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Warhol Danto and the end of art history.


ANDY WARHOL IS THE MOST FAMOUS AND internationally influential artist of his generation. There is a vast literature dedicated to every aspect of his career and personal life. We have massive catalogue raisonnes of the paintings from the 1960s and numerous museum exhibitions in many countries. In Pittsburgh, a large freestanding museum is devoted to him. Because he influences contemporary artists everywhere, interpretation of his art deserves closely focused discussion.


In October 1964 Arthur C. Danto attended Warhol's second New York exhibition, the showing of his Brillo Boxes sculpture. (1) (Warhol had earlier exhibited paintings of Campbell's Soup cans in Los Angeles.) American philosophers have their annual convention just after Christmas. Another speaker cancelled, so Danto presented on short notice a lecture. "The Artworld," published in The Journal of Philosophy, (2) deals with what for a philosopher is the central question posed by Warhol's Brillo Boxes: why is this object, indistinguishable from a banal Brillo box in the grocery story, a work of art? Brillo Boxes is art, Danto argues, because it inspires reflection on the concept of art, and is a counter-example to earlier definitions of art. Most philosophers do not attend gallery exhibits. Danto's commentator was baffled.

Danto, who was then 44, had in the 1950s a successful career as an artist, doing expressionist woodcuts. And when he became a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, he kept in touch with the art world. He became a close friend of his colleague Rudolf Wittkower, the great historian of the Baroque. Then in the mid-1960s, he became academically famous for his books on historiography, Nietzsche, and the analytical philosophy of action. Danto served as chair of his department and, eventually, as president of the American Philosophical Association. But in 1964, no one, neither philosophers nor art historians, paid attention to "The Artworld."

In the 1970s, George Dickie, another philosopher, developed what became known as the institutional theory of art. Inspired, in part, by "The Artworld," Dickie argued that the art world community defines art. Sociologists like Howard S. Becker were concerned also in these ways of thinking. What makes something art, Dickie argues, is that it is shown in galleries and discussed by critics. From Danto's point of view, this was an ironical reading of his essay, for he was radically opposed to the institutional account. He was not interested in sociological analysis, but in a philosophical treatment. Sociologists do empirical studies of what kind of art is made and who buys it. Danto's completely different concern was with the nature of art. Perhaps there are some similarities with the ways that John Dewey, his predecessor at Columbia, analyzed the connection between art and everyday experience. Inspired by his personal relationship with the great collector Albert Barnes, Dewey was concerned with the relationship between art and craft. But Danto's interests were quite different--he wanted to understand Warhol's art, which radically transformed the art world he knew. Barnes, by contrast, had relatively conservative tastes. He collected Renoir, Matisse, and pre-cubist Picasso, and so could hardly have imagined Pop art.


In 1981, Danto returned to aesthetics, publishing his treatise The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. That book, which barely mentions Warhol, offers an abstract account of art's nature. Then Danto was invited to be art critic for The Nation, a post that gave him the opportunity to comment on a variety of exhibitions. Having written his philosophy books, in late mid-age he had an entirely new career, as an art critic, and in 1995, through the Mellon lectures at the National Gallery, as a philosopher of art. He then reworked his account of Warhol, linking "The Artworld" to the concerns of working critics. (3)

There are two sorts of art writing. Art criticism evaluates contemporary art employing a journalistic format. And then when reputations are established, art history offers an academic perspective. So, for example, when the abstract expressionists became famous, art historians developed commentaries on these artists and the journalistic writings of their best champion, Clement Greenberg. One of the most striking recent developments within art history is the lively interest in contemporary art. Not just senior figures such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg but also younger artists are discussed. In the 1930s, Meyer Schapiro had to struggle to persuade his colleagues at Columbia to allow him to lecture on impressionism. But recently, thanks to the amazing market in contemporary art, much academic attention is devoted to history of the near present.

In the 1980s, there was much interest in aesthetic theories within the art world. Critics and art historians were reading figures like Baudrillard, Debord, Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan. But their work doesn't much feature in Danto's account, which comes from the relatively alien tradition of analytical philosophy. When in 2005 the influential writers associated with October produced a massive textbook called Art Since 1900, they devoted much attention to these (and other) French and German philosophers, but did not mention Danto. Even though they were much discussed in cultural studies, the French theorists were not taken seriously by the American philosophical establishment, leaving a large gap between the concerns of art history and philosophy departments.

