UNDERSTANDING THE END OF ART
by Jorn K. Bramann
(For a summary of the argument: Click here)
In my mystery novel Phantom Doors (G. Aston Nelson Books, 1998) one of the main characters is the art dealer Barry Ashton, who, somewhat like Hegel, believes that art has come to an end, that it has no genuine future anymore. ("Art is and remains for us, on the side of its highest possibilities, a thing of the past," Hegel stated in his Philosophy of Fine Art.) The following essay is an attempt to understand Ashton's position. Due to his immediate concerns, Ashton talks primarily about certain visual arts, about painting and sculpture. His theory, however, is meant to encompass all arts, and so does the following discussion.
"A specter is haunting the art world, the specter of the end of art," one may be tempted to say, and saying so would be prompted foremost by the following two considerations. First there is the widespread feeling--justified or not--that artists have for a long time failed to produce any work of real substance, that the community of artists has been lingering in a protracted state of artistic disorientation and exhaustion which could be only thinly disguised by such sensationalist shenanigans as sawing a cow into sections, or lining up plain bricks on the hardwood floors of expensive galleries and prestigious museums. Eric Hobsbawm's description of "the death of the avant-garde" in his history of the 20th century is indicative of this feeling: "The achievements of post-war modernist painting and sculpture were incomparably less and usually much inferior to their inter-war predecessors, as a comparison of Parisian art in the 1950s with that of the 1920s immediately demonstrates. It consisted largely of a series of increasingly desperate gimmicks by which artists sought to give their work an immediately recognizable individual trademark, ...." (The Age of Extremes, p. 517). Second, there is the impulse of the philosophy of history--usually associated with Hegel and Marx--according to which everything in the world is not only subject to change, but also to coming into being at one point in history, and to vanishing at another. Art, according to this thinking, has not always existed, and it may not always be with us. It is not only bound to go through the internal changes that by now we have accepted as part of art, but it will at some point also have exhausted all possibilities of self-renewal, and from then on be condemned either to sterile self-repetition, or to the production of "gimmicks."
Not surprisingly, the idea of the end of art has met with considerable hostility, not only on the part of those who have some sort of financial or otherwise tangible stake in it, but even more so by the true lovers of art. Art, after all, is not just one of those things that may or may not exist, with no serious consequences for anything else. Art represents an enormously important dimension of human life, a dimension that is as important as science, morality, or religion. Among educated contemporaries the suggestion that art has come to an end is the cultural equivalent of "God is dead." Nevertheless, the question whether art has run its course or not deserves serious consideration. The present state of the arts is, in fact, such that a closer look at the question may be imperative. The routine assertion that art has always come up with new things, and will therefore always find new and creative ways of renewing itself, is too flimsy a response to the problems that artists are facing at this point in history. (The introduction of video, laser, or computers into the production of art, for example, cannot count as "new forms of art," as apologists of "post-modernism" often assume. The forms and concepts that have come into existence with these new media fall well within the parameters of what modern artists have done before, slight variations and shifted emphases notwithstanding. It amounts to old wine in new bottles to an extent that even the wishful notion of post-modernism as such becomes rather suspicious.)
There is a sense in which the idea of the end of art, taken as an hypothesis, is clearly false. Even though a number of serious thinkers and observers of the art scene have suggested that art has indeed run its course, the actual production, appreciation, and collection of artworks has rarely been as brisk and widespread as it is today. To say that art has come to an end can hardly mean, then, that people have lost their interest in painting, sculpting, or producing any other kind of artistic work. The question therefore is: What does it mean to say that art has come to an end? What can people have in mind when they assert that it has no genuine future anymore?
Few people think that there is no use anymore for art as entertainment, as decoration, as expression of feelings, or in some other pragmatic function. People will always need buildings, for example, and it may not be bad if these buildings were designed more aesthetically than most of them are now. One may also surmise that people will continue appreciating well-drawn cartoons, all sorts of monuments, beautiful parks, etc.--long after art proper has become history. Besides, painting pictures or carving figures will always be good therapy for senior citizens and emotionally disturbed individuals.
