Many are aware of the enormous contributions Arthur C. Danto has made to contemporary art. His pivotal works such asThe Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981) and After the End of Art (1997) revolutionized the field of Philosophical Aesthetics. Few, however, know Danto as a successful artist—a decade-long career that preceded his tenure as one of the most highly regarded philosophers and art critics of our time. Through Danto’s 2010 gift of all his prints and original woodblocks to the Wayne State University Art Collection, recognition of his art making is being revived.
Arthur C. Danto grew up in Detroit and in 1948 received his B.A. in Fine Arts from Wayne University (now Wayne State University) and his M.A (1949) and Ph.D. (1952) from Columbia University. He began exhibiting his art in national exhibitions in the early 1950’s. During this decade Danto’s woodcuts were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Los Angeles County Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Following a successful solo exhibition at NYC’s Associated American Artists gallery in 1960, Danto gave up making art and turned his interests exclusively to philosophy and art criticism. His essay ‘Stopping Making Art’ speaks to this pivotal moment in his life.
This online exhibition has been supported through a Wayne State University Research Enhancement Program Arts and Humanities grant. Through this valued support and the artist’s generous permission, students of WSU’s Printmaking program created two special editions of Arthur C. Danto woodcut prints from the artist’s original woodblocks. These prints are available for purchase to benefit the newly established Arthur C. Danto Scholarship providing support to students in the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art & Art History.
Stopping Making Art by Arthur C. Danto
Arthur C. Danto: Transforming Art by Khristy Wilkinson
Emergence of Image: The Prints of Arthur C. Danto by Jonathan David Salvati
Arthur C. Danto in his apartment, NYC, Photograph by D James Dee, 1990
STOPPING MAKING ART
by Arthur C. Danto
Once I decided to close shop as an artist, I more or less erased that entire episode from my biography, so it was as though it had never happened. Most of my philosophical colleagues had in any case thought of it as a hobby—much as my friends in the art world considered teaching philosophy as my day job. It had been easy for me to keep the two apart, since I felt they had nothing much in common. The field of aesthetics held no interest for me in any case, and when I first moved to New York to pursue a career as artist and, at the same time, to do graduate work in philosophy at Columbia, I was puzzled by how little the canon of aesthetics appeared to bear on what was happening in art, where the concept of taste, so central in the philosophical texts addressed to art, had nothing to do with the painting that shook the world, Abstract Expressionism. There was so little overlap that giving up art was like giving up smoking, so far as doing philosophy was concerned. Like many analytical philosophers, I felt that doing aesthetics, as that was officially pursued, was, well, not really doing philosophy. In 1964, I was knocked off my horse by a show of Andy Warhol’s grocery boxes at the Stable Gallery, and indeed that year I did write a piece called The Art World, based on the art that was sweeping the field—Pop and Minimalism. But the art that I had given up seemed to have nothing to do with the exciting work one could see at Leo Castelli’s gallery, then on 77th St, or the Green Gallery on 57th St. So when, years later, Randy Auxier, the editor of The Library of Living Philosophers, proposed that the projected volume on my work might contain an essay on art as I had practiced it, I said No: there was no connection between the philosophy I wrote and the art I made and put aside sometime between 1962 and 1963—even if a significant part of the philosophy I wrote, from the 1980s on, happens to have been about art. I could never have generated that philosophy out of my own work as an artist.
I recall an internal dialogue that took place while I was working on a block of wood, intended for a print, in which I actually said to myself that I would rather be writing philosophy. My response was: Well, if you feel that way it’s probably time to stop. It was not that I was getting nowhere with my work, which consisted primarily of woodcut prints. It was rather that I felt that I had a shot at saying something fairly original in philosophy. I had written a book in the philosophy of history that had ideas that were at once new and fundamental. I had ideas about the philosophies of knowledge and action that struck me as leading to something important. I also thought that there were things happening in art that were fresh and exciting, but in which I would have to change radically as an artist if I was to be part of it all. And I thought that the ideas I was working with as an artist were limited, even if the work had a certain quality. In some deep way something was stirring in the early sixties that I wanted to be part of, and I thought that philosophy as I was beginning to practice it was more likely to take me there than art would—though Andy Warhol, who could not have been more central, was for a time despised since he took no position on Vietnam. In any case, I stopped making art cold turkey, dismantling my studio, rolling my prints up, stowing away my woodblocks. And I have not so much as made a doodle since. It really was like giving up smoking, though easier. It was easier to stop making art than to change the way I made it.
It would never in a million years have occurred to me to have had a show of my work once I stopped being an artist. For the present show* I have to thank the philosopher and aesthetician, Ewa Bogusz-Boltuc, who saw one of my prints for sale on the Internet, and wrote me a note about it. The note came quite out of the blue. I knew Ewa from professional meetings, I had not known of her interest in prints (I take it for granted that aestheticians are in the nature of their calling interested in art as such). Her note, written just two years ago, was quite a revelation. Who knows whether I might have persisted as an artist, had someone sent me a note like hers in the early sixties!