What, then, is the relationship between aesthetic theory such as Danto practices and the art writing of critics and historians? Danto the philosopher is concerned with defining art, and the art writers with interpreting it and narrating its history. If this was the whole story, there could be no conflict for these are essentially different goals. The philosophers Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Dewey influenced art writing. Hegel inspired Ernest Fenollosa, who developed a Hegelian history of Asian art; and Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich, who reacted against his aesthetic. Dewey's view of the relationship between art and life was important for modernist critics. Nietzsche was much read by artists. And Kant's view of taste was important for Greenberg. But the abstract arguments of the Germans (and Dewey) do not affect the everyday practice of art criticism or history. The great exception, which proves this rule, is Hegel's very brief account of the Dutch Golden Age, which today's specialists, the most distinguished of which is Svetlana Alpers, find deserving of criticism.

Danto is famous in the art world for his column in The Nation, his catalogues, and his essays in Artforum and other mainstream journals. The artists who read him read his criticism, not the books on aesthetics, and even less the philosophical material. That is unfortunate, for Danto's lucid prose is much easier for Americans to comprehend than the writings of the French theorists, which belong to a very different intellectual culture. And while Danto has been much praised by his fellow philosophers, they focus on his abstract arguments, for few of them visit the art world. Danto's audience is thus divided, with the art world focused on his criticism and the philosophers on the aesthetics, as in the 1950s when his colleagues in philosophy knew little about his art and the art world nothing about his philosophy.


Soon after Danto published "The Artworld" Warhol became very famous. Some historians were interested in linking Warhol with other Pop artists; others, with tracing his break from abstract expressionism. And there are serviceable biographies, although none equivalent to John Richardson's mammoth Picasso biography. We now have good accounts of some individual paintings. More recently, intellectuals associated with queer studies offer revisionist accounts and people in religious studies discuss Warhol's Catholic roots. But the concerns of film studies scholars or people writing about his band, The Velvet Underground, have not as yet been integrated into this art historical research. And surprisingly little attention has been given to Warhol's writings, which are philosophically challenging.


In one way, Danto, like the Germans, makes claims that don't touch closely upon the practice of art history. Reading Transfiguration or his other philosophical books doesn't tell you how to evaluate or interpret Warhol's paintings. But in another way, Danto's aesthetic does make a substantial claim about the practice of art history. A brief account of the argument presented in "The Artworld" may suffice on this point. (4)

Brillo Boxes is a work of art because it is about consumer culture, and embodies that meaning. A supermarket Brillo box, by contrast, doesn't do that, for it is just a utilitarian artifact. Warhol made art, something very different in kind--though visually indistinguishable--from a mere Brillo box. He thus demonstrated that the history of art in its traditional form had come to an end. After Brillo Boxes, no artist could do anything essentially new. Earlier definitions of art, art as representation, or art as expression for example, were falsified by the development of art. So, for example, the first purely abstract paintings showed that art was not representation. And minimalist sculpture demonstrated that art is not expression. Because of the failure of these definitions, by the 1960s people became skeptical about defining art. Given any definition, it seemed that artists could easily produce counter-examples. By allowing that anything displayed in galleries was therefore art, Dickie responded to this situation. But as critics then noted, his institutional theory was less a proper definition than an implicit recognition of the claim that art could not be defined. Danto's analysis moves in a very different, radically opposed direction.

Danto claims that Hegel anticipated his account.5 At one point, Hegel speaks of the end of art. But our text of his Aesthetics comes from student lecture notes, and so it is not legitimate to read that book as if it were a polished text. As Danto allows, Hegel's prophecy in 1831 of the end of art's history was premature. And there are important differences in how Danto and Hegel formulate that idea. Hegel believed that history itself had ended, a belief taken up by his wayward follower Marx, who argued that in a future socialist utopia the struggles which motivated history would cease. For the end of the Cold War, the American neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama revived this way of thinking. Danto has never discussed these tricky political issues. And since Hegel's general philosophy now appears very exotic, at the most we have here an interesting convergence. Naturally, Danto was excited to find a very distinguished precursor. But he offers his own arguments.

