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Gombrich and Danto on Defining Art

Author(s): David Carrier

Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Summer, 1996), pp. 279-
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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Gombrich and Danto on Defining Art

At this time, when so much has been written about talkedin the seventeenthcenturyof art as such. So that'sthe
ArthurC. Danto's definition of art, it may seem that philosophical background.In a sense, it is quite relevantin
the entire subject is exhaustedby philosophers.' The the long discussions about Leonardo, art, and science. For
basic positions, it might appear, have been worked Leonardo,arte was a skill, a know-how applied both to his
out, and Danto, in turn,has certainly repliedat length scientific experimentsand to painting.3
to his critics.With the aim, then, of promotingfurther
discussion, I wish to show that there is at hand an al- It may seem initially as if this account, which cer-
ternativeview deserving serious attention. I want to tainly makes no reference to Danto's claims, has no
presentthis accounthere because it is found in a jour- real impacton philosophical analysis. If there are not
nal not, I believe, customarilyread by aestheticians, artists, or artworks,at least there is this skill, artmak-
and because it is developed by an art historian not ing. The thrust of Gombrich's limited nominalism
thoughtof as usually taking any special interestin the thus is merely to displace discussion. If we are not
concerns of aesthetics. It is convenient to do this by committedto the existence of persons who make art,
explaininghow I myself came to identifythis position. or that sort of object called artworkshaving essential
At the beginning of The Story of Art, E. H. Gom- art-properties,still we accept the existence of a kind
brich writes: "There really is no such thing as Art. of activity of persons,the activity of artmaking.If we
There are only artists."2In context, in the introduc- do not allow the existence of agents, still we admit
tion of a survey book which, after all, by the next that there is an activity performed by those agents.
paragraphgoes on to deal with a variety of other is- Nothing very deep, it might seem, has been changed.
sues, it is easy to pass by this remark.To the extent But this, I think, is not the entire story, for what-
that I thoughtabout it, I imaginedthat perhapsGom- ever Gombrich'sown intentions, this remarkis rele-
brichintended some referenceto Karl Popper'snom- vant to how we philosophers,following Danto, think
inalism. And yet, it is worth stopping here, for in re- about art.4 The target of Danto's critical analysis is
sponse to a recent query he has explained at some the claim thatart-as-suchhas an essence. If we accept
length exactly what he had in mind in this passage: his account,then what follows is thatthis no longer is
true, not after such artists as Marcel Duchamp and
I go back deliberatelyto the old meaning of the term "art," Andy Warholhave transformedreadymadesinto art-
when art was identified with skill or mastery,the art of war, works. If Fountain and Brillo Box can be artworks,
the art of love, or whatever else. Art is something with a then no longer is there some distinctive sort of thing
skill. There's no disembodied skill as such; skill is always constituting art. No longer does art have an essence,
applied to a particulartask. I don't know if you know this although at earlier times it did. (What then follows,
wonderful paper by Abrams on "Art-as-Such,"about the Danto argues, is that we live in a posthistoricalera.
eighteenth century,now in the volume called Doing Things Whether his reading of the implications of this dis-
with Texts.... he discusses the coming of the new conception covery that art has no essence is correct is, of course,
of art in the eighteenthcentury.I very muchrecommendthat another story.)
paper,it's absolutely wonderful. He has a paperin that vol- As he makes clear, Danto's argument only has
ume on the aesthetic attitudeand its root in artistic attitudes, force against someone who believes that art perhaps
in Kant and so on; and anotherin which he stresses partic- has an essence. For someone who, following Gom-
ularly the role of Shaftesburyand the grand tour,the teach- brich,thinks thatthere is no such thing as art, Warhol
ing of milords the role of appreciating art. As he rightly cannot have the importance which Danto gives to
says, people admired paintings and sculptures,but no one him. (This reconstructionof the largerframeworkof
The Journalof Aesthetics and Art Criticism54:3 Summer 1996
280 The Journalof Aesthetics and Art Criticism