Such undoubtedly worthy uses of art, however, are considered somewhat trivial by the true lovers of it. Using art in this way is felt to be not unlike the use of Mozart's music in state-of-the-art cow stables, where it causes cows to produce more milk, or the use of classical sounds to prevent teenagers from hanging out at certain public places. Art in its most emphatic sense is considered much more weighty than its use as entertainment, decoration, or the controlled release of emotions suggests. Thinkers who made art the explicit subject matter of their investigations have almost always agreed that "fine art is not art in the true sense of the term until it is ... free," free, that is, of all external, non-artistic purposes (Hegel: The Philosophy of Fine Art, Introduction, p. 8; tr. by F. P. B. Osmaston). It is in art as art that art reveals its true importance and substance, and it is in art's pure, non-utilitarian form that "nations have deposited the richest intuitions and ideas they possess"(ibid., p.9).
But what is art as art--art in its highest capacity or purest manifestation? The classical answer to this is that art is the production of objects for aesthetic contemplation, whereby aesthetic contemplation is the perception of things for their own sake, in an act of "disinterested interest."
This is, of course, a very short formula for a complex state of affairs. It can be elucidated, however, by taking a look at certain developments that unfolded in Western art during the last six to seven hundred years. These developments provide a clarification of both the notion of art as art, as well as the idea that art may have run its course. For the facts of this period of art history constitute a trajectory that documents the movement of art toward a specific and significant goal. This goal is an end--both in the sense of purpose and in the sense of demise. Reaching the end of art is tantamount to fulfilling its innermost purpose, or of finally becoming what it essentially is. What, then, is this trajectory?
European art during the Middle Ages had largely the purpose of serving the Church and its teachings. Like philosophy, one might say, art was not autonomous, but an ancilla theologiae, a "handmaiden of theology." And one of its main tasks was the depiction of saints and Biblical events for the edification of the faithful. For a long time these pictorial representations tended to consist of stark, two-dimensional figures situated in front of flat backgrounds (often of real or painted gold). Compared to later European paintings, these images seem primitive, even inapt. What was of primary importance in these pictures was, after all, not their artistry, but their spiritual content, their "message."
Toward the end of the Middle Ages, however, the flat backgrounds began to be replaced by bits and pieces of three-dimensional space, by rudimentary indications of real landscapes. And while the formerly stark and schematic saints became ever more individual and realistic, artists became increasingly absorbed by the expansion and exploration of the physical environment of their figures, as well as by the mundane details of these figures' physical lives. Mary and child were not the sole focus anymore, but the holy figures in relation to spacious views of fields, rivers, and distant mountains. And Jesus dining at Emmaus was not a mere otherworldly prophet anymore, but was shown surrounded by lovingly depicted foods, plates, and other worldly objects. In time the landscapes and physical objects became more important than the spiritual figures situated in or among them. Trees or elaborately decorated tables took up more space than angels or saints. And by the 17th century, landscape paintings and food still lifes were well-established independent genres in the world of art. The interest in and competent depiction of physical reality had by and large replaced the chaste spirituality that is characteristic of the high Middle Ages.
This development of full-fledged landscape paintings and still lifes out of their rudimentary beginnings at the end of the Middle Ages is, of course, part of the much broader process of secularization that began with the Renaissance and resulted in the establishment of Modernity. What does this process imply for our conception of art? Two things: In the process of developing the landscape from a mere location for an important person to something that has value in itself, artists discovered and developed the importance of aesthetic perception. Landscape as mere location has a merely utilitarian or instrumental value; landscape as an object of aesthetic contemplation is valuable in itself. The contemplation or perception of things for their own sake is at the heart of the aesthetic. By passionately devoting themselves to the depiction of landscapes and a plethora of sensuous objects, artists demonstrated persuasively that physical reality is not only important, but also beautiful (in the sense of being an object of "disinterested interest"). And by thus turning their work into the medium of aesthetic contemplation, artists also began to emancipate art from being a mere handmaiden for something else to something that can exist for its own sake. By increasingly ignoring the extraneous purpose of serving the church and its teachings, they established (or re-established, if one keeps in mind certain pre-medieval epochs of art) the autonomy of art.
