Zoe: It is a great pleasure to be here in New York, interviewing you for Naked Punch. I’m happy to see that you have a lot of exciting art here in your apartment, including, naturally, the Brillo Box that you have positioned rather nonchalantly under your coffee table. Is that thing real? Is it an, original?
Danto: It is an original appropriation by Mike Bidlo. Mike has made the masterpieces of Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, Duchamp, and many more great artists. Its title is “Not Andy Warhol.” It was a gift from the artist himself.
Zoe: Something interesting that I discovered only recently is that before turning to philosophical and critical writing on art, you were once an artist yourself.
Danto: I was, yes.
Zoe: Can you describe the kind of work you used to make?
Danto: I can, in a way. They were prints, woodcuts. I still have a portfolio of them but I haven’t done any for a very long time.
Zoe: Was that when you were living in Michigan?
Danto: I did study in Michigan for a while, but my artworks were actually mostly influenced by the German Expressionist woodcuts that we had in a museum in Detroit and when I saw them I thought it was something that I wanted to do more than paint. Painting was always more of a problem for me but these kinds of works were very direct. They were also very large, as the general rule. They were all black and white; I never wanted to put any colour into them. Wait let me see if I’ve got one I can show you, would that be OK? I have a catalogue somewhere.
Zoe: Yes, absolutely!
Danto: Here. This is the brochure for a show that I had. It was a very long time ago. This image on the front of the brochure is one of my prints.
Zoe: Wow, that’s great! What does it make me think of? It looks kind of like the bleeding nervous system of a horseman voyaging towards his own death!
Danto: I had in mind Yeats’ epitaph for himself: “cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by”. I love that.
Zoe: According to this brochure you were very successful. The blurb reads: “Arthur Danto is one of the bright stars among our contemporary print makers”. The show was held in 1960.
Danto: Is that when it was, really? 1960? I mean yes, I was fairly successful in making those prints. There was a lot of interest in American prints in general at that time. It was just something I was very able to do. I could get somebody from Columbia to help me with the printing. They didn’t sell for very much money but in those days, what I got was enough to help out and support my two children. I was in a lot of shows at different museums across America and Europe. I had a lot of energy and I really enjoyed doing them but I also realised that at a certain moment I was going to have to choose between doing one thing or the other, art or philosophy. I had one experience, I remember, where I was working with this huge, heavy pine block and I suddenly thought to myself “you know, this is kind of boring. I don’t know why I am doing this anymore.”
Zoe: What do you mean? Boring in the sense that it was too physical or technical, as opposed to intellectual?
Danto: No. It was more moral than anything else. I just felt that I was more interested in writing philosophy at that moment than I was in being an artist. In retrospect, I was much more sensitive than I realised at the time to the changes that were taking place in the artworld. The kind of art that I got interested in philosophically was not the kind of art that I was ever interested in doing. I wasn’t a Pop artist, for example. I just wasn’t keen on making that kind of thing. What I enjoyed making involved a certain kind of figured vitality prevalent in the period of Abstract Expressionism, but a vitality which still had some kind of a message or a meaning. My prints had a lot of life in them. I made a lot of innovations and used a lot of the technology that I found in nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints, so that I could achieve that sense of vitality. So they were very gratifying for me and people were interested in them. Nevertheless, I knew, well, I didn’t know, but I certainly had the sense that everything was all over with as far as that style of work was concerned.
Zoe: What was it more specifically about the art of the 60’s that made you not want to participate in its making?
Danto: It’s just not what I wanted to do, not what I wanted to be. I remember being in Europe in 1961. I had gotten tenure at Colombia and I was living in the South of France, writing my first book, which was called The Analytical Philosophy of History. We went up to Paris at Christmas time just to get away from the Cote d’Azur for a while and during our stay there I went over to the American Library to catch up on the current edition of Art News and see what was going on in New York. I saw this picture in the review section; a piece by Roy Lichtenstein called The Kiss. It was just like a comic strip like ‘Terry and the Pirates’ or something. I remember thinking “that’s just a comic strip, that’s not art”. I couldn’t imagine that such things could be on view anywhere or that anybody would be interested in looking at it seriously. I mean, in those days people were very high-minded about art. It really blew my mind actually and I thought, “Oh my God, I don’t know what’s happening”. It was then that I began to have the sense that if it’s possible for that to be art, then anything can be art. It really felt like the end of the kind of sincere, rich in feeling art that I loved, like De Kooning or Franz Kline, who were really my favourite artists. I mean Kline was not really a figurative artist, but the black and white in Kline, I really adored that. I just started to think that I wasn’t interested in being an artist in a world where that is what art is. I was still working and making prints when we came back to the United States, but without a lot of enthusiasm. I used to keep a studio in there, where the library now is. I was working on a big table, with lots of implements like knives and gouges and so forth and there were always a lot of wood shavings around and I just thought it would be really nice not to have all that crap around, I was tired of being an artist. I remember having this wonderful conversation with myself and I said, “If that’s the way you feel, it’s time to give it up”. I knew I would have to make that decision at some time but I didn’t realise it was going to happen like that. One particular year in the late 50’s or early 60’s I made as much money as an artist as I did as a professor, so I could have easily lived well as an artist. But then as life went on, as art evolved and the 60’s began to take that terrific shift in direction, I thought, “I’m really glad I have stopped. I don’t want to be part of that”. In my time, being an artist was like being a poet. It wasn’t about being ironic. I mean, this piece here that I just showed you, the horseman, was inspired by both poetry and painting, by Yeats’ epitaph and also by Rembrandts’ Polish Rider.