debate is intellectually satisfying, for it helps explain M. Descartes is ... assuming an identity between an intelli-
why Gombrich has paid very little attention to gent being and intellection, which is the act of an intelligent
Warhol.5)In what he identifies as our posthistorical being; or at any rate between an intelligent being and intel-
period, there will be artmaking,Danto has said, even lect, which is the power of an intelligent being.8
though no longer is there a history of art. For Gom-
brich,this history must be understooddifferently.Be- What then is the force of saying that there is no actor
cause thereis no such thing as art, therecannotbe any performing mental activities, but only those various
end to the history of art. The skills of artmakingex- actions themselves: perceiving, sensing, and think-
isted before the modernconceptof art was developed, ing, and also dreaming and imagining? Insofar as
and could continue to exist even were it discarded.We these activities may seem to require someone per-
may, for example, understandhow the various Re- forming them, nothing at all, it may appear,may be
naissance mastersdiscussed in The Story of Art were gained. To shift talk from the agent to that agent'sac-
expert artmakers, even if their culture lacked our tions only turnsour attentionfrom nouns to verbs. If
characteristicconcept of art-as-such.
In thus shifting debate from concern with art to
Lisa sees the painting,
emphasis upon these skills, Gombrich'sframework
offers two importantphilosophical advantages.First,
we no longer need worry aboutwhetherthe history of then thereexists both the agent,Lisa, and the activity,
art has ended; and, second, we need not ask questions seeing,performedby Lisa. On one readingof his text,
about when it began. What we are ratherconcerned Descartes claimed to infer that the actor had to be
with are the activities associated with artmaking;and identical with an eternally existing soul. That infer-
these, we may reasonablyexpect, existed before there ence surely is faulty. But can we talk about actions
was available a concept of art, and may exist after withoutcommittingourselvesalso to agentsperform-
thatconcept is abandoned.Giotto, Piero, and Raphael ing them?That question, the history of philosophyof
made sacred objects, and so there have always been mind shows, is harderto answer.
worries aboutthe appropriatenessof placing the arti- I believe that aesthetics might be advancedby con-
facts they createdin the museum and analyzing them sidering,in an analogousway, the implicationsof this
with the secularizing tools of art history. When the Gombrichiancritiqueof Danto'sanalysis. Frenchthe-
present-day museum includes objects from non-Eu- oreticians have much to say about "the death of the
ropean cultures,including some societies which def- author."If Gombrich,considered"in Britain ... a tra-
initely seem to lack our present concept of art, this ditional figure, in France ... is ranked as a radical
worry is multiplied.If, rather,we focus on artmaking, thinkeralongside figures such as the deconstruction-
then these difficulties are removed.6 A culture can ists," we might, learning from him, consider the im-
have craftspeople whose activity requires some (at plications of speaking of "the death of the artist."9
least implicit) concept of artmaking,even if it admits
to no identifiable concept of art. In assembling and DAVID CARRIER
preservingsuch artifacts, and appreciatingthem aes- Departmentof Philosophy
thetically, we acknowledge that we understandthe CarnegieMellon University
value of this craft, even while recognizing that the Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania 15213-3890
culturesin which many of these objects were created
would be bewilderedby our museums.7
But this presentanalysis, it is naturalto feel, is not
entirely satisfying philosophically,for it too easily re- INTERNET: DC40@ANDREW.CMU.EDU
moves the "bite" of Danto's analysis without ade-
quatelyengaging with his argument.If Duchampand
Warhol showed that there is no essence of art, then This essay is for RobertMangoldon the occasion of his Oc-
their work, Danto claims, was extremely significant. tober, 1995 exhibitionat PaceWildenstein,in gratefulthanks
The manyphilosopherswho assertedthatartdoes have for the contributionwhich his dialogueshavemade to my un-
an essence are then shown to have arguedincorrectly. derstandingof the crafts of artmaking.I thank Arthur C.
PerhapsDanto is mistaken,but surelyhe cannotbe de- Danto, RichardF. Kuhns,RobertMangold,MarianneNovy,
feated simply by arguingthat, if a properontology is RichardShiff, and Philip Alperson for criticizingan earlier
concernedonly with the activities of artmaking,and draft.
1. See ArthurC. Danto, "The Artworld,"The Journal of
not such objects as artworks, then Duchamp and Philosophy61 (1964): 571-584, and, for more detail, his The
Warholdid not show thatart neverhad an essence. Transfigurationof the Commonplace:A Philosophyof Art
Here the philosopher may recognize echoes of (Harvard University Press, 1981). For commentary, see
Thomas Hobbes's disagreement with Descartes's Danto and His Critics,ed. MarkRollins (Cambridge,Mass.:
cogito argument,where he complains: Basil Blackwell, 1993).I havenot triedto surveythe literature.
Discussion 281

2. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 16th ed. (London: city of beauty in recent art. He seeks the explanation
Phaidon, 1995), p. 15. in our attitudes about the appropriateuse of beauty.
3. See my "Talkingwith Sir Ernst Gombrich,"Artforum Following Kant to a point, he contends that beauty
(forthcoming). I did not query Gombrich about Danto's casts a universalized light upon a phenomenon, re-
work. His reference is to M. H. Abrams,Doing Thingswith minding us thatwhat is presentedbeautifullyis an in-
Texts:Essays in Criticismand Critical Theory (New York:
W.W. Norton, 1989); see also M. H. Abrams,"Kantand the
herentpart of humanexperience.Beauty is appropri-
Theology of Art," Notre Dame English Journal (1981): ate as a means of markingthe loss of a loved one, for
75-106. A friend who is familiarwith Gombrich'swork has it remindsus thatthe pain of loss is a universalhuman
questioned this reconstructionof his claims: was it likely experience."Itis as thoughbeautywere a kind of cat-
that in 1950 Gombrich had this complex claim in mind, alyst, transformingraw grief into tranquilsadness,"
when Karl Popper'scritiqueof Hegel provideda readily ac- Danto observes (p. 364).
cessible source for simpler ways of defending anti-essen- Appropriateas beauty's healing influence seems
tialism? Perhapsnot, but why should we not now accept this when one is faced with personal loss, it seems far
as Gombrich'sintendedreadingof his text, filtered as it per-
from apt in the face of political defeat for a cause that
haps is through his more recent reflection? Gombrich, we
can allow, has found a new interpretationof his text; this is a matterof moral urgency.Beauty seems wrong in
way of describing what he has done, though perhaps un- such cases, "wrongbecause one is called upon to act
Gombrichian,seems intuitively plausible. ... and not to philosophize"(p. 365). Danto elaborates
4. What Gombrichhimself is saying, readinghim in con- this point by considering the category of artworks
text, is that speaking of something called 'Art with a capital that display what he calls "internalbeauty."Beauty is
A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish" (Story internal to a work of art when it is "internallycon-
of Art, p. 15). He suggests that getting away from the usual nected with the referenceand the mood"(p. 366). For
distinctions between "high art" and everyday kinds of im- such a work, beauty is part of the work'scontent. Ac-
ages, works which he has often analyzed, we learn more
cordingly,Danto contends, "it can be a criticism of a
about the concept of representationin art.
5. Pop art is dismissed, withoutreproduction,in TheStory work that it is beautiful when it is inappropriatefor it
of Art. In his book on patternsGombrichdoes reproducea to be so" (p. 370).
Warhol, in the context of analysis of the "depersonalizing Judgmentsthatbeautyis inappropriateunderliethe
tendencies of the multiplyingmedia"(TheSense of Order:A decision to forego beauty in much contemporaryart.
Study in the Psychology of DecorativeArt [Cornell Univer- "Ours... is an age of moral indignation,"Danto re-
sity Press, 1979], p. 151). minds us (p. 374). He seems to concur with artistic
6. Meyer Schapiroadopts such an approachwhen, in "On abstinence from beauty in many instances. To find
the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art" (reprintedin beauty in images of suffering,to seek aesthetic satis-
his Selected Papers: RomanesqueArt [New York: George
faction where injustice prevails is, in his view, a
Braziller, 1977], pp. 1-27), he describes the ways in which
a culturethat perhapslacked the modernconcept of art cer- moralfailing. Oursocietal aversionto beauty,accord-
tainly had a concept in some ways like ours of aesthetic ex- ingly, has to do with our heightenedmoral sensitivity.
perience. Vasari, it could similarly be argued, surely had a Wecannot in good conscience close our eyes and ears
highly developed concept of artmaking, even if his era to the troubles of our world, but beauty threatensto
lacked our museum-cultureconcept of art. conceal them.
7. Such an analysisraises an implicitpoint aboutDuchamp YetDanto takes a mixed view of the activist artthat
and Warhol:is thereenough overlapbetween their activities has largely supplantedart thatis beautiful.Too often,
and those of such craftspeoplefor their artifactsto deserve a he contends, political activists have failed in their
place in our museums? Here see ArthurC. Danto, "Martin
efforts to "enlist art as an ally in their campaign"
Puryear,or the Quandariesof Craftsmanship,"reprintedin
his EmbodiedMeanings:CriticalEssays & AestheticMedita- (p. 374). The problem, as Danto sees it, is that when
tions (New York:Farrar,Straus,Giroux, 1994),pp.289-295. art designed to inspire moral response fails as art, it
8. "On Meditation II: Second Objection," in Descartes, also "failsmorally,extenuatedonly by the good inten-
Philosophical Writings,trans. and eds. Elizabeth Anscombe tions of the artist"(p. 375).
and Peter Thomas Geach (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, Danto concludes that "the lesson is that art has its
1971), p. 128. limits as a moral arm. There are things it can do and
9. EricFernie,Art History and Its Methods:A CriticalAn- things it cannot. It can do what philosophy can do,
thology (London: PhaidonPress, 1995), p. 224. and what beauty can do. But thatmay mean that phi-
losophy too has its limits as a moral arm" (p. 374).
Our age has yet to learn this lesson, however.Moral
indignation continues to hold sway among artists.
Whatever Happened to Beauty? "Beauty,"Danto predicts,"maybe in for a ratherlong
A Response to Danto exile" (p. 375).
Is this a fair assessment of our time's relation to
Whateverhappenedto beauty?In "Beautyand Moral- beauty? I think this must depend on what we take
ity,"' ArthurC. Danto meditates on the relative scar- beauty to be-and this is scarcely a matterof agree-