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The present essay represents for the author an occasion to retrace his philosophy of art, referring in particular to the themes related to contemporary art. Starting from the historical importance which the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge had for painting and not onlyArthur Danto once again comes to wonder about the famous Brillo Box of Andy Warhol, demonstrating how, in the face of different avant-guard artistic movements of the early Sixties specially in the usait is indeed philosophy that questions itself, reconsidering its own concept of the eternity of art and the way in which works of art must be interpreted.

The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art

They belonged to the American Pre-Raphaelite movement, such as it was, and they published a journal called The New Path. The highest compliment the American Pre-Rafs could pay one another was that one would have thought, looking at their work, that it had been made by a camera. The camera, presumably, showed only what the eye sees and nothing more.

Hence it had to be the paradigm of visual truth. Degas, who took up photography himself, would have argued that the photographs teach us how we must see, even if the images look quite unnatural. This confuses optical truth with visual truth.

Arthur Danto – Wikiwand

Traditional painters, like Leonardo or Lautrec, produce stereotypes that are visually convincing even if trasifgurazione are optically incorrect. Muybridge mocked Victorian painters, whose depictions of horses racing was visually trasfigurzzione more convincing than his optically correct photographs.

Most of what the human face shows is not so much the kinds of physiognomic expressions — grief, joy, anger — that academic artists had to master in order to show in narrative paintings how persons felt, but transitions between expressions.

The result is that faces are defamiliarized by the camera, all the more so when, as in as the typical portrait by Richard Avedon, the face is trasfigurazinoe against a white background, with all context stripped away.

They are not the faces we know, if we know the subject, and certainly not how the subject knows himself, composing his or her face for the mirror. What it trasfogurazione amounts to, with the modern camera, is that the photographer is stopping movement, hence making stills, with results that never arose with painted portraits. The picture in no sense banalf how Isaiah looked to anyone who knew him, but instead an unrecognizable sourpuss.

He never looks like this to the eye. He only does so to a camera set to asaf 22 at a 30 th of a second — which of course one does not see.

There was no photograph of the event, since that was forbidden by the Mexican authorities. Manet depended on newspaper accounts, and the details kept changing as the reports came in. At first, Manet supposed that the execution was carried out by Mexican guerillas, and he painted the firing squad wearing sombreros. Gradually, it became known that the firing squad was made up of Mexican soldiers in uniform, as the final and official version shows.

It slowly occurred to me that Manet was seeking to show the event the way it would look if it had been photographed — it was, after all, news.

He painted it just at the moment when the guns had been fired — there is smoke coming out of their muzzles — and one of the victims is falling down, fatally wounded. Photography was not yet capable of recording things this fast — the Leica was not to be invented until the next century. Film was too slow, exposure times were long. But certain things peculiar to the photograph appear in the way the painting is organized. Here is an astute observation by Clement Greenberg, written in This illusion was conceived of more or less as a stage animated by visual incident, and the surface of the picture as the window through which one looked at the stage.

But Manet began to pull the backdrop of the stage forward, and those who came after him […] kept pulling it forward, until today it has come smack up against the window, blocking it up and hiding the stage. All the painter has left to work with now is, so to speak, a more or less opaque windowpane 1. What is needed to put these two thoughts together is the recognition that photography played an operative role in the transformation of art from traditional to modern.

What after all could have been more modern than the photographic camera, with its ability to fix images, which until then were ephemeral and fleeting?


We see this today in televising baseball games — the camera of necessity is at a distance requiring telescopy, which puts the pitcher and the batter on top of one another. Manet tended to suppress transitional tones, which emulates the way the frontally illuminated object in a photograph drives the shadows to the edges, inevitably flattening forms, an effect which Manet seized upon in painting his portraits.

The camera made Modernism happen. They are exactly gray in gray, with shadowy markings of darker gray, that had served other painters, such as Jasper Johns or Alberto Giacometti, as backgrounds against which they painted the objects or figures which carried the primary interest of their works. Marden seems to have brought them forward to coincide with the surfaces of his paintings, making his surfaces his subjects, turning his paintings into objects.

The Pre-Rafs, in attempting to emulate the camera, had also eliminated depth, almost the way that happens when one looks through a microscope.

And, at least as I see it, when Picasso, inpastes a flat object, like the label on an aperitif bottle, into a composition, making it visually ambiguous whether one is looking at a real label or an illusionist label painted with astonishing fidelity. By narrowing the space between foreground and background to zero, one opens the possibility of narrowing the distance between art and reality to zero, at least for real objects of a certain flatness, raising the philosophical question of where the differences finally lies.

After six centuries, the capture of visual appearance had lost its charm, and the art history tracked by Ernst Gombrich in Art and Illusion had come to an end. The camera did, however, play an important role in the art-reality questions that took central place in the philosophy of art in the mid-Sixties, but primarily through the medium of photographic silk screen, which was used to transfer positive images to surfaces other than photograph paper.

It was the perfect medium for the paintings of disasters and catastrophes, which became so central to his endeavors in the early years of the decade. He made stencils of the large photographs that appeared on the front page of tabloid newspapers. The mesh-work of the screen together with dots of transmitted photographs gave his images the urgency and authenticity of wire-transmitted news shots. At the same time it facilitated the kind of uncertainty and irregularity that went with a lingering Abstract Expressionist aesthetic, especially when the mesh got clogged with ink.