Dear Prof. Danto, I wonder whether you ever consider publishing or exhibiting again your prints. I was browsing through the Art of the Print web page, and came upon one of your prints. This woodcut, although I can see it only on the Internet, looks exquisite. Not very often have I seen woodcuts that are executed in such a painterly manner, mainly with soft patches of lights and shadows. So, is there any chance to see one way or the other, your prints?
Ewa is a passionate and determined person, and once I said that I would be pleased to show her what I had, she arranged to make a stop in New York. She is also a person of action, and this exhibition is an extension of her personality. I am also particularly grateful to Liz Murphy Thomas for the spectacular installation she has given the work, and the brilliant catalog she designed, that makes salient the aesthetics of black-and-white that infuses the images with life. My dealer, Sylvan Cole, of Associated American Artists, used to say that colored prints were to be the wave of the future. But the only thing that interested me was black and white. I did not have the patience needed to deal with the registration of forms color printing requires. My late friend, Shiko Munakata, indifferent to tradition, simply painted his prints. But the watery splashes of color, in my judgment, diminished the strength of the black forms that lay so stark and uncompromising against the whitish paper.
I realize that it is not a criticism of the work that it has nothing to do with philosophy. It was certainly an art of its time, though it hardly fit into the radical mode of art that seduced me in the 1960s, and which did, it turned out, open paths into philosophy. Lately, I have begun to see that there are two views of art in one of the great deep works that has come down to us, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. There is a view of art as providing experiences little different from those provided by nature, with which Kant opens his Critique of Judgment. It leads to an empty formalism. Much later in the book, Kant shifts into an entirely different mode, in which the aesthetics of nature can play no role. This is an aesthetics of meaning, requiring a kind of interpretative perception, and it concerns what Kant calls “spirit.” It has nothing to do with taste or pleasure, the main components of his first theory. It is because taste and pleasure are too pallid to accommodate the power of the great Abstract Expressionist canvases of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman—or, the work of a more recent master, Sean Scully—that I felt philosophy had nothing worth saying about that art. My prints were conceived and executed under the imperatives of the New York School, even if they were figurative, and mostly on a smaller scale. But the great work in midtown galleries in the 1950s was simply beyond the reach of what was taught in the aesthetics of the philosophical seminar room.
I have lately come to feel that the philosophy of art I went on to write does owe something to my having been an artist, though I cannot pretend you would find a trace of it in the work displayed here. My first book was titled Analytical Philosophy of History, later replaced by the title Narration and Knowledge. As an artist, I was exceedingly sensitive to what it meant to live with a sense of history. I wrote that book in the South of France in 1961. I remember driving up to Paris in early 1962 to go to the American Library, to check out what was happening in New York by looking at recent issues of Art News. I was stunned to see a painting by Roy Lichtenstein, called 'The Kiss,' which looked like it came straight out of a comic book. Stunned! It was like seeing a picture of a horse in the newspaper, and read that it had been elected as the new Bishop of St. John the Divine, It just seemed impossible. How could a picture like that be shown in a New York gallery, and reproduced in what was at the time the defining art publication in America! But I thought of 'The Kiss' the rest of my time in France. I thought that if it was possible as art anything was possible in art. I remember drawing a church in Rome after that, and thinking: it’s ok to be doing this. I can do anything I want! It was then that I think I really lost interest in making art. That was a very philosophical response. In those days there was a program in philosophy called Phenomenalism. Its claim was that we could, or even should, translate everything there was to say about the world into terms that stood for sense data. In the sixties, there were papers about sense data, asking if they were real. I knew a philosopher at Oxford who lost complete interest in translating into the idiom of Sense datum language once he discovered that sense data weren’t real. He thought: what’s the point? I began to feel that way about the figure. What was the point of doing the figure if it is merely alright to do it? Art as I practiced it lost its edge for me. I remember Edward Hopper demonstrating in front of the Whitney, against abstraction. But what was the point of figuration if abstraction was still permitted? In 1959, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a show called New Images of Man. There were paintings by Giacometti, Bacon, Leon Golub, and others. The critical response was angry. The show was called regressive. But MoMA would not, in 1959, have shown 'The Kiss'. When Kirk Varnedoe showed comic strips in his show, High and Low, he was vilified—and that was in the mid-eighties. The critical establishment was deeply out of phase.
There are, in my writing on the philosophy of art, references to artist’s responses to art. They are self-portraits, The artist was always me, trying to accommodate history. Those questions had to with what it meant to be an artist in history, especially in the heady years of the sixties when I knew the art I had been making had no place. Maybe it would have had a place in the seventies, when Philip Guston showed his comical Ku Klux Klan figures at the Marlborough Gallery to hoots and howls from painters of every stripe. By that time my prints were sitting in rolls in a closet, and I was writing the third volume in a series of books on analytical philosophy—Analytical Philosophy of Action.
