Thanks be to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland for bringing Arthur Danto to the coast of Maine. Danto was required reading when I was a student back in the late 80's, and I always liked how his essays started off in one direction, then took a different tack, and finally got back on course to make his point. His lecture tonight was the inaugural presentation in the Farnsworth Forum series, and he was interviewed by the Farnsworth's Director of Education, the excellent Roger Dell.
By his own description, Danto's work as a critic has been to arrive at a philosophy of art as defined by the sort of Socratic questioning that is itself definitive of much of Western thought. He began his talk tonight by positing that when Andy Warhol presented the Brillo Box as art, he set in motion a sea change in what art can be. Of course, it was Marcel Duchamp, not Warhol, who questioned the boundaries of what we may consider to be art by giving us the urinal, and Danto did later make a correct philosophical distinction between the Duchampian and Warholian reasons for adopting the ready-made.
A new tack: what of the market, of government repression and the freedom that American artists generally enjoy, as long as one doesn't look too closely at Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Jesse Helms, or Rudy Guiliani? From here, Danto rumbled into considerations of aesthetics and the philosophy at which he has arrived: that art is no longer judged by an aesthetic of form, but by an aesthetic of meaning, of which beauty is not a necessary component. When pressed by an audience member for criteria by which we might judge meaning, he reasoned in circular fashion that meaning is to be found in meaning. What did the artist mean, and where has meaning resided throughout art history? Socrates would never have let him off the hook on that one.
But never mind. The interview ended with a return to the shock of the new in the form of Jeff Koons' exquisite balloon dogs. How is it we are allowed to think of these as art? They are a far reach from ready-mades, and they are gorgeous in their form. It's ok, Danto implies, to like them just because we can't help ourselves. But what do they mean, and are we to depend on the artist for the answer? I like to think we can trust our own critical judgment here.