Monday, February 24, 2020

The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art by Arthur C. Danto

This is a collection of nine essays. And like most collections of essays, some of them cohere better than others. Danto talks about “art” in all of them, but is he building the same case and driving to the same point in each successive one? It was frankly hard for me to tell.

Here are some parts of some of the essays, however, that I found thought-provoking.

Does Art Create or Reflect Reality?

Did jazz in any sense cause or only emblemize the moral transformations of the Jazz Age? Did the Beatles cause or only prefigure the political perturbations of the sixties -- or had politics simply become a form of art in that period, at least the politics responsive to music, the real political history of the world taking place on a different level of causation?

This seems like one of Danto’s central questions about art. Is it a force the society reacts to, or is it a result acted on by the force we call society. I’m not sure where Danto lands on the question, but my gut says that the choice is a false dichotomy. Art is and can be both -- it is one of the ways society comes to understand its force -- as exemplified in this amusing vignette:

In any case, as we know, even works intended to prick consciousness to political concern have tended by and large to provoke at best an admiration for themselves and a moral self-admiration for those who admired them. The cynical bombing of the Basque village of Guernica on April 26, 1937, made Guernica happen -- so it was not merely wit when Picasso responded to the German officer’s question, having handed him a postcard of the painting, “Did you do that?” with “No, you did.” Everyone knew who did what and why: it was an atrocity meant to be perceived as an atrocity by perpetrators who meant to be perceived as prepared to stop at nothing. The painting was used as a fundraiser for Spanish war relief, but those who paid money for the privilege of filing past it only used it as a mirror to reflect attitudes already in place, and in later years it required art-historical knowledge to know what was going on: it stood as a handsome backdrop for pickups at the Museum of Modern Art, or a place to meet a date, like the clock at the Biltmore Hotel, and it was sufficiently handsome in its grey and black harmonies to have ornamented the kitchen cupboard in a sophisticated apartment I once saw written up, where souffles were concocted for bright and brittle guests who, no more than the hostess, realized that gutted animals and screaming mothers agonized above the formica: it was painted at about the same time as Night Fishing at Antibes, after all, as Anita Silvers has observed, and uses the same sorts of forms as that lyrical work. So in the end it did about as much for the ravaged villagers as Auden’s poem did for dead Yeats or as Yeats’ poem did for his slaughtered patriots, making nothing relevant happen, simply memorializing, enshrining, spiritualizing, constituting a kind of cenotaph to house the fading memories, about at the level of a religious ceremony whose function is to confess the extreme limitation of our powers to make anything happen.

He ends on a rather dark note, but I think he makes my essential point. The bombing Guernica made the painting Guernica happen, but, for a time, the painting Guernica helped expose the bombing Guernica for the propaganda it was intended to be. Art helping society understand the mechanisms and outcomes of its own force.

Danto is a philosopher, so he has a philosopher’s understanding of art and is well schooled in the ways past philosophers have dealt with the subject. Plato, it seems, strongly felt that art was powerless, a reflection of power but not a power of itself. So, evidently, did Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer had a considerably higher regard for art than any Plato shows in his philosophy, but in an important sense he agrees with his great predecessors in agreeing that art makes nothing happen in the causal order of the world. Its importance rather consists in its power to life us out of that order and to put us in a state of contemplation of eternal things.

But Schopenhauer raises an important point nonetheless -- at least in my mind. This power that art does have, this power not to cause things to happen but to lift us into a state of transcendental contemplation, is exactly why it has been oppressed by tyrants throughout the ages.

Art Is In the Mind of the Beholder

Schopenhauer also seems to support one of my own pet theories about art.

Genius, according to Schopenhauer, is the capacity for knowing the Ideas of things -- in the platonic sense of Ideas -- and for revealing these Ideas in works of art for the benefit of the remainder of mankind who, borrowing as it were the eyes of genius, may behold through these works what the genius beholds directly. “The work of art is only a means for facilitating this knowledge,” Schopenhauer writes, treating art as a cognitive prosthetic, a metaphysical window through which we may view the deeper realities, but which in no further sense has any cognitive contribution of its own to make at all: it is to be seen through, but not itself to be seen -- so the more transparent the better.

