The twentieth century is associated with several key changes in aesthetics. Arguably the most important one is the emergence of modernism – a radical shift in the perception of art. This shift reflected in many comments by prominent thinkers of the time, with some characterizing the phenomenon as “the end of art.” However, the core premises behind the concepts differ depending on theory. In the following essay, we argue that the concept of art’s end does not require its absolute termination and contains the possibility of its eventual transformation into the new form. By analyzing the theory by Arthur Danto and countering it with an arguably broader view by Heidegger, we suggest a way of framing the end of art as a condition for the birth of new aesthetics.
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Arthur Danto is a philosopher and art critic most famous for his support of the concept of the “end of art,” which is often considered a continuation and an expansion of Hegel’s ideas of similar character. However, unlike Hegel, Danto has one particular advantage in his analysis: he has at his disposal works of art which were not available to Hegel at the time of his life. This leads to a more modern interpretation of Hegelian ideas to the degree where it can be considered a separate theory. According to Danto, modern art possesses a range of characteristic features which distinguish it from the traditional concept. First, its differences from the non-artistic objects are not apparent – that is, it does not prominently stand out as art. Second, it usually conveys a unique meaning supported by its own definition. Third, it exists beyond historical context – in Danto’s own definition, it is post-historical (Danto et al. 93). Finally, and most importantly, such art requires the knowledge of historical context and demands from the viewer the capability of philosophical reflection.
As a result, modern art in this form cannot be understood without completing both conditions which clearly moves it away from the artistic category into the domain of philosophy. In simpler terms, according to Danto art ends because it eventually merges with philosophy – a view which displays some similarities with Hegel’s take on the matter. One of the examples provided by Danto of this end of art is the exhibit at the Stable Gallery in New York, which included, among other things, several works by Andy Warhol (Danto et al. 3). According to the philosopher, the defining feature of the exhibited works was the requirement posed by them to the viewer to perceive them through comprehension rather than experience – in other words, such art requires the involvement of philosophy to understand the message.
Danto’s approach to the theme of the end of art can be presented through three consecutive phases. The first phase can be described as a grand narrative of art and is characterized by the presence of art history as its central component (Danto et al. 93). In this phase, the history of art is presented as defining the cultural progress. The beginning of modernism marks the end of this phase. The second phase shifts the perspective of the progress of art away from the development of the forms of its representation – for example, during the period of modernism, the traditional art pieces can no longer be considered as developing new forms of representation relative to the demands of the era. Instead, modernism introduces a new understanding of art by formulating a range of new definitions. Importantly, art loses its singular narrow definition and consequently gains freedom of forms of expression. The easiest example of such freedom and loss of necessity for external meaning is abstract expressionism – an artistic movement which allows paintings to exist within their own realm of abstract two-dimensional form.
These inherent characteristics are sufficient for the existence of the art piece and contribute to its value without the need for the additional message. In a sense, such approach allows art to become less bound by the conditions of the reality – since it does not need to convey them, it becomes more sincere and less limited by the boundaries of the world. Basically, this concept of freedom from external influences resembles the attainment of self-consciousness by art as a category, which again draws visible parallels to Hegel’s ideas. The important difference, however, is the third phase, absent from Hegel’s theory. During it, the multitude of definitions and the resulting diversity of meanings assigned to modern art, which exists outside the historical space, make it impossible to identify art among similar non-artistic objects.
Simply put, the freedom attained by art during the second phase eventually transforms into pluralism – a sum of interpretations pertinent to any given artifact. This pluralism of meanings, disruptive for the traditional understanding of art and diminishing the significance of the post-historical ones, ultimately leads the process of art to an end. In addition, it creates a situation where the previous body of traditional knowledge does not in any way aid the viewer in experiencing art – at this stage art demands viewing it as a philosophical problem. Interestingly, the lack of features which allow to conclusively distinguish between art and non-art also create a situation where the initially non-artistic objects demand equal consideration on whether they can qualify as art. Obviously, while this further expands the philosophical domain of the issue, it also completely eliminates the possibility to perceive it as art in any of the established senses. To sum up, art according to Danto is over once it stops its development in a particular direction and in accordance with formulated standards. This eventually leads to it losing the features of art and acquiring features of philosophy, merging with it in the end.
