Arthur Danto

Philosopher, author, and art critic for The Nation, Arthur Danto has been a major shaper of recent aesthetic theory. He is best known for a contemporary version of Hegel's "end of art" thesis, first ennunciated by Danto in a 1984 essay called "The End of Art", and developed most recently in his After the End of Art (Princeton University Press, 1997). To explain this thesis it may help first to say what Danto does not mean by it. He is not claiming that no-one is making art anymore; nor is he claiming that no good art is being made any more. But he thinks that a certain history of western art has come to an end, in about the way that Hegel suggested it would. He summarizes that history as follows:

"...the master narrative of the history of art--in the West but by the end not in the West alone--is that there is an era of imitation, followed by an era of ideology, followed by our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes.
. . .In our narrative, at first only mimesis [imitation] was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the master narrative. It is the end of the story" (AEA p.47).

The Impressionists are the transitional figures between the era of imitation and the period of Modernism (what Danto calls the Age of Manifestos), since they are trying to be more accurate representers, but succeed rather in calling attention to the paint on the canvas (contrast a Renaissance painting, or for that matter a Vermeer, where the last thing you are supposed to see is the brushstrokes). The transition from modernism to post-modernism occurs with pop art. Danto discusses this transition in his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Harvard University Press, 1981). The new and curious thing about art in this era, according to Danto, is that you can no longer tell whether something is art by looking at it. Rather anything can be art, and anyone can be an artist. That is because art is about physically embodied meaning. All that is necessary for something to be a work of art, says Danto in the 1984 piece, is that it should be about something, and that it should embody its meaning (AEA pp. 195ff.). [In the source cited, Danto suggests that there is a third condition; but I have not yet been able to get clear on what the third condition is.]

After the end of this linear progress of western art, in a sense, anything goes. Pluralism reigns. Photorealism rubs shoulders with abstract expressionism; interactive installations stand next to color-field paintings and political statements. The only thing that is no longer possible, of course, is to paint as past painters did. It is possible to make paintings that look like Vermeers, as the Dutch forger Hans Van Meegeren did in the early part of the twentieth century. But such paintings cannot mean what Vermeers paintings meant, because they were made in a different historical context and for a different purpose. We cannot escape our historical situation.

If Danto's thesis is true, what does it mean for working artists now? What do you make after the end of art? In the last chapter of After the End of Art, Dando suggests that the message must be a kind of comedy or play, which does not take itself too seriously. "The true heroes of the post-historical period are the artists who are masters of every style without having a pianterly style at all..." (AEA p. 217). As examples, he cites the Russian emigre artists Komar and Melamid, who in a work commisioned by The Nation magazine first surveyed the USA to see what everyone wanted most and least in a painting, and then produced what they claim are America's most and least wanted paintings. They have since repeated the process for several other countries; the results may be viewed at, where links may also be found to a similar project involving music. The work, of course, is not the paintings themselves, but the play of ideas involved in making them, in thinking that they could be made, in kibbitzing on the different styles they use, in winking ironically at the art educated audience who will actually view the work, though they would never buy the painting if they found it by itself in a gallery, and so on.

Danto has surely noticed something true when he claims that pluralism now reigns in the art world in a way that it never used to do. Does this mean that the rest of his thesis is correct? Whether it does or not, the thesis and the observations on which it is based provide a healthy challeng to anyone trying to think about the state of contemporary art (in the west or indeed in the world) and the directions it may now be taking.

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