I did not really know Philip Guston, but we shared an experience. We both sat, at one time or another, in Doctor Suzuki’s seminar in Zen, at Columbia. John Cage was a faithful attendant. I know that Agnes Martin was there. I wrote about its impact on me in my essay, “Upper West Side Buddhism.” In truth, I believe that Suzuki’s teaching was crucial in the making philosophy out of my experience with The Kiss. Here is one of his stories: a monk spat on a statue of Buddha, and was reprimanded. The monk responded that he had been taught that Buddha was everywhere—so where was one to spit? In The seventies, it became clear that anything could be art. So why not make art the way one liked. Suddenly, Guston wanted to make art out of caricatures of members of the KKK, smoking cigars. He wanted to represent evil, and say what he thought about it.
I was living in New York when the issue of Life Magazine appeared, asking whether Jackson Pollock was America’s greatest artist. That was in April, 1949, and it clarified for me why I was in New York, It showed, I felt, what modern drawing had to be like. It was alive and energetic. The question was how to translate it into the print medium in which I was working. That kind of drawing went—well—against the grain of woodcut, and hence against the grain of Modernist theory, which demanded that each medium should seek what was essential to itself, eliminating everything else. That was the idea of Clement Greenberg, the great critic. But by that time I was deeply into Zen, and saw no reason why one should not be able to carve the most energetic characters into wood, as with letters, for example. Once that obstacle was removed, it was a simple matter to raise the next question. I was not, despite my philosophical education, interested, as an artist, in abstraction. In 1953, de Kooning had done his paintings of frightening women, with heavy breasts and goggle eyes, and rows of menacing teeth. These were shown at the Janis Gallery, and they caused a huge sensation. Pollock’s response, true to type, was anger: “You’re going back into the goddam figure,” he said, following de Kooning’s lead a few years later.
I was a competent draughtsman, as you can see. But it was rather rare that I undertook to draw anything for its own sake. Rather, I would start out with scribbles and brush strokes, in the spirit of Pollock and of de Kooning, and watched to see what emerged. It was as if I was looking for messages, and what came out, mainly, were images of something that was part of my world—of something I knew or had read about and been moved by. I was waiting for something that was part of my world—my children, women I loved, some animals, some scenes from fiction, poetry, history, the newspapers—like the suicide effort of Brigitte Bardot, who fascinated me by her beauty and danger. They looked modern because the artists I drew upon were modern American artists. But they also looked abstract—tangles of wiry black, anchored by heavy brush marks. I went into my studio, usually at night, eager to see what turned up.
The next thing was to translate them into woodcuts. The main task was to preserve the drawing by destroying the drawing. That means: keep the spirit of the drawing by taking it from the paper to the wood. I did not trace, but did something that was better for my purposes. I painted the wood white, using water soluble paint. Then I pasted the drawing face down with rubber cement. I wanted the drawing to be the way I made it, not its mirror image, which is what you typically get in graphic processes. I then made the paper transparent by soaking it with linseed oil. And I cut it out using exacto knives and gouges as routers. I used the cheapest material: shelf paper, pieces of lumber I picked up. I drew with sticks and big brushes. I never used color. What interested me in color would have been the washes of John Marin, or the touches of Cezanne’s watercolors. But that would have been fussier than anything I liked in woodcuts. So I kept it all simple, making bold images that hit you in the eyes. I have said how my dealer kept trying to get me to make colored prints. But that would have required careful registration of multiple blocks that would have looked like something else. I defined myself pretty narrowly as an artist. I really did what I was able to do. I kind of perfected that. I do know that I also got larger and larger as I went along, which suited the times. In truth, I write philosophy in the same way, scribbling until something emerges, and then seeing where I can go.
All this was done by me alone. I did have help with printing, though. Two students, Gary Goldberg and Michael Kelman, helped me out. And I did use expensive Japanese papers—rice paper or mulberry paper. You lay the paper on the block and rub the image through the paper. They lay on the floor all night and were dry next day. After that, one sent them out or carried them around to the galleries. The money meant a lot to me, but it was not the sort of work I loved—shipping the prints out or keeping track of them. I loved making them, but anybody could have handled the business side. When I gave it all up, I used to say that being an artist never got in the way of being a philosopher, but being a successful artist did. I do remember being upset when I heard Liz Manning, the salesperson, at Associated American Artists, referring to a work of mine as “a Danto.” But I had no interest in just making art, I wanted them to enter life, and hang on other people’s walls. I wanted them to be part of life, but life had changed. I saw no place for what I did in the art of the sixties, Happily, I was flat out a philosopher then, and became an art critic exactly twenty years later, in 1984.
When I became a critic, I met everyone under the sun. But I knew very few artists when I was an artist. Some printmakers, some second generation Abstract Expressionists. I mention Pollock and Guston, but I never knew them. They were the great figures of my world, like Achilles and Agamemnon in ancient times. The heroes today are very different, and so the artists for whom they are heroes have to be very different. I could never have been an artist shaped by such heroes, though as a writer, I like their art well enough. I am glad to see that my work holds up despite that. In a way, I feel like an old master.
