Arthur Danto, “The Artworld”, ABQ Chapter 3, pp. 33-44


Preface: Danto attacks Socrates and Plato’s view of art as imitation (mimesis0 or a mirror. He calls this the “Imitation Theory” or “IT”. If this were correct, then any mirror image would also be an artwork, which is obviously false. It’s true that many artists both at that time and later did try to imitate nature in their art. But the invention of photography put an end to this as the goal of art, and showed that the mimesis or imitation view is false.


Part I

A lot of developments in modern art, especially post-impressionist paintings, challenged the IT, since imitation just was not their goal. To explain or show why these new works were art, a new theory of art was needed. The new theory also worked to make other things start to count as art, such as masks and weapons from anthropological museums. This new theory, the “Reality Theory,” or RT, didn’t pretend that artworks were imitations, it almost threw it in your face that they were not, since they didn’t look realistic, etc.  For example, Roy Lichtenstein’s huge paintings of comic-book panels “are not imitations but new entities, as giant whelks would be” (p. 36). The same goes for Robert Rauschenberg’s actual bed, which he hung vertically on a wall and streaked with paint. A naďve person (“Testadura”, Danto calls him) might not realize this is art and might think it’s just a really messy bed.


Part II

Testadura’s error is a philosophical one. He thinks the bed is just a bed, but it’s an artwork. There’s some theory that makes the ordinary thing into an artwork, just like being alive makes a person into more than simply their body. 

”This bed is an artwork” is like “This blob (in a child’s artwork) is my dog.” Danto tries to explain and understand the “is” in these sentences. It’s also like saying, of the Brueghel painting “Fall of Icarus,” “This blob of white paint is Icarus.” Danto also gives two imaginary examples (top p. 38) of abstract artworks that look the same but represent two different laws of Newton. In one painting, the line in the middle “is” the path of a particle. In the other painting, the two squares “are” forces pressing against each other. Danto calls the “is” in these examples “the ‘is’ of artistic identification”. We can’t help the poor naďve guy Testadura understand why this is art until he “gets” it about this “is”.


Part III

Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” look just like actual, ordinary ones. Why are they art? Each Warhol box “is” more than a regular box; it ‘is’ an artwork, using this new theory of art. “What in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art” (p. 41).  This couldn’t be art without a lot of both theory and history.






Part IV

Here Danto constructs what he calls the “style matrix” for art.


Representational                   Expressionist


+                                              +          Artwork is both                                    Fauvism

+                                              -           Representational, not expressionist        Ingres

-                                               +          Epressionist, not representational           Pollock

-                                               -           Artwork is neither                     Pure Abstraction


Danto’s idea is that whenever you give a list of the kinds of features or styles that art can be made in, you also open up the option that someone will just reject those features. (This is a lot like what Kant meant when he discussed how a genius is someone who breaks the rules of art, and sets new rules by example.)


For instance, up until the 20th century most painters thought of a painting as something done on a flat surface. But then some artists (like Frank Stella) started to make canvases that were shaped or curved and stuck out of the wall. And others made canvases in zig-zag shapes.
Or, one feature of art used to be that it involved or was made on an object, like a canvas. But some artists began to make art out of light, so that the light made shapes and designs. An example is James Turrell with his light tunnel here in Houston at our Museum of Fine Arts.  Another is the displays of neon lights by Dan Flavin—you can see some at the Menil Collection’s Richmond Center which is in around the 1300 block of Richmond, across from El Pueblito Place restaurant.

Or, the avant-garde composer John Cage made musical works that were just periods of silence, where the musicians would sit there and not move!

Or the avant-garde playwright Peter Handke wrote a play called “Insulting the Audience” in which the actors came on-stage and did just that—insulted the audience!

Danto’s point here is that for almost any feature you can think of that seems to belong to art, some artist is likely to come along and reject it at some time, for some reason.  This can only be true if somehow the artist is helping create an advance in our theory of the relevant kind of art.