Arthur Danto: Death Of A Legend

Saida Santana

Arthur Danto, the most influential art philosopher of our times, left a clear legacy: in contemporary art, anything is possible.

Arthur Danto, the philosopher who questioned the meaning of art and predicted its end in his essay “After the End of Art”, a man who dedicated his life to researching and sharing his knowledge about this delicate subject, died on October 25 in his Manhattan home. He was 89 years old.Danto was a philosopher, art critic, professor emeritus at Columbia University, president of the American Philosophical Association and the American Society of Aesthetics, promoter and signer of the Second Humanist Manifesto, winner of the Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism, author of more than 30 books, but above all, he was a great thinker.

Arthur Danto

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.

Arthur Danto

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.


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