Monday, June 8, 2015

Noël Carroll on Arthur Danto

Carroll is doing the 5 Books thing about visual aesthetics. His fifth book is Arthur Danto's After the end of Art.
Danto is remembered for one big idea which is that indiscernible objects can have different properties — something which, on first hearing, sounds contradictory.

Danto is a big thinker. Like Goodman, he came to the philosophy of art with credentials from other areas. He has a metaphilosophy of philosophy which is that what identifies a problem as a philosophical problem is that it raises the problem of indiscernibles. What he has in mind is: from Hume we get the indiscernibility of constant conjunction versus causation, from Descartes, a perfect dream versus an experience reality, from Kant, counting out change as a matter of prudence versus a matter of morality. For Danto, you don’t really have a philosophical problem until you have a matter of indiscernibility. The reason for this is that he’s interested in the demarcation issue, how you tell philosophy from science. In Danto’s view science always has an empirical base, there’s always an observation that can make a difference between scientific theories. Philosophy is different because observations will not get you the difference between these things. What you need instead is, to use fancy vocabulary, a transcendental argument or, less fancily, an inference to the best explanation. What a philosopher does is explain the difference between indiscernibilia — in this case, artworks and real things.
Hmmm…I wonder where this would get you with contemporary physics? I'm thinking of string theory, of course, and it's plethora of universes, none of them amenable to empirical falsification in the Popperian manner. Carroll continues on:
What is the difference between artworks and real things? According to Danto, in After the End of Art it’s two things. A work of art is about something, it has a content. Secondly, it embodies, articulates, advances, or presents whatever it’s about in a manner which is appropriate to it. Suppose you want to make a triumphal arch. The content of a triumphal arch will be something like power. If you were to embody or articulate that in plaster of Paris, that would not be appropriate because it would be gone with the first rainstorm. The Arc de Triomphe in Paris is embodied in an appropriate form: stone which resists the elements. For every work of art, Danto will argue, it will be about something. Sometimes this is called having content, sometimes he calls it meaning. And then, this meaning will be articulated — he says embodied — in a form appropriate to its content. Here, by form, he means something like the human form, he doesn’t mean something schematic. Sometimes he calls his theory ‘the theory of embodied meaning’ which means that a work is about something and it’s embodied in an appropriate form. Andy Warhol’s Brillo box is about something: art as commodity, and it’s embodied in an appropriate form, namely a container for commodities.
He sees Danto as a rebel:
The form of criticism that Danto is rebelling against is an evolutionary form of criticism where you see art as having a mission. After photography, representation and imitation are not what artists should be about because these can be achieved automatically by machines. What is art going to be about after photography and cinematography? One of the most powerful suggestions is that art will be about itself. Art will be about exploring its own nature, and will reconfigure the history of art. So we see, after Delacroix and Géricault, people like Manet who begin to alter proper perspective — in other words, acknowledge the constructed nature of the picture plane. Then, with the impressionists, we see the picture plane dissolving into dabs of colour. With cubists, the picture plane begins to be contracted in various ways. Pollock and the abstract expressionists dissolve the picture plane into lines and colour. And then, with someone like Morris Louis, you have an emphasis on the flatness of the painting: he literally puts his canvas in puddles of paint so that the canvas becomes saturated. What you begin to find is a story of painting by means of painting revealing and disclosing its essential nature as flat. In the manner in which paintings say something, they exemplify something about their essential nature. That leads to a kind of criticism where, either you can see how each contribution refines and sharpens that acknowledgement of the painting’s own nature, or it is retrograde. So, for example, surrealism is an outlier. It’s beyond the pale of history because it returns, in the work of Dali, say, to Renaissance deep space. You have a story that gives you a way of evaluating each artwork as either an accomplishment, if it falls into the narrative, or a lamentable throwback, if it doesn’t fall into it.
This, of course, has some bearing on graffiti. In my post, Graffiti Aesthetics: The Space of Writing, I observe that major transitions in the visual culture of the West have involved a restructuring of visual space. The Renaissance brought us rationalized perspective of 3D space. That was dissolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the transition to modernism, which is what Danto (in Carroll's retelling) has noted above. Graffiti, in my argument, is proposing yet a different articulation of space: the line. Carroll concludes:
And Danto rejected that?

That’s what Danto rejected. He rejected it through his intensive study of Warhol because Warhol himself, and his generation, are involved in rejecting this idea. Crucial to this idea is that paintings are going to disclose the nature of painting by means of painting. But with Brillo boxes, if you can make something indiscernible from an everyday object, that thing that you’ve made as an artwork is not done by means of painting as such, since you’re not dealing with appearances. Therefore Danto surmises that the task of saying what art is has got to be turned over to the philosophers. That’s why it’s After the End of Art because the task of saying what art is, as modernism presumed the task, just hits a wall. You can’t disclose what art is by means of appearances if there are artworks that are indiscernible from real things.
H/t 3QD.

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