Warhol literally stopped drawing from until The first big project of the Factory years was making the facsimiles of shipping cartons for the April, show at the Stable Gallery, which made an immense impression on me. That show would have been unthinkable without silk screen: It was very patrician architecture since incorporated as the employee entrance into the Whitney Museum.

You entered the lobby, with black and white marble tiles, and an elegant stairway to the upper floors. The gallery was entered through a baronial mahogany door to your left, which opened onto what looked like the store room of a supermarket.

From Photography to Philosophy: Two Moments oF Post-Traditional Art

It was genuinely a surrealistic experience. There were hundreds of neatly stacked boxes for Brillo, tomato soup, cornflakes, and canned fruit, and apple juice.

Were they art — or trasfigurazine they real cartons? One could not avoid that question. I more or less accepted that the boxes were art, but immediately wondered what the difference could be between them and the real Brillo cartons of the supermarket, which resembled them visually. The question was not whether one could tell the difference, which was an epistemological question, but what made them different, which is what philosophers call an ontological question, calling for a definition of art.

Actually, I saw this initially as an almost political question — how did these trasfigurxzione enfranchised as works of art when boxes that closely trrasfigurazione them were excluded from that status?

Works of art had rights and privileges. They were treated with respect and even awe — Brillo boxes were exhibited on pedestals early on, for example, though in the Stable Gallery they were placed on the floor. They were like slaves.

African Americans were claiming their civil rights. Trasigurazione was, one might say, no ontological basis for the discrimination against them. I was terribly lucky that the art world took the turn it took dslor I would not have been able to write philosophically on art at all. It was to the history of the art world rather than of the aesthetics world of the time that that essay — and ultimately my book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, published inreally belongs, which is part of the reason I thought of what was happening in the art world as closer to the kind of philosophy I was doing than to anything then happening in philosophical aesthetics.

I was interested in ontologyin the question of what it is to be a work of art. The great thing about the Sixties was the dawning recognition that anything could be a work of art, which was something evident in all the main movements of the time — in Pop, Minimalism, Fluxus, Conceptual art, and so on. What accounted for the difference? But there was not a lot of difference between what you see when you see a Brillo Box banxle Warhol and the Brillo Boxes designed by James Harvey for the Brillo people to move their products about in.


I deeply believed that all philosophical questions had to be answered at the same time, and in the same kind of way.

What remains over when you subtract from the fact that something is an art object the fact that it is an object? That led to a search for the necessary conditions for acthood, or arthood, or whatever. Apart from the change of question, there is a change of answer to the question, since nothing the two perceptually similar objects have in common can be part of what makes only one of them a work of art. But I was the only one interested in it who was also interested in the ontological dimension of the philosophy of history, of knowledge of action, of mind, and of religion at the same time, and where anything not bearing on this was of interest to be sure, but not of great interest ontologically speaking.

To do ontology means to seek a philosophical definition, consisting only of conditions necessary to something being art. In The Transfiguration I arrived at part of a definition, consisting of two necessary conditions — meaning and embodiment — which led to the doubtless premature definition that something is an artwork only if it embodies its meaning.

It is easy to see how much of the concept of art as it grew by accrual over the millennia is in the end not part of the definition, since something lacking it can still be an art work according to the two criteria I felt resisted counter-exemplification. Naturally, they left out a great deal that belongs to art, but that is how it is with necessary conditions. As a definition, mine could have been thought of at any time. But mostly, philosophers who thought about art at all thought about what made art important to people — its beauty, its expressiveness, its ability to make people laugh or cry.

All of these qualities are important.

As a philosopher, I was concerned to find something that these minimal uninflected works had in common with the humanly far more engaging things that people had responded to as art in earlier periods — comedies, tragedies, novels, symphonies, opera, ballets, frescoes, sculptures of heroes and gods. I felt that as a philosopher, I was fortunate to have lived when I did and where I did, at a moment when almost nothing about the art being made was interesting except for the question of why it was art at all.

They could easily grasp my definition of art. They would say yes — an artwork has and embodies a meaning — but really there are properties far more interesting to discuss than those. Think of the qualities that makes a Sung ink painting a Sung ink painting! Or the Greeks might say of course, The Trojan Women has and embodies a meaning.

But what interest can that have alongside the questions that makes it moving as a tragedy, or why viewers feel purged after sitting through a performance of it? Those philosophers would be unanimous in saying that I had left out everything interesting. But I would explain that since catharsis belongs to some art forms and not others, it cannot be universal — and that I was only interested in properties without which things are not art. No one in the history of the philosophy of art, whether artists or thinkers, could have imagined the art world I experienced in the Sixties or the Seventies.

Suppose I could carry a snow shovel back in time with me. I could explain how useful it was for removing snow, and that would have been readily understood. But if I brought back two snow shovels — one a readymade, the other just a shovel — they would find it hard to see what the difference between them could be. It certainly would not be a noticeable difference — like one having a painted handle and the other just a bare wood handle. People would have a hard time seeing that a snow shovel could be a work of art — but if it was one, then it was hard to see why another snow shovel, like it in all visible respects, was not one.

The difficulty would be that my historical predecessors simply could not imagine the art history of the future — could not imagine the kind of history I and others had lived through in the Sixties and the immediately following decades. But that implies a paradox in its own right.