The Final Artistic Taboo
“How can someone possessed of learning and culture in the highest degree spread ideas that are entirely inimical to civilized life?” This is a question we have been forced to ask more than once over the last century as some of the most prominent intellectual figures have flirted repeatedly with various radical theories. The most acute effects of their clerkly treasons have undoubtedly been felt in the realms of politics and ethics. But art and culture, too, have suffered from our mandarins’ penchant for modish nihilisms, crumbling into ever greater desuetude as a result. One of the most influential disseminators of this disorder was Arthur Danto, a man of undeniable philosophical erudition, along with a thorough acquaintance with our artistic heritage. But in After the End of Art (1997), he puts forward a theory of art history which, if taken seriously, would spell the end of all standards in the making and judging of art.
Danto’s central thesis is not hard to decipher, as he repeats it, in apothegmatic fashion, numerous times in his book. “Anything can be a work of art,” he tells us, plainly stating a theme which, in its variations, becomes “everything is permitted,” “everything is possible, anything can be art,” art “can be anything artists and patrons want it to be,” “nothing is more right than anything else,” and, in a description of the advent of our artistic epoch, “artists, liberated from the burden of history, were free to make art in whatever way they wished, for any purposes they wished, or for no purposes at all.” To be clear, Danto is not simply purporting to describe the present condition of the art world, in which case, a statement like “everything is permitted” would appear entirely accurate. Danto offers these statements as critical injunctions, as the necessary imperatives which philosophy decrees for artists and critics alike at this moment of history. It is a prescriptive statement, asserting that there may be no more prescriptions. As such, it is a powerful warrant, justifying in advance all the canned animal parts and blood-spattered performance art you could wish. If anything can be art, anything can be art.
How does Danto arrive at a position so destructive of aesthetic standards? Primarily by thinking about art as though it were anything else besides art. Few authors as evidently enamored with art as Danto was have demonstrated such a complete insouciance towards the place that art holds in the lives of its makers and its appreciators. A perfect example of this special kind of myopia is found in his account of Giorgio Vasari’s (1511–74) thoughts on the nature of art. According to Danto, Vasari taught that art “was the progressive conquest of visual appearances, of mastering strategies through which the effect of the visual surfaces of the world on the visual systems of human beings could be replicated by means of painting surfaces that affect the visual system in just the way the world’s visual surfaces affect it.”
But this is emphatically not what Vasari thought art is; not at all what he thought was the most important or definitive thing about art, or what constitutes its essential character. That Vasari affirms explicitly in the introduction to his Lives of the Painters, where he writes:
the origin of these arts was Nature herself … the inspiration or model was the beautiful fabric of the world … and the Master who taught us was that divine light infused in us by a special act of grace which has not only made us superior to other animals but even similar, if it is permitted to say so, to God himself.
For Vasari, art is first and foremost a reflection of the divine in us, and one of the primary means by which we raise ourselves above the material imperatives of our existence and begin to fulfill our rational nature. The “mastering strategies” employed by the artists under his consideration were simply the techniques necessary to fulfill painting and sculpture’s high destiny, a point demonstrated by numerous passages in his Lives, such as when he praises a fresco of Raphael as follows:
With the beauty of its figures and the nobility of its painting, the work seems to breathe the breath of divinity, which astonishes anyone who examines it intently, causing them to wonder how the human mind, working with the imperfect medium of simple colors could, with the excellence of design, make objects in a painting seem alive.
Vasari was unquestionably articulating expectations of artwork he shared with his countrymen, the Florentines who turned out in procession to follow Cimabue’s Madonna through the streets, or who gathered in the Palazzo Vecchio to judge the competing frescoes of Leonardo and Michelangelo. But of course, he is also articulating expectations that were fairly universal up to only a few decades ago, and which continue to be held by many intelligent persons: the expectation that art is something eliciting “wonder” and “astonishment,” something that lifts our minds towards the contemplation of extraordinary truths (whether we choose to interpret such revelations theologically or not). There is hardly a page in Danto’s book which would make one believe he is aware that art has ever served in such a role, or that people have ever ascribed to it this sort of moral and spiritual significance. Throughout his book, he is obsessed with finding a definition of art, but he fails to look for it in the only place where such a definition could be found: in the ways it has consistently intersected with the lives of artists and their audiences.