Zoe: Ah yes, the Polish Rider, which is in the Frick, which, thank heavens I had never been to before because I went yesterday for the first time. It is great, isn’t it?
Danto: Yes, I just adore that painting. You know that something is going on, other than a man, riding horseback. I mean, what was his destiny? Where was he headed? It is very powerful in terms of its human meaning. I felt that in the art of the 60’s, that possibility of depth, of really deep human meaning, had disappeared almost totally. I mean of course there was something else going on: the philosophical questions were almost transparent, they were really out there. I learned philosophically from the art of the 60’s but I really didn’t want to make it. Philosophically, I was very excited by Warhol and Lichtenstein. I mean, I loved the irony and I loved the disrespect for a lot of the 1950’s artists but I was a 50’s artist, I wasn’t a 60’s artist. Somebody like myself, if I had just been an artist, I would have wound up an art teacher. This way I had this rather fabulous life as a philosopher.
Zoe: Art in the 60’s is commonly perceived to have become “dematerialised” in form. Artists such as Kosuth even claimed that art was no longer about materials or medium, but could be reduced to an analytic proposition. Despite this, would you say that there is still something about the presentation of philosophical ideas through art in particular, as opposed to philosophy, which can offer us something that a direct engagement with philosophy cannot? I mean, despite what you call the “transparency” of their philosophical content, what was your actual experience of these artworks at the time?
Danto: Yes I think art can offer something distinct. I have often written about Warhol’s show in 1964 at the Stable Gallery and how their philosophical content was just so palpable. I mean, you’ve got these things and their facsimile’s, that aren’t Brillo boxes, but they look just like Brillo boxes and you say well, you can have two things that look exactly alike but one is a work of art and one is just a mere container. And so the question arises, what makes it art. That question was something very vivid, intense and felt. I never could have found that out if it hadn’t been for the 60’s. There was never anything quite like that, never anything quite so transparent yet palpable in that way.
Zoe: In retrospect, do you think that the claims of critics such as Lucy Lippard that the “dematerialisation” of conceptual art represents a certain lack of concern with artistic medium have been overstated?
Danto: No I don’t think so. I think that was it, for the most part. I mean there was a certain frivolity about it. The Conceptual artists were interested to a large degree in questions of ontology. I remember Robert Barry took a canister of oxygen and released the gas into the atmosphere. Well that’s pretty interesting but its not exactly moving you to tears. It’s not got much to do with anything concerning people’s lives. I never actually thought philosophy had much to with people’s lives either, but I always thought that art should have. But it was that moment when art had shown its philosophical face that I was able to generate a whole lot of interesting philosophical ideas, and so am very grateful to the 60’s for having made those ideas possible.
Zoe: As a graduate student, what did you make of the philosophical aesthetics canon?
Danto: I did my graduate work at Columbia in the 50’s where I had to pass examinations in various fields of philosophy, including aesthetics. So I read all the canonical aesthetics books. I remember reading Kant, Hegel and Dewey, for example, but I couldn’t see that any of them had anything to do with what moved me as an artist, what I was really interested in, or the actual art shows that I was going to see around that time. I remember that Barnet Newman was concerned with and talked about the American sublime, but I couldn’t quite fit that into Kant’s notion of the sublime, so I thought it was just hardly worth reading any of the canon because it had nothing to do with art, as I understood it.
Zoe: I feel similarly, about Kant anyhow. Unfortunately Hegel did not qualify as canonical on my Masters course, but recently I have been beginning to think that his account is quite brilliant and comprehensive. Is there a particular philosopher or book that you do see as speaking in some way to the actual experience of art as you understand it? Are there any theories that feel more accessible or palpable to you?
