Article - Autumn 2012

Letter to Posterity


A passion for philosophy led me to my first career, and a passion for art led me to a second, as a critic

By Arthur C. Danto


Philosophers acquired their designation in ancient times, in consequence of a becoming modesty. Socrates is said to have turned aside a characterization of himself as a wise man, preferring to be known instead as someone who loved wisdom—hence the term philo-sophia. I don’t know whether, aside from etymology, wisdom especially figures in the concept of philosophy, at least among philosophers themselves, few of whom, in my fairly wide acquaintanceship, especially covet the epithet “wise,” or even count wisdom as something they especially love. Philosophers love cleverness, acuity, fertility in inventing novel arguments, and ingenuity in finding surprising counter-examples. At least since the professionalization of the discipline in the 20th century, these have been what philosophers particularly admire in other philosophers. What is great about philosophers is that they will entertain any position, however outrageous, as long as one can defend it. My theory of the end of art drove people in the art world up the wall, but the philosophers were entirely open: “Okay, so art is over. What are the arguments?” They make up in openness what they lack in wisdom. For the most part philosophy is an intellectual sport.

Never, in my entire experience, have I encountered a philosopher I thought of as wise. Years ago, though, I met the great art historian Rudolf Wittkower, whom I regarded as a genuinely wise man. By comparison with Rudy, whom I adopted as a model human being, most philosophers I knew seemed shallow, vain, silly, and what Nietzsche spoke of as human, all too human. My principle of conduct has since been imitatio Rudy, but I am only too aware how far short I fall in putting this into practice. I knew that I would be doing right if I could treat others the way Rudy would have treated them, and I think I knew in a general way what Rudy would have done in most given circumstances. But as Socrates knew as well as anyone, since he introduced the concept into philosophical discourse, the will is weak, and knowing the good does not mean doing the good, as he at one time believed. We are, in many conditions of existence, akratic, to use the technical term for the morally weak will. Like Socrates, I suppose I could say that I loved wisdom, since I after all knew who was wise and who was not, and that I wanted to behave like the former and not the latter. But actual wisdom is something that escapes me.

I am exceedingly grateful that, without being wise, I possessed enough of the traits philosophers cherish to have had a successful philosophical career. Having a philosophical mind would qualify one as a perfect misfit if there were no such thing as the discipline of philosophy, and I think that explains why I was considered a terrible student in my early years. No one knows that one is a philosopher at, say, 16 years of age, and certainly one’s teachers in high school have no way of knowing it either. The artist Vitaly Komar explained to me once what he admired in philosophers: they will claim that two things that appear exactly the same are entirely different, and that two things apparently entirely different are entirely the same. My success as a philosopher of art, to take an example, consisted in arguing that Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box was a work of art while its lookalike in the stockroom of the supermarket was a mere real thing, though the two are to all intents and purposes indistinguishable. I later claimed that all philosophical problems have this form, as for example two actions, one done because it is a matter of duty and the other done just because one feels like doing it, can be outwardly identical, though only the former and never the latter, according to Kant, has any moral value whatever.

The other thing for which I am grateful to philosophy is that, at least in the world in which I first sought to make a name for myself, one was required to write clearly, concisely, and logically. Wittgenstein said that whatever can be said can be said clearly, and that became something of a mantra for my generation. At one time, the British journal Analysis sponsored regular competitions: some senior philosopher propounded a problem, which one was required to solve in 600 words or less, the winner receiving as a prize a year’s subscription to the magazine. Here is an example of the kind of problem, propounded by J. L. Austin, that engaged Analysis’s subscribers: “What kind of ‘if ’ is the ‘if ’ in ‘I can if I choose?’ ” (Hint: it cannot be the truth-conditional “if ” of material implication, as in, “If p, then q.”)

I tried answering all the problems, and never won a prize. But the exercise taught me how to write. The great virtues of clarity, concision, and coherence, insisted upon throughout the Anglo-American philosophical community, have immunized the profession against the stylistic barbarity of Continental philosophy, which, taken up as it has been since the early 1970s by the humanistic disciplines—by literary theory, anthropology, art history, and many others—has had a disastrous effect, especially on academic culture, severely limiting the ability of those with advanced education to contribute to the intellectual needs of our society. It is true that analytical philosophers, reinforced by the demands of their profession to work within their constricting horizons, have not directly served society by applying their tools to the densely knotted problems of men, to use Dewey’s term for where the energies of philosophy should be directed. At one point it became recognized that “clarity is not enough.” It is not enough. But the fact that it remains a stylistic imperative in most Anglo-American philosophy departments means that these virtues are being kept alive against the time when the humanities need to recover them.

