[Arthur C.danto] Artworks and Real Things

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Transcript of [Arthur C.danto] Artworks and Real Things

To the memory of Rudolph Wittkower

Artworks and real thingsbY

A R T H U R C. D A N T O(Coluiiibia University)

The children imitating the cortnorants,

Are more wonderful Than the real cormorants.

I ssaPainting relates to both art and life . . . ( I try to work in that gap between the two). Rauschenberg

F r o m philosophers bred t o expect a certain stylistic austerity, I beg indulgence for what may strike them as an intolerable wildness in the following paper. I t is a philosophical reflection on New York painting from circa 1961 t o circa 1969, and a certain wildness in the subject may explain the wildness I apologize for in its treatment. Explain but not excuse, I will be told: the properties of the subject treated of need never penetrate the treatment itself; Freuds papers on sexuality are exemplarily unarousing, papers in logic are not logical merely in consequence of their subject. But in a way the paper is part of its own subject, since it becomes an artwork a t the end. Perhaps the final creation in the period it treats of. Perhaps the Snal artwork in the history of art!~ ~

This paper ~ i - a srcad in an carlicr version at a confercncc o n t h e philosophy of art at t h e Uni\.ersity of Illinois a t Chicago Circle. I am grateful t o Professor George Dickie for having invited it. For prodromal reflections on much t h e anme topic, see my paper T i c Al-t~\-orld, JoirrrzaE of f h f b S O j J h y , \ 01. 61 in (1%4), pp. 571-5S-l.

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IRauschenbergs self-consciously characterized activity exemplifies an ancient task imposed generically upon artists in consequence of an alienating criticism by Plato of art as such. Art allegedly stands at a certain invidious remove from reality, so that in fabricating those entities whose production defines their essence, artists are contaminated at the outset with a kind of ontological inferiority. They bear, as well, the stigma of a moral reprobation, for with their productions they charm the souls of artlovers with shadows of shadows. Finally, speaking as a precocious therapist as well as a true philistine, Plato insinuates that art is a sort of perversion, a substitute, deflected, compensatory activity engaged in by those who are impotent t o be what as a pis-aller they imitate. Stunned by this triple indictment into a quest for redemption, artists have sought a way towards ontological promotion, which means of course collapsing the space between reality and art. That there should, by Rauschenbergs testimony, still remain an insulating vacuity between the two which even he has failed t o drain of emptiness, stimulates a question regarding the philosophical suitability of the task. To treat as a defect exactly what makes a certain thing or activity possible and valuable is almost a formula for generating platonic philosophy, and in the case of art an argument may be mounted t o show that its possibility and value is logically tied up with putting reality at a distance. It was, for example, an astonishing discovery that representations of barbaric rites need themselves no more be barbaric than representations of any x whatever need have the properties of x-hood. By imitating practices it was Izorrifying t o engage in (Nietzsche), the Greeks spontaneously put such practices a t a distance and invented civilization in the process; for civilization consists in the awareness of media as media and hence of reality as reality. So just those who gave birth t o tragedy defeated an insupportable reality by putting between themselves and it a spiritualizing distance it is typical of Plato t o find demeaning. I t may be granted that this achievement creates the major problem of representational art, which is sufficiently t o resemble the realities it denotes that identification of it as a

