Philosophers and critics are notorious for holding onto their intellectual ground at all cost, and Arthur Danto, speaking last Sunday at the Portland Art Museum about the gap between art and life, was no different. Danto described a trajectory in which the differences between art and life were muddled, finally breaking apart completely in the 1960s, leading to our current period in which art is no longer a matter of aesthetics or craftsmanship, but a kind of philosophical game in which a work of art is an embodied meaning. Danto has taught at Columbia's philosophy department since the mid 1960s, and it shows in every aspect of his art criticism.
In Danto's version of art history, the 1960s marked a dramatic shift in which modernism gave way entirely to the pluralism of post-modernism, breaking apart an approach to art making very much based in a single media and ushering in the era of "everything is possible." Artist manifestos and grandiose visions of inciting real change through art were gone. Greenburg's quasi-religious devotion to the idea of art as a quest to find the essence of a single medium (in his case, painting) was no longer relevant. From this period forward, the role of artists shifted - now an artist's primary concern is to generate meaning.
Surprisingly, Danto doesn't come off as particularly jaded or cynical about the state of art, he just approaches art with cool intellectualism - it's an intellectual game, but an enjoyable one that Danto is happy to engage with. He is thorough and brilliant, but interestingly, the consistency of his ideas can seem counterintuitive to his decades-long interest in pluralism and post-modernism. As a philosopher, his overarching ideas come to an intellectual elegance that resembles reality, but ring false when one thinks too deeply about their implications.
Danto ended the lecture with a slide of Shahab Fotouhi and Neda Razavipour's A Few Centimeters Above Sea Level, a bathtub filled with inky water in which several bottles are suspended. Upon further investigation, one learns that there are goldfish inside each bottle, swimming in clean, clear water although surrounded by darkness. It's a work that deals with censorship and the veil. Danto uses this example to describe a system in which artwork as embodied meaning depends on a network of art administrators and critics to disseminate meaning. Danto unconvincingly tries to claim that were it not for the gallery director he would not have been able to uncover the artist's meaning, going on to say that the role of the critic is to uncover meanings for the viewer. It's a rigid system that positions art as philosophical game, leaving the critic-philosopher in the central role.
Looking later at the Fotouhi's website, I learned that the piece also consisted of a video camera which revealed the contents of the bottle, displaying the reaction of the fish inside on a video screen facing out the front window of the gallery. Danto's insistence that there was a possibility for someone to think that the sculpture was simply a tub with bottles falls short. Danto also ignores the greater fabric of social, political and art-world contexts that a work like this fall within. De-contextualized within a philosopher's abstraction of ideas, this example works, but within context, Danto's explanation of the ways in which meaning is manifested doesn't work. Fotouhi and Razavipour's work was a part of a group show at apexart in 2004 with work by Iranian artists - the notion of the veiled woman would be one of the most obvious concepts that would come to mind for a Western audience in trying to find meaning within a show of Iranian artists in New York in 2004. And, the piece surely held a different kind of presence for its audience when shown for the first time in Tehran. Danto is right when he reaffirms the well-entrenched idea that one can no longer rely on the eye alone to experience artwork, but the point isn't just that the artwork is now made up by a complex of ideas, meaning is also gleaned from a very complex pool of ideas and experiences that neither artist nor critic has sole domain over.
Well I think the lines between art and life were actually quite purposefully muddled when the avant garde broke with the academic symbolism of the 1900's... Manet's Olympia appraised the viewer in a cool, "what do you want? I don't care... but you can have it" manner that heightened the subjective experience. Picasso further muddled things with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by fracturing the picture and meaning through a variety of distortions both ancient and modern.
The funny thing is that those old post modern critics seem to take credit for enhanced subjectivity... They preached a kind of fractured irreconcilable and isolating condition, which really lost its credibility with the WTO riots in Seattle and the demonstrated interconnectedness of September 11th... when the connection between Afghanistan and Wall Street was finally made so plain and simple nobody could miss it.
I agree with Robert Storr (during his Site Santa FE 2004 lecture) that to completely jettison the developments of postmodern theory is intellectually irresponsible but it's equally true that a new paradigm where connections (no matter how subjective on either side) are a big part of how we view the world now. Blame the internet and its interactive component. Instead of post modern isolation it's the multiplicity of connections that can be made and navigated. Sure everyone experiences the world in their own way but just as certainly no man is an island and our circumstances are greatly affected by things that connect to and effect us, both conceptually and on a physical level.
Art as idea is only part of the story, art as a connector is another very important part.
Pluralism and enhanced subjectivity has been the dominant mode since Manet began the battle, Picasso won it and Pollock, Warhol and Duchamp updated it as exemplars. It keeps being updated too with no end in site. The end of art??? Ha! Only a writer making a rhetorical move would wish for such a thing.