"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."
Not a terribly complicated or controversial thought, and some might wonder if it's worth a whole book (though a small one, I should add.) But along with arguing for his theses, Danto takes the time to explore the history of beauty's role in art, the challenges to it presented by modern and contemporary art, and how different aesthetic qualities have played their part in forcing beauty's changing status. Along the way he considers such questions as the role of museums in regards to the art they hold, the relationship between art and politics, and, more broadly, morality, and the very definition of art. The book, which originated as a series of lectures and various chapters of which were published elsewhere, has the clean prose, intelligence, and light touch one expects of Danto. But it also includes some profoundly puzzling ideas, some others I think are mistaken or at least only partially true, and a number of insights that are left unexplored. I don't have the philosophical knowledge or expertise to argue with the book on all of its levels, but I'll try to offer what assessment I can of it below.
Danto starts from a simple point, asking what is the definition of art. It being the principle of a definition that it must include every instance of what it purports to define, any proposal that exludes an example of art must be inadequate. Beauty is the subject at hand, and so he applies the test. If one can find a single instance of a work of art that is not beautiful, then beauty cannot be part of what defines art. Danto provides his own examples, which I'll discuss below, but at the top of this post you will find my own candidate. Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children may be called many things, but to say it is beautiful is perverse. It simply is not. It is a great work of art, powerful, perhaps sublime, surely horrifying, and done with a great deal of skill and understanding; but beauty is neither its aim nor accomplishment.
So from a philosophical point of view, the first part of the day's work is done. Any definition of art can't include beauty as one of its requirements if there is at least one example of an work of art (and a great one at that) that is not beautiful. Fish in a barrel.
But beauty is integral to life. We would not want to live in a world without beauty, and would indisputably chose a world with beauty over one that lacked it. Prisoners are not deprived of sunlight without reason. While it is true that we all disagree about particular instances of beauty, the desire - the need - for it seems to be fundamental part of our existance. Following G.E. Moore, his antagonist in much of the book, Danto agrees that we would never want to live a world of pure disgustingness, one without beauty.
That sums up the bulk of Danto's argument. I see nothing wrong with it, as far as I've described it here. So let's get to the freaky stuff.
Danto repeatedly claims that what he calls the "Intractable Avant-Garde" - Dadaism and its progeny - did the necessary work of showing that beauty had no role in the definition of art by denying it through the readymades, works that sought to disgust rather than please the viewer, and so on. At times he carelessly implies that the equation between beauty and art goes back to the eighteenth century, through to the origin of modern aesthetics with Kant. As his book demonstrates, he doesn't mean it, as even Kant discussed (and Danto considers) the aesthetic category of the sublime as an alternative to beauty. And as the Goya above indicates, even in that alleged heyday of beauty, artists drew upon other alternatives. Danto's real objection, as I noted earlier, is to the aestheticizing philosophy of G.E. Moore and his Bloomsbury disciples, especially Roger Fry. I think he's absolutely right in claiming that they did place the absolute emphasis on beauty that he attributes to art and aesthetics more generally. Fry, he notes, encouraged viewers to try and see the beauty in unfamiliar work. That may constitute good advice at times, but if the art in question is not beautiful, if it is working at some else, then it is just silly and wrong. To stand in a gallery cooing "how beautiful!" over some rotting cow's head Damien Hirst placed there is to miss the point.
What I'm wondering is, did I miss the part where everyone was talking about G.E. Moore? I had no idea Bloomsbury dominated the culture. Fry is remembered as a notable critic, but the sort of late nineteenth/early twentieth century aestheticism Danto is tilting at not only hasn't been around for a while, it was a short-lived, limited phenomenon even in its time. There's no need to make it into a giant bugaboo. And I'll grant that the effort to find beauty in what manifestly is not and was not meant to be is foolishness, but how often does it really happen? Less, I think, than Danto implies.
