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The Abuse of Beauty

Arthur Danto's new book belongs on your nightstand

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Arthur Danto is Emeritus Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, art critic for The Nation and author of some highly regarded books on the philosophy of art. Fortunately for us, his influence and activity on the national and international art scene includes a role as juror for this year's Triennial exhibit at Boise Art Museum. If this seems at all remarkable, it's because it is.

Do yourself a favor before you visit the Triennial exhibit and read Danto's new book, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art.

Danto thinks about art. I say this bluntly because it's not as common as you might expect. Reading his book, I was reminded of how much of what is passed off as thinking about art turns out to be something else. There is a tendency when intellectualizing art to merely use it as a point of departure to wander off into anthropology, psychology, epistemology, social science, morality, culture studies, politics, self-promotion or, interestingly, aesthetics. Reading Danto, one is treated to a discussion on art that tries very hard to actually be about art. What is it? What is it capable of? Why is it important? What sets it apart? Danto wants to know what art is and what it does with a generality and exhaustiveness required of philosophical definitions.

As a painter and philosophy student in New York during the 1960s, Danto found himself in an historical situation where suddenly anything could be art. He was particularly amazed and awakened by Andy Warhol's Brillo Box, a work that resembles its non-art relative in every way. The question became: How does a commonplace object like a packing carton for cleaning pads become transfigured into a celebrated work of visual art when it doesn't possess any discernible visual differences from its practical twin? It is a question Danto has been cracking open and mining for many years now and this latest book is a testament to its enduring and productive inspiration.

Where art had for centuries been judged on its sensuous qualities, (most importantly, how beautiful it was), it now appeared as if it would have to be reclassified. Danto refers to the time as a period of spectacular philosophical erasure. In a sense art was over. It had reached a point where it seemed everything, and consequently nothing, could be art. Artists had for a while been attempting to incorporate the everyday world into their work and now it seemed possible that art itself was on the verge of simply be consumed by that "reality." Beauty no longer seemed a necessary or promising aim, and in fact, for some, beauty remains positively malignant.

There are many reasons--philosophical, artistic and political--to account for this reaction to a quality that was once art's essence. In The Abuse of Beauty, Danto goes a long way in describing that development and clearing up the confusion created when art and beauty are too closely aligned. By separating the quality of beauty from the essence of art and broadening that concept of art to a representation of rational content (or what he calls, embodied meanings), he gives it a positive, promising foundation that avoids the prescriptive limitations of aesthetic beauty or the obsolescence of the commonplace world. The question becomes: How are art's sensuous properties related to rational content? The degree to which this embodiment works is the degree to which a work is an artwork. At the same time Danto's meditation on the importance and value of beauty to human life makes a case for, not against, beauty in art. Art can be beautiful and often should be, but it doesn't have to be and sometimes shouldn't be. Near his closing, he puts it this way: "Beauty is an option for art and not a necessary condition. But it is not an option for life. It is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it."

His appraisal of the anti-beauty revolution and the eventual dethronement of beauty from its place of primacy sheds much-needed light on the recent history of art. And his argument that the modernist avant-garde was right to deny beauty its place of primacy, and wrong to cast it into exile, is convincing.

Danto writes from a philosophical background, but he writes the way people who really want to understand things write. Even if you haven't done all your Hegel homework, The Abuse of Beauty will give you real ideas about how art works and what art is.

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