PREVIEW-Episode 16: Danto on Art

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What effect should the avant garde have on our understanding of what art is? We read three essays by modern, first-rate American philosopher Arthur Danto, all published in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986): the title essay, “The Appreciation and Interpretation of Works of Art,” and “The End of Art.”

This is a 33-minute preview of our vintage 2 hr, 13-minute episode which you can buy at partiallyexaminedlife.com/store or get for free with PEL Citizenship (see partiallyexaminedlife.com/membership). You can also purchase the full episode in the iTunes Store: Search for “Partially Danto” and look under “Albums.”

I understand you may not have heard of Danto, and you may think modern art is goofy, but you’ll definitely enjoy this discussion and the reading anyway. Danto gives a picture of philosophy and art at war throughout history: philosophy says that art can’t get at truth and is otherwise useless, yet philosophers like Plato seem afraid of the power of art to corrupt. What’s the deal?

Also, Danto claims that art is over; the end of art has happened. So suck it, artists. (Actually, artists can keep on doing what they’re doing; they’re fine, yet art is still over.) Plus, can you stare at a urinal and thereby make it art? What if it’s in a museum? Danto loves them crazy ass post-modern artists, and thinks that their work shows that art was not what we thought it was.

Plus, Seth talks about the plane crashing into the IRS building near his house, and we respond some listener postings.

Danto’s book is definitely worth purchasing.

End song: “This Night Before the End,” by Mark Lint and the Simulacra, recorded mostly in 2000 but finished just now. Here’s more info about the song.

Note that after this was posted, Danto listened to it and liked it.

Comments

  1. Jay Bailey

    March 7, 2010

    With my undergraduate degree in fine art with a minor in philosophy and my MFA in painting, I found your discussion about Arthur Danto to be a fantastic introduction to P.E.L. I now teach in the art department at UNLV and can probably provide an interesting perspective on the ideas of the “end of art” and the art world as it relates to your discussion.
    Danto was required reading in several seminar classes in graduate school. As an art maker this type of thinking and writing was problematic. A young art student can become too entrenched with theory and philosophy. Basically, it makes you think too damn much. It took me some time to purge the weight of how one paints now that art has met its end. I suppose it’s no different from a musician who learns scales, chords, and theory but then must learn to ignore his training and just play music. To hell with your theory, just make (or in music, play) something cool. Something to respond to. Something worth my precious, depleting time.
    University art departments are becoming infected with philosophy. Many of my students are finding themselves too concerned with the ideas of critics and theorists, and sadly they are making art in response to those ideas. There is far too much art coming from young artists who are essentially demanding an audience with a background in aesthetics.
    You guys have a great show. Keep it going. It reminds me of philosophy class. I miss all of that banter.

  2. Getty Lustila

    March 8, 2010

    This was an incredibly interesting podcast!

    My interaction with Danto’s work has been chiefly through reading “Narration and Knowledge” (an expansion of his previous “Analytical Philosophy of History”), as a History undergraduate a couple of years back. While I was impressed with it, my lack of background in Aesthetics caused me to shy away from his writing on the Philosophy of Art. So needless to say, this was really great insight into that aspect of Danto’s philosophy.

    I was also quite shocked to hear you talk briefly about Dr. Berry! I’m planning to attend Georgia State University in the fall to study Political/Continental Philosophy at the advice of my philosophical mentor (another UT-Austin Graduate) Joel Mann. I guess it is truly a small world.

    Cheers and keep it up!
    Getty Lustila

  3. Profile photo of Seth Paskin

    Seth Paskin

    April 6, 2010

    I like the idea of being ‘infected’ by philosophy.

    Like the hantavirus.

    Getty, don’t let lack of background ever stop you from inquiring. There’s no other way to get background.

  4. Oliver Michaels

    April 16, 2010

    Thank you so much for your discussion. I am an artist btw. I was really interested in developing a greater understanding of art through philosophy at art school. Though it is something I gave up on a few years after because I don’t find it easy to do the reading/thinking alone and besides I’m trying to feel these days instead of think, something it turns out I’m particularly bad at so it occupies a disproportionate amount of my time. But now my confused conception of what art is sits very much unresolved behind my practice and heckles my ego from the bleachers during my routine bouts of self-doubt… so it was good to listen to your discussion.