I have to say that writing art criticism the way I would write a philosophical essay has brought me a certain following in my second career, that of an art critic, at a time when the bulk of contemporary art writing is jargon-ridden and pretentious. I have, in any case, had the immense privilege of living in two worlds. I love the art world for its spirit of celebration. But it is delicious to slip back into philosophy, where one is accepted however outrageous one’s views, and where one’s colleagues can argue interminably even the smallest of points with no sense of wasting their time.

I early came to the view that the least unit of philosophical discourse is the total philosophical system. I once read a text in which Wittgenstein was portrayed as making merry at the expense of those—I suppose he had Bertrand Russell in mind—who believe that all philosophical questions have to be solved at once. Wittgenstein felt that no philosophical problem could be solved but only dissolved, since no such problem is real, philosophy in his view being nonsense through and through. My own view was and is that all truly philosophical problems are genuine and that they must indeed all be solved at the same time, since they form an interconnected whole. And since the nature of philosophy is itself a philosophical problem, calling for a philosophical solution, if Wittgenstein was wrong about philosophy itself, he must be wrong about everything in philosophy, not counting the poetic obiter dicta that ornament his books. To do philosophy at all means doing all of philosophy at the same time. That means that philosophers cannot be specialists.

Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that the entirety of philosophy is somehow connected with the concept of representation—that human beings are ens representans—beings that represent the world; that our individual histories are the histories of our representations, and how they change in the course of our lives; that representations form systems that constitute our picture of the world; that human history is the story of how this system of representations changes over time; that the world and our system of representations are interdependent in that sometimes we change the world to fit our representations, and sometimes we change our representations to fit the world. At some point I had decided that my task as a philosopher must be to compose a theory of representations, which would be a philosophy of what it is to be human. It would be a philosophy of history, of knowledge, of action, of art, and of the mind. It was an extremely ambitious project, conceived of at a time when such large undertakings were quite out of fashion in the field of philosophy, in which philosophical reputations were based on short analytical papers published in professional journals. But I thought it would be a great intellectual adventure to embark on a total philosophical system, and to carry it out over several volumes.

My inspiration, in a way, was a five-volume work by the great Spanish and American philosopher, George Santayana, titled The Life of Reason. Santayana belonged to a generation earlier than mine, one in which to be a philosopher really did mean creating a system that would house the whole of things. Housing the whole of things is, in a way, an architectural vision, and while there is something arrogant in believing oneself capable of constructing such an encompassing edifice of thought, I felt that we all more or less live in one or another such edifice, made by others and handed down to us. Why not try to make one more suitable to how one understands the way of things? So I embarked, rather recklessly, on a five-volume philosophy of representation. I had no wish to be a disciple of Santayana or of anyone, but a fellow architect of comparable scope, with admittedly something of the same taste as he for aesthetically self-conscious prose. If one decides on the life of a writer, one had better take pleasure in words. I saw no inconsistency between philosophical truth and literary flair. So though I continue to identify myself as an analytical philosopher, I am grateful that, despite its virtues as a discipline, I was able to strike off on an independent path as a system builder, whatever future generations might think of what I have built.

I have always had an intense interest in the visual arts, my mother having taken me at an early age to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and in the years of my moony adolescence I knew no greater pleasure than wandering through its then largely empty galleries, hung with images that resembled scenes from my own life not at all. I recall a Saint Francis by El Greco and a painting of a woman in a satin skirt by Terborch. I studied painting and thought of becoming an artist. The museum had an unusually rich collection of German Expressionist painting—Kirchner, Schmidt-Rottluff, Pechstein. I was greatly moved by the German Expressionist woodcut, and when I embarked on a career in New York, where I had gone after the war—I had been a veteran of the North African and Italian campaigns, and made the landing in Italy, though not in the first wave—I had a certain success as a printmaker. I was also studying for a doctorate in philosophy at the same time—I had tremendous energy in those years, and slept very little—and saw no reason why I could not have two careers. At a certain moment in the early 1960s, it occurred to me that I was finally more interested in writing philosophy than I was in making art, which had begun to bore me. So I stopped immediately, which was just as well. The movement I was part of was the New York School, though I was never an abstractionist, but that movement was coming to an end, and had I chosen to abandon philosophy instead of art, I would have been in a bad way. The pop movement greatly interested me, but as a romantic, I would have had no interest in being a pop artist.

