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Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life [NOOK Book]

Overview


An Incisive Account of the Bizarre, Often Bewildering Art World of Today

Arthur Danto's new collection finds him, and the art world, at a point when the art world has become pluralistic, even chaotic-with one medium as good as the next-when the moment for "next things" has passed.
Since 1984, when Danto-already an eminent philosopher--became The Nation's art critic, he has been one of the foremost theorists ...
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Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life

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Overview


An Incisive Account of the Bizarre, Often Bewildering Art World of Today

Arthur Danto's new collection finds him, and the art world, at a point when the art world has become pluralistic, even chaotic-with one medium as good as the next-when the moment for "next things" has passed.
Since 1984, when Danto-already an eminent philosopher--became The Nation's art critic, he has been one of the foremost theorists of contemporary art's history and evolution, and at the same time the most incisive and illuminating critic of new work. In his view, the historical development of art reached a kind of zenith in the pop period, most famously with Warhol's Brillo Boxes. Danto's five volumes of review essays (all published by FSG) form a kind of chronicle of the art world since the Brillo moment, and a running appraisal of the great variety of significant work made since then. In this new book, he shows how work that bridges the gap between art and life is now the definitive work of our time: Damien Hirst's arrays of skeletons and anatomical models, Barbara Kruger's tchotchke-ready slogans, Renee Cox's nude portrait of herself at the Last Supper. To the obvious question--is this stuff really art?--Danto replies with an enthusiastic yes, explaining, with a philosopher's clarity and an art lover's sense of delight, how these "unnatural wonders" show us who we are.


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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A collection of pieces written since "the end of art"-not to be confused with the death of art. Borrowing his concept from Hegel, respected critic Danto observes that unlike the centuries of art made for spiritual needs, the art of our time has generally lost the power to communicate on its own and must be explained, because we have only an external relationship with it. Plato argued that pictures are the same as dreams, shadows, reflections or illusions, but now that contemporary artists use any or all materials, we often view the actual object as art. Paradoxically, now that it no longer offers the illusion or reflection of reality, art is no longer understood as an essential part of life and has to be interpreted in a museum. What is the difference, asks Danto (Philosophy/Columbia Univ.; Madonna of the Future, 2000, etc.), between Warhol's Brillo Box and a cardboard case of Brillo Pads? He illustrates these introductory thoughts with more than two dozen columns from the Nation (required reading for those who pay attention to contemporary art since it began publishing Danto in 1984), ranging from the 2000 Whitney Biennial through the artistic reaction to September 11 and the nation's culture wars while dealing with major artists and exhibitions of the recent past. Danto sympathetically assesses Damien Hirst (sliced-up sharks suspended in formaldehyde) and eloquently explains why some initially impenetrable art might have compelling statements to make, but he doesn't spare artists he feels are not pulling their weight, lamenting the hot Paul McCarthy's juvenile art of "disgust" and tackling the very uneven quality of the talented (and even hotter) Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. Alsoincluded are a handful of essays written for exhibition catalogues, transcripts of lectures, and reviews of important exhibitions of such pre-end artists as Leonardo, Gentileschi, and Chardin. Among the most sensible, intelligent, logical, and accessible art criticism of the last five years.
<I>RES</I> magazine

Danto uses his revered position to illuminate his subjects' cultural and art-historical contexts in order to give the public helpful tools for thinking about the art they are experiencing.... This enlightened collection of essays is an essential documentation of recent art history, brimming with valuable reminders of how art has gotten where it is today.

Booklist

His musings on art in the wake of 9/11 are incisive and moving.

Asian Week
One of our pre-eminent art critics... [Unnatural Wonders] serves as a good introduction to his work, as well as a good introduction to contemporary art.

— Kenny Tanemure

New York Times Book Review
To look at a work with Danto is to see it within the context of contemporary art.

— Barry Gewen

Financial Times Magazine
[A] brilliant, provocative collection of essays.

— Jackie Wullschlager

The Art Book

A valuable collection of art criticism.

RES magazine

Danto uses his revered position to illuminate his subjects' cultural and art-historical contexts in order to give the public helpful tools for thinking about the art they are experiencing.... This enlightened collection of essays is an essential documentation of recent art history, brimming with valuable reminders of how art has gotten where it is today.

RES Magazine
Danto uses his revered position to illuminate his subjects' cultural and art-historical contexts in order to give the public helpful tools for thinking about the art they are experiencing.... This enlightened collection of essays is an essential documentation of recent art history, brimming with valuable reminders of how art has gotten where it is today.
Asian Week - Kenny Tanemure

One of our pre-eminent art critics... [Unnatural Wonders] serves as a good introduction to his work, as well as a good introduction to contemporary art.