    But I found myself really frustrated that you did not bring Heidegger into your discussion. I noticed that two of you are coming from a Phenomenological background and must know Heidegger discusses many of these issues in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ in a way that would have really pushed your discussion to, well, where I wanted it to take place.

    I’d love to hear a second discussion that covered ‘Origin’ and the thinkers that responded to it in relation this Danto podcast. Please consider it.

  5. Profile photo of Seth Paskin

    Seth Paskin

    April 17, 2010

    Thank you Oliver, that’s an excellent suggestion. As we circle back to this topic, we will try and find a way to work in ‘Origin’.
    –seth

  6. Luke

    May 13, 2010

    Hey guys, great podcast and a particularly great episode. I’m glad you’re doing so many dead philosophers because they are necessary for your listeners to understand the context within which modern philosophers work, but this episode on a living philosopher was your most exciting episode yet.

    Your podcast is very substantive and also funny and fun to listen to – a very rare combination indeed.

    I have my own podcast for which I interview philosophers, scientists, and historians (mostly about the two fields of philosophy most interesting to the layman: ethics and philosophy of religion), and I am very impressed by the quality of your work on ‘The Partially Examined Life’!

    I look forward to your work on the pragmatists and I hope you will eventually have time to cover additional recent or living philosophers, especially: Quine, Lewis, Popper, Strawson, Rawls, Nagel, Nozick, Rorty, Davidson, Mackie, Hare, and… well, many others!

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer

      Mark Linsenmayer

      May 20, 2010

      I just put forward the prospect of a Frege episode, and Seth audibly shuddered, saying “if we do that, they’ll expect us to go forward down the whole list of analytic philosophers!”

      So we’ll do it, but not right away, and hence many of the ones in the line you list will probably not rear their heads until episode 65. (Hare?? I read some of him for an ethics paper I wrote in undergrad but never thought to chase him down for more… I do like Davidson, though, and Quine’s definitely on the list.)

  7. Profile photo of Wes Alwan

    Wes Alwan

    May 17, 2010

    Thanks Luke — I think I’ve come across your site before. These guys are definitely on the list!

  8. Nate

    May 20, 2010

    First, a quick “thanks” for doing what you do. This is by far my favorite podcast. Entertaining and informative discussions. Outstanding text selection. I only wish you guys could do it more often…

    Regarding The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, do you think Danto is justified in concluding that “since Plato’s theory of art is his philosophy, and since philosophy down the ages has consisted in placing codicils to the platonic testament, philosophy itself may just be the disenfranchisement of art.” This generalization of philosophy seems to me a rather strange conclusion here. Is “philosophy itself” equivalent to the canon of philosophical texts?!? Overall I find his thesis quite brilliant, but I think this claim about philosophy itself is far too broad and ultimately misleading.

    I wonder how much his thesis would be affected by substituting something like “the history of philosophy” for “philosophy itself,” considering that he argues from an historical perspective. The disenfranchisement of art still seems to hold as does the warranted criticism of historical philosophy, though perhaps he would not be able to make the same predictions about the fate of art and philosophy if the two disciplines are not linked in the way he describes. These predictions seem to rest on the idea that philosophy originates as a reaction to art.

    So, maybe it would be better to simply ask, is it possible to do philosophy without Plato? If no, then Danto is certainly correct. If yes, then amending the argument (rather than discarding it) seems appropriate.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer

      Mark Linsenmayer

      May 20, 2010

      Now, Nate, if we recorded more often then YOU wouldn’t have time to read all of the texts along with us. :)

      Danto is talking as a Hegelian, as in “the Spirit of philosophy,” referring to the dominant texts in history, like you suggest. Of course there are exceptions. This is like calling all philosophy phallocentric or whatever.