What engaged me in pop was that it showed me how to write philosophically about art. I had never seen much if any connection between philosophy and the art that had moved me, but I did begin to see, with pop, the basis for a serious philosophy of art. At the same time I found the art of the mid-1960s—pop art and minimalism—fascinating philosophically. But the figures that engaged me—Andy Warhol preeminently, but also Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg in the pop movement, and the sculptors whose work was shown in the important 1966 exhibition “Primary Structures,” at the Jewish Museum—would have been almost totally unfamiliar to most aestheticians, even the rare figures among them who knew much about modern art. I wrote my first piece on the philosophy of art in 1964, at a time when my powers of philosophical invention were at their peak. I had become very excited about pop art after seeing a painting by Lichtenstein reproduced in ARTnews, at the time the leading art magazine in America. I was living in the south of France, writing the Analytical Philosophy of History, and had driven up to Paris for the Christmas holidays. I was eager to read up on what was happening in the New York art scene, so I went to the American Library to look at the art magazines. Lichtenstein’s painting was called The Kiss, and it showed, as if it came from some comic strip like Steve Canyon, a pilot kissing a girl. I was astonished. I could not imagine a copy of a comic-strip panel being shown at an actual art gallery like Leo Castelli. At first I was revolted, as I believed in the highest ideals of painting. But then I wanted to see the work. My life was essentially changed by that painting, and when I returned to New York, I sought out the galleries where pop art was on view. In 1964 I was blown away by Andy Warhol’s shipping cartons, exhibited in great stacks, as if in the stockroom of a supermarket. I instantly accepted them as art, but then wondered why, if they were art, the ordinary shipping cartons of the supermarket were not. That, I realized, had the form of a philosophical problem.

I had the great good luck to be invited to present a symposium paper on aesthetics at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association that year, and I decided to present the new kinds of problems I had encountered in recent art. I called it “The Art World,” meaning by that the world of art works. My question, as suiting the times, was political: How does something get enfranchised as an art work? Nineteen sixty-four was a very political year for American civil rights activists, many of whom went into the South to register black voters who had been disenfranchised by racial prejudice. To be an art work meant that an object had all sorts of rights and privileges that ordinary objects lacked—people respected it, it was valuable, it was protected, it was studied and contemplated with awe. Brillo Box was enfranchised; the Brillo boxes were not. How did that happen? It could not be based on anything perceptual, since the two kinds of objects were perceptually indiscernible. That meant that the differences between them—and hence between art works and ordinary objects—had to be invisible. So what was it to see Brillo Box as worthy of its status?

I did not get very far with an answer in “The Art World.” I used a strategy of differentiation that the state of philosophy at that time favored: I thought the two objects had disjoint sets of causes. The causes of the ordinary Brillo box were practical: Brillo had to be shipped from factories to warehouses, from warehouses to supermarkets, where it would be unpacked, put on shelves, and sold. That made the logo important, since cardboard cartons look much alike. It had to be attractive and easily recognized. Warhol’s Brillo Box did not belong to that causal chain at all. It was the result of development in the theory of the art work, and of the recent history of art. To see something as an art work, one had to know this history, have participated in the kinds of discussions that had been taking place. The status of being an art work was a product of history and of theory. At most moments in the history of art, something like Brillo Box, while possible as an object, would not have been possible as art. It became possible as art only when the art world—the world of art works—was ready to receive it as one of its own.

In a way, the Brillo Box–Brillo carton problem is like a problem in religion, the problem, namely, of distinguishing between a god in human form and an ordinary human being. The evident humanity of Jesus lay in the fact that he bled when circumcised, but wherein lay his divinity? That had to be invisible, which is what makes Christianity so philosophical a religion. I have always been convinced by Hegel’s claim that philosophy, art, and religion are but different moments of what he termed Absolute Spirit. The Dantos are Sephardic Jews, who in the case of my family found their way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But I am in no sense a religious person, though I have always found philosophical inspiration in the way Christian thinkers wrestled with the kind of problem I found in the philosophy of art. Most religious people are not philosophers, so differences between religions take on an importance that philosophy would never permit.