The ancillary or utilitarian role of art did not vanish altogether, of course. Churches still needed to be decorated, princes, cardinals, and rich merchants portrayed for posterity, and aristocratic visitors of palaces impressed by battle scenes and other painted pomp. But all this co-existed now with what one may call pure art. Since artists needed to make a living, to be sure, they often had to produce work that had non-artistic uses. But even in these cases artists managed to pursue their more proper interest. Many a portrait or picture of a saint was little more than a pretext for the artist to engage in the aesthetic pursuits he or she was interested in as an artist. In subtle ways art did not serve the patrons, but the patrons served art. Art as such, pure art, had become a consuming passion. It established itself as the basic "institution" of human life as which, by and large, we still accept it today.
Focusing on the physical and aesthetic aspects of the world was only a first major step in the development of art that led to today's situation. Artists quickly embarked on a further expansion of the domain of the aesthetic: the extraordinary refinement of the medium of painting itself. For with most masters of the craft painting did not remain just a means of depicting and exploring the world and its objects, but became a focus of interest in its own right. Ever more often interest shifted from the painting of objects to the painting of objects, from the what to the how.
In many cases, of course, the depiction of the things of the world went hand in hand with the delight in creating fascinating forms and textures as such. When Ruisdael paints the barks of certain trees or the surfaces of sylvan ponds, then he usually achieves both: the presentation of a brooding, almost haunted landscape, let's say, and the creation of surfaces and textures which in themselves would entice collectors to buy his work. And when Rembrandt and his school paint human faces, their infinitely nuanced surfaces are both: renderings of the human condition and riveting textures. But on the whole it is clear that the medium of painting increasingly became a focus of exploration in itself. Art began to become its own purpose.
In the case of some 17th century Dutch still life painting one could almost talk about hints at abstract art. When Willem Kalf, e.g., paints the traditional half-pealed lemon in his sumptuous compositions of foods and fine objects, then he often does not seem to be interested at all in giving a faithful reproduction of the real object, but more in dissolving the object in a display of color shades and texture nuances. With him, as with other masters, it is definitely not the object anymore which counts, but the creative way in which the object is presented. To some degree the object began already to become irrelevant for these painters.
It still took many generations for objects to disappear altogether from the canvases of artists, but it clearly became a sort of misunderstanding when people assumed (in accordance with the mimesis theory of classical Greek philosophy) that the essence of art was to depict reality. While that misunderstanding was natural in the case of people who rarely pay close attention to art, for most post-Renaissance artists it was quite clear that they were concerned with other things than producing mirror images of the world. Even painters that are usually classified as "Realists," such as Winslow Homer, often painted seascapes, for example, in which water, sands, and sky were mere pretexts to paint shapes and surfaces which were entirely satisfying in themselves, regardless of what they represented.
Very obvious and radical breaks occurred shortly after the turn to the 20th century. Abstract painters like Kandinsky and Malevich (together with theoreticians like Clive Bell) made it official, as it were, that the real painting consists of lines, shapes, colors, and textures, and not of any images or stories that they may also convey. And Cubist painters like Braque and Picasso demonstrated something similar by visually cutting real objects into pieces, and by recomposing the fragments into configurations that could not possibly exist in reality, but rather represented the requirements of artistic compositions on a canvas. The method of Cubism makes provocatively visible the fact that the real objects of the world are mere raw material in the hands of the artist who pursues his or her own--purely aesthetic--purposes. All of modern art demonstrates very clearly that as such art is not in the service of anything, but first of all an artificial creation with its own requirements and self-awareness. Only secondarily will purposes such as depicting certain aspects of the world come into the picture.