Danto does not just give us another perspective. If his account is correct, then the usual ways of writing about Warhol are wrong-headed. (6) And the belief that we can write a history of contemporary art is misleading. In the 1980s, the phrase "postmodern" became commonplace. Art critics needed some way to identify our period style. Postmodern art stands to modernism roughly as post-impressionism to impressionism, as the next historical development. Danto uses a different phrase--"post-historical"--to describe the period after Brillo Boxes. Saying that ours is a post-historical era means that the history of art has ended. To say that history has ended is not to deny that art will continue to be made. Here, Marx offers a suggestive model. If history is propelled by class conflict, then the abolition of classes in the socialist utopia will mean that history in its accepted sense is over. Presumably there will still be other conflicts, but there can be no further historical development per se. In art, analogously, if Danto is correct, new art will be made, but developmental narratives shall no longer be possible.


Art historians are accustomed to believe that the history of art continues. The very many books devoted to contemporary art attest to this belief. Of course, art historians often discuss other topics. They present individual artists, offer iconographic commentaries and do political interpretations. The backbone of art history is the developmental story in which, for example, impressionism leads to cubism and on to abstract expressionism. But if Danto's analysis is correct, then art historians need to rethink their practice. How can you do art history if the history of art has ended? What would an account of our post-historical period look like? These are difficult questions. Danto has great intellectual prestige, but his colleagues in art history have not considered the implications of his claims. If they did, then either they would need to change their practice or, at least, to offer some serious responses to his argument.

Yet if we look at art historians' accounts of contemporary art, we do find support for Danto's way of thinking. There is a fair amount of agreement about how to tell the story of modernism up to abstract expressionism. We understand, for example, that Greenberg's analysis of the role of cubism needs to be supplemented by discussion of surrealism. But when we get to art after Brillo Boxes, there is real uncertainty about how to write a history. The artists Greenberg championed--the color field painters and the sculptor Anthony Caro--have been replaced today by Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson. And the status of 1980s stars like David Salle and Julian Schnabel now is problematic. As the debate that Art Since 1900 occasioned shows, understanding our period style remains extremely difficult. Once we get beyond abstract expressionism, the canon is up for grabs.

Danto's claim that the history of art ended in 1964 offers a pretty accurate characterization of this situation. Of course, since Warhol's death the development of many younger artists has been charted in exhibition reviews and museum catalogues. Danto himself has written about a number of them. But if his aesthetic is correct, then none of these artists advances the history of art. No one can, for Warhol showed in 1964 that art's history had ended. As yet, no art critic or historian has dealt adequately with the bracing challenge of this very radical claim. Hegel suggested that the end of art history meant that art would become a branch of philosophy, an idea that Danto has also played with. Let us extend their analysis. If the history of art has ended, then art history should be replaced by analytical aesthetics. No longer can we understand contemporary visual art by placing it in narratives describing ongoing historical development. The history of art history has also come to an end.

DAVID CARRIER is Champney Family Professor at Case Western Reserve University/ Cleveland Institute of Art.



I am very grateful to David Carrier for the way in which he has situated my thought, in relation to philosophy and art history. Put simply, the philosophers don't know as much about art as they ought if they are to do aesthetics in a way that has any relevance outside philosophy, and the art historians don't know as much philosophy as they ought if their writings are to have any relevance to philosophers. I am portrayed as knowing enough about art to have had a successful career practicing art criticism, some of it based on an early modest career as an artist, which I abandoned when I realized that it was more exciting to write philosophy than make art. That was in the very early 1960s, when I now realize that the art I had been making was very much 1950s art, of little relevance to the way art was headed in the 1960s. I got out at the right time, as an artist. But the art of the 1960s was, philosophically speaking, astonishing, even if I had no interest in making it. Meanwhile, the philosophy that excited me was not the philosophy of art, although David is right that I turned an invitation to address the APA on aesthetics in 1964 into an opportunity to write about Pop, and especially Warhol, in what became "The Artworld." The philosophy that concerned me in the mid-1960s was the theory of action, the philosophy of history, and the theory of knowledge (I also wrote a book on Nietzsche as an analytical philosopher).


