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The Madonna of the FutureReview - The Madonna of the Future
Essays in a Pluralistic Art World
by Arthur Danto
University of California Press, 2000
Review by Bill Seeley
Dec 6th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 49)

The subtitle of The Madonna of the Future, the most recent collection of art criticism written by the philosopher Arthur Danto for The Nation, is "Essays in a Pluralistic Artworld." The first and last essays are philosophical essays which define what Danto means by a "pluralistic" artworld. The rest of the book is devoted to art criticism. Danto's writing is clear and accessible, intended both for the most discerning art critic and the least art historically educated viewer. Whether or not these works of art criticism ultimately succeed in demonstrating or elucidating Danto's philosophical points, the essays provide deep insight into the character of contemporary art and the task of interpreting its meaning.

The two philosophical essays act as bookends to bracket the essays in art criticism within. They serve as the context, or, to use his term, "history" within which to interpret the meaning of his art criticism, and so serve as a sort of meta-criticism for the book itself. The first, "Art and Meaning," sets out three criteria something must meet to count as an artwork: a) it must be about something, it must have a content or a meaning; b) it must embody that meaning; and c) it must derive its identity (which I take to denote its meaning or "aboutness") from a "network of meanings."

Danto cashes out the notion of a 'network of meanings' as "belonging to a history." The latter is the subject of the second philosophical essay, "The Work of Art and the Historical Future." In this essay Danto spins a story about Theobald, the fictional late nineteenth century ex-patriot American painter from Henry James story "The Madonna of the Future" (from which Danto has appropriated the title of his book). In Henry James' story Theobald travels to Florence to paint a Madonna that would rival Raphael's "Madonna della Seggiola." But in the course of preparing studies for his masterwork, his model grows old. He tries to paint from recollection his original intention, but becomes blocked. Theobald is left with nothing but a primed canvas. He considers it a failure, and, of course, in the context of his nineteenth century Raphaelite aspirations, it is.

But we are to imagine that Theobald is visited many years later by the curator of the fictional Museum of Monochrony, established 100 years in his future in 1973. The primed canvas is now cracked and discolored with time. Theobald tells the curator that it has been referred to as "The Madonna of the Future." The curator tells him that it is an intriguing painting, a brilliant title, and that he is far ahead of his time. The curator insists that he will be hailed as the father of all-white monochromatic painting, the precursor of Malevich, Rauschenberg, and Ryman. What is the philosophical parable? The work, within the context of nineteenth century painting, is a failure. But the same work, within the context of twentieth century abstraction, is an art-critical success. Our evaluation of the work changes radically relative to which history we say that the work belongs to.

Danto concedes that this move raises a difficulty. Whereas, within the context of the artworld, this can help explain the broadening of the definition of an artwork, i.e. of what can count as an artwork - combs, painted goats, and tire swings can become art if we place them within the correct art-critical history - it is not clear that the criteria suffice to distinguish art objects from other designed objects. Consider the case of Warhol's "Brillo Boxes," a case that Danto has used in the past to elucidate just this distinction. Danto argues that Warhol's work distinguishes itself from the "ordinary" Brillo boxes of the time in that it is a criticism of the methods and ideas associated with Pop Art's immediate precursor, Abstract Expressionism. The clean commercial-art aesthetic and mundane subject matter of Warhol's Pop Art would have been an anathema to Abstract Expressionism's drips, puddles of paint, and metaphysical themes.

But, as Danto says he has been forced to concede, the original, ordinary Brillo boxes are about something too. They are about marketing Brillo pads. The bright colors were intended to convey excitement over the product. The wavy red and white stripes across the box were intended to represent both water and the American Flag. This double meaning implies a connection between cleanliness and duty. Brillo had hired an Abstract Expressionist artist named Steve Harvey to design the box, and Danto exclaims that the design "is in its own way a masterpiece of visual rhetoric, intended to move minds to the act of purchase and then application." (xxv) Within the context of a particular marketing strategy, Steve Harvey's Brillo boxes embody their meaning. They too stand as works of art.

