If everything is possible, is anything possible…?

Cover, After the End of Art (courtesy, Princeton University Press)

As promised earlier this week, this book review from my 2013 reading list looks at Professor Arthur C. Danto’s series of lectures on fine art (part of the Mellon series), Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, published as part of the Bollingen Series by Princeton University Press as After The End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.

I go to some lengths here to describe this book’s genesis and development because many who read this will have had (or have chosen to have) little truck with scholarly writing. That’s a shame, because there are marvelous scholars who write well and whose ideas about art, culture, history, politics, science, etc., deserve wider reading – and considering. That is certainly the case with this book. Danto, professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University as well as long time art critic for The Nation, is both an engaging writer and a prodigious scholar. Those are credentials that make for rich, readable prose.

Some 15 years old now, After the End of Art expands a famous article Danto wrote in 1984 to describe a historical (or rather post-historical) moment: the end of art history and the beginning of a post-historical period in art when, as he proclaims, “everything is possible.” In this series of lectures he argues that it should only make sense to move the basis of art criticism from the long narrative of “Vasarian” examination of artists’ works in terms of their historical significance and relation to the canon of “great art”  to a philosophically based critique methodology that would look at art in terms of its essentialist characteristics. This, Danto believes, is the only way that one can accept what happened when Andy Warhol first exhibited Brillo Box: unlike Marcel Duchamp, whom Danto believes was merely tweaking the nose of serious art by exhibiting “found objects” such as a urinal and snow shovel as “works of art,” Warhol, in his careful recreation of commercial art and celebrity photos as work for serious artistic contemplation not only brings an end to the last great narrative of art history, modernism, with its focus on “the elements of art” (i.e., paint, canvas, and artist application of former to latter; to understand this easily, one has but to think of abstract expressionism, modernism’s last hurrah and the work of Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning), he also ushers in postmodernism with its focus on art as commentary.

Danto is correct in his appreciation of Warhol’s importance as artist and cultural icon: “…Warhol made films, sponsored a form of music, revolutionized the concept of the photograph, as well as made paintings and sculpture, and of course he wrote books and achieved fame as an aphorist. Even his style of dress, jeans and leather jacket, became the style of an entire generation.” That’s as succinct and accurate an assessment of Warhol’s epitomizing of the postmodern impulse in the arts as one could ever want.

Where he errs, and, to be fair, this may be the result of the book’s age more than any other factor, is in his estimation of the potential of pop art (and by extension postmodernism) as a force that would liberate art and set loose possibilities for new forms of creativity. Here’s how he describes what he felt after seeing Roy Lichtenstein’s The Kiss“…I must say I was stunned…if everything was possible, there really was no specific future; if everything was possible, nothing was necessary or inevitable….”

What Danto does/perhaps could not account for (in this one is reminded of the limitations of another fine, readable scholarly work, Neil Postman’s Technopoly) is the effect of distributed culture, especially a culture powered by socio-technological forces such as ubiquitous access to communication and social networking. His assumption of the ability of the serious artist to use irony (which he foresees as a comic force) to make artistic statements/comments has been so undercut by the ability of the entire population on the Web to use irony to make artistic statement/comments. And the multi-media installations and performance pieces that characterized high art in the 1990’s that Danto cites fondly are now easily replicated by any clever soul from eight to eighty. As a famous New Yorker cartoon once observed, “No one knows you’re a dog on the Internet.” One can easily replace the word “dog” with “artist.”

You can’t make fun (or art) of anything, as the postmodern artistic credo demands you must, when everyone is making fun (or art) of everything. If everyone is an artist, is anyone an artist? Is there even art? Would anyone notice if there wasn’t?

These questions deserve at least some consideration. We can hope that despite Danto’s age (he’s now 89) that he, or someone he trusts can revisit this topic and offer some further insight.

Danto may be right – we may have reached the end of art. But it may be that it is not a time to be glad, but to whimper….

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About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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17 Responses to If everything is possible, is anything possible…?

  1. leasartwork says:

    Reblogged this on Lea's Artwork and commented:
    Another great book review by my thoughtful and talented husband, Jim Booth.