Again, all sorts of things were aimed at and going on simultaneously in art, as they are still today. To reduce all of art to the exclusive pursuit of the aesthetic would clearly be a falsifying kind of reductionism. (In view of Wittgenstein's remarks about definitions and "family resemblance" concepts, it may be important to emphasize that no Platonic "essence" of art needs to be assumed in order to make sense of Hegel's philosophy of art and its history.) Rembrandt showed us the depth of the human soul in his portraits, Goya the horrors of war and human cruelty, and van Gogh the darkness of life in his sun-drenched corn fields with crows. Often such non-aesthetic concerns as revealing some important truth about the world are presented in a sort of tense balance between aesthetic form and the non-aesthetic content of a work, and this tension itself could become the main focus of certain works.
Yet, the inner logic of the development of art mentioned earlier exists--as a long-term tendency that time and again manifested itself as the relentless, though not straight-linear, drive toward the ultimate end of art. The over-all trend was the persistent tendency of art to progressively rid itself of everything that could be seen as external purpose, and to become ever more conscious of itself as art. At the end of the Middle Ages it was the liberation of art from the long established practice of religious service. During the following centuries it was the liberation from faithfully depicting objects (a liberation which was subtle at first, but demonstrative and revolutionary with the arrival of modernism). After recognizing the essence of art in the purely aesthetic composition and appreciation of lines, colors, and textures, there was just one more step to take to reach the full self-realization and end of art: the liberation of art from itself--achieved by practicing artists as a logical conclusion of their own artistic endeavor.
If modernism was the radicalization of the inherent tendency of Western art to focus ever more intensively on itself as art, then it should come as no surprise that artists of the 20th century also radicalized the quest for the ultimate goal and fulfillment of art and its history. There was a good number of serious artists who felt compelled to raise the question of the end of art (even if they had never paid any attention to philosophers like Hegel). Marcel Duchamp is one of the earliest and best known among them, although by no means the only one. During the heydays of the modernist revolution Duchamp offered his "ready-mades" (his bottlerack, snow shovel, bicycle wheel, urinal, etc.) to demonstrate some sort of end of art. For him even the most modern art had become a sterile as well as pretentious institution that had nothing serious to offer anymore, once it had run through such revolutionary movements as Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, and Abstraction. Duchamp decided that he and others might as well play chess from now on.
Later artists, however, as well as the art world at large, did not take Duchamp's hint. They began to incorporate ready-mades and other intended anti-art pieces into museums and into the general pantheon of artworks. As Duchamp complained in an interview: "When I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my ready-mades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottlerack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty!" (Duchamp to H. Riveter in 1962) Robert Rauschenberg, for one, became an open admirer of the beauty of Duchamp's bicycle wheel, and Duchamp himself, toward the end of his life, signed a limited number of replicas of this ready-mades to furnish rich art museums with these high-priced exhibits. As much as certain radical artists were disgusted with the whole art world and its dubious commerce, they could not prevent their very protest from being turned into art. By turning even anti-art resolutely or thoughtlessly into objects for aesthetic contemplation, the march of art through history seemed destined to continue forever.
The final move in the above trajectory of art did come, however--at just the time that Hobsbawm saw dominated by the production of second-rate modernist work and desperate "gimmicks," the time after World War II in general and the 1960s in particular. Neo-Dadaists of the "Fluxus" group, while also producing experimental work, fastened on the very aestheticism of the art world (the aestheticism that could potentially see everything as art) to recognize the end of art. In music Edgar Varese and John Cage had introduced ordinary noises into compositions, and thus denied the privileged status of sounds produced by artistic instruments. "Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look," Cage declared (Fluxus Today and Yesterday, p. 8). Analogously George Maciunas, the main theoretician for Fluxus, wrote: "There was no need for art. We had merely to learn to take an 'art attitude.' If people could learn to take the 'art attitude' toward all everyday phenomena, artists could stop making art works" (ibid. p.9). And at a Fluxus fest in Wuppertal in 1962 he elaborated:
"Rainfall is anti-art
a babble of a crowd
the flight of a butterfly
movements of microbes....