The problem does not stop here. In some sense everything is about something. For instance, the big toe on my left foot is about the gravity that I must fight here on earth to remain standing through my lectures. In fact, within the context of evolutionary theory, we might be tempted to say that my left foot, with its prominent big toe, is the embodiment of this aboutness. Is my left foot, as a result, a work of art?

Danto resolves this conundrum with a fourth, yet not explicitly so stated, criteria: "appropriate placement." An object becomes a work of art, he says, if it derives its meaning/identity from an appropriate art-critical or art-historical context. "What does it mean to live in a world in which anything could be a work of art?…It is to imagine what could be meant by the object if it were the vehicle of an artistic statement." (xxix) The goal of the critic, Danto says, is to furnish the reader with a thought they can bring with them into the galleries so that they can become critics themselves, active viewers engaged in discourse with the art. To this end, the goal of Danto's reviews for The Nation are to describe a) what the artworks are about and b) how this meaning is embodied by the work.

Consider Danto's essay on Bruce Nauman's work series of works titled "PAY ATTENTION!" which are an example of what Danto calls a "strike-proof game." This is a game whose rules (at least within the context of the game) we cannot fail to obey. In baseball the manager can refuse to send a batter to the plate, thus refusing to play. PAY ATTENTION! is not like this. The works mentioned are a collage and a lithograph whose content is just the phrase "please pay attention please" and "pay attention motherfuckers" respectively. The work engages the viewer in a narrow discourse that he or she cannot avoid. This discourse is what the work is about, and as a result, no matter what form the works in the series take on, they embody their meaning.

Danto argues that PAY ATTENTION! is fairly shallow. He sees it as about nothing more than this narrow discourse. I am not sure that we have to agree with Danto on this point. I can imagine that these works are about the implicit demand Danto attributes to contemporary artworks -- that we take notice of them not as aesthetic objects, but as the embodiment of a message. And I can imagine that the content is itself a commentary on the tacit (or sometimes explicit) tone of self-importance, like the insistent cry of an ignored precocious child, that sometimes accompanies this demand.

The essay about John Heartfield's photomontage which opens the book may offer a better illustration of Danto's art-critical work. Heartfield was a political satirist in Berlin between the wars and a member of the Dada movement. Danto describes a 1929 piece in which Heartfield shows himself cutting off Police Commissioner Zorgiebl's head with a piece of scissors. Danto argues that the work is self-referential on two levels. First, it is about its own medium, the process of cutting and pasting pictures in photomontage. Second, it is about political satire, the artist using the medium of art to "decapitate" the political figures of his or her time. The work, by rendering its own process transparent, is the embodiment of its meaning.

Danto's fourth criteria raises what seems to me a troublesome and unaddressed difficulty. Identifying an appropriate art critical context seems crucial to his program. But given that, as Danto has argued so well over the years, the traditional restrictions on art-critical, and as a result art-historical, contexts have been eradicated by contemporary art, how are we to identify what counts as an appropriate art-critical context. For that matter, how are we to identify art-critical contexts at all?

Although some knowledge of art history would often be helpful in tackling this book, and occasionally Danto employs his imagination quite freely (and he does so openly) in the task of inventing an art criticism for the work, all in all his clear style is accessible and quite insightful. The bulk of art criticism is read after the fact by people who cannot, as a result, see the work it refers to. Danto believes that, for this reason, art criticism should be written as a form of literature, as essays that can be read simply for themselves. At this task I think he has succeeded.

© 2001 Bill Seeley

Bill Seeley is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Philosophy at CUNY - The Graduate Center working on the neurophysiology of aesthetic perception. He also has an M.F.A. in sculpture from Columbia University. His work has been exhibited in New York City, at Yale University, and at The Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachussets. He is currently teaching aesthetics at Hofstra University.


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