New York Times Book Review - Barry Gewen

To look at a work with Danto is to see it within the context of contemporary art.

Financial Times Magazine - Jackie Wullschlager

[A] brilliant, provocative collection of essays.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429930918
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/16/2005
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 784,170
  • File size: 467 KB

Meet the Author


Arthur C. Danto is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Columbia University, art critic for The Nation, and the author of many books about art and philosophy. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the artist Barbara Westman.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : art criticism after the end of art 3
Whitney Biennial 2000 19
"Making choices" at MoMA 27
Chardin 36
Tilman Riemenschneider 44
Damien Hirst 53
Barbara Kruger 61
Yoko Ono 69
Sean Scully 77
Paul McCarthy 85
Sol LeWitt 93
Renee Cox : Yo mama's last supper 101
William Kentridge 109
Picasso Erotique 117
Art and 9/11 125
Philip Guston 132
Philip Guston : the Nixon drawings 139
Alberto Giacometti 147
Norman Rockwell 155
Surrealism and eroticism 163
Artemisia Gentileschi 172
Gerhard Richter 180
Barnett Newman and the heroic sublime 188
Joan Mitchell 197
The art of 9/11 : one year later 205
Reflections on Robert Mangold's curled figure and column paintings 213
The Park Avenue cubists 219
Leonardo's drawings 226
Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle 234
Christian Schad and the Sachlichkeit of sex 242
Kazimir Malevich 251
Max Beckmann 258
Whitney Biennial 2004 265
John Currin 272
Dieter Roth 279
Banality and celebration : the art of Jeff Koons 286
Two installations by Joshua Neustein 303
Kalliphobia in contemporary art; or : what ever happened to beauty? 321
The world as warehouse : Fluxus and philosophy 333
Painting and politics 348
The fly in the fly bottle : the explanation and critical judgment of works of art 355
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First Chapter

Unnatural Wonders

Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life
By Arthur C. Danto

Farrar Straus Giroux

Copyright © 2005 Arthur C. Danto
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-28118-1


Chapter One

Whitney Biennial 2000

A woman I know once agreed to take a young Asian child to visit a school in New York, to which her distant parents considered sending her. The visitors were shown a chapel, no longer greatly used for devotional purposes but deemed a sight worth seeing. The child was shaken by a picture of Jesus, bleeding and nailed to the cross. "What have they done to that poor man?" she asked, in pained incredulity. I somehow thought of her response to what is after all a standard image in the Western artistic canon when I saw a sign that the Whitney Museum has placed at the admissions desk to Biennial 2000: "Sections of the exhibition present artwork or other material that may not be appropriate for some viewers, including children." Nothing on view could possibly have the impact on a sensitive child of a routine depiction of Christ's unimaginable agony. Such a warning sign might far more suitably be placed outside any of the West's great museums, where images of cruelty and torment are found on every corner. People lined up to buy cappuccino and biscotti at one of the Metropolitan Museum's convenient coffee bars wait patiently beneath the altogether inappropriate sculpture by Carpeaux of Dante's Ugolino, devouring his children. Imagine if it were learned that the Whitney was showing a statue of a guy eating his kids!

The fact that the museum regards it as necessary or prudent to post warnings at the threshold of a playful and largely friendly display of contemporary art is an emblem of how fearful of the art of our time we have been made by the forces of artistic repression in our society. It is for just this reason that I find it difficult to be especially upset by Hans Haacke's widely deplored intallation, Sanitation, in which declarations by various politicians, hostile to contemporary art, are lettered on the wall. The lettering, as the media have made it impossible for anyone not to know, is in the spiky Fraktur in which the Third Reich posted its own proclamations. Though as a result Haacke has been charged by some with "trivializing the Holocaust," it cannot be denied how central a role artistic suppression has played in all the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. "Hans always goes too far!" someone said-but the presence of the little warning sign at the threshold of the show is internally related to the messages in and of Haacke's work. There is no internal connection, on the other hand, between any other work I can think of in the show and the warning on the sign, which can be interpreted only as a gesture of deference to the politicians Haacke has quoted.

