In 1964, after almost 15 years as a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, Danto had an epiphany, which would become the basis of his philosophy. The momentous event occurred during an exhibition of Pop artist Andy Warhol at the Stable Gallery in New York, where Warhol presented exact reproductions of commercial soapboxes.
What Danto had before his eyes were not real boxes, although the original commercial packaging was copied to the most minimal detail. It was a Brillo Box sculpture created by Warhol. The experience led Danto to question: what was it that turned this piece into an original work of art? For him, the big difference, as he explains in his essay “The Artworld” was that Warhol´s work had a meaning, conveyed a message while the original soapbox just had a functional use.
From that point onwards, Danto adopted art as the cornerstone of his philosophy, which heralded the beginning of a new era of post-historical art. It was he who set the precedent from which the philosopher George Dickie based his Institutional Theory of Art. “Works of art are those ‘artifacts’ that have acquired a certain status within a particular institutional framework called ‘art world’,” said Dickie.
Danto kept surprising us and when he was 63 years old, with a highly successful career in academic philosophy behind him, accepted a position as art critic for the newspaper The Nation, becoming better known and reaching a wider, younger audience.
Earlier this year, the philosopher published his last book: What Art Is, a condensation of his thinking during the 50 years he dedicated to this discipline. In its pages, he questions the popular belief that art is an indefinable concept and goes on to give us the key to what defines a work of art: its meaning, its realization and the way the viewer interprets it.
“I try to explain, from the point of view of art history, why beauty left and never returned,” Danto declared in Spain during the presentation of his book The Abuse of Beauty, in 2005. “Beauty in art is a choice, not a condition.”
Gone is the most influential thinker in postmodernist art, the theorist who explored the end of the fetishism of beauty, and gone is that bright and clear mind. What he left behind, his greatest legacy, were his thoughts. ■