If human beings could experience the world, the concrete world surrounding them (from mathematical ideas to physical matter) in the same way they experience art, there would be no need for art, artists, and similar 'non-productive elements'" (ibid.).
The step from art to "art attitude" is a logical one: If the essential function of art is the production and composition of such things as lines, colors, and textures, then there is no reason why one could not intensively contemplate these things in ordinary objects as well--in the wood of weathered barns, in geological formations, or in slabs of textured pavements on which layers of dripped paint, spilled Cokes, and dried urine form the most intricate and nuanced patterns. Wind-sculpted rocks, decaying factories, nautical markers in ship channels, whole cities--all such things are possible objects of intensive aesthetic contemplation. It has, in fact, become a hallmark of the present situation that there is no direct correlation anymore between the artistic labor that goes into the production of an art object, and the richness of thoughts and perceptions that a viewer can get out of it. The aesthetic contemplation and interpretation of a rusted tank or the circuit board of a computer can be just as intensive and deep as that of a classical statue. Just as much can be written about these objects as about intentional art works. As Maciunas insisted: it is perception and "attitude" that count, not the inherent qualities of the object.
Art has reached its end, then, not by being abolished, but by being dissolved into everything else. It is essentially not different anymore from anything else, except that works of art are created somewhat more deliberately than other aesthetically perceived objects--usually with a greater emphasis on such aspects as balance or composition. (But even that is not necessarily true anymore: 20th century artists have often and deliberately used chance or accident in the production of their most avant-garde work.) Art at this point in history is not a certain class of objects anymore, but a way of seeing things--a (in the Kantian sense) transcendental principle of perception.
If an "art attitude" toward the world turns out to be the ultimate end of art, a most important goal has been reached. The end of art is neither a defeat, nor necessarily a ground for despair. The ability and practice to perceive and contemplate the world aesthetically is no mean feat. It is a goal entirely worthy of Hegel's high conception of art--well in line with the importance of morality, science, or religion. Aesthetic contemplation involves a crucial kind of sublimation--or spiritualization, if one prefers to put it that way. The viewer of a 17th century Dutch still life, for example, will not drool over the admittedly delicious foods and drinks, but rather appreciate the artist's transformation of these substances into color contrasts, textures, and balanced compositions. The artist thus changes the viewer from a consumer into a mind. A painted or sculpted nude, by the same token, is not pornography, but an occasion to transcend certain primitive impulses in the direction of a more detached contemplation (without thereby denying or destroying sensuality and sexuality). A culture that develops an "art attitude" will have a much richer experience of the world than one that knows nothing but "gut reactions" and utilitarian consumption. It is able to see more in a tree than just so much usable lumber, and more in the world than a land of opportunity where bulldozers chew up forests and neighborhoods in the dull and reckless pursuit of profit and convenience. "In the art attitude," one might say, "lies the preservation of the world."
Now that art has reached its goal, it can in good conscience engage again in activities that would have been (literally) improper at the time when it was still trying to find itself. Art is fully ready now to serve external, non-artistic purposes again. It can, of course, continue to create purely aesthetic objects. There is nothing particularly wrong with doing that, although doing so does not constitute the same almost heroic accomplishment anymore that it once was when art was still struggling to break away from extraneous purposes. But important and possibly novel tasks can be found in the area of utilizing the means of art in both the creation and dissemination of insights and knowledge. Political art comes to mind--such works as Kienholz's "War Monument," or those feminist works which effectively reveal repressive social structures and attitudes. That a good picture is worth a thousand words is surely worth remembering in this context.
