- Continuity or Break: Danto and Gadamer on the Crisis of Anti-Aestheticism
Introduction: The Philosophical Problem of Modern Art
According to Arthur Danto, the crisis of modern art is not the abandonment of representation, nor an attempt at intentional “uglification,” but a struggle to escape the aesthetic objectification of artworks.1 This attempt at escape has led modern artists to hold an indifferent attitude toward beauty, an attitude that has resulted in the readymade: in Duchamp’s famous urinal and snow shovel, and Warhol’s perhaps more famous soup can. Danto’s account of this crisis in art is plausible—for what is one to say vis-à-vis the beauty of objects in art galleries whose twins reside in washrooms and cupboards?—and if accepted identifies a related crisis in philosophy. From Plato to Schopenhauer, philosophers have largely approached the topic of art in relation to, or even as derivative of, the topic of beauty. The question for philosophers, teachers, and students of art, if art and aesthetic considerations have parted company, is what shall we say now?
The purpose of this paper is to contrast the answer of Danto with the answer of Gadamer. Both of these philosophers take the modern, anti-aesthetic turn of art seriously, but they adopt contrasting approaches to the question. Danto, in seeking to follow the lead of modern art, abandons aesthetics altogether. In contrast, Gadamer expands upon the beauty-focused foundation of his philosophical predecessors’ aesthetics, taking beauty not so much as a rule but a starting point for his reflections. Both of these accounts have their advantages and disadvantages, but, I hope to show, Gadamer’s approach is superior by virtue of the continuity it posits between modern and premodern art. To make this task manageable, this paper confines itself to Danto’s two essays, “The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art” and “Appreciation and Interpretation,” and Gadamer’s long essay “The Relevance of the Beautiful.” [End Page 36]
Danto and the End of Aesthetic Art
Philosophy’s disenfranchisement of art
Danto’s rejection of aesthetics is ultimately a product of the adversarial position he believes philosophy has taken toward art since its inception. According to Danto’s essay “The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art” in the collection of essays by the same name, philosophy sees art as a threat—an inferior form of human activity that spuriously claims to offer truths unavailable by means of philosophical reflection—and therefore seeks to “disenfranchise” it.2 This disenfranchisement begins with Plato but is a continuous theme throughout the history of philosophy, with only a few exceptions, such as Nietzsche. It has two stages to its attack. First, the Platonic attack on art seeks to insulate reality from art through ontology. This is an attempt at what Danto calls “ephemeralization”—the goal being to show that art objects are singularly ineffectual, except perhaps in their ability to generate an emotional response in those who apprehend them. Having succeeded in this, philosophy then tries to rationalize feeling, to bring the emotional effects of art under its authority.3 In thus ephemeralizing and taking over any possible effect of art, philosophy’s goal is to show that art causes nothing to happen.
For Danto, the chief representative of the first stage of Platonic attack, ephemeralization, is Kant. Kant, Danto observes, addresses art in his third critique, the critique of judgment, and in so doing characterizes art as a subject of “disinterest.”4 This disinterest is vital to Kant’s understanding of judgment (that is, aesthetic judgment or “the judgment of taste”) because judgment apprehends beauty, and beauty is both nonconceptual and universal.5 Things that are good in themselves, according to Kant, are apprehended to be so by reason and are thus universally good and of interest to all rational beings. On the other hand, things that are not universally good may be found agreeable by anyone who has an interest in them. A judgment of beauty, being both subjective and yet demanding assent from all, however, can neither be rationally formed nor contain an interest, for this would destroy its universality.
By Danto’s perhaps too-unkind lights, Kant’s emphasis on “disinterest” shows that...