Or perhaps it does. For one of the examples of an artwork Danto finds not to be beautiful is Matisse's Blue Nude. I see his point - one could find it powerful but harsh in how the figure is handled, for instance - but as he admits, many will disagree. Going further, he claims that the Post-Impressionist paintings Roger Fry encouraged viewers to try and see the beauty in were not beautiful, either. I don't have a list of what works were shown by Fry, but I feel pretty safe in saying that Danto is wrong, if he is being serious. When he writes that "what prevented people from seeing the excellence of early modern paintings were inapplicable theories of what art should be", he seems to imply that the idea of beauty held by the academic taste of the day is synonymous with beauty itself - that other ways of being beautiful are not valid. Given that later he'll discuss the beauty of a Dutch mannerist painting, he obviously doesn't think academic approaches are what the term denotes. But at another point, he brings in Kant's discussion of human beauty as consisting of a sort of averaging out of the characteristics of diverse individuals; the idea that beauty is a generalized, bland quality doesn't seem to lie too deep beneath Danto's surface at times.
Given that his topic is the abuse of beauty, and not the thing itself, I had been prepared to skate along without needing much of a definition, assuming we all know it when we see it. The points discussed above made me less willing to do so. There were more. While I'm no philosopher, I had a somewhat technical question: where is this beauty that Danto is talking about? My understanding is that Kant, whom he discusses at length, argued that beauty was something that happened within us, it was a judgement we made. When we say, "the flowers are beautiful" we are not predicating a quality of a group of objects so much as saying they cause us to feel a certain way. For other writers, beauty is a predicate, which raises the question of to what in the object it adheres, or what gives rise to it. Danto sideskips the issue while by turns blending and comparing the different ideas.
Danto's concerns are primarily contemporary, so it's perhaps not surprising that he makes his most egregious misjudgment regarding the status of art from earlier eras. He makes at various times the familiar point that much of what we consider as art from prior civilizations was not viewed by those who first saw it the same way we do. What we consider beautiful sculptures, paintings and ceramics were cult statues of gods, icons of a Redeemer or beloved intercessor, and holy objects inscribed with God's words. That fact, however, does not mean, as he seems to argue, that they are not beautiful, or that their beauty is not integral to their nature and was intended to be so:
"The Edwardians thought themselves advanced because formalism enabled them to see what Fry called 'Negro sculptre' as beautiful. But they were wrong in thinking that they had learned through formalism to see the beauty that was the point of African art. That was never its point, nor was beauty the point of most of the world's great art."
African sculpture, which I know nothing about, aside, Danto's got the wrong end of the stick. It may not have been the point for much of what we now call "art" to have been art, but it was definitely part of the point that much of it be beautiful. That is what helped make it suitable for God, or the gods. The makers of the past were not blind, nor were the viewers insensitive. I could provide evidence on this point (Paul the Silentiary's hymn for Hagia Sophia would do, I think) but that would make a long post even longer, and I don't feel it's necessary. Nor do I need to more than note the exceptions (fearsome Crucifixion scenes, or apotropaic charms, say.) Danto's commitment to this line of argumentation leads him to an odd, and I think obviously wrong place:
". . . we may not lose a lot if artistic beauty were annihilated, whatever that means, because art has a number of other compensatory values, and artistic beauty is an incidental attribute in most of the world's artistic cultures."
I could ask how an aesthetics of disgust, which Danto treats at length and certainly exists, could exactly compensate for the disappearance of beauty, when they seem to me very different things. Or I could wonder how it came to be that, even though they were not made in a self-conscious mode as strictly aesthetic objects, most of the world's artistic cultures did (and do) indeed make beautiful works and considered them as such, a remarkable coincidence for a mere incidental attribute. But instead, let us do, as the philosophers say, a thought experiment. Picture youself walking through a great museum, one you know well - the Met, say, or the Art Institute of Chicago. Consider all of the different works from different cultures and times that you see as you pass. Now imagine all of the beautiful ones "annihilated" - whatever that means. Do you think a lot has been lost?
I've gone on long enough, so some other topics will have to wait for another post. For all the criticisms I've made, it's an enjoyable if muddled book, and at times very helpful. As I've said, I agree with Danto on his big picture thesis, and to the extent that his argument discourages loose talk of beauty when an more specific aesthetic category applies, so much the better. While I'm suspicious of his theory of artworks as "embodied meanings", his discussions of beauty, morality and mourning are worthwhile, and his exploration of disgust I found extremely helpful, though not, perhaps, in the manner he intended. But all that will have to wait for now.