This, to me, is a pretty clear statement that art, contrary to a lot of the remaining discussion in Danto’s work, is neither a collection of physical media (paint on canvas, clay shaped and formed, etc.), nor a social construct that relies on cultural cues and taboos to be made manifest. Art, in its purest sense, is revealed knowledge in the mind of the observer. It happens neither in the gallery nor in the social conversation that surrounds it, but always and only in the space between the ears of the spectator.

But even Schopenhauer is not quite there. His apparent insistence on the “genius” intent of the artist, that there is an Idea that is being communicated through his work, is only part of the story. Yes, that can happen. The artist can have an Idea and the observer can recreate that Idea when viewing the artist’s work, but that isn’t required in order for art to occur. The revealed knowledge, whatever it is and whether or not it conforms to the intent of the artist, is what art is. This is why, in the anecdote related above, the painting Guernica continues to be art even after people forget the bombing Guernica that inspired it.

This is what I think. But I don’t think Danto agrees -- or at least doesn’t traditionally think about art in this context.

I believe we cannot be deeply wrong if we suppose that the correct interpretation of object-as-artwork is the one which coincides most closely with the artist’s own interpretation. Coinciding interpretations put us in different posture with regard to artists than undertaking to discover what their intentions may have been, nor is it as a thesis subject to the sorts of objections Susan Sontag raises against interpretation generally. For the interpretations she impugns only begin or can begin when the work of art is in place, established as such, and the interpreter begins to ponder what the artist is “really” doing or what the work “really” means. Hers is against a notion of interpretation which makes the artwork as an explanandum -- as a symptom, for example. My theory of interpretation is instead constitutive, for an object is an artwork at all only in relation to an interpretation.

From this excerpt it appears that Danto and Sontag have two different understandings about a “correct” interpretation of a work of art and, at least for Danto, that interpretation is necessary for an object (a painting, a sculpture, etc.) to be considered a work of art.

I say they’re both wrong. An object doesn’t need an interpretation to be art. Objects aren’t art. Art is the interpretation itself.

And speaking of philosophers, here’s at least one that seems to agree with me:

By displaying what is subjective, the work, in its whole presentation, reveals its purpose as existing for the subject, for the spectator, and not on its own account. The spectator is, as it were, in it from the beginning, is counted in with it, and the work exists only for this point, i.e., for the individual apprehending it.
-- G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, February 17, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 30 (DRAFT)

“Stay,” Eleanor said. “Where are you going at this hour?”

It was a little after eight o’clock. I’d already had two drinks at the board’s reception, and they were just about to be seated in the private dining room of the hotel’s five-star restaurant. The chef had a special menu prepared. I had gone back and forth with Eleanor six times on the phone making sure the sommelier had the wine pairings just right. But Mary and I had agreed that I would not stay to enjoy it. I had duties elsewhere. Now I turned to her for help, not knowing how to respond when the board chair put up a fuss.

“Eleanor, they’re setting up the registration desk tonight,” Mary explained. “Alan needs to check-in and make sure everything is going smoothly. It opens first thing in the morning.”

“Oh, poo,” Eleanor said petulantly, swirling her wine and pouting like a little girl. “Aren’t there other people who can do that?”

No, I thought immediately. We didn’t send any extra staff, remember? And the cost of my meal has already bought you another two hours in that suite of yours.

“There are other people working on it,” Mary said reassuringly. “But Alan needs to make sure things are on schedule.”

Eleanor looked unsatisfied with the explanation, but Mary rapidly switched gears.

“Besides, once the crew is finished setting up, Alan is taking them all out to dinner. Kind of a celebration for a job well done getting us ready for this conference.”

“Excellent!” Eleanor suddenly beamed, grasping me firmly by the hand. “Give them my personal regards, Alan. Everyone has done such a fine job. They deserve a night out before all our plans start coming together tomorrow. You’re taking them somewhere special, I hope?”

I had no idea where I was taking them. Until that moment I had made no plans to take anyone anywhere. I was pretty sure Mary wasn’t serious, just using the staff dinner as a handy excuse—or a lie, another lie—to get out of having to buy me a hundred and fifty dollar dinner. I gave her a questioning look and she confirmed my suspicion with a stern face and a shake of her head.

