Since 2001, we have devoted a large portion of our December issue to a special section on art. We are pleased to do so again this year. Assembled by our Executive Editor James Panero, the eight essays we publish in this special section cover a wide range of artistic endeavor, from the bureaucratic imperatives that are transforming the New York Public Library to the connoisseurship of Bernard Berenson, from the abstract collages of Robert Motherwell to the frenzied art-cash-celebrity nexus of Qatar and Abu Dhabi.
From its very first issue, The New Criterion has maintained an avid interest in the visual arts, both in contemporary art practice and in the oft-forgotten legacy of our artistic inheritance. As many readers will know, Hilton Kramer, our founding editor, left his position as chief art critic at The New York Times to start The New Criterion, an audacious act that some regarded as daring, others as foolhardy. We like to think that history proved the admirers correct. Hilton brought a rigor and intellectual seriousness to the art pages of the Times that the paper has never again achieved. He sought to imbue that same rigor and seriousness into The New Criterion’s coverage of culture. At the center of his approach was a concern with first-hand experience of works of art. The emphasis was on the work itself. What mattered was the drama, the pressure of one’s individual encounter with actual works of art, not the various intellectual or political alibis that had accreted around them. In this respect, Hilton’s procedure differed sharply from much contemporary criticism, for which works of art were often little more than occasions from a display of critical ingenuity or exhibitions of politically correct social or political attitudes.
The death last month of the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto put us in mind of these principles. Arthur had a contentious relationship with The New Criterion. The differences were partly political. Arthur was a dyed-in-the-wool Upper West Side liberal. But there were also deep aesthetic differences. His work was the subject of a tart essay by Hilton (“The Happy Critic: Arthur Danto in The Nation,” September 1987) as well as a circumspect review by the English philosopher Roger Scruton (“The Philosophical Hedonist: Arthur C. Danto on Art,” September 1990). This is not the place to revisit those reflections. But Arthur’s passing (he was eighty-nine) and the occasion of our annual special section on art prompts us to offer a few observations on Arthur Danto’s distinctive contribution to contemporary thinking about art.
Arthur’s chief interest in art was intellectual, not aesthetic. He famously—or, depending on your point of view, infamously—regarded Andy Warhol as an artistic giant and possessed of “a philosophical intelligence of an intoxicatingly high order.” It all started in 1964 when Arthur saw an exhibition of Warhol’s early work—the Brillo Boxes and silkscreens of Campbell’s Soup cans—at the Stable Gallery in New York. Many observers regard the objects with a condescending chuckle. Arthur thought that they revolutionized our understanding of art.
Arthur had long been preoccupied with the epistemological problem of defining art: What makes an object a work of art? Why are some pieces of canvas with paint on them works of art, while others are merely pieces of canvas with paint on them? Perhaps this is a deep philosophical question. Perhaps it is an intellectual, not to mention an aesthetic, dead end. Let’s leave that to one side. Arthur had some very ingenious things to say about this question. For anyone interested in art as art—that is to say, for anyone interested in art first of all as an aesthetic phenomenon—the pursuit of that question is likely to seem like an intellectual parlor game, more a distraction than a revelation. What excited Arthur about Andy Warhol was the way his work seemed to recast our understanding of what art is. “Warhol violated every condition thought necessary to something being an artwork,” Arthur wrote, “but in so doing he disclosed the essence of art.” “The essence of art”? It’s as if a chef were to attempt to disclose the essence of dinner by cooking something completely unpalatable. It might be clever; it might violate every condition thought necessary to something being dinner; but so long as we possess taste buds and stomachs, it won’t be much of a meal.
Arthur thought that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes overturned “two millennia of misdirected investigation” about the nature of art. But it might be argued that, on the contrary, they merely displayed the credulousness of the art-buying—and art-theorizing—public. Those Brillo Boxes may in some technical sense be called “art,” just as an unpalatable mess may still be called “dinner.” But as is usually the case when it comes to art, the more interesting questions occupy the realm of experience and evaluation, not definition. Even if we grant that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are art—a status they enjoy more because of the intervention of critics like Arthur Danto than any intrinsic artistic excellence they possess—questions remain: Do they count as good art? Do they provide the sort of aesthetic pleasure and spiritual refreshment we look for in art? These are the sorts of questions that Pop Art—or at least the impresarios, like Arthur Danto, who championed Pop Art—attempted to short-circuit. For those suffering from aesthetic dyspepsia, artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg were godsends. Artistically, they were pretty thin gruel, but they went down easily. And of course they had the added advantage of inducing feelings of nausea in those whose digestion was unimpaired. They were, that is to say, convenient weapons in the old battle épater la bourgeoisie, which was itself part of a larger campaign of the disaffected to subvert the humanistic vocation of art and culture.
We mourn the passing of Arthur Danto, a clever and learned writer and a jovial man, even as he was also someone whose understanding of the place of art in the metabolism of human life was deeply at odds with the approach promulgated by The New Criterion. The eight essays in the special art section below provide a sort of impromptu counter-narrative about art—not “the essence of art,” whatever that may be, but art as an important ingredient in the economy of civilized life. We are proud that, for several years, the artist Helen Frankenthaler helped to support our special issues on art. Helen died in December 2011. We are pleased and most grateful to report that the collector Bobbie Foshay has intervened to help support the publication of this special issue.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 4, on page 1
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