- Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life
The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton found that people cope with profound change in two different ways. One way is to adopt rules that provide stability and order in the midst of flux. Often, though not always, these rules evoke the past and the authority of tradition. Lifton calls this the “fundamentalist” response. The second way of coping with change is what Lifton calls “protean,” after the Greek god Proteus, who could assume any form. A protean response to change is to try something new because it is new. Each mode has its advantages and disadvantages. Most of us, according to Lifton, combine the two modes.
Arthur Danto responds to much of the bewildering flux and diversity of contemporary art with protean openness. A philosopher and art critic, Danto has written 16 books of philosophy, four of art criticism, and six art monographs, but is best known for his reviews in The Nation. Observant, generous to a fault, erudite but always accessible, and master of an admirable prose style, he has become the most widely read art critic in America. He has also achieved what until recently seemed an impossibility in the United States: He is a well-known art critic whom artists rarely criticize.
Unnatural Wonders is a collection of his essays, most of which were previously published in The Nation. The majority of these essays focus on the works of modern or well-established contemporary artists, among them Paul McCarthy, Barbara Kruger, Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter, John Currin and William Kentridge. In addition, there are essays on Chardin, Leonardo’s drawings, Artemisia Gentileschi, and the effects of 9/11 on New York art, along with reviews of two Whitney biennials, and one essay each on Fluxus, the intersection of painting and politics, and the erotics of Surrealism. Unnatural Wonders concludes with several theoretical texts. What ties all of this together, besides Danto’s distinctive warmth and intelligence, is his belief that contemporary art has raised “the question of its identity” and has “carried the responsibility of the philosophy of art farther than the philosophers of art would have been capable” (p. 11). In other words, contemporary artists do work that in the past would have been done by philosophers.
Danto believes that with respect to art, what he calls “our time” began in the early 1960s, when many artists broke from paradigms that had governed art since the Greeks. According to the earlier paradigm, art and life are related in complex ways, but comprise separate phenomena. Danto presents compelling evidence that over the last four decades a shift has occurred toward work that challenges the distinction between art and life. His prime examples are Andy Warhol’s Brillo box and the productions of Fluxus, works that not only mimic the things of daily life but in some cases are indistinguishable from them.
The breach of ancient barriers between art and life creates Zen-like ambiguities, and these require new ways of looking at art and life, as well as new approaches to art criticism. Danto’s approach favors an open, inquisitive and unassuming spirit. He observes what is before him, attempts to understand what an artist is saying or trying to say, and then seeks to communicate the artist’s intent to a larger audience. The role of the critic, Danto believes, is less to judge than to explicate. Danto is far from being the only art critic to have embraced the role of explicator, but he has been exemplary in fulfilling it, at least with respect to work that has already gained the approval of curators at important institutions.
Lifton believes that on balance the protean response to radical change is likely to be psychologically healthier than the fundamentalist response. However, the protean approach also has its limits. In Unnatural Wonders these limits are occasionally evident, but nowhere more clearly than in an essay on Jeff Koons. It begins with a quotation...