What is the difference between a Brillo Box and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box? Both are soap pad boxes from the sixties, yet one is art, and the other is not art. Simple answer that raises many more questions about the nature of art. Although not with us anymore, these are questions that motivated Arthur Danto, a New Yorker who loved the art world of the city, and a Columbia University Professor, to develop a philosophical account of art.
Arthur Danto, a well-recognized art critic for The Nation died in October. I looked him up, and noticed that most of the articles recently written about him attempt to summarize his theory of art. But I found that they are either too philosophical (thus, too academic and dense) or not philosophical enough (thus, unable to grasp what his general art theory was.) So I wanted to say farewell to Danto myself, writing from the perspective of a philosopher who was in academia and enjoys dialogue with those outside of it, explaining in very general terms what was so interesting about Danto’s philosophy of art.
Let us start with an example of the sort Danto would probably use (if he had a sister) regarding indiscernible objects: My sister is an artist. In her preparation for an art show, she has been growing crystals over pieces of rope. I was recently working with her at the studio and wanted to place my computer on top of the table. There where pieces of rope over the table and I did not want to touch them in fear of displacing any artworks, so I asked her “can I move this piece?” With an answer of “yeah, that’s just rope” she grabbed it and threw it to the side, for me to have some space in the table.
Had she forgotten to clarify that it was “just rope” I would have assumed the piece was a future art project, and left it there, finding somewhere else to work. I also remember how once when I was visiting, she left some hibiscus leaves submerged in bright red water, which I was about to throw out to start washing dishes, until she asked that I leave those to the side, because she was about to make a video with them.
This level of indiscernibility between art and objects is what drives many audiences to mock contemporary art for a variety of reasons. At a mainstream level, many of the reader comments under conceptual art blog posts I see are of the sort “this is bullshit” or “my little brother could have done that” etc. Generally, the frustration rises because it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. But indiscernibility is also the fundamental issue that drove Danto to raise a question about the contemporary art world in the sixties. His book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace glides through the path of pop-art, abstract expressionism, and art history, towards a search for the definition of art. The central question of his most famous essay The Art World was: how do we define art now that art and life (or mere objects) are indiscernible from each other? Which one is art? Which is not art?
Using Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box (a soap pad box, basically, but with some modifications) as an example of an indiscernible object, and with a background in logic and analytic philosophy, Danto declared that now anything can be art. So the art world can open up to endless possibilities.
This does not mean that “anything goes” because in his theory, he placed two restrictions: Anything may be art, as long as the work meets two requirements: meaning and embodiment. This is how Danto judged artworks, at the level of conceptual meaning, and at the level the work embodied this meaning.
Critics have misunderstood him as a historicist, a post-modernist, a post-historicist, and a nihilist, to state a few accusations, although he is also read to hold views of essentialism, anti-essentialism, and pluralism. In my (not very) humble opinion, his philosophical account about art is highly misunderstood by those in art history departments (because art historians are not getting trained enough in philosophy) and in philosophy departments (because philosophers are not exposed to enough art) but his legacy of art criticism is highly cherished. Danto sat with Marina Abramobich at the Moma, and wrote about John Cage and Yoko Ono, to state a few artists whose work he got to apprehend, write, and philosophize about.
I was introduced to Danto’s work when I was an undergraduate in philosophy invaded by an avid, almost innocent, desire to define things. But, later, I realized that Danto’s account had to do more with erasing barriers and invisible limits between art and life, it had to do more with making art and life indistinguishable, rather than defining art. It was time to leave it up to the artists to pick and choose as long as they could embody meaning in their piece. And that was enough it was a good start to open up endless possibilities in the art world, Brillo Boxes, silence, coca-cola bottles, iconic signs, images of neon lights and the empire state building, performances, stillness, life as art, art as life.