danto and the image

review of:
Arthur Danto, ‘The transfiguration of the commonplace. A Philosophy of Art’.
Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, London England, 1981

1. Danto conceives of the image as a sign: ‘A representation is something that stands in the place of something else’ (p. 19). This approach is mistaken. Images are precisely the opposite of signs. When someone says ‘there is a car!’ we hear over the word to look at the real car to which it refers. Nobody relates to the word as to the thing to which it refers: have you ever seem someone avoid the word instead of the car? When the painter, on the other hand, paints a portrait, he does so not do to have us look out for the real person. On the contrary, he replaces the absent, shortcoming or non-existent original with a painted one. Hence, an image is no means of referring to the real world, but, on the contrary, a means of substituting for it (see: 'Mimesis and semiosis')..

All those who (especially from the seventeenth century on) understand images in terms of signs, ar sooner or later confronted with the problem what the difference between an image and a sign might be. Ever since Peirce, ever new authors keep trotting out ever new solutions, which ever again fail to provide a convincing answer. Also Danto asks: ‘What differentiates artworks form other vehicles of representation?’. To him the difference is to be found in the fact that artworks not only ‘represent’, but ‘in addition to representing, express something about their subjects’ (p. 165). In this context, Danto mentions concepts like ‘style’, ‘expression’, ‘metaphor’. The question how he does conceive these concepts need not further concern us here. Also here a soft breeze suffices to let the whole construction collapse: it is not because the weatherman comes to forecast beautiful weather with a broad smile on his face that he has become an artist.

2. Misled as he is through the presence of Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s Brillo boxes in the museum, Danto is mesmerised by the question what might distinguish a commonplace urinal from Duchamp’s. Or, to phrase it somewhat more sophisticatedly: how is it that two ‘perceptually identical’ objects (two urinals) can be at the same time ‘ontologically different’ (the one a commonplace urinal, the other a work of art). Or – to refer to the title of Danto’s work – how can the commonplace be transfigured into art?

The answer to this question is simple, as long as one bears in mind that there are several transformations through which perceptually identical things can come to belong to several different ontological domains. When I show my empty glass to the waiter, I transform a ‘commonplace’ glass into a sign for a pint. Quite another kind of transformation is the one of marble in the sensuous skin of a nude, the transformation of paint into a landscape, or Picasso’s transformation of a basket and a couple of pitchers into a goat, in which cases we are dealing with transformations of ‘commonplace’ objects into an image.

When Duchamp signs a urinal with the name ‘R.Mutt’, no doubt a transformation has taken place. In my view, it is a transformation into a(n iconic) sign (you may fill in the ‘deeper meaning’ - or the joke – as you please). But the urinal is not at all transformed into the representation of something else, into an image – and such has certainly not been the intention of Duchamp, the champion of anti-mimesis par excellence.

Thus, it is not all art that transfigures the commonplace.

Because Danto, on account of his indebtedness to the semiotic paradigm, cannot distinguish a transformation into a sign from a transformation into an image, he has to resort to a theory of the constitutional importance of ‘interpretation’ which transforms the commonplace thing into art. This theory lies in the same bed as the constitutional theory (Wittgenstein, Dickie and the like) to which Danto’s had the intention to remedy.

3. The semiotic paradigm of art has of necessity to stumble on an utter inability to draw a dividing line between philosophy (or science) and art. A pick of quotations to make it clear that also Danto sinks into this quicksand: ‘Art evolved in such a way that the philosophical question of its status has almost become the very essence of art itself, so that the philosophy of art, instead of standing outside the subject and addressing it from an alien and external perspective, became instead the articulation of the internal energies of the subject (p.56). ‘Art virtually exemplifies Hegel’s teaching about history, according to which spirit is destined to become conscious of itself’ (p. 56). Danto applies this conception to Lichtenstein, whose works he considers as ‘deeply theoretic works’...’ so self-conscious that they almost exemplify a Hegelian ideal in which matter is transfigured into spirit (p. 111).

And when art is transformed into philosophy, why should philosophers not equally be transformed into artists? Witness Danto himself: ‘And this then raises the question of what distinguishes the present book, an exercise into the philosophy of art, from being an artwork in its own right, inasmuch as artworks have been transfigured into exercises in the philosophy of art’ (p. 56). My text 'Are Rubens and Beuys colleagues', deals with this fallacy.

© Stefan Beyst, december 2000.

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