Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

Works in Progress : Art and the Historical Modalities

Arthur DANTO

My recent work in the philosophy of art takes up the second of two profound questions which were raised for me by the art of the mid-1960s, and most particularly by the art of Andy Warhol.The first question was ontological and concerned the definition of art. It pivoted on the problem set especially by Brillo Box of 1964, namely why was it a work of art while something perceptually indiscernible from it, namely the Brillo cartons of the supermarket storerooms, were just what they were - containers for soap-pads. The philosophical response to this was my 1964 paper, «The Art World», and The Transfiguration of the Commonplace of 1981, which undertook to design a fairly systematic answer, setting the question in relationship to some of the more traditional questions of aesthetics and the philosophy of art, which at the very least had to be transformed under pressure from the kinds of cases which had become artworld commonplaces by that time.

Had become art world commonplace by then - that suggests the second problem which greatly occupies me at the moment, but which was not as clearly visible to me in 1964 as the problem in ontology and interpretation : what made Brillo Box possible in 1964 when it is clear that an object just like it could not have been a work of art at any earlier time? This is what I term The Problem of Historical Modalities (the canonical logical modalities are possibility, impossibility, and necessity), and the strong philosophy of history might ask: What made Brillo Box historically necessary in 1964? Heinrich Wölfflin had a fairly vivid sense of historical modalities understood in terms of stylistic imperatives when he wrote, in The Principles of Art History, that «not everything is possible at all times». But his interest was in stylistic possibility, and then in what he thought of as the «laws of stylistic change», and he was uncanny in identifying stylistic similarities between works of art outwardly as dissimilar as, say, the paintings of Terborch and the sculpture of Bernini. Inevitably I have to deal with Wolfflin, and I do this by drawing attention away from stylistics and in the direction of an analysis which is dependent upon the ontological question. As I see it, the history of modernist art was striving toward a philosophical answer to the question of the philosophical nature and identity of art. And in that dialogical sequence the ontological question slowly emerged as the right question to put. So one has to tell the story of modern art in terms of a philosophical quest, which, it somewhat surprised me to discover, was a very Hegelian way to think about things. In any case, this way of framing the matter suggested that works of art are in their ontology hostage to historical madality: not everything which is a work of art at a given time can be a work of art at every time, to paraphrase Wolflin. Nelson Goodman acknowledged this when he sought to stultify the question «What is art?» in favor of a different one - «When is art?».

The historical constraints on what can and cannot be an artwork at a given time does not exempt the philosopher from pursuing a largely essentialist definition of art, for clearly all those historically various works must still be works of art under some transhistorical definition. The historical variations have tended to blind thinkers in various traditions to other possibilities, and hence to the general nature of art, inasmuch as it was inevitable that they should project - should universalize - on the art that they knew. In my account it only became possible to address the general definition when what I think of as the true form of the philosophical question emerged from within art itself, and this happened precisely when artworks were produced which looked altogether like objects which were not works of art at all. This, it may be observed, is distantly related to the ancient thesis that art is imitation.

I have been constructing a master narrative for this internal connection between philosophical definition and historical possibility, beginning of course with the Vasarian paradigm which is a progressive developmental account, but which breaks down rather badly with the emergence of Modernism, say in the 1880’s, or perhaps as early as Manet. I have been interested in the various efforts to replace the Vasarian paradigm with a different one, by writers like Roger Fry, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and especially by Clement Greenberg, all of whom suggested a different narrative and a different forme of critical practice as well. Greenberg’s was the most developed account, and in a way the most consistent with «modernist painting» (Greenberg’s expression) but it broke down badly with exactly the emergence of the kind of art that raised both the ontological and the modal question. It was the incapacity of the Greenberghian paradigm to account for what I call «art after the end of art» - art which attained to the kind of philosophical selfconsciousness that made the ontological question vivid - that meant not only that the Modernist period of art history was over, but that the entire developmental progressive phase of the history of art had come to an end. Having made it possible to achieve a philosophical understanding at last of the nature of art, art was so to speak liberated to serve as many ends, and to do so in as many styles and media, as it occurred to artist to exploit: art had entered, so to speak, into the era of absolute freedom, which is the mark of contemporary practice. There has never been a period like ours in which, thinking again of Wolfflin, everything is possible at once.

It follows that the Problem of Historical Modalities is not an abstract topic in the analytical philosophy of history, but has bearing on the actual condition of art in the present era. My effort is to deduce the pluralism of this era from the narrative representation of the history of art it evolved toward a certain philosophical representation of itself. But beyond that I have been deeply concerned with the principles of art criticism in a pluralistic age, if the criticism must be as pluralistic as the art it addresses. This concerns me at once as a critic and a philosopher, and it has, it seems to me, rather little to do with the classic questions in aesthetics of divergences and convergences in taste.

Arthur Danto
Columbia University

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