      Second, I for one think this “the history of philosophy is a footnote to Plato” is a load of bunk. Plato did not have the conceptual apparatus to handle even a fraction of what debates are about today, and I can only point to the Theaetetus episode for evidence of that: I think it’s a significant stretch to think that, e.g. his long stretch about “How can there be false opinion?” is in any way relevant to modern epistemology. Wes would argue otherwise, I’m sure. As for art, many of the art forms we’re most concerned with didn’t even exist for Plato to react to.

  9. David Emerson

    November 8, 2010

    Gentlemen,

    I am still way behind your current episode in my listening, but I’m getting there! I enjoyed this podcast as well. Mark, I am particularly sympathetic to the pluralist riff that you brought to the discussion (via Danto). I recently enjoyed this TED talk from back in 2004 that suggests the “TRUTH” of these pluralistic ideas (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce.html). I thought you’d find it entertaining as well.

    And, as a gratuitous suck-up, I enjoyed “This night before the end.” Good stuff!

    Cheers,
    David E.

  10. Erroll Treslan

    June 28, 2011

    I would love to know what Danto thinks of Franco’s invisible art: http://bit.ly/l4gQJv

  11. Erroll Treslan

    June 28, 2011

    Done.

  12. Kyle

    December 29, 2011

    I wish I was armed with this podcast about 10 years ago before I went into Tate modern museum in London. One of the first vast rooms I went into had a giant rope on the floor. Not certain if it had any prior utility such as being attached to a large heavy anchor or something, but at any rate my reaction was contempt directed at the anonymous decision maker whom put the rope in the room and implicitly declared the rope to be art.

    However, now armed with the knowledge that Art has been ‘vaporized’, and is not necessarily representational anymore; the shock is lessened. Indeed it seems that any Joe Blow can select an object and drag it into an art museum, and request an onlooker to ponder and try to ‘get at the meaning’ of the object placed. Indeed, it does seem like revenge upon the philosopher.

    I am also surprised however that Seth was disillusioned (in the sense of Art as non-representational) by the art of picasso, Kandinsky, klimt, etc. Art had not vaporized into dragging urinals into museums in early 20th century. Symbolic and abstract art still inspire thought directed at representation rather than the essence of objects (urinals and ropes). I am of course mostly a dullard when it comes to Art, but even so can appreciate the difference between a Kandisnky and a urinal.

    • Profile photo of

      Seth Paskin

      December 29, 2011

      I don’t remember saying I was disillusioned by Picasso, et. al., only that I had a better understanding of modern art. I’m not going to relisten to the episode now, but if you want to tell me what I said, I’ll try and explain.

  13. Kyle

    December 29, 2011

    yep Seth, I guess I misquoted you (35:00). Basically you said you have a ‘misunderstanding’ of art in the 20th century. Picasso, Klimt (not so much) but Kandinsky, Miro, Pollock were problematic for you. However you stated that after reading the book you had insight as to why. And it appears related to the historical context of when the art was made. So correct me if Im wrong but you being critical of say the abstract works of later 20th century art is somewhat secondary to a misunderstanding of the art and its historical context. Does a misunderstanding of the art within its context affect your valuation of its aesthetics? I guess I picked up on this part because I correctly (or incorrectly) thought you may have been making an aesthetic judgment when the major thesis (carefully and clearly elucidated by you guys) of the book is about representational vs nonrepresentational art, the ending of history of Art, and poking philosopher with a stick by saying, OK you take over from here as now the purpose of urinal gazing is for you to get at its essence.

    • Profile photo of

      Seth Paskin

      December 29, 2011

      So here’s the deal. A good part of my liberal arts education involved Art History, but only up to the Renaissance. When I was in school in Europe and traveling around, I went to tons of museums and saw 100s of Annunciations, sculpture, architecture, etc. I came to Romanticism and Impressionism honestly from that background. Going to high school around DC, I loved going to the National Gallery, but could never quite get a purchase on so called Modern Art – the stuff they put in the Museum of Modern Art. I understood symbolic, economic, political and aesthetic understanding of ‘non-Modern’ art, as well as having the ability to engage with a lot of historical art in a direct, experiential way.

      I never had moving, direct, experiential relationships with painters like Pollack and Johns and only occasional flickers with a Miro, a cubist Picasso, Kandinsky. And I never learned how to interpret them along the lines I had been taught for other works. So I just kind of ignored them, being stuck at the turn of the century, much like I was stuck in the 80s for song long with my music tastes.

