Danto on Indiscernibility
How is one to explain the difference between artworks and ordinary objects that are not deemed art, yet are not visually discernible from artworks? This question has become increasingly important in the last hundred years of art history, in which a number of different works—from early Dadaist ready-mades such as Marcel Duchamp’s snow shovel, to Andy Warhol’s reproduction of Brillo soap boxes, to contemporary works such as Roger Gober’s cat litter—have presented no apparent visual difference with the everyday objects to which they could be said to allude. How can we justify calling some things artworks and others mere ordinary objects when such a difference is not at all visually apparent—especially not to the average person whose world of ordinary objects the “artist” seems to pillage for material?
Arthur Danto takes up the problem of indiscernibility in his essay “The Artworld.” Danto locates the difference between artworks and ordinary objects in artworks’ membership in the “artworld.” As members of the artworld, artworks have a special theoretical and historical context that ordinary objects lack. But what exactly is the artworld? In what follows I will clarify the artworld concept in three steps. First, I will provide a basic sketch of the artworld by elucidating Danto’s idea of artistic identification. Secondly, I will clarify the larger historical situation of artistic theory to explain how artistic identification shapes the artworld in practice. Thirdly, I will further scrutinize the artworld concept to point out potential shortcomings in the finer details of how history and theory are supposed to inform artistic identification.
Danto’s first task is to clarify the ambiguous sense in which artworks, like ordinary objects, are “real things.” Many different art theories place artworks in an odd relation to real things, whether because artworks are somehow more special than everyday real things, or, in the Platonic case, because they are only shadows of real things. But apparently indiscernible artworks such as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes or Duchamp’s shovel seem to be just real things—implying on some views that they could not also be artworks. Danto argues that, indeed, artworks are real, since, on a basic level, things are true of them because of their status not necessarily as artworks, but as real things (e.g. Duchamp’s shovel is real in the same sense as an ordinary shovel, and so could be used to shovel snow). But Danto denies that “being real” explains the totality of what it means to be an artwork in a way that it does for ordinary objects (e.g. a rock is merely a real thing, a painting is a real thing and something more). Danto must, then, explain how artworks are real objects as well as something else. He takes the artwork as composed of parts in order to do so. Some of an artwork’s parts might be real, everyday things. The mistake, in Danto’s view, is assuming real things in the artwork function as wholes which include other non-real, superimposed parts. Taking Danto’s example of Rauschenberg’s bed, one part of the artwork is a real thing, “the mere bed,” and forms “a complex object” together with the other apparently less real parts (e.g. “a bed and some paintstreaks: a paint-bed”). On the “complex” view, the artwork can be reduced neither to the real part nor to those attributes that are predicated of the “real object” constituent (e.g. things true of an actual bed).
If such a reduction erases the meanings of the artwork not captured by its “being real,” Danto’s next step is to explain how this might be avoided. Extending the reasoning applied against reducing artworks to their “real” parts, the solution is not to reduce the artwork to some “non-real object part” (especially in cases where such parts might not even be visually detectable). After all, parts, even seemingly less real ones, such as paint, cannot be the basis for a totalizing reduction without running into the same problems engendered by the reduction of the artwork to being a real thing (e.g. one would not reduce Rauschenberg’s bed to paintstreaks). Consequently, the challenge is to find a way to understand the relevant part-whole relationship in a non-reductive manner capable of still explaining the significance of parts. Since parts gain significance when something is said of them (e.g. “the splotch is impressionistic”), Danto turns his attention to the “is” function that carries this out. Although hard to pin down with analytic rigor, the relevant “is,” by Danto’s argument, is “readily mastered by children” when they make claims such as “That is me” when they identify themselves with drawn shapes. This “is” does not express literal equivalence, since things are true of the child that are not of the shape (e.g. it has a mother). Neither is it representative, since words are representative, and yet one would not point at a word and say the signifier “is” its signified (e.g. it does not make sense to point to the word ‘Icarus’ and say “that is Icarus,” although that might be said of a part of an artwork). Granting this, we have grounding for Danto’s “is of artistic identification,” which is not exhaustively defined by Danto, but can be understood as something between literal and representative identity of subject and predicate. Consequently, artworks can be neither reduced to the predicates used to describe them literally nor taken as mere bearers of them on the representative interpretation. Understanding what those predicates are will further clarify this “is.”
For Danto the relevant predicates are those having to do with art and nothing else. An identification that claimed a splotch of paint was blue would seem to be a simple re-reporting of something that could be true of a non-art object, and consequently could not serve as a source of relevant difference (e.g. the ocean is blue, but that does not make it an artwork). Rather, relevant artistic predicates will only “sensibly apply [if] the object is of the right sort”; just as “is cold” does not sensibly apply to the number two, artistic predicates (e.g. “is impressionistic”) will not sensibly apply to ordinary objects. For example, it would be odd to say a tree is nonrepresentational-expressionistic, although we might say this of a Rothko painting.
