Friday, November 1, 2013

RIP: NATURE, ART, AND ARTHUR DANTO


Goat: A magnificient product of the relationship between humans and nature
Water Color Painting © 2013 by Russet Jennings, Northwood, NH
 (used with the permission of the artist)
 My long-time hero died this week: Arthur Danto, professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University, influential art critic, and long-time cultural arts contributor to The Nation. He was unparalleled at reviewing art, not just for its intrinsic value – not just for art’s sake –but in the wider sense of what was the significance of a particular piece of art  –what was its meaning – in terms of the culture at large.

Until the ’60s, the history of western art was presented to us by the cultural elite as an evolution from primitive to modern along a single path, each stage making incremental progress toward some shining destination representing ultimate reality.

Dante was among the first to see that this was no longer the case and in 1986 wrote his famous essay proclaiming The End of Art.[1]

“By this he meant not that people would stop making art, but that the idea of art progressing and evolving over time along one clear path, as it seemed to have done from the Renaissance through the late 19th century and into the first post-World War II decade, could no longer be supported by art of the late 20th century. After the ’60s, art had splintered and gone off in a multitude of directions, from Photorealist painting to the most abstruse forms of Conceptualism.[2]

I see his essay as a major cultural turning point. From this point forward, art can no longer be defined as having a reality separate from the viewer. It can no longer stand on its own.  Instead, art becomes defined as a relationship: art becomes a representation of reality as understood by the viewer: a relationship not an entity.

This week appears to be a week for me to talk about endings: The end of Arthur Danto, the end of art, and, even, the end of nature.
I came across a conversation in the current Orion Magazine[3] by William Cronon and Michael Pollan entitled, Out of the Wild, where they talk about the end of nature in the same manner as Dante did about art. Just as in art, we can no longer view nature as a pristine wilderness, separate from humankind.
This thesis was first put forward by Bill McKibben in 1989 in his book aptly named, The End of Nature.[4] In it he describes nature as a force previously independent of humans but which is now increasingly driven by the actions of people. His book is considered to be the first book about global warming written for a general audience:
"If the waves crash up against the beach, eroding dunes and destroying homes, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of Mother Nature as altered by the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born."[3]

McKibben’s point is well taken about the dangers of global warming and how humans are complicit. But, on the larger point, humans and nature have never been separate from one another: we have always been in relationship with her, not as some privileged demi-god ordained by heaven to have dominion over nature as the Bible proclaims but as one humble component among a multitude, all participating in Nature’s all-encompassing majesty.

It’s the same with art: each of us has a relationship with art, not just because we are privileged enough to be part of a cultural elite who has appointed itself the anointed gatekeepers as to what is art and what is not, but, more broadly we have a relationship with art, simply because we are human beings, each pulsating with native creative energy.  

If only we could cleanse our perception by casting off the smothering blanket of our socially constructed blinders, we would see the world as it really is, “a common language of symbols arising from body and mind of Earth.”[5]



[1] http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-13226-8/
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/28/arts/design/arthur-c-danto-a-philosopher-of-art-is-dead-at-89.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20131028
[3] Orion Magazine, November/December 2013, pp 66-67
[4] http://www.amazon.com/The-End-Nature-Bill-McKibben/dp/0812976088
[5] http://www.chalquist.com/earthrising.html
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