I did not write further on the philosophy of art until the late 1970s, since I was eager to pursue these other fields in books that formed a kind of philosophical system. The philosophy of art was finally represented in that system with The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981). "The Artworld" was not ignored in the field: it really transformed aesthetics, though not in ways that especially interested me. It was widely anthologized, and became part of the curriculum. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, too, became successful. It led to my becoming an art critic, for one thing. On the 25th anniversary of its publication, an online conference was organized, and there were about 30 contributors, all of them so far as I know philosophers. Judging by that, it was not a significant occasion for art historians.

Art history as a field is a very different from what it was when Wittkower was chair of the department at Columbia. For one thing, it is very largely a politicized discipline. Art historians are activist in various ways, and the thought largely pertinent to their investigations is contained in a canon of texts slangily designated Theory, which are the product of the Continental writers David mentions who, for whatever reason, are not widely read by professional philosophers in America. Theory is not a field that is active. The canon does not get added to. On the other hand, while analytical aesthetics is academically active, it is less and less exciting. If philosophers feel little need to read Theory, art historians feel even less need to read analytical aestheticians. As long as this continues, thought of the sort Carrier's writing exemplifies is little likely to change many minds.

The work of Warhol that engaged me was made from April 1961 through April 1964. Most of it bore on the definition of art that had been seriously considered impossible by everyone in philosophy. In my view, Warhol changed the terms of the problem. The question was no longer "What is art?", but rather "Given two indiscernible objects, one a work of art and the other not, wherein are they different?" The reference is, of course, to his grocery boxes as against their counterparts in the real world. The former are silkscreen photographs of the latter, in three dimensions. In the Transfiguration--a work in what philosophers call "ontology"--I was able to identify two conditions necessary for something to be a work of art. It cut across media, and applied to all the arts. I did not attempt to carry it further. It solved, I thought, the problem as presented by Warhol, and that turned out to be enough for any work I would have to confront as a critic. To read me is to read the work of an ontologist. How interesting that would be for activists in various social causes is hard to say.

Warhol gave up painting in 1965, and became a very different artist in 1968, when Valerie Solanis shot him. Before the assault, he had relocated from the celebrated Silver Factory on 47th Street to a very different sort of space on Union Square. He was now CEO of Andy Warhol Enterprises, which produced bad movies, published Interview, and produced for the most part what he called "business art." He was now a post-historical artist like everyone else.

His solution to the definition of art brought the history of art to an end. If art and non-art are now indiscernible, art can be anything. The age of radical pluralism is upon us. Art has changed radically in the post-historical period, gravitating to less and less. "Lessness" was the theme of the last Whitney Biennial. It is made to order for activist art historians. It ultimately means the end of art criticism. The post-historical world will change everything. Peter Schjeldahl recently wrote that only another Warhol can save us. That is wrong. Warhol helped make the present art world in his first phase, and then joined it in his second phase. We can't be saved. If we want an art world, this is the one we have.

(1.) This essay draws on 36 years of intense discussion with Danto. In the early 1980s, we toured Turin together, with Rudolf Wittkower's Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600-1750 (1958) as our guiding reference.

(2.) Arthur Danto, "The Artworld," The Journal of Philosophy 61/19 (October 15, 1964), 571-84.

(3.) Danto's book on Warhol is forthcoming from Yale University Press.

(4.) For a fuller account of Danto's aesthetics, see my "L'estetica di Danto e davvero cosi generale come pretende di essere?", Rivista di Estetica 35 (February 2007), 45-66. A portion of this essay appears in my contribution to the "Online Conference in Aesthetics: Arthur Danto's Transfiguration of the Commonplace--25 Years Later," January 22, 2007 (www.

(5.) See my "Indiscernibles and the Essence of Art: The Hegelian Turn in Arthur Danto's Aesthetic Theory," in the forthcoming Library of Living Philosophers volume devoted to Danto.

(6.) A critical account of Danto's analysis of Warhol appears in my Proust/ Warhol: Analytical Philosophy of Art (Peter Lang, 2008). See also my "Andy Warhol's Portraits," in Andy Warhol by Andy Warhol, exh. cat. (Astrup Fearnley Museum, 2008).

ARTHUR C. DANTO is Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Columbia University, New York. His most recent publications include After the End of Art (1997) and The Abuse of Beauty (2003).
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Title Annotation:Andy Warhol and Arthur C. Danto
Author:Carrier, David
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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