A routine objection to this kind of work has often been the old saw: "This is not art, but propaganda!" This objection, however, has lost its meaning in a situation where art--pure art--has successfully accomplished its mission. It is true that Goya's "Third of May" or Kathe Kollwitz's anti-war drawings are not art in the sense of pure art; but so what? The task of liberating art from all external purposes, to realize its innermost potential, has been accomplished; the benefits of this liberation are ours. There was a time when it was important to insist with Hegel and others that "fine art is not art in the true sense of the term until it is free." Art had to develop its aesthetic potential fully, and to become fully clear about it by going to aesthetic extremes. Only philistines would resent Rembrandt's desire to do more in his commissioned paintings than faithfully execute the portraits of those who paid him for that, or write off as artistic narcissism and effete aestheticism Kandinsky's attempts to explore what there may be in the composition of pure lines, colors, and shapes. But truly creative spirits will not stop at this point, and it is not likely that the future will be with simply repeating what was once a great accomplishment. Entirely new forms of creation and enlightenment are called for after what has happened in art and on the planet during this century. The cutting edge of the human spirit and of art, one might say, will lie beyond the sphere art from now on.
The above was written for an oral presentation and debate. I have therefore refrained from discussing the seminal essay of Arthur C. Danto: "The End of Art" (published in a collection of essays entitled The Death of Art, ed. by Berel Lang, New York, 1984, and somewhat expanded in Danto's A. W. Mellon Lectures of 1995, published in After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Princeton, 1997, as well as in his "Approaching the End of Art," published in his The State of the Art, New York, 1987, and in "Narratives of the End of Art," published in his Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present, New York, 1986). Danto bases his case of the end of art (a) on the fact that much of modern and contemporary art depends on, or even is identical with, theory, and (b) on certain principles of Hegel's historicist philosophy.
Modern art's relation to theory Danto describes as follows: "Now if we look at the art of our recent past ...what we see is something which depends more and more upon theory for its existence as art, so that theory is not something external to a world it seeks to understand: hence in understanding its object it has to understand itself. But there is another feature exhibited by these late productions which is that the objects approach zero as their theory approaches infinity, so that virtually all there is at the end is theory, art having finally become vaporized in a dazzle of pure thought about itself, and remaining, as it were, solely as the object of its own theoretical consciousness"(p. 31). Art, in other words, has become its own philosophy.
Art's relation to the philosophy of Hegel Danto describes as follows: "Hegel's thought was that for a period of time the energies of history coincided with the energies of art, but now history and art must go in different directions, and though art may continue to exist in what I have termed a post-historical fashion, its existence carries no historical significance whatever"(p.7). As an historical phenomenon art goes through an inevitable process of change; what is important in art progresses from something essentially sensuous or physical to something cerebral--to theoretical knowledge: "The progress in question is not that of an increasingly refined technology of perceptual equivalence [as adherents of the traditional mimesis doctrine used to think]. Rather, there is a kind of cognitive progress, where it is understood that art progressively approaches that kind of cognition. When the cognition is achieved, there really is no longer any point to or need for art. Art is a transitional stage in the coming of a certain kind of knowledge. The question then is what sort of cognition this can be, and the answer, disappointing as it must sound at first, is the knowledge of what art is"(p. 28).
I agree with almost everything Danto says in his essay, except with the last sentence of the above statement. And the contention of that last sentence is not a minor matter.
It is true, of course, that for Hegel history in general is a process of progressive self-recognition, and that at the end of its history art, too, knows what it is, knows its own nature. But self-knowledge is not the innermost nature of art, and it is misleading to suggest that throughout its development art was primarily driving toward self-recognition. My objection here is not that art has had other targets, targets that were much more pressing and immediate than the desire to know its own nature. I think it does make sense to talk about a central trajectory of art that manifests itself in the long run--apart from the variety of short-term tasks and goals that art has also had on the way. But the major trajectory of art is not one of increasing self-recognition as such, but the exploration and realization of the aesthetic. Self-knowledge, to be sure, was increasingly involved at many points in art's long drive to rid itself progressively of all external purposes as a way of finding itself, but in itself it was not the goal, the telos of the whole process. Rather, the self-knowledge that developed with the increasing concentration of art on itself was the recognition that it was centrally tied to aisthesis, to the specific kind of perception that constitutes both its necessary base and its possible limitation. Much of modern art has indeed become its own philosophy, as Danto has shown, but it is still a philosophy of art, not of knowledge.
