Philosopher, Art-Critic, Artist Arthur C. Danto Dies at 89


I remember driving up to Paris in early 1962 to go to the American Library, to check out what was happening in New York by looking at recent issues of Art News. I was stunned to see a painting by Roy Lichtenstein, called ‘The Kiss,’ which looked like it came straight out of a comic book. Stunned! It was like seeing a picture of a horse in the newspaper, and read that it had been elected as the new Bishop of St. John the Divine, It just seemed impossible. How could a picture like that be shown in a New York gallery, and reproduced in what was at the time the defining art publication in America! But I thought of ‘The Kiss’ the rest of my time in France. I thought that if it was possible as art anything was possible in art. I remember drawing a church in Rome after that, and thinking: it’s ok to be doing this. I can do anything I want! It was then that I think I really lost interest in making art. That was a very philosophical response. –Arthur C. Danto, “Stopping Making Art,” September 23, 2007


Arthur C. Danto in his apartment, NYC, Photograph by D James Dee, 1990

Sad news again today. Philosopher, Art Critic, and once-upon-a-time printmaker, Arthur C. Danto passed away yesterday.

The Art Newspaper has published a brief obituary written by Julia Halperin. It begins:

Arthur C Danto, the noted philosopher and art critic, died on 25 October. He was 89. A professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University, Danto helped answer the age-old question of “what is art”, but also declared its end.

Born in Ann Arbor and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Danto studied art, history and philosophy at Wayne University and Columbia University. He received a Fulbright scholarship in 1949 to study with the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Paris and then returned to Columbia as a professor.

In a 1964 essay Danto coined the term “artworld”, which he defined as the cultural and historical context in which a work of art is created. The notion laid the groundwork for the philosopher George Dickie’s institutional theory of art, which states that an artefact becomes a work of art when “the artworld” confers “upon it the status of a candidate for appreciation”.

Twenty years later, Danto published his most famous essay, “The End of Art”. In it, he recounts a visit to Andy Warhol’s exhibition of Brillo boxes at the Stable Gallery in 1964 and argues that the show marked the end of art history. By turning art into its own philosophy, the Brillo boxes ushered in a new era of pluralism and “post-historical art”. “If artists wished to participate in this progress, they would have to undertake a study very different from what the art schools could prepare them for. They would have to become philosophers,” he wrote. [Continue reading]

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Woodblock prints by Arthur C. Danto. From left to right: An Assembly of Notable Persons 1959, Winged Figure 1960, Young Woman, Old Woman 1960. (The collection is titled “Reimagining Spirit” and can be viewed in its entirety through Wayne State University here.)

I’m grateful to William Day for bringing this to my attention, and for sharing with me his fond remembrance of Danto’s generosity as a dissertation supervisor. CL

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