Instead of thinking about art as art, Danto often tends to regard it as an adjunct branch of history. After the End of Art is, at its heart, a story about how the history of art over the last several centuries—and particularly through the twentieth—has led inevitably to a state of affairs where “everything is permitted.” The emphasisis is on the “inevitably,” for Danto holds that the “self-consciousness” of modernism, and its disintegration into post-modernism and the “end of art,” was a necessary dynamic in the unfolding of art history. So of abstraction, for instance, he writes: “Abstraction was the meaning of history, considered as a process, in the narrative of modernism: it was a necessity,” and, citing the art critic Clement Greenberg, abstraction was an “imperative that comes from history.”
Such determinism in regards to the arts is highly dubious. Art is the supreme expression of human freedom. We are too often misled by our study of the history of art, and the unmistakable stories of development it encompasses, to believe that there was something fated or necessary about these developments. We study Giotto’s innovations in modeling the human form, and Massacio’s use of perspective, and trace the development of these techniques through the work of Ucello and della Francesca and Mantegna, and then their apotheosis in the paintings of Leonardo and Raphael. We find the narrative of this period of art so progressive and coherent, so evidently moving in an explicable direction, that we find ourselves almost instinctively assuming there was something fated about this development, that the frescoes of the Stanza della Segnatura were somehow contained, in embryo, in the Holy Trinity at Santa Maria Novella. We are too apt to forget the thousands of conscious, deliberate choices, made by dozens of individuals, which carried these techniques forward. It is a story in which human agency played a central part, continually exercised in the form of practical reasoning, according to which aesthetic ends were achieved through the selection of the stylistic means most appropriate to achieve them. And because this form of rationality played a role in the story, there is room for rational criticism, a criticism that takes as its task the evaluation of those means, those ends, and their proper—or improper—matching.
Danto’s book illustrates the strange misconceptions which arise when we forget this basic relevance of human agency. According to his reading of recent art history, the various modernist movements of the twentieth century arose from their adherents’ respective interpretations of “history’s imperative.” On Danto’s own reading, none of these movements had their primary impetus in a reconsideration of the proper place of art and the artist in society, or the way that certain styles regularly achieve certain aesthetic effects. As I noted, Danto is completely insouciant about such topics. None of these movements took shape from an attempt to rationally justify the conventions they were introducing. Rather, they each arose as a response to the purported dictates of some arcane deity named History, as when he writes about artists working in some “historically favored form.” This way of describing art history amounts to little more than rank superstition, attributing to occult forces the stylistic choices of real, embodied human beings. Danto avers that the history of modern art is the history of one “master narrative” about the direction of art history being replaced by another, until the exhaustion or the failure of all of them leads us to the present moment, when “everything is permitted,” which is to say, when there is no more possibility of erecting artistic standards. But in fact, on Danto’s telling, the history of modern art precluded rational criticism right from the start, since it relegated human agency to an epiphenomenal role, and attributed the true efficacy of art’s development to the blind, inexorable will of History.
How different this history looks when it is retold in terms of rational criticism, of criticism that seeks to evaluate the means and ends of the artist. Such a criticism dismisses the contention that abstraction met an “imperative of history” as so much mythological gauze to be torn away. Instead, we are led to ask all the questions Danto refuses to ask. We will ask whether abstraction constitutes a family of techniques adequately fitted to satisfy the ends of painting, defined by Vasari as a radiation of the divine light in us; whether non-representational painting can do justice to “the beautiful fabric of the world,” whether color alone can adequately elicit “wonder” and “astonishment” in the viewer. If we find ourselves answering these questions largely in the negative, then we will not hesitate to declare the history of modernism to be fundamentally regressive, a period when artists and critics alike lost sight of the true ends of art, and engaged in all sorts of bizarre speculative stunts to substitute for genuine artistic creation. But whatever final estimation we arrive at, we will not fail to describe that history, from beginning to end, as a story of human agency and human freedom operating upon the world.
