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Arthur Danto's interesting new book After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History continues his exciting explorations of the relation of the concept of art to the evolution of art history and art theory.(1) In this brief essay, I would like to focus on some of the problems that appear to arise for Danto's proposals concerning both the concept of art and the nature of art theories, especially in relation to his philosophical history of art.
One thing that is particularly striking about After the End of Art is that in it Danto explicitly propounds a definition of art. Although there has always seemed to be an implicit definition of art behind Danto's speculations, never before, to my knowledge, has he stated it outright. But in After the End of Art, such a definition has finally found its way into print.
Danto's new definition of art is cautious; it advances two necessary conditions for art status and makes no claim for joint sufficiency. Danto says that in order to be a work of art x must (i) be about something and (ii) x must embody its meaning.(2) To `embody its meaning' in turn, amounts to something like `to discover a mode of presentation that is intended to be appropriate to its meaning' -- i.e. is intended to be appropriate to whatever subject it is about. I have inserted the notion of an intention here, of course, because otherwise the definition would turn out to be covertly evaluative -- it would count nothing as a work of art that failed in finding an appropriate mode of presentation.
I must say that I was very surprised when I read this definition. Perhaps what surprised me most was what it did not contain. Specifically, it left out what I had always thought was one of Danto's greatest hypotheses, namely that art required an atmosphere of art theory. Such theories and the narratives they generate are a major topic in After the End of Art. In this book and in Danto's earlier writings, such theories and narratives were said to enfranchise artworks -- which I understood to mean that it is a necessary condition of art that a putative artwork be an instance of an art theory or an intelligible episode in the sort of narrative that such theories generate. However, even though Danto has much to say about such artworld theories and narratives in his new book, he does not include the relation to such theories and narratives in his new, explicit definition of art . This exclusion comes with certain benefits, but it also has costs. First the costs.
Danto knows that his conditions are not jointly sufficient. But I wonder if he appreciates how far they fall short of addressing some of his most important themes. The distinction between artworks and real things is perhaps his leading theme. It is for him the question of the philosophy of art. But his new, explicit definition of art fails to answer it. Danto requires of an artwork that it possess aboutness and embodiment. But these are only necessary conditions. Many non-artworks will meet these conditions. A real sword replete with expressive qualities effectively designed to project fearsomeness has, by dint of its expressive qualities, aboutness, and, ex hypothesi, it effectively embodies its meaning. Similarly, real sports cars …