Arthur C. Danto, a provocative and influential philosopher and critic who championed Andy Warhol and other avant-garde artists and upended the study of art history by declaring that the history of art was over, has died. He was 89.
Danto, art critic for The Nation from 1984 to 2009 and a professor emeritus at Columbia University, died of heart failure Friday at his Manhattan apartment, daughter Ginger Danto said Sunday.
An academically trained philosopher, Danto became as central to debates about art in the 1960s and after as critic Clement Greenberg had been during the previous generation. Danto was initially troubled, then inspired by the rise of pop art and how artists such as Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein could transform a comic strip or a soup can into something displayed in a museum, a work of “art.” Starting in the ’60s, he wrote hundreds of essays that often returned to the most philosophical question: What exactly is art? Danto liked to begin with a signature event in his lifetime — a 1964 show at New York’s Stable Gallery that featured Warhol’s now-iconic reproductions of Brillo boxes.
“Is this man some kind of Midas, turning whatever he touches into the gold of pure art? And the whole world consisting of latent art works waiting, like the bread and wine of reality, to be transfigured, through some dark mystery, into the indiscernible flesh and blood of the sacrament?” Danto wrote in “The Artworld,” a landmark essay published in 1964.
“Never mind that the Brillo box may not be good, much less great art. The impressive thing is that it is art at all. But if it is, why not indiscernible Brillo boxes that are in the stockroom? Or has the whole distinction between art and reality broken down?”
Danto would refer to the show as the moment when art history ended and “progress could only be enacted on a level of abstract self-consciousness.” In such essays as “The End of Art,” Danto noted the progression of styles in the 19th and 20th century— impressionism, modernism, abstract expressionism, pop art. After the Brillo show, art had reached its ultimate expression and became a medium not of trends but of individuals — some brilliant, some ordinary, none advancing the overall narrative.
“When I first wrote about this concept, I was somewhat depressed,” Danto later observed. “But now I have grown reconciled to the unlimited diversity of art. I marvel at the imaginativeness of artists in finding ways to convey meanings by the most untraditional of means. The art world is a model of a pluralistic society in which all disfiguring barriers and boundaries have been thrown down.”
Danto would be praised by The New York Times’ Barry Gewen as “arguably the most consequential art critic” since Greenberg,” an “erudite and sophisticated observer” who wrote with “forcefulness and jargon-free clarity.” But his ideas were not universally accepted. Danto frequently had to explain that art wasn’t dead, only art history.
Rival critics such as Hilton Kramer questioned whether the story was over and whether Warhol deserved to be part of it. In an essay published in The New Criterion in 1987, Kramer likened Danto’s views to one of “those ingenious scenarios that are regularly concocted to relieve the tedium of the seminar room and the philosophical colloquium.” He also dismissed Warhol’s work as “a further colonization of the aesthetically arid but nonetheless seductive territory” of avant-garde art.