What Art Is

By Arthur Danto

A while back, a fellow photographer brought up Arthur Danto and his definition of art while we were discussing some work we’d both recently seen. It was an interesting conversation, enough that I decided to explore Danto’s writings on my own. As it turned out, though, I spent most of this book frustrated and irritated.

As you might guess from the title, the central point of the essays collected in this book is Danto’s definition of art. Art, he says, is “embodied meaning.” There’s a certain looseness of language to that definition which a self-proclaimed philosopher probably ought to have worked out better—after all, embodiment as a prerequisite excludes art forms that don’t rely on physical media. That’s a bit of a quibble, though. What really bothered me was that Danto seemed similarly willing to play fast and loose with both history (the development of both art and art criticism being more evolutional than he admits) and with epistemology. Danto explicitly waves aside epistemological questions, saying that he’s concerned with what art is, not how we know what art is, but many of his arguments rely on taking for granted his own ability to understand an artist’s intentions.

In the end, though, it’s probably more than it’s worth to get upset about such an esoteric discussion. If nothing else, reading this book got me to revisit and clarify some of my own thoughts on art.

Started: 5/9/2015 | Finished: 5/14/2015

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