Author’s note: (Stopping Making Art) First presented at the University of Illinois, Springfield, on the occasion of an exhibition of my prints, September 23, 2007.
*This essay was subsequently published in the catalogue which accompanied the exhibition ‘Arthur C. Danto’s Woodblock Prints: Capturing Art and Philosophy’ held at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, August 24 – October 1, 2010.
Left to right: Shiko Munakata, In Praise of Flower Hunting, c.1958-65; Arthur C. Danto, Horseman Gesturing, 1961.
ARTHUR C. DANTO: TRANSFORMING ART
by Khristy Wilkinson
In his unpublished intellectual autobiography, Arthur Danto characterizes himself as having “the immense good fortune” of coming up with one foot in each of two “golden ages”, one in philosophy and one in art[i]. In philosophy, the analytic method had begun to take hold, and in art the movement was Abstract Expressionism. Danto found their synthesis in the koans of Zen Buddhism.
Willem de Kooning, "Woman I," c. 1950-52. ©2012 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
In the late 1950’s, Danto incorporated the gestural energy made famous in America by painters like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack into the medium of woodcut printmaking by using a method of production inspired by that of Japanese print-makers.[ii] His penchant for the clarity of analytic philosophy manifested in an appreciation for the purity of the Japanese aesthetic—an appreciation that later became an earnest spiritual pursuit. Under the influence of Shiko Munakata and D. T. Suzuki, Danto’s artistic technique and his philosophical method developed at their common intersections with Zen Buddhism.[iii] In his essay Upper West Side Buddhism Danto says “philosophical analysis seemed almost to confirm the ideas of Zen, in the sense that one felt that problems should somehow resolve themselves, once one perceived their logical structure.”[iv] The goal of both systems of thought: enlightenment through elucidation. At the end of any philosophical analysis, Danto says, “one should stand clarified.”[v]
By 1960, Danto had enjoyed a successful career as an artist, with shows on both coasts and sales that rivaled his salary at Columbia. But, a sea change was approaching the art world. It wouldn’t be long before art achieved “philosophical self-awareness”[vi] and Danto would choose between making art and doing philosophy. He writes of his own art works that they had no place among the heady art of the 1960’s, and that he realized early on that he had no interest in continuing to produce art “as a pastime, or for pleasure.”[vii] Convinced, and quite correctly so, that he would make a more substantial contribution to the world of philosophy, he abruptly abandoned art making and focused instead on his philosophical interests.
With a philosopher’s eye, Danto watched a dramatic change in the art world subsequently unfold: the rise of Warhol and Pop Art. Art and philosophy had, until then, seemed disparate and unable to speak of one another through their respective mediums. But, at the Stable Gallery in April 1964, among Warhol’s infamous shipping cartons Danto was, for the first time, struck visually with art’s philosophical disposition. The appearance of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes  had provided the impetus for what was to become Danto’s philosophical definition of art although seventeen years would pass before he would publish its full expression.
Warhol’s exhibition raised a difficult philosophical question that had a parallel in Zen Buddhism (with which Danto was already smitten), and that had already been less philosophically cast by Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. Cage’s notorious 1952 composition 4’33” encouraged the audience to overcome the difference between the intentionally arranged sounds of a musical composition and the organically produced sounds of everyday life in the same way that the Zen disciple must come to recognize the Buddha in all things. The throat clearing that made up the original composition of 4’33” had a visual analog in the shadows cast on Rauschenberg’s 1951 series “White Paintings” and, as Danto notes, Cage’s allusion to that series was widely known[viii]. Both artists incorporated real features of the world into their aesthetic compositions, thereby blurring the distinction between art and reality. What set Warhol apart, philosophically, from Rauschenberg and Cage was that the composition of his work was virtually indistinguishable from that of the commercially produced cartons.
Warhol’s 1964 exhibition obliterated the distinction between art and reality, and brought attention to art’s paradoxical (i.e., philosophical) nature by presenting the audience with artworks that had indistinguishable non-art counterparts. In effect, Warhol was challenging an important, albeit controversial, metaphysical principle pertaining to the identity of indiscernible objects, a challenge similarly invoked when we think about original artworks and their forged counterparts. The question posed by Warhol’s exhibition was this: when faced with two externally indistinguishable objects, one art and the other not-art, how is one supposed to account for their difference in ontological status? Warhol’s work made it clear that what set art objects apart from non-art objects was not an aesthetic property in the objects themselves, nor any other property traditionally believed essential to a work of art. Instead it seems to lie in some other, possibly imperceptible, feature of the work.