But to say something like “that Rothko is nonrepresentational-expressionistic” is oddly modern, and Danto consequently must explain how artistic identification comes to play a role in a larger artworld with rules about how to use and understand predicates. For Danto, the predicates themselves result from an inability of the prevailing artistic theories of a status quo to admit works as art. Danto analyzes the shift from what he calls “Imitation Theory” (IT) to “Reality Theory” (RT) to show what the emergence of new theories, and with them, “new” predicates, looks like as a historical process. IT asserted that artworks mimetically represented non-artistic things, such as real people, in a realistic, non-embellished fashion. Such a view was unable to account for impressionistic paintings whose innovative use of form and color did not simply mimic the form and color found in real things. Consequently, they were not really “artworks” according to IT. To deem them as such, a new theory was needed. RT granted works “as much right to be called a real object as did its putative subjects,” claiming that the “embellishments” that IT saw as non-artistic were actually markers of artistry freed from strictly realistic reference. Van Gogh might paint real paint potato eaters, but the exaggerated lighting and accented lines of The Potato Eaters need not correspond to some imitated object. This exemplifies how a shift in theory changes the possibilities of artistic identification by pointing to specific parts of works and accounting for them in a new manner—e.g. van Gogh’s brushwork is impressionistic, and this artistic identification is legitimate because a body of theory, RT, predominates and frees artists to paint in ways beyond mere imitation, such as with different colors, stark lines, blurred brushwork, etc. Such new ideas manage to explain previous artworks and new ones, with older works being characterized as non-F (e.g. non-impressionistic), where F is understood as the new characteristic that can be artistically identified with a part of an artwork.
But the background necessary to artistically identify involves more than just forming and grasping theories in themselves. It also requires a historical understanding to properly use theories. Such a theoretical and historical understanding will determine what predicates are artistically identified with Warhol’s Brillo boxes at the same time it excludes everyday Brillo boxes from having the same predicates applied to them. But the special selection of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, or any other indiscernible artwork, cannot be defended on the grounds that there is something radically different about the constitutions of the objects that would lead a theory to only apply to one, as might be the case in withholding from applying to the sun predicates used to describe a painting of the sun. Rather, the justification is situated more vaguely in a grasp of “a good deal of artistic theory as well as a considerable amount of the history of recent New York painting”—such a region-specific modern art history provides the finishing touch to a theoretical understanding in Warhol’s case. Here Danto finally arrives at the “artworld” concept. Those things and only those things placed in the artworld by a theoretical and historical understanding are artworks, since only they can be artistically identified (itself relying on a theoretical and historical context).
Danto is not precise about what the artworld is, as reference to a “good deal” of theory and “considerable” historical knowledge suggests. Does Danto tell us what an artworld is when he claims that “an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history: an artworld” is required for something to be art? Not really—“atmosphere” seems no more transparent than talk of a “world” or a “good amount” of theory. And the difference between theory and history remains to be spelled out. However, to Danto’s credit, artworks will not need an exhaustive historical and theoretical accounting-for, since there will be certain theories and historical contexts that are more relevant for certain artworks than others (e.g. understanding the theory behind medieval two-dimensional battle tapestries is of little import to the 1960s New York gallerist). In practice, what counts as the relevant partial grasp seems to be something Danto, within this specific essay, takes as evidenced by current “fashion,” with specialists probably taking up the remnants.
One might wonder if it is a problem that Danto’s artworld seems to terminate in a basic, unanalyzable awareness of fashion. But this is where Danto must go if he is unable to provide an account of the specific workings of theory consensus and historical knowledge. Perhaps this is why Danto ultimately thinks of his hypothetical layman, Testadura (meaning roughly “blockhead” in Italian, foreshadowing the condescension his theory promotes), who is confused about exactly what the current fashion is, that “we cannot help him until he has mastered the is of artistic identification and so constitutes it a work of art. If he cannot achieve this, he will never look upon artworks: he will be like a child who sees sticks as sticks.” The somewhat elitist and potentially arbitrary fixation of who the adults are and who the children are evidently did bother Danto. His later works pushed back against this more institutional account of art to try to articulate a more democratic aesthetic theory—something attempted here in the loose, up-for-interpretation definitions of theoretical and historical awareness, but ultimately left propping up an unfortunately condescending view that fails to satisfy exactly those common people who ask the question of the difference between artworks and real things. There is a more radical problem here, too. How are critics to justify themselves when Testadura tells them that they are simply out of touch and beyond help? Here Danto’s account risks restricting aesthetic dialogue only to those who already agree with the “right” view, which is not really dialogue at all. Perhaps this is not entirely objectionable. Within this essay, at least, a collapse to Wittgensteinian forms of life as the origin of meaning might point the way toward a reduction of what can ultimately be questioned in aesthetics, freeing experience of artworks from having to justify itself to theory to an impossible extent.
Still, while the everyday Testadura does not yet understand the significance and meaning of adults’ use of aesthetic theories, he does have reason to understand that such usage does differentiate ordinary objects from works of art. This use involves the presence of the artwork in the artworld, which itself requires being situated within the right theoretical and historical understanding. The theoretical understanding, informed somehow by history, limits which objects can sensibly be applied to certain predicates, which predicates are relevant to consider, and what it means to apply a predicate. That such theoretical-historical understandings do emerge to differentiate the artistic from the merely everyday is evident in the IT-RT shift, but what the theory/history interplay is, how a hardhead or child like Testadura would understand the artworld at any moment (especially without Danto’s generous hindsight and admitted historical fabrication), and what exactly is at work when theory “changes” the artworld requires further elaboration to fully explain the artworld.