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Hermeneutics and Originative Thinking in Arthur Danto's "Artworld" Hermeneutics and Originative Thinking in Arthur Danto's "Artworld"
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-11-17 09:18:52
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“Hamlet and Socrates, though in praise and deprecation respectively, spoke of art as a mirror held up to nature. As with many disagreements in attitude, this one has a factual basis. Socrates saw mirrors as but reflecting what we can already see; so art, insofar as mirrorlike, yields idle accurate duplications of the appearances of things, and is of no cognitive benefit whatever. Hamlet, more acutely, recognized a remarkable feature of reflecting surfaces, namely that they show us what we could not otherwise perceive—our own face and form—and so art, insofar as it is mirrorlike, reveals to ourselves, and is, even by Socratic criteria, of some cognitive utility after all.”

                                                                          --Arthur Danto (from “The Artworld”)

Tolstoy asked the question: is there anything that could not be art, and if anything could be art, was art itself still a meaningful concept? This question came to a head after World War II with new developments in art which directly challenged previous theories of art. Abstract, expressionism, pop art, minimalism appeared, just to mention a few. A school of art seemed to pop up every other year or so. Those schools are all different from each other but what the works issuing from them seemed to have one thing in common: a violation of the boundary between art and non-art. Indeed if there is no such boundary and if any theory is as good as another, not excluding the one that art has nothing to do with aesthetics and beauty, then there are as many theories and there are people in the world and we are all artists with our own theory of what art is. Moreover, it is hard to see what the function of a department of art might be in any of our schools.

How could a large painting consisting of nothing more than two large criss-crossing black brushstrokes on a white background be called art? What about a carton that looks, to all intents and purposes, just like the Brillo carton in the storage area of your local supermarket? A philosopher and a much admired art critic for The Nation magazine, Arthur Danto, picked up the challenge posed by contemporary art with the publication of a brilliant essay titled “The Artworld.” It has proven to be enormously influential and given both art critic and art historians a new beginning; it has in fact changed the terms of debate about the nature of art.

A central question in Danto’s work on the nature of art is this: “What distinguishes an artwork—such as Warhol’s Brillo Box—from the real thing, in this case a carton containing boxes of soap pads?” This is the problem of perceptually indistinguishable counterparts. It asks, if we can’t see any perceptible difference between an artwork and the real thing, why isn’t the box on the supermarket shelf also artwork? Danto’s answer to this crucial question has two important components. The first has to do with theories of art; the second, with what he calls “the artworld.” The role of a theory of art in validating something as an artwork goes like this: object A, although perceptually indistinguishable from object B, is an artwork because of the existence of a theory and interpretation under which A is artwork. Although Danto talks in his essay of artistic theories, his meaning becomes clearer if we simply substitute the idea of artistic interpretations. The reason that Warhol’s Brillo Box is a work of art, whereas the actual box is not, is that there is an interpretation of the former under which it processes distinctive ontological properties. For example, the Warhol box may have the property of referring to the mass production of consumer goods in postwar America. The Brillo box, while perceptually indistinguishable from Warhol’s, is just a box, and lacks that property. According to Danto, works of art, themselves real objects, also have properties their counterparts lack.

The second component of Danto’s solution to the problem of perceptually indistinguishable counterparts—the artworld—is comprised of “an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art.” This is not a very precise claim, but it can be explained thus: To understand an object as a work of art, one has to have knowledge of both the history and theory of art. This is because to be an artwork requires that the object occupy a place in the history of art, something that it does in virtue of the presence of a theory—in short, of the artworld—a viewer could not see an object as a work of art.

The fact that many art historians are not very good art theoreticians or art critics, and vice-versa may explain the rampant confusion that exists when it comes to defining what exactly art is and why some artists and even some philosophers (such as Derrida) have concluded that no definition is possible. One exception that jumps to mind is Kenneth Clark and his brilliant interpretation of Western Civilization via art titled “Civilization.” In that program spanning some twelve hours of video and 20 centuries of art in the West (also published as a book) Clark shows a supreme command of both theory and history of art and in its own way the program validates Danto’s claim that the work of art is to be located in an historical setting if it is to be understood.