“Wherever they want to go, Eleanor,” I said, smiling. “For them, the sky’s the limit!”

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, February 10, 2020

In the Dust of This Planet by Eugene Thacker

I’m sorry to say that this is a book without a single dogeared quote or comment from me.

Which is unexpected, given the author’s opening explanation in his preface. First, the stage on which the action will be set:

The world is increasingly unthinkable -- a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. To confront this idea is to confront the absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all -- an idea that has been a central motif of the horror genre for some time.

And then, the authorial intent of what will be presented there:

The aim of this book is to explore the relationship between philosophy and horror, through this motif of the “unthinkable world.” More specifically, we will explore the relation between philosophy as it overlaps with a number of adjacent fields (demonology, occultism, and mysticism), and the genre of supernatural horror, as it is manifest in fiction, film, comics, music, and other media.

How great does that sound? But then, the academic philosopher shows up, with all his constructionist terminology that obscures more than it elucidates.

However, this relationship between philosophy and horror should not be taken to mean “the philosophy of horror,” in which horror as a literary or film genre is presented as a rigorous formal system. If anything, it means the reverse, the horror of philosophy: the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility -- the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language. The genre of supernatural horror is a privileged site in which this paradoxical thought of the unthinkable takes place. What an earlier era would have described through the language of darkness mysticism or negative theology, our contemporary era thinks in terms of supernatural horror.

Huh? I wish I could say that I enjoyed the relatively short text that followed. Despite the numerous references to Lovecraftian stories and films, there was just too much to the academic present for me to truly understand what was going on.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, February 3, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 29 (DRAFT)

When the board meeting was over Eleanor took me aside. There was a reception starting for them in twenty minutes, and then a dinner, and most everyone else was hustling out of there to freshen up beforehand.

“Do you have a minute, Alan? I want to show you something.”

“Of course,” I said hesitantly, noticing that Mary, too, had heard Eleanor’s request and was stopping her movement out of the room. We both closed in on Eleanor’s location at the head of the table.

Eleanor was rearranging the materials in the stack she had brought with her to the board meeting. Tucking her agenda packet under a three-ring binder, she pulled out a copy of our conference program and began flipping through it.

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of this,” she said as she zeroed in on a page and ran her finger along a line of text, “but I thought I should call it to your attention.”

I exchanged a worried glance with Mary and then looked down at what Eleanor was indicating. She was on page 173, and I read along as she spoke.

“This session is comprised of three distinct presentation segments.”

Eleanor looked up at me and for a moment I tried to feign ignorance, looking back at her like I didn’t understand what she was driving at. Her stare became even more severe, the way my mother’s often had when as a boy I tried to escape responsibility for some wrong I had done. Knowing there would be no use bluffing her, I changed my pose to one of supplication and asked her silently for forgiveness.

“Now, don’t worry,” Eleanor said reassuringly. “With everything else you’ve been dealing with, it’s not surprising that something like this should slip through. Let’s just hope no one else notices it.”

She said it with such seriousness that I almost laughed, as if she had just uncovered some state secret that had accidentally been leaked to the enemy regime. What, I wondered, did she think would happen if someone else did notice it? Would they report us to the grammar police?

But Mary didn’t see any levity in the situation. “Thank you,” she said with a gravity that equaled Eleanor’s. “I can assure you that something like this will not happen again.”

And then Eleanor nodded magnanimously, closing the program book below us as if to signify the end of an ugly chapter. “It’s done and behind us, now,” she said solemnly. “Let’s not speak of it anymore.”

She smiled at me, a self-important and victorious thing, offered to me the way a general offers terms of surrender to a defeated foe. She had actually done it. I couldn’t believe it, but there it was. At some point since receiving her conference program two days ago she had gone through it to verify that every one of her three thousand meaningless changes had been made—of course finding the one I had purposely ignored in my moment of feckless rebellion. When had she had the time? Was she some kind of cyborg or something that didn’t need to sleep?

I smiled back, but inside I was screaming.

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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