I wished that there were somehow an internal connection between the sign and the witty work Banner Yet Wave, which the Whitney commissioned from Kay Rosen, in lieu of a banner on its facade. It refers to a banner, and indeed to the only banner with an identity in common American consciousness-the Star-Spangled Banner, about which, at the beginnings of baseball games, sopranos always ask whether it yet waves o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. Jasper Johns's celebrated triplet of American flags, which the museum used as a logo for its exhibition "The American Century," perhaps deserves a rest. It appears in two of the works on view-one of them an ant farm by Yukinori Yanagi ("Blurring the distinction between art and entomology," the solemn catalog might say), the other Sanitation itself (in which the smallest of the superposed flags has a turned-down corner, like a napkin). Rosen selected certain letters from the phrase "banner yet wave" and distributed them, white on red rectangles, across the stepped tiers of the building's facade, as if notes on musical staves. A alone on the top stave, A NER on the next one down, BA YE below that, ET WA below that, and AVE at the bottom, to the sign's right. Sign, Sanitation, and Banner Yet Wave constitute an unintended political installation-and we may as well enlist the free, brave artists of the rest of the show as a fourth component, collectively answering Yes! to the anthem's question.

A fifth component might be required to give us a full picture of the state of our art, namely, the way the Biennial is represented in the media. Modern art has made good copy since the Armory Show of 1913 handed reporters an irresistible opportunity to crack up their readership-or to appall it-with the antics of artistic nutcakes. Biennial 2000 is not an American "Sensation," and one almost felt sorry for the disconsolate camera crews prowling the press opening in unrewarded pursuit of visual scandals to spice up the evening news. Haacke's piece was hardly more sensational in content than the editorial pages of most newspapers when they deplored Mayor Giuliani's attack on the Brooklyn Museum. Lisa Yuskavage, who paints young women meditating upon their own swelling bodies, provided perhaps the nearest thing to a piquant image with a woman in profile, showing part of a bare breast. Cynics might wonder whether the selection committee might not have gone out of its way to render its warning empty-but in fact Biennial 2000 comes closer than any of its recent predecessors in showing the way the art world of its moment really is. Artists today are an especially serious group of what one ought properly to think of as visual thinkers. Probably even the artists of "Sensation" were bent less on shocking the populace than in pleasing the owner/collector Charles Saatchi. When a reporter asked Chakaia Booker, a handsome black woman in an elaborate headdress, standing proudly in front of her work, whether it bothered her that Hans Haacke had taken all the attention away from the other artists, she replied that she did not think that Haacke had. Her work is an immense and imposing wall-piece of worn and twisted rubber tires, artfully arranged. Why had he not asked her to explain the work and especially the relation to it of its title, Homage to Thy Mother (Landscape)? Is it a landscape of devastation and ruin, which, even so, the artist has managed to make into something intricate and powerful, swept by pulsing rhythms and graceful arabesques? Hence an allegory of art's transformative powers?

If one looks at the art through the clarifying lens of the ample wall texts-or listens through the headsets the museum distributes free of charge to what the artists themselves have to say about their own work-the evidence is overwhelming that most of the art has a certain high moral and intellectual purpose. The artists portray themselves as engaged in conceptual exploration, calling boundaries into question, seeking to bring to consciousness the way we think about many things. It is as if the works exist on two levels-the level of object and the level of argument-and the wall texts, or catalog entries, assist us in grasping what the work is through explaining what the object means. Often the distance between object and argument is so wide that without the text we would badly misread the object. This is not that different from traditional art as one might suppose. Think, for example, of how little a realistic seventeenth-century crucifixion scene tells us about the meaning of the man-and-cross it shows or why it is appropriately hung in chapels. Who would know-who really could understand by means of visual perception alone-that the twisted figure is redeeming through physical suffering the taint of original sin humanity until then allegedly carried? The meaning of much of the work is at just such a level of abstractness, relative to the object intended as its vehicle. In this respect, contemporary art and traditional art have a great deal more in common with each other than either has with Modernist art, which sought to convey its meaning by visual means alone-so much so that with such work as Matisse's or Cézanne's, the very presence of wall texts was considered supererogatory. The difference between traditional and contemporary art is that with the former, a certain common culture enabled viewers to know the arguments under which objects were intended to be seen, whereas this cannot be counted on in connection with what artists do today. So without the explanation we have no way of knowing what we are looking at.

Sometimes, it must be admitted, the object is stronger than the work. I greatly admired, for example, a painting by Ingrid Calame, in reddish-pink enamel on a very large Mylar sheet, cascading down the wall and then spreading out onto the floor. The forms themselves have the look of spilled and splashed pigment impulsively swept onto the surface with brooms or wide brushes, in an Abstract Expressionist manner. This proves to be an illusion. The forms derive from tracings of "the lacy stains left by the evaporation of nameless liquids" that the artist found on Los Angeles streets. She has compiled an archive of these, noting the location of each stain and the date on which it was found. The forms are the result of careful transcription rather than of impulsive expressive brushwork-and monumentalize pre-existing splotches. So we have to rethink our response to the object, which turns out to be far more intellectual and calculated than emotional and impulsive.