Danto has been taken to task by a number of critics--in The Death of Art, as well as in the subsequent The End of Art and Beyond: Essays After Danto, ed. by Arto Haapala et al, Humanities Press, 1997. I do not think that any of the criticisms invalidated Danto's basic contention. Some of the critical observations were intriguing, however, and one challenge in particular must be disturbing to anyone who risks any generalization about works of art. Several writers in the above anthologies implied or said outright that Danto always talks about art in general, while actually thinking about a very limited class of works of art, a class that excludes such areas as non-Western art, very early European art, folk art, certain "post-modern" works, and so forth. Some of these writers concede that Danto's analysis does apply to the development of a certain kind of art, the art that many--with a sneer--call "high" art, but that the vast majority of works have never been troubled by "excessively" self-reflective concern with aesthetics, artistic purity, the nature of art, or art's ultimate destiny. The vast majority of artists have simply gone about their various tasks, ignored grand theory and "master narratives," and thus been immune to such thoughts as the possible "end of art."
That a growing tendency toward aestheticism and self-awareness is clearly visible only in a limited number of works is undeniable. The majority of objects that are called works of art may indeed be concerned with other things than themselves, their nature, or their ultimate purpose as art. To talk about a trajectory of art does imply a pointed selection from a great number of all kinds of works. Is there any justification, then, for making this selection? Are obviously aesthetic works of art somehow more important or noteworthy than, let's say, political or religious art? Is it true that "art is not art in the true sense of the term until it is free"? Can the trajectory of art from ancilla theologiae to "art attitude" claim predominance over any other of the developments that could also be traced in the long and varied history of what we call works of art?
It can. To give special consideration to the aesthetic in the history of art is not arbitrary, but justified by what art is. No matter how varied the forms and purposes of art may be, they are all tied to or mediated by aesthetic means. The sculpture of a goddess is a sculpture, the etching of a war crime is an etching, the gruesome drama of Richard III is a play, etc., and so it is inevitable that eventually artists and viewers alike will think about the nature of the medium in which their ideas, fears, or other concerns appear. They will wonder about the complex relationships that exist between "messages" and artistic means. They will discover that the means as such may have a weight and significance that at first nobody had noticed. They may find that sometimes the means may get in the way of what artists try to say. They may ask themselves whether the means may perhaps be more than just means, and whether messages had perhaps better be delivered in other ways than through art. The growing concern of art with itself and its aesthetic means, in other words, was inevitable, and the distillation of pure lines, textures, and colors from a long evolution of painting, together with the formulation of theories of specifically aesthetic perception, was a logical step for anyone who dealt with art in more than a perfunctory way. Art had to focus on the aesthetic because aesthetics is involved in everything it does. There are other trajectories that can be traced, and not all of art can be reduced to purely "formalist" endeavors, but the aesthetic is central to the arts in a way nothing else is, and thus a "privileged" focus for philosophical reflection.
Deconstruction and "Post-Modernism" have until recently dominated artspeak and academic enterprises like an ideology. Dogmatic Relativism was one of the hallmarks of this intellectual fashion: Everything in the world was a "construct." As in traditional versions of philosophical Idealism, nothing was real--neither historical developments, nor differences between important and unimportant, nor the inherent structure of things. It is not discriminating caution, but this a priori Relativism that prompted many theoreticians to disallow any significant generalization about art, and with it the kind of reflection that Danto initiated with his "The End of Art." Now that the decunstructionist fad is winding down, it is perhaps time to realize that the Relativism that reduces the world to an amorphous mass is just the other side of the coin of Absolutism, the habit of seeing no construction as arbitrary, and of perceiving everywhere just plain reality. A less sweeping methodological approach, in other words, may provide the space for a detailed and productive discussion of what Danto offered with "The End of Art."
Copyright © 1998 by Jorn K. Bramann
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