Don’t call Arthur Danto an aesthetician, even if that word is preceded by the specification “America’s foremost.” As Danto explains in his latest book, What Art Is (Yale University Press), his explorations are best classified not as studies in aesthetics but as the philosophy of art.
While many take aesthetics and the philosophy of art to be synonymous, Danto argues for a hard distinction between the two. For him, aesthetics is largely a matter of delectation, a consideration of the way in which things appear to the senses, along with an argument for the superiority of one arrangement over another. The philosophy of art, on the other hand, is an inquiry into what distinguishes art objects from other things in the world; it is an attempt to answer the question, what makes art art?
For Danto, the relevance of aesthetics was seriously challenged by 20th-century art. He cites Marcel Duchamp’s readymades as examples of the uncoupling of art from traditional aesthetic concerns with beauty and taste. By contrast, the philosophy of art is an inquiry that has been made all the more pressing by our pluralistic era’s various and competing conceptions of art.
Danto advocates a strong essentialism, meaning that he thinks that one can arrive at a definition of art that holds for all instances of art, “irrespective of when they were made or will be made.” The mistake made by previous philosophers, he argues, consists of tying their definitions to something contingent—usually stylistic elements specific to the art of their times—rather than pegging them to something essential. For example, looking at the highly illusionistic sculpture that adorned public spaces in ancient Greece, Plato was led to conclude that the essence of art was imitation.
After considering and dismissing a number of definitions, Danto comes down on one that he thinks captures the “artness of art”: artworks are embodied meanings. As such, they elicit from viewers acts of interpretation designed to “grasp the intended meaning they embody.”
What Art Is is Danto’s most accessible articulation to date of his position on art. It provides readers with a philosophical approach to the history of art, along with an introduction to some of the most pressing questions raised by everything from the restoration of the Sistine Chapel to the works of Duchamp and Warhol. For this same reason, many specialists will find plenty to quibble with. For a book that attempts to advance a universal conception of art, there is little engagement with artistic production outside of the Western art-historical canon. Likewise, Danto’s restricted sense of aesthetics is one that many thinkers—particularly those working in the European philosophical tradition—would question. In this respect, it could be pointed out that what Danto argues is a timeless and placeless essence of art, its status as an embodied meaning calling for interpretation, depends in fact on a historically constituted way of conceiving of art—one that owes much to the advent of aesthetics.