Danto’s philosophical theory of art emerged as a response to Warhol’s exhibition. He delivered his first paper on the subject to the 1964 meeting of the American Philosophical Association. In that article, entitled “The Artworld”, Danto laid the foundation for the Institutional Theory of Art. In 1981, Danto published The Transfiguration of the Commonplace where he attempted to more thoroughly resolve the issues raised by the art of the 60’s and 70’s with a mature philosophical theory of art—a theory undoubtedly informed by his decades-long relationship with the art world. He argued that an object is a work of art when it expresses, through rhetorical abbreviation (i.e., metaphor), an attitude toward its subject within an atmosphere of art criticism. Rather than locating the art-making properties in the formal features of the art object, Danto suggests that they are a matter of convention, necessarily situated within the art historical discourse that surrounds the work.[ix] His theory was especially unique in that it was the first to fully appreciate the crumbling distinction between art works and ordinary objects.
Among the merits of Danto’s theory of art, one stands out as particularly suited for discussion in an exhibition of Danto’s works of art. His theory speaks to the relationship between the work of art and its audience, thus accounting for the inherent value of art: its transformative power. In a 2005 lecture series on the concept of beauty, Danto discusses three distinct models for treating works of art. First, the cultural model anthropologizes art and treats the art object as a mere artifact of the culture that produced it. Second, the formalist model treats the work objectively, dissecting its aesthetic features to determine its value and significance. The third model, the one proposed by Danto, is the transformative model. This model treats a work of art as an object suitable for conferring knowledge beyond cultural awareness and what can be gleaned from mere sense perception[x]. Thus, the transformative model establishes a kinship between the museum and the library, both institutions serve as storehouses for the artifacts of knowledge.
Andy Warhol, "Brillo Box" c. 1964.
©2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
The art of the 20th century made it clear that formal analysis and cultural appreciation were insufficient models for experiencing art’s transformative power, and so, insufficient for regarding art generally. The formalist model considers the structure of the work its most informative trait and tends to overlook the subjective response, which can often be far more illuminating. Viewing a work of art solely as a cultural artifact is no more transformative than viewing any other non-art object from the same cultural origin would be. Danto’s theory, unlike prior philosophical theories of art, actually tells us something interesting about the nature of art—namely, the nature of our relationship to it—and gives expression to the feature of art that makes it most compelling.
Danto’s theory suggests that because an artwork presents an abbreviated attitude toward whatever it is about, the viewer is invited to fill in the details and flesh out the significance of the work. Audience participation is built into the concept of art; disinterested contemplators need not apply. In order to fully appreciate the object as an art object, and in order to be able to tell it apart from its indistinguishable ordinary object counterpart, one must bring some interpretive tools to the table. In particular, the viewer must have an understanding of the work’s embodied meaning and a willingness to engage with that meaning. Danto writes, “we must endeavor to grasp the thought of the work, based on the way the work is organized.”[xi] The meaning embodied by Warhol’s Brillo Boxes is communicated through its indiscernibility from its non-art counterparts and is, in part, a rejection of the aesthetic values characteristic of the Abstract Expressionists[xii]. When one possesses an awareness of the conventions surrounding Warhol’s exhibition one will more fully appreciate the attitude it expresses.
Ascertaining the meaning embodied in a work of art is prerequisite for fully appreciating it and requires an understanding of the conventions of the artworld of which it is a product. The transformation occurs when the viewer unpacks the embodied metaphor and critically evaluates its contents, so as to apprehend and respond to the attitude embodied by the work. Every momentary pause to appreciate the formal characteristics and cultural significance of a work of art is also an invitation to grasp the work’s meaning and expressive attitude, and to clarify one’s own position with respect to that attitude. Thus, the goal of art is transformation through elucidation. In this way, works of art are a bit like the essays of analytic philosophy and a bit like the koans of Zen Buddhism. As long as a viewer is willing to reflect and sincerely engage with a work of art and its criticism, that viewer is open to transformation.
Khristy Wilkinson is finishing a Master of Arts in Philosophy with an essay entitled “Descartes’s Cogito: Obvious or Obscure?”. She teaches Western Humanities courses in Chattanooga, Tennessee where she lives with her husband, Lane and their son, Liam.
 Willem de Kooning, Woman I, ca 1950-52, Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58" (192.7 x 147.3 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 478.1953.
 Shiko Munakata, In Praise of Flower Hunting, ca 1958-65, Woodcut, 56 1/8 x 67 1/4 in. (142.6 x 170.8 cm). Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO, 12:1965.
 Andy Warhol, Brillo Box (Soap Pad), ca 1964, Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on wood, 17 1/8 x 17 x 14" (43.3 x 43.2 x 36.5 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 357.1997.
 Robert Rauschenberg, White Paintings (Three Panel), ca 1951, Oil on canvas, 72 in. x 108 in. (182.88 cm x 274.32 cm). San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA, 98.308A-C.
[i] Arthur Danto, “My Life as a Philosopher”[Unpublished manuscript]. 1.
[ii] Arthur Danto, “Stopping Making Art,” (presentation, University of Illinois, Springfield, IL, September 23, 2007).