As we have seen in a previous article on Hegel’s conception of art, this was also Hegel’s contention. Here too, by considering Shakespeare’s concept of art (as analyzed in Hamlet) as allowing our faces to be seen, as superior to Socrates’ concept of art as superfluous because it merely mirrors what we can already see, Danto is also resurrecting and in some way vindicating Hegel’s theory of the superiority of Romantic art. The paradox here is this: if indeed what comes at the end is always the best then ipso facto modern art has to be necessarily the best and therefore any judgments on it are moot. This is pretty much the position of many so called “progressive” artists who in the name of individual autonomy and freedom cover up their abysmal ignorance of theory and history of art and perhaps even their mediocrity as artists.

A final note is in order. Anybody familiar with Vico and Heidegger’s thought will immediately recognize the idea of “originative thinking” and hermeneutics; more specifically Heidegger’s essay titled “The Origins of the Work of Art” wherein what Heidegger refers to as “art” and posits as the origin of the work of art is akin to what Danto refers to as the artworld. Both seem to suggest that the individual works of art can be identified as such only because of the existence of a prior set of norms governing their production and interpretation. Of course the artist and the viewer may be blissfully unaware, even purposefully ignorant of theories of “originative thinking” and “hermeneutics” but Danto would say that they too, willy-nilly, are within the artworld.


   
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Alexandra Pereira2008-11-17 20:34:31
"and we are all artists with our own theory of what art is"
Potentially, yes - because we all have creativity (some more, some less, some even have lamentable levels). But then there's one thing which is the type of personality you have, and that influences: how much creativity you have, if you decide to develop it or not, how you decide to use it (constructive or evil ways, for example), if art is the right path or "feels right"/adequate as a way of expression to you (this is something very personal and intuitive, and that choice is not necessarily exclusive as you can, for example, choose to be inventive through science too, or at the same time - and ...time becomes the problem then ...time to do everything you want), how much you work, how flexible is your mind, how far you want to go, how much fun you have making art.


Alexandra Pereira2008-11-17 21:07:37
"if indeed what comes at the end is always the best then ipso facto modern art has to be necessarily the best"
I don't think we can put things in that way: "Was Picasso better than Raphael"? They were qualitatively, conceptually, synthetically, technically, historically and culturally different. Was a doric-ionic temple better than Guggenheim Bilbao? What a silly question. And then if you think "well, collage was not considered art until the cubists came" things get far more complicated.


Alexandra Pereira2008-11-17 21:31:01
I think that the first component of Danto would be enough in some cases - the artwork as conceptually different from the everyday object. Why? Because the second component is sometimes extraordinarily arguable, difficult to evaluate and relative.
"“an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art.” This is not a very precise claim, but it can be explained thus: To understand an object as a work of art, one has to have knowledge of both the history and theory of art."
This is not a very satisfactory claim because many people who don't have a profound knowledge of art history or theory of art immediately recognize certain objects as artworks.

"This is because to be an artwork requires that the object occupy a place in the history of art, something that it does in virtue of the presence of a theory—in short, of the artworld—a viewer could not see an object as a work of art."
There is a problem here: who "grants" the object that place? As we have seen, collages were not art until the cubists used them, and then suddenly they become art. But they have existed for centuries. There's another problem: theories define what is art, and if something does not fit the theories, then it is not art (examples: graffiti art was not exactly predicted; Dada did not fit their time's theories, the circumstances of History made it happen, just as many avant-garde and art collectives).


Alexandra Pereira2008-11-17 21:36:29
There's another problem: a theory is something any human being with average racional abilities is able to develop.


Alexandra Pereira2008-11-17 21:44:56
Do the art theories define the realities or do they try to understand and systematize them? That does not mean that many realities don't exist for some reason. For as many influences of the past as an artwork can express, it always comes first than the theory which is going to "place it". You cannot classify something which does not exist yet.


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