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representation of the latter is possible, while remaining sufficiently different that confusion of the two is difficult. Aristotle, who explains the pleasure men take in art through the pleasure they take in imitations, is clearly aware that the pleasure in question (which is intellectual) logically presupposes the knowledge that it is an imitation and not the real thing it resembles and denotes. We may take (a minor) pleasure in a man imitating a crow-call of a sort we do not commonly take in crow-calls themselves, but this pleasure is rooted in cognition: we must know enough of crow-calls to know that these are what the man is imitating (and not, say, giraffe-calls], and must know that he and not crows is the provenance of the caws. One further condition for pleasure is this, that the man is imitating and not just an unfortunate crowboy, afflicted from birth with a crowish pharynx. These crucial asymmetries need not be purchased at the price of decreased verisimilitude, and it is not unreasonable to insist upon a perfect acoustical indiscernibility between true and sham crow-calls, so that the uninformed in matters of art might-like an overhearing crow, in fact-be deluded and adopt attitudes appropriate t o the reality of crows. The knowledge upon which artistic pleasure (in contrast with aesthetic pleasure) depends is thus external t o and at right angles t o the sounds themselves, since they concern the causes and conditions of the sounds and their relation t o the real world. So the option is always available t o the mimetic artist t o rub away all differences between artworks and real things providing he is assured that the audience has a clear grasp of the distances. I t was in the exercise of this option, for example, that Euripides undertook the abolition of the chorus, inasmuch as real confrontation, real frenzies of jealousy commonly transpire without benefit of the ubiquitous, nosy, and largely disapproving chorus inexplicably (to him) deemed necessary for the action t o get on by his predecessors. And in a similar spirit of realism, the stony edifying heroes of the past are replaced by plain folks, and their cosmic suffering with the commonplace heartpains of such (for example) as us. So there was some basis for the wonder of his contemporary, Socrates (who may, considering his Egyptolatry in the Luzus, have

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been disapproving not so much of art as of realistic art in the Repubtic), as to what the point of drama any longer could be: if we have the real thing, of what service is an idle iteration of it? And so he created a dilemma by looking inversely a t the cognitive relations Aristotle subsequently rectified: either there is going t o be a discrepancy, and mimesis fails, or art succeeds in erasing the discrepancy, in which case it just is reality, a roundabout way of getting what we already have. And, as one of his successors has elegantly phrased it: one of the damned things is enough. Art fails if it is indiscernible from reality, and it equally if oppositely fails if it is not. We are all familiar enough with one attempt to escape this dilemma, which consists in locating art in whatever makes for the discrepancies between reality and imitations of it. Euripides, it is argued, went in just the wrong direction. Let us instead make objects which are insistently art by virtue of the fact that no one can mistake them for reality. So the disfiguring conventions abolished in the name of reality become reintroduced in the name of art, and one settles for perhaps a self-conscious woodenness, a deliberate archaism, an operatic falseness so marked and underscored that it must be apparent t o any audience that illusion could never have been our intent. Non-imitativeness becomes the criterion of art, the more artificial and the less imitative in consequence, the purer the art in question. But a fresh dilemma awaits at the other end of the inevitable route, namely that nonimitativeness is also the criterion of reality, so the more purely art things become, the closer they verge on reality, and pure art collapses into pure reality. Well, this may after all be the route t o ontological promotion, but the other side of the dilemma asks what makes us want t o call art what by common consent is reality? So in order t o preserve a distinction, we reverse directions, hardly with a light heart since the same dilemma, we recall, awaits us at the other end. And there seems, on the face of it, only one available way t o escape the unedifying shuttle from dilemma t o dilemma, which is t o make non-imitations which are radically distinct from all heretofore existing real things. Like Rauschenbergs stuffed goat garlanded with a tire! It is with such unen-

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trenched objects, like combines and emerubies, that t h e abysses between life and art are t o be filled! There remains then only the nagging question of whether all unentrenched objects are t o be reckoned artworks, e.g., consider t h e first can-opener. I know of an object indiscernible from what happen t o be our routine can-openers, which is an artwork:

The single starkness of its short, ugly, o i n i n ~ u sblade-like cztrcmity,i:mbodying aggressivencss and masculinity, contrast formally as \\-ell as symbolically with t h e frivolous diminishing helix, which swings frtrcly [but upon a fixed enslaving axis!) and is pure, helpless femininity. The t w o motifs are symbioticaily sustained in a single, poxverful coinposition, n o less universal ailJ hopeful for its miniature scale and commonplace material. [Gazette des beaux arts, vol. 14, no. 6, pp. 430-431. h,Iy translaticm]

As an artwork, of course; it has t h e elusive defining properties of artworks, significant form compris. In virtue of its iiidiscernibilityfrom t h e domestic utensil, then, one might think it uncouth if n o t unintelligible t o withhold predication of significant form t o t h e latter, merely on grounds of conspicuous Zuhande