[iii] Arthur Danto, “Munakata in New York: A memory of the 1950’s,” in Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays, ed. Arthur Danto (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 164-184.
[iv] Arthur Danto, “Upper West Side Buddhism,” in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, ed. Jacquelynn Bass and Mary Jane Jacob (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 51.
[v] Ibid., 51.
[vi] Arthur Danto, “Art and Meaning,” in Theories of Art Today, ed. Noel Carroll (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 139.
[vii] Danto, “My Life as a Philosopher,” 36
[viii] Danto, “Upper West Side Buddhism,” 56-58.
[ix] Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981).
[x] Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty (Chicago: Open Court, 2003),
[xi] Ibid., 139.
[xii] Danto, “Art and Meaning,” 138.
Left to right: Arthur C. Danto, Young Woman, Old Woman, 1960; Francisco de Goya, Maja and Celestina, c. 1824-25.
Emergence of Image: The Prints of Arthur C. Danto
by Jonathan David Salvati
One often comes across the sardonic statement that critics and theorists should try their hand at the very disciplines they evaluate, if only so that they might discover that the process of making art is not as simple as they would seem to imagine. The history of art affords many examples of those artists who, after years of writing criticism and theory, take up this challenge by engaging in artistic production. The career of Arthur C. Danto represents quite the opposite. As a printmaker in the 1950s who abruptly abandoned making art in the early 1960s, Danto represents an interesting example of a mind shrewdly well-tuned to the changing world of ideas as well as to the changing art market. His subsequent actions reflected this discernment. Sensing the shift away from the very artistic milieu in which he operated, the Abstract Expressionist style of the New York School, Danto abandoned his printmaking work in order to grapple with the intellectual implications of Pop Art and the new conceptual artistic modes of the 1960s and 70s. In his perspective, the art he had been creating had no real place in what he called “the heady years of the sixties.”[i] Instead, Danto assumed his other love, philosophy, developing a theoretical perspective that would embrace this new type of art.
While Danto became a brilliant art theorist and critic, especially in his responses to this new conceptual art that stimulated him so profoundly, it is not fair that his earlier role as an artist should be eclipsed. In many ways, his work embodied many of the ideas of the contemporary art culture of his time. Of course, to simply characterize Danto as an Abstract Expressionist printmaker without qualification or explanation is to say very little indeed. Danto followed the lead of those Abstract Expressionist painters for whom figural imagery was still significant, or, at the very least, a mainstay of their artistic enterprise. This commitment to the figure placed Danto in the company, conceptually speaking, of the likes of Willem de Kooning instead of with the “pure” abstract artists of the Jackson Pollock variety. However, unlike de Kooning and the others artists of his stamp, Danto chose to avoid the use of color in his prints, preferring to find possibilities of heightened expression in a “massy” web of black ink.[ii]
As with any work of art, the viewer’s experience of these prints is essential to their overall effect. In this case, that which may initially strike the viewer as an inky web eventually emerges as something more recognizable. This is a process of apprehension on the part of the viewer that mirrors the artist’s own creative method in which, as he tells it, “I would start out with scribbles and brush strokes, in the spirit of Pollock and de Kooning, and watched to see what emerged.”[iii] Danto’s titles are quite useful in this respect. They indeed guide the viewer to an identification of the figure(s) contained within the dark masses and in the straying lines that seem to radiate from these large, dark pools of ink.
Left to right: Peter Paul Rubens, The Deposition of Christ, c. 1612; Arthur C. Danto, Baroque Figure, 1958; Michalangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, c. 1601.
The titles and the figures they purport to describe, however loosely, are often a testament to Danto’s visual literacy and his comprehensive knowledge of art history and art theory. The unmistakable Christ image that appears in the woodcut, “Baroque Figure” justifies the seemingly cursory title. Not only does the figure’s pose resemble those of any number of Deposition images by Baroque artists such as Rubens and Rembrandt, but one could also describe Danto’s image as an adaptation and modernization of Caravaggio’s tenebrism, inverting the 17th-century contrast of light and dark to create an image that appears strikingly devotional (especially for a mid-20th century work) in its exclusion of unnecessary narrative elements. Indeed, the contrast of black and white signifies the directness and economy that Danto sought in his printmaking, resulting in a dramatic presentation that is not unlike certain Baroque paintings. The artist has managed to translate the figural motifs and style of a particular period of art history into the language of Abstract Expressionist printmaking. All of Danto’s prints are similarly “abstract” in the broad sense of the term--meaning the abstraction or distillation of those most salient features of an image from the irrelevant and inconsequential aspects of mundane reality. Danto’s commitment to gestural abstraction, the process of showing the movement of the artist’s hand, gives the image its unstable, mobile, “Baroque” quality.
Left to right: Paul Klee, Hero with One Wing, ca. 1905, ©2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Arthur C. Danto, Winged Figure, 1960.
