” And that seemed to me to be an incredible question.  It could never have been asked before.”

~ [Arthur C. Danto – 39:15]

The whole episode smacks to me of a magic wand being waved over the situation, or maybe the demand that there should be such a magic wand.  ‘It is Art because I say it is Art.’  Stack Brillo boxes one on another at the Stable Gallery, get a bunch of people to look at it and presto-chango! – Art.  Seems somehow tautological, if not down right magical. Change the words, change the context, change the reality.  Question is, is there really such a magic wand, who gets to use it, and does it really work?  [or for how long]  This is why for Meme Merchants most of Warhol’s antics smacks of a rather shallow intellectual dodge – not-Art.  The formula goes: If I present something as Art, say that it is Art, trick you into believing that it is Art – then it actually is Art.  This is the precise formula of the Emperor’s new clothes by the way.

“It could never have been asked before.”  Did Warhol ask the question I wonder?  Maybe someone who knows can supply an answer in comments.  Obviously he had an intense drive to up-end the standard conventions, but how much Art, and how much was something else?  The 10^256 power monkeys who collectively bang out the perfect quarto of Hamlet, is it Art if it is solely the product of chance?  Is Volition a necessary condition for Art?  Now, to the extent that Andy Warhol may have produced something artful in the arrangement of the stacks off of grocery store shelves, how can aesthetic theory help orient us in how to proceed in this direction or away from this new trend?

“Inevitably, the avant-garde was sucked into mainstream culture.”  [narrator – 42:02]

Art world.” “You couldn’t function without seeing that show.”  An interesting way to reframe the effect of the Stable show:  the most radical and avant-guard, immediately promoted to the new definition of conventional taste.  Instant new good taste?  Was this  avant-garde as coup d’état of the new conventionality?  I don’t know, but this seems to be how it often functions.  Reformation, counter reformation…  Another way to reframe our view the 60’s revolution is the collapse of the avant-garde into the institutional fine art world.

Which gives us another way to look at Danto’s experience, that of a variation of the psychedelic experience, in other words, the experience of previous boundaries and categories forcefully and completely dissolved, but then reestablished at a new location, immediately after the trip.

The ornithology metaphor

“And, the philosopher should be able to help people to think a little more clearly, but at the same time you have to be careful, go back to that, that issue of… Barnett Newman, and aesthetics and the art of the… Ornithology is for the Birds.  I think the people in aesthetics thought that’s what they should be doing.  And, I think Newman would say they thought, ‘here’s the exhibition and here are the artists’, and that’s like saying, ‘here are the Ornithologists, and the birds all line up, and the Ornithologist lectures them all on what it’s like to be a bird… and they don’t need Ornithologists for that.  ~  [Arthur C. Danto – 47:35]

I think we all understand how that simile was supposed to have come out:  that the Philosopher telling the Artist how to do aesthetics is like the Ornithologist telling the birds how to be birds, silly – I fully agree.  It’s the philosopher’s task to try and figure out what the Art is is actually up to and make some sense of it in the larger picture of life and meaning, but let the Artists do the Art. On the other hand Artists have to accept that they don’t have sole the controls of Aesthetic Theory – this the proper domain of Philosophers, with possibly some input from the Sciences now needing to be incorporated – if we are to be able to grapple with the problem of the intentional fallacy that is.

The problem of intentions

During the first half of the twentieth century, a significant shift to general aesthetic theory took place which attempted to apply aesthetic theory between various forms of art, including the literary arts and the visual arts, to each other. This resulted in the rise of the New Criticism school and debate concerning the intentional fallacy. At issue was the question of whether the aesthetic intentions of the artist in creating the work of art, whatever its specific form, should be associated with the criticism and evaluation of the final product of the work of art, or, if the work of art should be evaluated on its own merits independent of the intentions of the artist.  [Wikipedia]

When I was in Architecture school, at the Fingerlakes Academy for the Advanced Worship of Corbusier I was privileged to be present for, possibly, the most brilliant statement of aesthetic criticism in modern design of the 20th century – really.

I’ll tell you the story.

This was first year, so we as students weren’t supposed to be brilliant, but we were supposed to be a little on the ball.  I was perhaps a little more on the ball than some being rather older than the others, having previous college degree and some worldly experience.  We were having a ‘pin-up’, a minor review of our current works in progress.  There was a great deal of tension in the room as there usually was for a crit session, one unfortunate student who’s work was the current center of attention was floundering badly.  Everyone present was gathered around her drawings pinned to the wall and little models perched on chairs in front trying to make some connection from what she was saying about her work – poor thing – to her design as it existed on paper.   At that point one of the Teaching Assistants, a Masters student from the recently reunified Germany commented:

“It is somehow random.”

This, of course shattered the tension everyone in the room was feeling like a lightning bolt, the tension between the muddled design and the muddled linguistic description that the young designer was trying to pour over the mess pinned to the wall in a vain effort to un-muddle it.  Fortunately nobody laughed out loud, or the student might have shattered as well, but we all leaned deeply a lesson that is hard to learn any other way:

The Artist cannot put into the work with words that was not put there with Art. ~ φ

A design, or a piece of Art is what it is as object or performance regardless of good intentions, and what it is is what the Artist has actually put into it – plus what the rest of us can get out of it.  Now obviously what all of this means open to interpretation, and peculiar to each individual, but if it ain’t there in the first place, you can’t put it there with words ex post facto.

Towards an integral paradigm of Art

I think I have shown, at least as a first effort, that there is no good reason to suppose that we are done with Art as individuals or as a civilization, or that philosophers are done with theories of Aesthetics.  At the very least it seems safe to say that the process of Art and it’s intellectual understanding have been democratized down to the level where it is the role of each individual to work through all of the Hegelian levels and stages of Art, Artist, and interpreter of Art.

If it can indeed be said that the previous paradigm of Art and Aesthetics is fully complete, that then invokes a requirement to create a new paradigm at a higher, more sophisticated level of organization, that of a fully integral way of being as human and Artist that will serve man and mankind that will give a correct orientation for physical culture, aesthetic culture, social culture, political, and intellectual culture.

~ Atani


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