  2. Frank Balsinger says:

    As you indicate, there’s so much here to ponder. One of the key things that strikes me in your post is the similarity between Danto’s “…I must say I was stunned…if everything was possible, there really was no specific future; if everything was possible, nothing was necessary or inevitable….” and Hassan-i Sabbah’s, “Nothing is true – everything is permitted.”

    Perhaps I’m being naive, even obtusely so, but I can’t believe that just because expression has become so democritized art is dead. The argument is tempting, though. As particularly trifling example,the same cadre that will blithely go to memegenerator and make a witty/ironic/satirical captioned graphic that pithily observes a new truism and enjoys a degree of virality might see someone going to incredible lengths to make that same statement and think/feel, “whatever, get over it.” At least that’s my impression of what appears to be a ubiquitous (if only in the US) defeatist, nihilistic attitude.

    What those clever graphics fail to accomplish is persistence, at least in form. Their ephemeral nature might be part of the charm, but I think it’s also a symptom of the greater disease. At the same time, I think they might serve as useful harbingers of a nascent zeitgeist. The same might be said for the momentary effect of flash mobs versus the more lasting effect of “genuine” performance art, or for the difference between someone making ham-fisted “musical” statements using tools available online today for free versus the occasional whiff of genius on display when actual musicians, employing actual theory and talent, leave a lasting mark on an audience.

    I think what’s coming to me here is that while mediocrity has flourished, the opportunities for real and lasting artistic merit have as well, even if the likelihood of recognition is as drowned in a sea of banality as it’s always been. At least, I hope it will be the case that for every million clickers of memes, every flippant Photoshop tweaker, every virtual slide-pusher, knob twiddler, and autotune hack there will still be a Greg Thow or a Carol Lea Booth using post-processing to good effect, a Fiction8, or Doco, or [insert favorite band here], or the next Bosch, or Durer, or Monet, or Warhol laboring away in the wings.

    • Ed Ski says:

      that’s right, frank-if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. way to use that thesaurus!

  3. Jim Booth says:

    Great comment, Frank – and I apologize for being so slow in replying. I’ve used Howard Zinn as an excuse before – I’m getting set to write my review as I type this – but his exacting and accurate history of what’s happened to “we, the people” (not the ubiquitous celebrity/corporate honcho type/frothing-mouthed pol we see paraded before us as representative of what it means to “be somebody” here in E Pluribus Unum land) has had me twisting and turning in my own thinking (and I’m a fairly bright boy) to a degree I doubt any book I’ve read since perhaps – well, ever….

    To your points, then.

    I’ll observe only a couple of things in response to this beautifully constructed argument for “real” vs. “faux” art of the techno varieties you mention:

    1) Artists need a “public,” whatever that is. They need people who can/will look at what they produce and have at least some (I’m not arguing for deep analysis or interpretation here) appreciation for its merits – as art. We’re in, as you describe wonderfully well, a period where people are having real difficulty discerning between techno tricks and the use of new media/technology in art production. Add to that the “ephemera phenomenon” (a pretty good term derived from your own language, yes?) and that “public” I spoke of is confused. So much so that they begin to think that THEY are artists if they learn to use one of those techno-manipulation/generator programs. Where this will lead us I can’t yet say – but this phony “democratization” of the artist’s creative process (and the subsequent flood of material produced by these “artists”) swamps what genuine artists do in a deluge of effluvia that pushes serious creative works along/aside/away in its rush – and does more harm than good, I fear, long term to our abilities to identify and preserve – art itself?

    2) I hope you’re right about about the persistence of real art vs. the noodlings of the snark culture. What my experience suggests to me, though, is that the arts have been swallowed by the same evil,beast that has swallowed pretty much the rest of the culture – crony capitalism. It’s all an “old boys network” at this point (I wouldn’t argue that that’s not always been the case to some degree, but we seem to be seeing more desperation now than I would ever have expected/predicted). Authentic art/artists are going to have to be persistent, indeed, to survive/endure the relentless cliquishness I see overwhelming artistic judgment as a basis for artistic recognition.

    Sigh…

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  11. Frank Balsinger says:

    Jim, head’s up. That Ed Ski character has now stalked me to your blog. Since he’s the kinda bloke that likes to link to David Duke’s website to make an anti-Semitic point I thought I should call him to your attention.

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