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Obituary: Arthur C. Danto

By M Blackman on 30 October

Arthur C. Danto

Arthur C. Danto, . Photograph

Arthur C. Danto, perhaps the most important philosopher of art of the last fifty years, died on Friday at the age of 89.  Danto was for many years a professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York and an art critic for The Nation.

His lasting contribution to the field of aesthetics was his simple approach of to trying to understand what art is.  He did this by addressing the radically different strategy that the contemporary art world had taken. 

The most important moment in Danto’s life was when he walked into Andy Warhol’s exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York to be confronted by Brillo boxes. As he stated in his seminal essay on the subject, ‘The Artworld’, published in 1964:

"Never mind that the Brillo box may not be good, much less great art. The impressive thing is that it is art at all.”

This experience led him to propose a new definition of art.  Simply put Danto opined that what art is, is what is in the “artworld,” and what the “artworld” is, is a common area of agreement within the art community.  This later became known as the ‘institutional’ approach to art, that is to say that art is defined by what artists, art historians, curators and critics agree is art.

As he wrote: ‘To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry — an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.”

However, Danto’s most startling thesis, the so called ‘end of art thesis’, was developed in the 1980s.  Largely influenced by Hegelian philosophy Danto argued that art had had up until the 1960s a progressive master narrative directing it. That is to say that art had some goal that it was moving towards - what philosophers term ‘a teleology’. Art had after all developed from Greek representational works to formalism and each art movement in-between could be interpreted against an art historical context.

What differed, however, from the 1960s onwards was that art had, in a sense, turned in on itself and had become reflexive.  It had become in essence more about itself, more about the nature of art, than about anything else.  With the arrival of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Danto argued, art had begun to investigate itself rather than anything external to it. This, he contended, marked the end of art, because art had become more about the theories surrounding the objects than the objects themselves.

Art he stated had become ‘post-historical’ in that it had seen the end of any kind of historical progress. There could be no one dominating style and the future artistic response to practice would be a pluralistic one.

Danto began at Columbia in 1951, he received his doctorate the following year and he continued teaching at Columbia until he retired in 1992. He was subsequently named Johnsonian professor emeritus of philosophy.

Mr. Danto’s first wife, Shirley Rovetch, died in 1978. Danto is survived by his second wife, Barbara Westman Danto, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Ginger.

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