A comparable distance separates object from argument in Ghada Amer's Untitled (John Rose). Her paintings look, the catalog concedes, "like finely drawn, delicate abstractions." The informed eye leads one to surmise that her work shows the influence of Cy Twombly. But as with Calame's work, the eye is a very poor guide to what we in fact see. First, the lines are not drawn or painted but sewn. Second, the forms are not abstract but derived from images of women in pornographic magazines. One can, once instructed, see that these are stitchings, but I found it as difficult to make out that I was looking at "sexually suggestive postures" as I did to identify as female body parts-cut from the same genre of magazines-the things with which the Holy Virgin Mary is surrounded in Chris Ofili's controversial painting from the Brooklyn "Sensation" show. In any case, Amer is making, by means of stitched prurient imagery, some statement about the representation of women. One would not know this without help. Aesthetics is almost consistently subverted in much of today's art-especially when aesthetics seems initially to be the point of what we are looking at. That subversion is in the service of the larger moral meanings that the works are designed-with the help of explanation-to convey.

Sometimes explanation in fact intensifies the experience of the object. Consider a remarkable work by Paul Pfeiffer-a tiny (3-by-4-inch) video set into a wall.

At first glance it shows a black athlete standing alone on a stadium floor, distantly surrounded by crowds of spectators. The athlete's fists are held in front of him, and his head is bent back in what appears to be a shout, perhaps of victory. The film is a very short loop: The athlete endlessly advances, retreats, advances, retreats, advances, retreats. One could let it go at that, until one notices the title: Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon)-and one begins to wonder what they have done to that poor man. The artist began with a short clip from a video, showing an episode from a sporting event. He has modified this through digitalization, transforming it into something enough like a painting by Bacon to convert the shout into a scream. The whole scene becomes something resembling the lonely space of a Roman arena in which someone has suffered or is undergoing suffering for the entertainment of the prurient crowd. The endlessly repeated movement of the figure has the quality of a fantasy or a trauma, from which the mind cannot break free, enacting, over and over, the same charged happening. The work, repetitive and obsessive, has some of the qualities of the mental state it represents. And it is very successful in using technologies that may hardly have existed when the last Biennial took place-digitalization, DVD players-to present us with an image of which traditional art would have been incapable. It draws on art-historical images and historical imagination, and effects a metaphorical transformation of what in its own right is a fairly banal image from contemporary culture.

There is a lot of video in the Biennial, some of it more successful than others but all of it requiring an investment of real time on the viewer's part with no real guarantee that there will be an artistic payoff comparable to that in Pfeiffer's piece. No such reservation is in order with Shirin Neshat's powerful video installation, Fervor, which lasts for eleven intense minutes. Many readers who expressed regret at not having been able to see her earlier masterpiece, Rapture, will be able to encounter it at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, where it has a room to itself in the exhibition "Greater New York." Rapture is enacted on two facing screens, respectively occupied by women wearing chadors and by men wearing neat white shirts and black pants. The two groups are engaged in parallel symbolic actions. There are again two screens in Fervor, this time set side by side. No individual stood out in Rapture-it was as if there were two choruses, as in a very ancient dramatic form, segregated by gender. In Fervor, two individuals-a Woman and a Man-stand out as characters. Unlike the other men, the Man stands out by the fact that he wears a suit. The Woman is in a chador, like the others. We first see Man and Woman approaching and passing each other on a rocky road. Each is clearly mindful of the Other. They soon join a crowd, to enter a place of assembly in which the genders are separated by a black cloth partition. The groups are addressed by a man who appears to discourse on a somewhat primitive painting in the style of a Persian miniature, showing a prince with a falcon on his wrist and a lady with courtiers. The audience (congregation?) responds with chants-this must be the fervor to which the title refers-but Man and Woman, though they cannot see each other, are more involved with each other's invisible presence than with what the Speaker says. At the same moment, each rises and leaves the building. We finally see them-and they again see each other-outside the building. They still do not overcome whatever separates them, though one is left with the hopeful sense that they will. The compelling, urgent music, sung and composed by the same singer as in Rapture-Sussan Deyhim-intensifies the feeling of the work, which by itself justifies a visit to the exhibition.

Neshat is one of the few widely known artists in Biennial 2000, as she is in "Greater New York." Both exhibits include a handful of such figures, but for the most part, the artists selected are virtually unknown even to those fairly familiar with the art world today.

Continues...


Excerpted from Unnatural Wonders by Arthur C. Danto Copyright © 2005 by Arthur C. Danto. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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