      I was never critical, I just didn’t ‘get’ or ‘enjoy’ them. Danto’s book gave me a framework for understanding why I had so much trouble with modern art and why engaging with it was so different and, to me, more difficult than engaging with more traditional art. His thesis about the attempt to be non-representational – or more accurately – work out what that means, the notion of the art ‘world’ that self-references intent and the means of production, the (un)intentional exclusion of the uneducated or casual viewer all worked to keep me at a distance from basically most of what happened in the 20th century.

      I feel like now I have a way of accessing that world – in a limited way – where I didn’t before. It’s still alien to me as an aesthetic experience compared to Chagall or Michelangelo, but there is something there now for me. Doing this podcast turned out to have a direct impact on my life recently, as I spent a wonderful couple of hours with my father in the modern wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where we had a very moving experience with the permanent installation of Cy Twombly’s 50 Days at Iliam.

  14. Joan Brown

    December 30, 2011

    Danto did the same for me (opening my eyes to what value may be found in modern art), as I also would question what aesthetic/artistic meaning a urinal could have!
    I have spent many lovely hours in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Modern Wing is not on my ‘top 5 favorite areas’ list (they would be: the Tea House, the Indian temple, the Great Stairway, the Impressionist Wing, and the fountain room by Van Gogh’s Sunflowers)
    I will have to give it another look, with a different perspective.
    Do you ever let fans of the podcast know when you are in a town? Be great to meet for conversation.

  15. Tanad

    January 21, 2012

    If you say ‘aesthetics was created in the 18th century’ and go on to say that then ‘the job of art goes from representing the world to representing beauty’ I think a few side notes are needed. For example if you look at Nadar and his Elevating Photography to the Height of Art, you get a great insight into the critical thinking and realisations that were occurring at that time. Where art may have had an archival function in the past, it was now being overtaken in this regard by technology of the time and therefore, as my secondary art school teacher used to say, ‘found itself out of a job.’ The point is that art needed to progress not only to find itself in some sense able to understand itself as autonomous, which I would think is an obvious advantage to, let’s generalise, most artforms, but also to understand itself as outside of a direct historical archival predetermined function and ultimately outside of the measured human sciences. I think it found its ‘taking place’ or position with regard to heterogenous forces and disciplines rather than becoming in some way introspectively, and when you consider this massive leap from record keeping to an autonomous mode of thinking or being, I don’t think Duchamp’s The Fountain, which wasn’t displayed as an actual urinal would be, sorry for being pedantic but I think it plays a part, you can see the evolution of thought inherent in the ‘industry.’ Furthermore, and I know from some of your comments during the show that you’d rather not talk about art, but I think it worth mentioning that Duchamp signed his name ‘R. Mutt’ and did not simply exhibit a urinal, he changed its position. While you may think this fatuous I’d have to add that the position and place of art, within its own method, ever since Baroque painting was extremely important, and also that the signing of the artist’s name, ever since arguably Gislebertus, was also of extreme importance, so that the ‘readymade’ was made ready by the artist who still assumed a kind of elite place in society, however this elite place was trying to find itself outside of the place of trade and industry in general, and this, as well as many other things, is what could be read into Duchamp’s work which makes it so beautifully unspecific and interpretable and what furthers art as being, excuse the term of phrase, post-representational.
    Just as one further point I’d like to ask whether ‘causally useless’ is in fact a negative term?
    Kind regards and thanks for the podcasts!

    Tanad

  16. Eric Tengberg

    February 18, 2012

    Just a few quick words as my time at work draws to a close;
    I admit I don’t listen to the song at the end but this time I did and really enjoyed it. Now I’ll go back and listen to the rest. I agree with Seth that listening to people talk about the songwriting process is a bore and a half but would like to expand that to include all artistic endeavors. All that matters to me is the final product and how it made me fele and whether or not it was created with sincerityl. And just thinking about art in general is complicated to me because especially with modern and post-modern art the field has opened to everyone that wants to art it up somehow. And then there’s the Internet and YouTube in particular where anyone can show their “talents” to the world, and somehow seems only to bring out the class clown in most people. Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Having said that though, I’m glad for the new media and it’s effects (positive or negative) on the world. And that sounds contradictory to my previous statements but I’m inconsistent in my beliefs. Cheers!