Heidegger, in his The Origin of the Work of Art, makes a claim that art is in decline which, on the surface, is consistent with the point expressed by Danto (“Martin Heidegger”). However, upon closer inspection it can be argued that Heidegger’s view not only has several key differences in both the understanding of art and the reasons for its decline but, more importantly, contains details which, when put in the context of Danto’s ideas, suggest a transformation rather than a disappearance of art.
First, Heidegger’s definition of art is notably different from that of Danto’s. While it can be associated with the former due to its reliance on experience as a chief way of comprehending it, it differs by introducing the category of aesthetics which, according to Heidegger, determine the consideration of two primary groups of things – forms of art and artists who create it. Aesthetics is therefore considered by Heidegger a specific form of philosophy, which allows him to explain the development of the understanding of art. To be more specific, the evolution of the theory of perception in philosophy leads to the changes in the way of perception of art. The latest incarnation of this theory is categorized by Heidegger “the lived experience”, or “Erlebnis” (Wallenstein 164). However, unlike Danto, Heidegger does not associate the development of the concept of Erlebnis with the specifics of art forms of the period – instead, according to him, they emerge as a result of a broader spectrum of concepts from related fields, such as metaphysics or, in this particular example, the philosophical movement of Lebensphilosophie, common in Western European tradition at the beginning of XX century as a response to the overwhelming presence of science and technology in the people’s lives (“Martin Heidegger”).
An obvious conclusion from this suggestion is the expectations projected at art works by both their creators and consumers – that is, the necessity to deliver a satisfying experience. As a result, the features of art are not the reason for its decline (as understood by Danto), but rather the understanding of its purpose by the artists and the recipients formed by the experience and imposed at art pieces. To conclude, the aesthetics shape an environment which determines the characteristics of art during its creation and the outcomes of its perception. This leads us to another important conclusion – art is not ultimately responsible either for its form or its content – both are resulting from the development of the philosophical concepts used as guiding principles for aesthetics.
Judging from the information above, we can see that for Heidegger the question of truths conveyed via art forms is ultimately reassigned to aesthetics and, therefore, to philosophy. As long as philosophy assigns importance to the messages, or truths, relevant for the society, aesthetics are expected to assure the presence of these truths in art pieces created in accord with it. As a result, it can be argued that in Heidegger’s view art is dependent on aesthetics and, therefore, cannot exist separately or attain any degree of freedom. The only course of actions which can result in a change in art (or avoidance of decline, for that matter) is the change of philosophical concepts which shape aesthetics. Thus, Heidegger’s view on the matter does not necessitate the termination of the meaning of art. Rather, it opens up the possibility of transforming the aesthetics with the development of philosophical concepts. Art, according to Heidegger, is not a method of delivering truth to the recipient – it is a form in which truth manifests itself in human existence (Wallenstein 154). Therefore, if art is over, Heidegger’s theory frames it as an onset of the new philosophical understanding or, at the very least, a signal for it to reconsider its certain elements.
In conclusion, we can say that in Danto’s theory, philosophy is the ultimate destination of art – according to it, modern art challenges the viewer with the need to think it over, which makes it closer to philosophy. In addition, Danto’s theory leaves space for the redefined concept of art as a form of philosophy (the effect he was optimistic and curious about), but viewed in separation, it suggests a mere change of requirements. In Heidegger’s view, on the other hand, philosophy is the ultimate determinant of art. However, his suggestion also allows us to see it as a possible solution to the decline of art. Aesthetics is responsible for the end of art – but only to the point in time when humankind is ready to change its aesthetical views and corresponding truths. Simply put, Heidegger’s approach leaves space for rebirth of aesthetics and, therefore, essentially allows us to reframe the end of art as a transition rather than true ending.
Danto, Arthur, et al. The Wake of Art: Criticism, Philosophy, and the Ends of Taste. Psychology Press, 2013.
“Martin Heidegger.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011, Web.
Wallenstein, Sven-Olov. “The Historicity of the Work of Art in Heidegger.” DiVA Portal, 2005, Web.