Danto, Arthur (1924–)

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Arthur Danto's contributions to the philosophy of art have been shaped by his experiences as art maker, art critic, and art lover. He earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Wayne State University in 1948. For the next decade, his woodcuts were shown in such important venues as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Los Angeles County Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. During this period of active art-making, he completed a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University in 1952 and began his half-century-long appointment in the Columbia philosophy department.

One of Danto's central aims for the first thirty years of his career was to render the ideas of nineteenth- and twentieth-century continental philosophers such as Hegel, Nietszche, and Sartre accessible and useful to analytical philosophers. Danto's writing about these figures is clear and often critical. He has also published penetrating overviews of core fields such as the philosophy of science, the philosophy of action, the theory of knowledge, the philosophy of history, and philosophical psychology.

Nevertheless, this philosopher remained an artist and passionate art lover. He had come to New York to study philosophy just when that city emerged as the center of innovative achievement in the art world. The art Danto encountered in the museums and galleries he frequented was conceptually challenging.

Andy Warhol's 1964 work Brillo Box provoked a key question: What makes Brillo Box a replica of the box used to ship packages of Brillo padsa work of art, suitable for display in a museum or gallery, when perceptually indiscernible objectsthe actual Brillo boxes created en masse by the manufacturerare relegated to grocery displays or storerooms? This is a philosophical query, but also an integral part of experiencing Brillo Box as art, for the art lover encountering Brillo Box is initially transfixed by questions about its status.

Danto's famous essay "The Art World" (1964) initiated an answer that he refined and elaborated over the ensuing fifteen years. Danto asked how commonplace objects that never could have been art in earlier times not only had gained the possibility of being art by 1964 but also appeared to be the art necessary for that time. Danto presumes that philosophy should accept, not correct, the phenomena of art-world practice and discourse. Therefore, the traditional questions of philosophy of art and philosophical aesthetics must be transformed to fit the art world's realities.

Danto's more fully elaborated position, first presented in full in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), is that art history and art theory contribute experiential (albeit not sensuous) properties to certain objects. These properties make the difference in experiencing objects as art. Absent being experienced at the appropriate art-historical moment, and through the lens of compelling art-theoretical understandings that offer illuminating interpretive hypotheses, objects do not rise to the status of art.

Seeing affinities between Danto's focus on art-world practice and his own view that it is artists, critics, and curators who decree which objects should be treated as art, George Dickie heralded the advent of the institutional theory of art. Danto's view differs from Dickie's in many ways, however. For example, a key idea in Danto's, but not in Dickie's, thought is that art distinctively embodies meaning, or at least embodies questioning.

Danto takes modern art's history to be a quest for answers about the general (transhistorical) nature and identity of art. Art in our time has achieved a philosophical self-consciousness that acknowledges rather than veils ontological questions about its own nature. But in pursuing its own ontology, art transcends its limits and is transfigured into philosophy. Persisting in this transgressive aim, art subsequently executes its own end, turning its back on philosophical anxiety about what art must be. Art thereby is liberated to place itself freely in the service of a multiplicity of values rather than to embrace a single value that is uniquely aesthetic. Danto's theory of the end of art is empirical, not prescriptive. He explains where art has arrived, and why, rather than directing where art should go. In such a pluralistic age as our own, when everything is possible, what principles should guide the art critic? This question, traditionally a concern of philosophical aesthetics, is of special interest to Danto because of another artworld role he fills, that of art critic. In 1984 Danto became the art critic for The Nation magazine. Much of his writing since that time has been criticism of works of art or reflections on art criticism. His Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present, a collection of art criticism, won the National Book Critics Circle Prize for Criticism in 1990.

In general, Danto's art criticism is about understanding artistic processes, not assessing aesthetic outcomes. Some philosophers fault him for stamping his philosophy of art with his style of art criticism and thereby giving artistic considerations priority over aesthetic values. Others praise him for developing a philosophical theory of art into which enlightening art criticism is tightly woven. Danto seeks to explain rather than steer the direction of art. Art criticism, as Danto understands the practice, deploys artistic judgment to detect an object's content and explain how the object embodies or presents what it is about. Yet Danto himself offers no developed philosophical analysis of artistic embodiment, neither of the process nor of the criteria of success. His signature stance is to observe from the intersect of philosophy and criticism. His strategy is to gently and genially compel art criticism to confront its own implicit abstractions and generalizations, while persuasively propelling philosophy to engage with the puzzling particulars of the world of art.

See also Art, Expression in; Art, Style and Genre in.


Danto, Arthur C. After the End of Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Danto, Arthur C. "The Art World." Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964): 571584

Danto, Arthur C. Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990.

Danto, Arthur C. Narration and Knowledge, Including the Integral Text of Analytical Philosophy of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Danto, Arthur C. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

"Danto and His Critics: Art History, Historiography, and After the End of Art." History and Theory 37 (1998): 1143.

Dickie, George. Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974.

Rollins, Mark, ed. Danto and His Critics. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1993.

Anita Silvers (2005)

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Danto, Arthur (1924–)

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