  17. Nate Acacia

    February 18, 2012

    I just listened to this episode yesterday and it was awesome. It’s the first one so far I’m going to make my girlfriend listen to (she works at a museum and has a minor in art history). I found the episode especially enlightening since I had just listened to BBC4’s In Our Time: Culture episode on the Avant Garde. I think they make great companion pieces. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00545dc

    I find generally, the IOT: Culture and IOT: Philosophy podcasts to be really interesting.

    -Nate A.

    p.s. It’s so cool that Danto listened to it. Did he respond to any of the things the three of you were unsure about? I think you guys ended by joking that he could explain something after he listened to the podcast.

  18. Iblees

    April 6, 2012

    I was nearly sold after this talk to explore Danto’s philosophy of art in depth, but finding Danto’s praise for Jeff Koons (in Unnatural Wonders) has changed my opinion; it is more like should i trust a medical doctor’s opinions who praises voodoo priests?

  19. Profile photo of Seth Paskin

    Seth Paskin

    April 6, 2012

    Well, he’s hardly alone in that opinion. Do you agree with every assessment of every artist by critics you admire?

  20. Emil Lime

    May 12, 2012

    Well, Iblees, yes I would go to a doctor who praises voodoo priests, because it is a well documented fact that placebos work, often to cure, medical problems of various kinds. But voodoo priests often also do harm. As do doctors (prostate cancer is an example) As for Koons, I think you should take another look. The issues in the “art world” are those of sophistication, which is often confused with taste. I’m writing something that I hope will be up soon called Salon Culture and Growing Sophistication. This salon will be a major positive example of how the geometry of the salon has changed due to us being hyper-connected. Another major “philosopher” of art that you guys should take into account is Dave Hickey. He’s a voodoo priest compared to Danto. The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty is a major work that includes the same artists that Danto thinks are significant for completely different reasons. I still struggle with these two. Which is good. Agon leads to more Good.

  21. swallerstein

    June 15, 2012

    Very interesting conversation, one of the best out of so many thought provoking discussions in your website.

    I had Arthur Danto for a professor over 45 years ago in an introduction to philosophy course.

    He was the most brilliant person whom I had even come into contact with, in the sense of being able to reason rapidly and cogently.

    After the experience of Mr. Danto, I decided not to study philosophy, which I had thought about studying previously, since I could never measure up to the example he set.

    Maybe he did me a favor. Maybe not.

    As someone comments above, it’s a small world.

    In any case, I want to thank Mr. Danto, after so many years, for his introduction to philosophy.

  22. Kyle H

    July 10, 2012

    Good art is an escape from ennui and the flies in the marketplace. Landscapes work for me, ie Klimts Forest Slope in Unterach, currently at Neue Gallery NYC. If this is the case, than modern art consisting of urinal gazing is revolting as it causes us to self reflect about tedium (daily objects) rather than escape into the natural oneness we feel or have felt if only transiently with a vista or beautiful pencil sketch.

    We know good art when we see it don’t we? At least to each of us individually that is, we can appreciate an artwork or certain pieces of music. How than does art become mass consumed? The relatively recent social experiment involving a professional musician with a million dollar instrument played in the subway as relatively few slowed to listen or appreciate certainly caused me to slow down in the subway, to listen to some nicely played jazz licks on a crappy telecaster

    Thx for Episode 16

  23. Justin Wagner

    August 28, 2012

    I heard a kitty-cat ~50:30.

  24. Julie Wesenberg

    April 29, 2013

    I have been reading a book called The Alphabet versus the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain and found this discussion to be very related. Shlain generally argues that image is feminine and word is masculine. For example, an image must be perceived all at once whereas words are perceived one by one. Plato wrote during a time when male gods were replacing female deities, so art WAS dangerous then! I just challenge the idea that that the only use art can have is functional (a masculine idea)…but I ask if we know today what feminine values really are.