When I came to write the fourth volume of my system—my philosophy of art—I found a wonderful title for it in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a novel by Muriel Spark. Her heroine, a sexy teenager who becomes a nun, writes a famous book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. She now wants a life of quiet meditation, but the world is interested in her book, and she is beset by interviewers and the like. I decided to appropriate that title. My previous books were Analytical Philosophy of History, Analytical Philosophy of Knowledge, Analytical Philosophy of Action. I did not want this one to be called Analytical Philosophy of Art. I love the world of commonplace life. And I thought pop had transfigured the everyday world into works of art. I sought a definition of art that would explicate the concept of transfiguration. In candor, I really aspired to write a famous book, like that of Spark’s nun—Sister Helena of the Transfiguration. Lately, I have come to sympathize with her predicament. The book has been widely translated and commented on. I have no wish for a life of quiet devotion, but I would not mind the peace. You can’t have everything!

What I do know in retrospect is that without recognizing it at the time, I was part of a movement—the movement that was the 1960s—that consisted in overcoming boundaries of every sort, in my case the boundary between art and everyday life. Though I was every bit an academic philosopher, I must somehow have sensed that we were living in an age of immense conceptual upheaval. I am very grateful that I was not a conservative by temperament, and that I did not resist the revolution that was happening in art, though it had little to do with the art that made me want to be an artist in the first place. Nineteen sixty-four, as I mentioned, was the “Freedom Summer,” in which the boundary between blacks and whites began to be erased. In 1968, the antiwar movement exploded in the universities. It was also then that the modern feminist movement was launched, inspired by Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, but even more by the recognition that discrimination against women was arbitrary. In 1969 came the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, and the beginning of gay liberation. What began as an overcoming of boundaries in the art world culminated in the overcoming of boundaries in political life everywhere. I take great pride that these movements were detonated in America, and especially in New York, and I am ashamed by the conservative reaction in America that has taken place in the past decades. I am an advocate of openness, in art, in politics, in sex, in life.

I was born on January 1, 1924, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My birthday perhaps explains my indefensible optimism. Each year opens on a new page, for me as well as for the world. I have always enjoyed the age I was, excepting my adolescence, when the fact that I was a born philosopher muddled my life without my knowing why. I enjoy being 88, despite not having achieved wisdom. Proust writes of les chagrins qu’ont les vierges et les paresseux (“the vexations to which virgins and the indolent are subject”). I have neither kind of regret. My philosophical system is unfinished, but not because I was lazy. I was, rather, distracted by philosophical opportunities. I did lay the whole system out in a 1989 book, Connections to the World, where the last chapter points beyond philosophy, where I have spent a lot of time writing about the art that interests me, having had the luck to have been appointed art critic for the left-liberal magazine The Nation. That has helped me play a role in the life of my times.

I have always greatly preferred the company of women to that of men, and I have no interest in the kinds of things men are supposed to cherish—sports, speed, combat, and the like. I have been, by preference, serially monogamous. Marriage, or marriage-like relationships—sharing a life—is my ideal state of being. I can understand how gays would covet such a life, and I can see no basis for denying them the opportunity of living the kind of life in which I have found such intense satisfaction. That is one of the benefits of not being religious. The other is not believing in an afterlife. Though I grieved deeply when my first wife died, I had no fears for her, feeling that the end really is the end. I hate the idea of dying, since I relish life, as long as I can actually live it. But death is a gift of the gods, a way of escaping life when it is really intolerable. Though I have built a philosophical system, it does not contain a philosophy of life. If I have a philosophy of life, it is to keep living until I drop.

For what it is worth, I bear a strong likeness to Socrates, that legendarily ugly man. Friends are always sending postcards of busts of Socrates, struck by our resemblance. An artist, whose project is painting portraits of art-world figures as famous works of art, has painted a portrait of me as a bust of Socrates. Here is the inscription: ΑΡΘΟΥΡΟΣ ΔΑΝΤΟ ΦΙΛΟΣΟΦΟΣ ΔΗΜΟΤΗΣ ΝΕΑΣ ΥΟΡΚΗΣ. “Arthur Danto, Philosopher, Citizen of New York.”

Arthur C. Danto was a contributing editor of The Nation. His last book, What Art Is, was published in March 2013. He died on October 25, 2013.

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