Book Reviews | Visual Arts

Wonders Read: Arthur C. Danto’s Essays from the Gap Between Life and Art

by Ed Bateman

Writing about art in a book without pictures might strike you as odd – something like singing about dancing. But since works of art also have meaning, who better to unpack that meaning than someone whose passion is ideas – a trained philosopher.

Arthur C. Danto is arguably the most widely read and cited art critic of the last decade. He taught philosophy at Columbia University in New York and has written art reviews in The Nation for the past 20 years. Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Life and Art is his fifth collection. Danto himself refers to his essays as “…the philosophical exploration of art in the guise of critical reviews…” So naturally, reading these essays is not a substitute to seeing the show, but it helps you better appreciate the artists’ work and is a powerful reminder that there are deep philosophical issues presented by great art.

These essays span the time from early 2000 (the Whitney Biennial) to the near present – the book was published in 2005. A lot happened in the wider world during that time, and Danto stays true to his subtitle with two essays discussing the effects of 9/11 on art and on the art world.

This is probably not the kind of book that you sit down and read cover to cover. With each essay running around eight pages, it’s a great book to skim and explore in free moments. I find that with Danto’s books of essays I am drawn first to the artists that I am most familiar with or that I have a current interest in. Then I move on to artists that are less well known to me. Call it a failing of my education, but some of the essays are on artists whose names were only slightly familiar. This book helps to correct that oversight in a deep way. However, a trip to the web or the library for images is required to fully appreciate those artists. Remember, this writing was originally published while the show in question was available for inspection.

The range of artists that Danto discusses is astounding – from classical artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Artemisia Gentileschi to modern classics like Picasso and Alberto Giacometti. The contemporary, such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Barbara Kruger, are also subjects for his philosophical gaze. With more than 40 essays, surely everyone involved in the visual arts will find a hero or favorite discussed in these pages. It is a tribute to Danto’s insights that even with artists I was familiar with, I felt that my understanding of their work and place in the history of art was deepened. He even has an essay on Norman Rockwell that draws you in if only to see how he fares in such lofty company … and why, perhaps, we evaluate him differently.

As a philosopher, Danto is as likely to quote Plato as Picasso. One might be intimidated by an essay on Gerhard Richter that begins with a paragraph on Hegel. But Danto is aware enough to recognize that while most of us have heard of Hegel, few of us would claim any understanding of his ideas – especially as they apply to art. So in a way, Danto’s book functions as both art education as well as a nice introduction to many philosophical ideas in a way that would interest most artists. He has a way of leaving you feeling educated.

Often, Danto will use the work of an artist to discuss a bigger theme. In what I feel is one of the most significant essays in the book, he uses the work of Renee Cox and the reaction of Rudolph Giuliani to her work,Yo Mama’s “Last Supper,” as a springboard to discuss censorship and First Amendment issues. It is some of his most impassioned writing, as the following introductory paragraph will demonstrate:

“The almost exact coincidence in time between the destruction of the Buddha figures by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s renewed jihad against the Brooklyn Museum vividly underscores the problem that authorities seem to have in dealing with images.”

This is strong stuff. To understand this issue, Danto takes us through a brief history of the power of icons and the forces of iconoclasm, starting with the biblical book of Exodus and extending through the present. It’s a rich history of ideas and precise philosophical distinctions (a Danto specialty) all presented quite nicely in a few pages. Importantly, this essay contains crucial ammunition for those who have to defend the role of art to a community and its leaders. In a conflict of ideas, Danto is someone you would want on your side.

Making high art out of low art is discussed in an essay on the works of Jeff Koons and the topic of banality. Like many critics, Danto was not originally a fan of Koons – he referred to the works in his 1988 show as a “…vision of aesthetic hell.” But here, Danto finds grist for deeper thought and ultimately re-evaluation. In a journey that begins with a discussion of Henry James’ story, “The Madonna of the Future,” and winds through the last hundred years of art history, Danto manages to discuss the “unnatural wonder” that transcends the banal. He uses the example of Koons’ notorious giant glazed porcelain “Michael Jackson and His Chimpanzee, Bubbles” to discuss the reasons behind its uncanny presence and link it, through Duchamp’s ready-mades, to the work of the Surrealists.

At its worst, art criticism is laden with jargon and pretension. Danto avoids this by writing about ideas. It is clear, intelligent, and treats the reader as a knowledgeable, thoughtful individual. One of the things that comes across in this book is that Danto loves art. He sees it at the beginning of the new millennium as moving away from being merely separate rarefied objects. To Danto, the space between art and life is indeed being bridged. In his own words, he wants to give his “…readers something to think about – about art, about life, and about the relationships between them.”

Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Life and Art
By Arthur C. Danto
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374281181
Hardcover: 320 pages


Categories: Book Reviews | Visual Arts

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