Danto’s “Winged Figure” is another “Baroque” study. Since the artist does not contextualize the image within a narrative framework, this figure could represent any number of possibilities or, what is even more likely, a generalized idea. Winged creatures of one sort or another dominate the history of art from the Nike of Samothrace and the other victory images of antiquity to the ubiquitous putti and cherubs of Renaissance art and beyond. This visual motif evokes other associations as well. Consider Walter Benjamin’s famous interpretation of Paul Klee’s “Winged Hero,” and Auden’s well-known rumination on the fate of Bruegel’s Icarus in his “Musée des Beaux Arts,” a poem that has become a common reference point in Danto’s writings.[iv] Does the apparent ascendancy of Danto’s figure invite philosophical speculation in the same manner that Klee’s etching inspired Benjamin? Once again, the artist’s network of dark patches and of smaller strokes and dribbles results in a singularly expressive and dynamic image even as it remains peculiarly enigmatic.
Francisco de Goya, Las resultas from Los Desastros de la Guerra (The Consequences from The Disasters of War), plate 72, c. 1810-1820.
Arthur C. Danto, Dead Man, Black Bird, 1961.
While these single-figure studies are undoubtedly entrancing and impressive, I feel that it is in Danto’s multi-figure compositions that his virtuosic use of the medium is at its most commanding. The figures, held together in the same intricate pattern of black ink, do not always evince the delineations that would separate their forms from one another. Such deliberate lack of clarity often leads the viewer to startling revelations and discoveries. The almost Goyaesque subject of “Dead Man, Black Bird” may not be obvious at first glance. Nonetheless, once the subject is discerned (here again the title provides assistance), it becomes unforgettable and difficult to shake off. An image that initially seems an unintelligible, quasi-elliptical mass of ink transforms into an unsettling relationship between two figures, an association that constitutes a harrowing statement about human mortality. Even after this recognition, our efforts to definitively state which black marks are of the fowl and which of the human carcass will likely prove fruitless. The dead man and the black bird are interlocked completely and inextricably: form and content become one as the scavenger and its prey become trapped in the same complex maze of ostensibly spontaneous strokes.
Arthur C. Danto, Woman with Infant, 1962.
Danto’s prints include examples of other relationships as well—not always with the taste for the macabre that one finds in “Dead Man, Black Bird.” “Woman with Infant” and “Man with Child”, for example, are tender illustrations of the parent-child relationship. In both cases, the larger mass of the parent seems to shelter and contain the body of the infant, although, once again, where one figure begins and the other ends is not always obvious. “Woman with Infant” in particular offers an interesting glimpse into Danto’s technique and process. The largest “positive” areas of ink consist of the mother’s long flowing hair and of an elliptical mass that acts as a blanket-like covering for the child. The white “negative” spaces, those areas carved out by Danto’s tool, stand for the flesh parts of the body as well as for those patches that assist in describing the mother’s arm. In “Man with Child,” the protective gesture of the man appears even more emphatic than in the maternal image, leading one to think of similarly expressive and emotional treatments of the subject outside of Danto’s oeuvre.
In fact, images of this nature cannot fail to remind us of the art of Käthe Kollwitz, another printmaker whose works often feature parent-child relationships. Kollwitz's prints, like Danto’s woodcuts, achieved dramatic impact through the simplest of means. It is difficult to say, at least without the artist’s own testimony, how deeply he may have absorbed Kollwitz’s iconic images of mother-child bonding in his comparable images of adult-child affection. In a general sense, Danto was certainly aware of the German Expressionist printmaking tradition of which Kollwitz was a prominent example. While Danto undoubtedly saw himself as working in the style of the New York School and saw the drawing style of the German school as being too “outliney” for his tastes, he nonetheless owed much to the revived popularity of woodblock printing in early twentieth-century Germany. The rough simplicity and economical execution of German Expressionist woodcuts such as Emil Nolde’s “Prophet” certainly inspired Danto’s works despite the more pronounced linearity of the former. Danto’s childhood in Detroit and his undergraduate years at Wayne State University put the artist in close proximity to the German Expressionist galleries at the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the pioneering collections of this type of art in North America.
A group portrait such as “Despised, Rejected”, with the individual figures huddled together in a single mass, seems to find its roots in German prints such as Kollwitz’s War: The Mothers and The Survivors—Make War on War!  Compared to Kollwitz’s unmistakable social protest and depiction of maternal protection, Danto’s woodcut may seem more equivocal. However, the title of Danto’s piece and the frenetic, nervous drawing of the figures imply that this is not meant to be taken as a sunny, smiling group portrait. Danto has charged the image with a certain sense of dread, not unlike the fearfulness and anxiety inherent in many preceding German examples.
