The School of Arthur Danto
Each semester for a quarter-century, as I’ve geared up to teach one text or another by Arthur Danto, I’ve introduced him – as I did in my class on beauty on Thursday, Oct. 24 – as “our greatest living philosopher of art.” By the time we reconvened the next Monday, that statement was false; Danto died on the 25th at age 89, completing a transition from the idiosyncratic to the canonical.
I first read Danto’s work – specifically his classic work in aesthetics, “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace” – in the late 1980s, when I was a graduate student working in philosophy of art. It had a liberating effect, for a number of reasons. For one thing, aesthetics had long been a marginal sub-discipline in analytic philosophy, and seemed ready by then to peter out entirely. Serious philosophers wanted to talk about the semantics of modal logic or the structure of science rather than the disconcertingly elusive and passionate realm of the arts.
In that context, the existence of Danto seemed a bit miraculous. He was by then an eminent analytic philosopher who had already taken on many of the most difficult questions in the discipline. And not only had he been engaged in the visual arts as an artist, a critic, and a philosopher, he thought of aesthetics as a foundation that could shed light on all the other questions, including those in epistemology and the philosophy of science. Every time one of my professors or fellow students hinted that aesthetics wasn’t really serious, I’d wave that book around: literally, if I had a copy handy, which I usually did. I ran through a number of copies, wearing them out or giving them away as a form of proselytizing.