This essay is a shortened version of a lecture given at the exhibition, Arthur C. Danto’s Woodblock Prints: Capturing Art and Philosophy, at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale from August 24 to October 1, 2010.
It’s always interesting to learn what art great historians and philosophers of art make. Kant never made art. Neither did Hegel or Schopenhauer. Nietzsche composed some music, which thanks only to his fame is occasionally performed. And Wittgenstein designed a house in Vienna whose architecture has been related to the structure of his early masterpiece, the Tractatus. Nietztsche’s music and Wittgenstein’s house may shed light on, but they do not help explicate their philosophies. Many art historians make art. John Ruskin did drawings and watercolors. Roger Fry took his own painting very seriously, but even his Bloomsbury friends could not help noting how derivative his art was. More recently, Meyer Schapiro, who made informal works of art, described himself as a summer painter; and Clement Greenberg and Leo Steinberg did drawings.
Arthur Danto was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, New Year’s day, 1924, and so as an adolescent had access to one of the great American museums. Detroit is a beleaguered city, but the museum is grand. Thanks to the German born William Valentiner, director from 1924 to 1945, the museum has a great pioneering collection of German Expressionist art. The second of Danto’s importance influences was the great Japanese print makers of the nineteenth century.
If you want to understand what Danto the artist was doing in the 1950s, then you need to see how personal was his response to that art world. There were two New York, art worlds in the 1950s: the art world described in our histories; and the world of the printers. Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Newman were not major printers; conversely, the major printers owed little to these grand painters. Danto belongs in the later company. He was a printer. Soon enough, of course, most major artists made prints. Printers, often defensive about this situation, tend to argue that their medium offers distinct expressive possibilities. That line of argument is not relevant to Danto who always was a printer but never wanted to make paintings.
Around 1960 two things happened. Danto suddenly realized that he would rather be doing philosophy. And so he quit making art cold turkey. And the dominant art world style changed. These two events were quite independent. But, as Danto has noted, it’s fortunate that he turned to philosophy. Had he chosen rather to remain an artist, inevitably he would have been marginalized. It would be surprising to find that Nietzsche composed like Schubert, that Ruskin made happily carefree erotic pictures, or that Wittgenstein had designed a Gothic-revival house. The belief that there is some connection between a person’s life and art is what justifies the labor devoted to writing artist’s biographies. But philosophy in the analytic tradition is impersonal.
“My methods, “ he has said “were pretty eccentric. The basic thing was getting the drawing and keeping it as intact as possible through the entire process. That would be the one thing you couldn’t be taught.” That doesn’t tell us anything about how he composes his philosophy writing. “I was only interested in black and white prints. . . . I was not a colorist. I was never a painter, since a poor colorist. My main influences were Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline. I was a good draughtsman, and the drawing was always central. I was never abstract. The German draftsmanship was too outliney: mine were very massy, but that evolved.”
Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Danto have very different literary styles. But you can compare and contrast their arguments. Nietzsche critiques Kant’s view of aesthetic judgment, Danto builds upon Wittgenstein: and so on. In philosophy you can subtract the argument from its context. Danto does that in his books on Nietzsche and Sartre, and his book on Asian philosophy, translating their arguments into his analytic idiom. Danto’s writing takes two forms. As a philosopher, he offers a general account of what art is and how it may legitimately be interpreted. And as an art critic, like any critic, he explains what he admires and explains those judgments. But there is a firewall between Danto’s aesthetics, which by its very nature because it must account for all art, cannot offer value preferences, and his criticism, which like everyone’s is partisan.
Normally once someone becomes a serious artist, they continue. But Danto didn’t stop making art because he was dissatisfied with his art or career as an artist. And he didn’t stop because he needed to have more time to do philosophy. In one of his funnier throwaway remarks, he says that he took up philosophy because he thought that teaching would give him plenty of time to make art. There’s no reason he could not have kept going. But he didn’t. “In the end I gave art up because I loved writing philosophy more than carving blocks, and because, as I said, I couldn’t see giving up philosophy, realizing that I was going to have to give up something. I had immense energy, but I turned 40 in 1964. Carving took a lot of physical energy.” The story of this dramatic-seeming change is very undramatic.
Many great philosophers are very strange personalities. It is not easy to practice this esoteric activity and function effectively in everyday life. But Danto is a very practical person, in the good sense of the word. And so it’s a little surprising that he is triply divided, three people in one. There is Danto the philosopher, who has written about action, historiography and knowledge. There is Danto the late blooming art critic, who has catholic interests. And, third, there is the Danto who is the subject of this lecture, Danto the artist. Danto plays these diverse roles without feeling any conflict because as he understands philosophy, criticism and art making there can be no conflict amongst these roles.
Danto the artist is a figure of the 1950s, revived now only thanks to the justifiable fame of his art writing. In the essay on Munakata, he writes: “Places in New York and moments in my life are enhanced by his presence there and then. That presence was unique, and only the memorial of it tempers the sadness that is gone irrevocably. I have wanted to put it into words against the oblivion that is our terror and consolation.”
For a very long time our lives, and that of his wife Barbara Westman, have been intertwined. When November 28, 1984 my daughter Liz Carrier was born, Barbara Westman drew the birth announcement, showing the baby asleep amid art and books associated with us. If we want a picture of Arthur’s world, look to Westman’s great illustrations. I have known one of Danto’s prints Two Saints and a Sinner for a very long time. Some decades ago, in a very generous gesture he gave it to me. I see it many times a day, for it’s hung in my home. But until now, although it always has seen mysterious, I was never tempted to analyze it. It gives me great pleasure.
Arthur Danto’s essay on Munakata is reprinted in his Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays (1999). The other quotations come from our correspondence.