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Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society.

Shortly after bound galleys of this book began to circulate, I received a call from someone who was writing a profile of Meyer Schapiro for a national weekly. She wondered whether I had known Schapiro at Columbia, as indeed I had, for he and my teacher and colleague, Ernest Nagel, were closest friends. Nagel was perhaps the leading philosopher of science in America at that time, as well as a logician; and one of the privileges of becoming his colleague was the opportunity to participate in informal philosophical conversations over lunch at the faculty club, or to take part in the impromptu discussion groups that formed from time to time to address issues or writings of current interest. And Schapiro was as often as not part of these interchanges. Of course I had listened to his deservedly legendary lectures when I was a graduate student, and even afterward, when I began to teach philosophy. I have always hoped that there exist transcripts of these, which will be published someday, for they have a very different quality from his writings, which do not convey the man's quality of luminous inspiration. He seemed more a medium, through whom those unfailingly brilliant discourses flowed from some mysterious source to which he had access, than an art-history professor working from lecture notes. And some of this carried over into table talk and the give-and-take of philosophical argument.

My caller observed that Schapiro is known as an art historian who brought philosophy to bear on his discipline, and she wanted to know in what sense this was true. This was rather too complex a question to be answered in a brief telephone interview, for it required at the very least distinguishing between having a philosophy and doing something philosophically--and the latter, in Schapiro's case, could not easily be appreciated without articulating certain views on philosophy that he and Nagel shared. For a parallel relationship between a philosopher and an art historian of comparable distinction, one would have to think of Karl Popper and Ernst Gombrich. The difference is that Nagel had a conception of philosophical practice, whereas Popper really had a philosophical thesis. His thought was that scientific knowledge grows through endeavoring to falsify theories creatively arrived at and Gombrich adapted this conception to the history of art in his famous thesis of "making and matching," in which forms of representation, also creatively arrived at, are tested against perception and modified if they fail to "match." Neither Nagel nor Schapiro will be remembered in these essays for any such influential theories of science or of art. Their aim was less to put forward a thesis than to show that someone else's thesis would not do.

Wittgenstein wrote: "Philosophy is not a theory but an activity." In fact the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is full of theories about the world, about language, and about the relationship between the two. But Wittgenstein felt that what this book represented must sooner or later be discarded in favor of a philosophical practice that he described as follows: "A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations," and, "The result of philosophy is not a number of 'philosophical propositions,' but to make propositions clear." Neither Nagel nor Schapiro was in any sense a Wittgensteinian, but their work really does consist in elucidations and clarifications. That is what Nagel was as a philosopher: careful, meticulous, lucid, judicious, and critically devastating--picking through what some other philosopher said, especially about science. And that is what Schapiro does in the domain of claims about art. Both writers convey an attitude, a respect for logic, a respect for truth, and a diffidence about advancing theses of their own. And that is what one walks away with rather than something you can write down as a slogan and hang for inspiration on the wall.

It was widely known that Schapiro had been invited to contribute the essay on art history, which he probably understood in the specific sense of Kunstwissenschafft--or the science rather than the mere history of art--to the Encyclopedia of Unified Science, which was the great monument to the philosophy of science as practiced by Nagel. Perhaps the closest he came to achieving this is the famous article on style, of 1953. It is a demonstration piece in the kind of scrupulous analysis at which Schapiro excelled, of theories of artistic styles little canvassed today, by Wolfflin and Riegl among others ("This search for a broad view has become rare in the study of art"), in which beautifully concise statements of diffuse positions are followed by closely reasoned critiques that leave little hope that anyone will want to take the theory up again. The essay is as encyclopedic as it is definitive, but it offers no thesis of its own on style, as if the author, like John Locke, regarded it "ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge."

The equally well-known essay on Freud on Leonardo is more exciting, just because the "rubbish" itself is more exciting, consisting in some singular oversights on Freud's part. No criticism of psychoanalysis is intended, however, only a caution to psychoanalysts that if they wish to explain anything in Leonardo's (or anyone's) mind, they "will need a fuller knowledge of Leonardo's life and art and of the culture of his time." The critique of Heidegger's interpretation of a painting of shoes by Van Gogh impresses me as less compelling, in part because its target is a piece not of science but of philosophy, most of which stands, if it stands at all, independently of any factual mistake Heidegger may have made. There is very little about art in Heidegger's masterpiece, Being and Time, but in The Origin of the Art Work he offered a philosophy of art that connects with a main claim of the earlier book, namely that human beings relate to the world as a system of tools, or of "equipment" (Zeug). Art discloses the "equipmental" character of its subject. Thus Van Gogh's painting of shoes reveals their instrumental being. It may not be a very good theory, and it may leave out a great deal about the painting of shoes it discusses, but it does not really fail if the shoes happen to be Vincent's (as Schapiro insists they are) or those of a peasant woman, as Heidegger says. Schapiro does not even try to come to terms with the larger issues of what Heidegger calls Zuhandenheit, and he may have misread a later notation Heidegger made: "From van Gogh's painting we cannot say with certainty where these shoes stand nor to whom they belong." Schapiro asks, "Did he wish to affirm that his metaphysical interpretation was true, even if the shoes had belonged to van Gogh?" I would say yes, but would go further: he was saying, profoundly, that there is no internal visual evidence in support of the art-historical claim that the shoes were Vincent's.

Aside from two follow-up notes on the Freud and Heidegger papers, the articles and reviews all appeared elsewhere, mostly in the '60s. The opening essay, which discusses nonmimetic elements of images, is a dazzler, and worth the price of the volume. For those in whose inner ear the author's voice still vibrates, this piece is closest of anything I know to Schapiro as speaker, rich with apercus, surprising connections, and immense learning. The other essays represent him as writer, and while they are unfailingly interesting, they do not reveal as does the opening essay a gift approaching genius.

Arthur C. Danto is the art critic for The Nation. His most recent collection of essays is Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays and Aesthetic Meditations (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
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Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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