  25. Shawn Saul

    May 18, 2013

    I have been following the Partially Examined Life on and off for around a year now (sadly I haven’t commented or messaged and have privately indulged). The pre-Danto commentary (episode 16) on the pros/cons of the academic pursuit resonated with me very deeply. I consider myself a self-taught/amateur philosopher who came to Western philosophy after a couple years of extensive interest in the study of Indian Vedantic philosophy. Anyway, the point I wanted to bring is that similar to you, I am also a musician who loves philosophy. However, I studied Jazz at the University of Miami Frost School of Music and am a professional composer/session musician,free-lance musician. There are many parallels between the academia of music with the academia of philosophy. However, I would like to point out though, that I believe the self-taught vs. academic pursuit is a misunderstood dichotomy. For example, If we look at a self taught jazz musician, it’s easy to see that the experience of listening, transcribing, and being on the “band-stand” makes up the bulk of the self-taught musician’s resources. Now, lets contrast that with a current day academic jazz student. From experience, I know that theoretical analysis is the primary method of teaching jazz, especially when the nature of the pedagogical approach is to learn how to “make sense” of a seemingly divine improvised magic. When analyzing Dolphin Dance by Herbie Hancock, do we really know if Herbie was thinking that to modulate from G maj back to the C mi, it would be hip to break the rules by using a unresolved ii-V7 in Gb (Ab-7 to Db7) that cycled to a ii-V7 sub on a iv-bVII7 (Fmi7-Bb7) substitute that gets us back to cmi? Was he really trying to justify how to make sense of a cycle of unrelated/unprepared modulations or was he so familiar with the harmonic possibilities that his sense of melodic harmonization had the genius ability to carry a single diatonic line through various key centers so that a sense of Identity through change came about (lol interesting how theoretical music analysis can arrive at some of the same metaphysical questions of the nature being/becoming, identity/change). However, my point is that although we may never know whether Herbie was aware of theoretically breaking rules or just saying this sounds cool, the point is that the intuitive musician (H. Hancock) and the academic both arrived at a sense of understanding so that even if the academic invented his own logical scheme to make sense of “Dolphin Dance”, it doesn’t matter if it’s not how Herbie thought. The point is that now the academic’s imposed logic can be used to apply such principles in his own work. My conclusion is that pretty much the laws on nature can be manifested intuitively and through logical representation. Although a parrot can’t understand what it means when it utters Shakespeare, to understand it, it is sufficient that it has the ability to mimic the grammar structure and one can make sense cohesively when one listens to the parrot. I am not sure, but I believe I am indirectly arriving at a deeper philosophical issue between the dichotomy of intuition and logic (meaning/representation, phenomena/thing in itself).Although I am in a philosophical moment “talking out loud” (in spirit of you actually lol), my point is that one can efficiently use the laws of nature even if they have no ability to verbally represent them. The bright side is that people who are formally learned and self taught both arrive at the application on knowledge (ex: ability to compose) differently/yet equally qualitative. Its important to help people embrace what works for them without them being discouraged by the biases of personal/academic pursuit. If you judge/support the artificial dichotomy of academia and being on the personal pursuit, people can optimistically try out and see whether a formal system of logical representation works better for them than the intuitive way of understanding things without having to justify and explain the methodology (if you write a great piece of music, no gives a shit how you did except people who speak the theoretical language).

  26. anonymous

    June 10, 2013

    I heard you mention David Davies, go for it. Gregory Currie and David David Davies who elaborate on “the action type hypothesis, etc.” is really analytic art philosophy.

    Greetings from a listener from Finland!

  27. Marc S.

    February 6, 2014

    In this episode someone mentioned a (sci-fi?) novel where art that was deemed to be beyond a certain age or usefulness was collected and destroyed to make room for newer art – this sounded like ‘The Pickup Artist’ by Terry Bisson. Another item discussed was the topic of artists “selling out” along with Bob Dylan. Given that I first listened to the Danto episode the week following Super Bowl 2014 (which I did not watch so therefore did not see the ad in question) any comment about Dylan’s Chrysler(?) ad and him selling out?

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