Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

A Perfect Friendship: Remembering Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto had a tripartite intellectual and artistic life. He was a professor of philosophy at Columbia University; a successful artist; and, also, an art critic. Early on he made his reputation with books on Nietzsche, on historiography and on the theory of action, a technical concern of analytic philosophers.  And all the while he was leading an independent life as a practicing artist- he did marvelous woodcuts, which, to his surprise and pleasure were rediscovered and written about, near the end of his life.  And then, in mid-life, he published his legendary treatise on aesthetics, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1981) and had the good fortune to be appointed art critic of The Nation, where he published reviews until almost the end of his life.

Arthur C. Danto, Horseman, 1956. Woodcut, 18 x 21-1/2 inches. Courtesy of the University Museum, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
Arthur C. Danto, Horseman, 1956. Woodcut, 18 x 21-1/2 inches. Courtesy of the University Museum, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Arthur’s “My life as a philosopher,” an essay published in The Library of Living Philosophers (Volume XXXIII. The Philosophy of Arthur C. Danto, Chicago, 2013) presents the story of his public life in a characteristically lucid way.  That account deserves to be supplemented by his amazing “Munakata in New York: A Memory of the 1950s,” republished in his Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1999).  This latter piece is as much about his own life as that of his Japanese artist friend.  In a similar way, because for more than forty years our intellectual lives were closely linked, in telling my story of his life I am also, to some extent, presenting some parts of mine also. Arthur had a great gift for friendship, and so soon accounts by others will, I expect, supplement mine.

I first met Arthur around 1966, when I began studying philosophy in graduate school. These were confused times in the life of our country, certainly in my personal life, and also in the life his university, which was occupied by the students in 1968. In 1972, I received a PhD for a thesis on the philosophy of art. At this time, when he wasn’t yet doing research on aesthetics, my chief inspirations were the writings of Richard Wollheim—who had visited at Columbia in the 1960s—and Arthur’s colleague and intimate friend, Richard Kuhns. I was lucky to have three such great teachers. I remained always close to them. Only later, in the 1970s when I was teaching philosophy in Pittsburgh did Arthur and I become frequent correspondents and, also, close friends.  Thanks to his love of letter writing, and my regular visits to Manhattan, we shared experiences.  And then in the early 1980s, we took a driving tour together in Northern Italy, the first part with my wife Marianne Novy. Going east from Turin, we had a marvelous luncheon on a hot July day in Verona; and then spent a happy evening wandering amid the street festival. We talked endlessly about just everything—ours was then, and almost always remained a perfect friendship. He explained, to my astonishment, that he wrote only two hours a day, noting that if you are focused you can do a great deal in that time. On a later occasion, he told me, he wrote a New York Times op-ed editorial in fifty minutes. His letters, and there were many, were always in the style of his published prose. In my long experience, Arthur the private person was pretty much like the figure a close reader knowing just his prose might imagine. After I got to know him, I realized that I could as-it-were hear his voice in dialogue with me. Then writing philosophy became easier, for I only had to record our conversations. No, of course nothing so literal was possible!, but his presence was crucial for me.

Inevitably as a philosopher of the next generation writing about visual art, I was very much concerned with sharing my ideas with Arthur, and, at least early on, with seeking his approval. Some famous intellectuals create disciples. But while Arthur certain appreciated my interest in his writings, which he acknowledged generously publically, he wasn’t at all interested in having followers. Some of my topics engaged him—he loved, for example, my book about comics, which extended his ideas to a domain of art he’d not written about. But others of my chosen topics were not his. He politely read my book on Poussin, which didn’t persuade him to admire an artist he disliked intensely. Indeed, I remember walking with him in the Harvard museums where, after looking at an immense variety of art with great enthusiasm, I had almost to drag him into look at Birth of Bacchus.  Arthur appreciated my account of the methodology of art history, but in honesty, there his concerns as a philosopher of art were very distant from mine. And when, late in his life, presented a world art history, that topic was not one that engaged him.  Nor did he take an interest in my book about his colleague Rosalind Krauss, or my approach to Warhol, which differs from (and takes issue with) his well-known account. When I pressed him, “Arthur, isn’t there something Catholic about your aesthetic theory” (it is after all presented in a book referencing the transfiguration) he said: “There is no Catholic side to me, I am completely Jewish.” Even when we wrote about our mutual great friend Sean Scully, we said very different things.

One a famously cranky critic criticized Arthur by calling him a happy philosopher. In truth, he really was happy—for conflicts were not his thing.  Of course he faced intellectual disagreements. And, as an art critic he had to deal with severe differences of taste. But on the whole, with surprisingly few exceptions, he wrote about art, books and people he admired—or, at least, found admirable. And he was given to catholic enthusiasms. As he explains in his autobiography, when he was a young professor his life certainly had bumpy moments. Later on, of course he was very famous and so much in demand as a speaker and writer.  Leaving aside his personal life, what is his vision of what he calls our post-historical period if not the vision of a happy man? (This vision is realized in the art of his second wife, Barbara Westman.) Certainly he responded with total sympathy to moments of despair, both personal and political despair. But I suspect that he was, as he often told me, essentially happy, and would have been so even had he remained a marginal scholar. Here, as in other personal ways, I learned from him.

Arthur Danto (1924-2013).  Picture credit to follow
Arthur Danto (1924-2013). Picture credit to follow

The artists who read Arthur’s criticism and purchased his books on aesthetic theory were aware, perhaps, of his purely philosophical writings. And certainly his philosopher colleagues knew that he took a very active interest in the contemporary art world. But on the whole, his audience was divided, for philosophers—even philosophers of art—usually remain mere readers of art criticism, while artists rarely are professionally competent scholars of philosophy. And so, as yet it is not clear how future generations will respond to his writings. But in describing the division of his interests between philosophy and art criticism, I left out reference to the most influential commentators about contemporary art—I mean art historians. That omission is deliberate, for while Arthur knew a great many art historians, and wrote about some art history books with characteristically enthusiasm, on the whole he was not much engaged by recent art history, especially the most fashionable approaches to contemporary art.

I never felt as comfortable as I did in Arthur’s company—talking or looking at art. Or in his company at a distance, in our correspondence. Near the end of his life as critic, we went to the Met together to look at the Morandi exhibition. I could see that his life was nearly over, but I believed—what was I thinking?—that we would go on talking forever. Arthur was a totally secular person. Death, he once told me, is just the end. And so nothing in our relationship prepared me to realize how much I now miss him.