It might be suitable to close with an image that evokes an even earlier master. Danto’s “Young Woman, Old Woman” may remind the viewer of those Goya images that juxtapose the very same types. While the relationship between the two artists here may be tenuous, the comparison is still a fascinating one. In his various treatment of the subject, Goya takes the corruption of innocence as his theme. They are, to put it bluntly, paintings of young beauties exploited and prostituted by unsympathetic hags. Does Danto’s woodcut evoke a similar feeling? Do we read the young woman’s apparent nudity and the old woman’s more darkly veiled form as evidence of a menacing, sinister relationship? Danto’s version of abstraction, very different from the nineteenth-century artist’s tradition of narrative imagery, does not provide us with the visual information that Goya gave his audience. Nonetheless, I cannot blame the viewer if he or she interprets this image along similar lines.
Arthur Danto’s artistic work is ripe for an in-depth art historical study, one that would trace the artist’s debt to past tradition more systematically than I have attempted here. Such an analysis would also presumably analyze Danto’s place in the contemporary movement of Abstract Expressionism. While we await this hypothetical critical analysis, we must be content to examine these prints for ourselves. This activity in itself carries its own rewards as Danto’s enigmatic, fascinating prints may lead the viewer, as from the heart of a maze, down any number of possible paths.
Jonathan David Salvati is currently finishing his Master's degree in Art History at Wayne State University. A specialist in Renaissance and Baroque art, he is completing his thesis on Paolo Veronese's martyrdom altarpieces.
 Arthur C. Danto, Baroque Figure, 1958, Woodcut, 29.5” x 15.25” (74.9 x 38.7 cm). Wayne State University Art Collection, Detroit, Michigan.
 Peter Paul Rubens, The Deposition of Christ, ca. 1612, Oil on wood, 165.5” x 126” (420.5 x 320 cm). Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Holland.
 Michalangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, ca. 1601, Oil on canvas, 91” x 69” (230 x 175 cm). Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, Italy.
 Arthur C. Danto, Winged Figure, 1960, Woodcut, 36.5” x 27” (92.7 x 68.6 cm). Wayne State University Art Collection, Detroit, Michigan, UAC4147.
 Paul Klee, Hero with One Wing, ca. 1905, Etching, 10” x 6.2” (25.4 x 15.7 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 182.1942.
 Arthur C. Danto, Dead Man, Black Bird, 1961, Woodcut, 24” x 33.5” (61 x 85.1 cm). Wayne State University Art Collection, Detroit, Michigan, UAC4160.
 Arthur C. Danto, Woman with Infant, 1960, Woodcut, 20.25” x 14.75” (51.4 x 37.5 cm). Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, UAC4157.
 Emil Nolde, The Prophet, ca. 1912, Woodcut, 12.6” x 8.75” (32.1 x 22.2 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 119.1956.
 Arthur C. Danto, Despised, Rejected, 1961, Woodcut, 27” x 22” (68.6 x 55.9 cm). Wayne State University Art Collection, Detroit, Michigan, UAC4163.
 Kathe Kollwitz, Die Mutter (The Mothers), ca. 1922, Woodcut, 13” x 18” (33 x 45.7 cm). Wayne State University Art Collection, Detroit, Michigan, UAC3168.
 Arthur C. Danto, Young Woman, Old Woman, 1960, Woodcut, 25” x 18.5” (63.5 x 47 cm). Wayne State University Art Collection, Detroit, Michigan, UAC4149
 Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Maja and Celestina, ca. 1824-1825, Carbon black and watercolor on ivory, 2.1” x 2.1” (5.4 x 5.4 cm). Private Collection.
 Francisco de Goya y Luncientes, Las resultas from Los Desastros de la Guerra (The Consequences from The Disasters of War), plate 72, ca. 1810-1820, Etching, 6.8” x 8.6” (17.5 x 22 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts , 50.1690.
[i] This and other quotations are taken from Arthur C. Danto’s “Stopping Making Art,” a paper he first presented at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
[ii] Ibid., p. 10.
[iii] Ibid, p. 9.
[iv] For example, see Arthur C. Danto, Embodied Meanings (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994), p. 245.
The Wayne State University Art Collection is extremely grateful to Arthur C. Danto for the extraordinary gift of his prints and original woodblocks and for his generosity in allowing these works to be used to benefit the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art & Art History.
REIMAGINING SPIRIT was created with the support of a Wayne State University Research Enhancement Program, Arts and Humanities grant.
Special thanks to Jonathan David Salvati and Khristy Wilkinson for their inspired essays, to Daniel Sperry for his 'digital installation' and design of the exhibition, to Devon Parrot for her research assistance and to Martin Vecchio for photographing Danto's prints and woodblocks.
I would also like to acknowledge the following individuals for their support: Dora Apel, Jeffrey Apt, Jennifer Belair, Julianne Bjarnesen, Ewa Bogusz-Boltuc, John Corvino, Kelly Cronin, Janine Dunlop, Joan Ferguson, Josephine C. Hazen, Sarah A. James, Kevin McAlpine, Marie Persha, Chelsea Rhadigan, Nicole Richards, Isaac Richard, John Richardson, David Romas, Stanley Rosenthal, Matthew Seeger, Andras Szanto, Barbara Westman and Robert Yanal.
- Sandra Schemske, Wayne State University Art Collection Coordinator