Certainly, like all expressions of freedom, the freedom of the artist is hemmed in by the limitations of historical contingency and the fallibility of humans and their institutions. Danto, then, is partly right (but only partly) when he maintains that we are “locked into history,” that “we live and produce within the horizon of a closed historical period.” Of course this is true, and this sets boundaries to what artists may accomplish in any given period. But no one can state what those limitations might be in advance, because artistic genius reveals itself by constantly transcending what the rest of us took to be limitations. Nor can one draw up a set of prescriptions on the techniques available to artists in any given age by speculating about the direction art history is taking at a given moment.
But this is exactly what Danto tries to do. Lying at the end of his account of art history is an eternal foreclosure on all forms of artistic production preceding the post-modern era. All models from the past, all previously successful styles, are “historically circumscribed,” off-limits to working artists as viable technical avenues. So now everything can be a work of art, except the kinds of artifacts human beings regarded as artworks for millennia. Everything is permitted to the artist, except an application of the technical resources most conducive to artistic excellence. Those things, he contemptuously claims, have been put aside by modernism in the way “adults … ‘put aside childish things.’” Danto’s declaration of complete artistic liberty leads, in the end, to the single most rigid set of restrictions ever prescribed to working artists, a dynamic resembling, with uncanny precision, the way modern declarations of total political and moral liberty have always ended up generating oppressive ideologies.
Fortunately, no artist needs to take his prescriptions seriously, because they are as preposterous as they are narrow. For one, according to Danto himself, the forms of even relatively recent modernism are as much off-limits as the forms of the Renaissance or Baroque eras. In a very real sense, we are as distant from 1950 as we are from 1450. This leaves us with nothing but the latest eccentricities of the avant-garde, which in practice means that art henceforward will be nothing other than what is pronounced to be so by the institutional centers of art in our society—the galleries, the museums, the critics at magazines like The Nation—a state of affairs intolerable to anyone who understands how deeply implicated these institutions are in our present cultural decrepitude.
Moreover, Danto errs when he binds artistic form so inextricably to the particularities of place and history, for a knowledge of art history incontrovertibly demonstrates that certain forms can transcend the contingencies of the social milieu out of which they emerged, and capture something permanent about the human experience, appealing to generations of artists far removed from one another in time and cultural environment. Thus, the tragedy survived as a literary form for millennia because it embodied something more than the mysteries of Athenian cultic belief. The dome recurs as an architectural form among peoples pagan, Christian, and secular, because its effects on the human organism remain consistent despite these massive shifts in philosophical perspective. That is why artists have repeatedly turned to the work of their predecessors for guidance and inspiration—a central dynamic of art history which Danto never seems to have heard of, since he offers no real reason, outside of his deterministic superstitions, why this option is forbidden to artists of our own times, alone among all the periods of human history. In fact, it is nothing but a reverent gaze turned towards the artistic accomplishments of the past—turned in the spirit of study and emulation—that can redeem our culture from its present ruin. It turns out that Danto’s reading of art history permits everything except the one thing that is most needful for the revitalization of the arts.
At its core, Danto’s account of art history is relentlessly Whiggish; an “ascent to philosophical self-reflection” that culminates in his own millennial discovery that now “anything can be a work of art.” It should be clear, then, that the basic prerequisite for restoring artistic standards and moving beyond a situation where “everything is permitted” is a retelling of that story as one of general regression; one that centers on the way modern artists and theorists for over a century lost sight of the proper ends of their disciplines, neglected the relationship of those disciplines to beauty, and consequently lost the formal vocabulary arising from both of these understandings. Such a story is inevitably a tale of decline.
I conclude by emphasizing this point, because it has unfortunately become quite common, even among conservatives and traditionalists, to decry any attempt to tell such a story. We are told instead that we must be open to the art of our own time, and find a way to express ourselves within its highly idiosyncratic parameters. Such arguments demonstrate little awareness of the acuteness of our cultural privation, nor its causes. That privation has resulted from the continual recitation of an ill-conceived tale of historical determinism. It can only be defeated by the telling of a different story, a story of rational freedom traduced, and then—if the story is infused by enough imaginative foresight—recovered.
Mark A. Signorelli is a poet and essayist. More of his work can be found at his website: markanthonysignorelli.com.
Posted: July 5, 2015