Danto: Well, later on I came to the point where I thought that Hegel was fabulous, but at that earlier point I just didn’t know how to apply it. One of the great things about Hegel is that he did actually look at a lot of art. He frequented all the museums and he was always going around to all the private collections. He also had access to a lot of prints and reproductions. I mean he was a critic, an incredibly good critic. That’s the thing that amazes me about him. When you read Hegel on a painting it is overwhelming to see just how deeply he got into art, but Kant never gave me that feeling and Dewey didn’t either really and neither did Nietzsche. None of them had that first hand sense of reading a painting and seeing what holds it together and why it’s important to know about it. I later on got more out of Nietzsche but was never overwhelmed by him. I mean it wouldn’t have mattered whether he’d lived or not, as far as explaining a painting goes. But Hegel really did have a firm sense of what made a painting interesting and good. There’s a great painting by Raphael called Transfiguration. Christ is on top of a mountain with two of his disciples and there is a kid down below, a deeply disturbed looking boy, on a lower plane. People would always wonder what the two parts had to do with one another. Many people thought it was just a really bad painting, they thought that Raphael couldn’t handle it somehow, that he couldn’t get the two parts to work together. But Hegel said no, although Christ is showing himself to his disciples he is also with the disturbed boy. Hegel quotes from a prayer, which says: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. Christ is just showing himself to his disciples but the lower plane with the troubled boy is where he belongs and can be of help. Hegel worked it all out. He showed how the two parts connected and I thought that was so great and so thrilling. So I came to see Hegel as a really deep thinker on art.
Zoe: You studied in Paris of course. For clarification, did you actually study under Merleau-Ponty, or is that a rumour?
Danto: I did study in Paris, but I never studied under Merleau-Ponty. I’ve never been able to figure out quite how that rumour got started. I studied under Jean Wahl at the Sorbonne. I guess Merleau-Ponty was at the College de France at that time.
Zoe: What was it like to be studying in Paris in the post-war period?
Danto: Well, it was very casual. I mean nobody paid a lot of attention to you, which was a wonderful thing.
Zoe: This was around the time when Paris was just beginning to lose its status as the centre of the international art world.
Danto: Yes, I mean, it was the centre of the artworld more than it was the centre of the philosophical world. What was interesting in Paris at that point, philosophically speaking, would have been Existentialism, particularly Sartre. I later on wrote a book on Sartre and that was really exciting for me but you couldn’t really work with him, he wasn’t teaching, you just had to read Les Temps Modernes to access his ideas. There existed academic French philosophy but I never bumped into anybody who particularly amazed me. At this point I was less interested in philosophy and still deeply interested in art and in what artistic scenes were emerging. I was still making art too, though not really seriously. I used to go to the Academie Julien, on the Rue du Dragon to draw. I’d go there three or four times a week in the later afternoon. It was very cheap to go and hang out there and draw the model for the afternoon. I wasn’t getting anywhere with it but it was just a very satisfactory way of working, a great thing to do.
Zoe: When you went back to New York after Paris, was it very apparent that it was now generating itself as the new centre of the artworld? Were the developments striking or surprising?
Danto: What was interesting to come back to was Pop Art. I didn’t know about Pop, I didn’t know about Fluxus. But when I saw a picture of it in Paris I thought, “I’ve really got to see this stuff. I’ve really got to understand this”. I needed to know why anybody would ever want to make it. So when I came back to New York I saw everything that was being done. There were just a few galleries that showed Pop Art at that time; there was the Castelli Gallery, there was a place called the Green Gallery, which was on 57th Street and there was the Janus Gallery and so forth. What’s really funny is that when I was living in Nice, in a little rented villa overlooking the Mediterranean for $75 a month, I was completely unaware that there was a rich scene of avant-garde work being produced there, that there was all this creative life in Nice. I thought Paris is where you should be to make art, but Paris was very dangerous at the time, due to the Algerian war, so I took my family down to the South of France and we got this villa and I wrote my first book as I was saying. But down there in Nice, Yves Klein was working away who, at that moment, I think was probably the most interesting artist in France. I didn’t know that he was there at the time. I just found out recently actually. I mean I was in the South of France. I didn’t realise that there was art being made in Nice that was really pretty exciting. If I had known about it at the time, I’m not sure I would have been able to do anything about it anyway because it was so avant-garde. I wasn’t really up for that at that time but I might have gotten to be ahead of things if I’d got to know some of the people in these groups. As I said, there were quite a few Fluxus people down there, including Ben Vautier. He owned a record shop but was also a kind of philosopher. He would make works that said things like: “Ben = art”. I mean he was obviously kind of a nut. Actually, I am having dinner tonight with somebody who has asked me to write a little essay on Ben Vautier for an exhibition he is having in Lyon. So great, I am writing about Ben Vautier now but I could have had drinks with him in those days.
Zoe: Were there any artists that you were close to around this time, artists who maybe influenced or inspired your studies or your more general philosophical ideas or writing?
Danto: The one interaction that meant a great deal to me was that I got to know Giacometti in Paris, whom I used to have philosophical discussions with. I mean I was writing my dissertation at the time but he was really interested in the kinds of questions that a graduate student was thinking about, such as sense data and so on. So we used to sit in this little café near Montparnasse where his studio was and that was quite thrilling because I really had seen his work and I thought he was probably a great, great artist. I was able to meet him and go over to his studio and see his art and talk about philosophical issues around perception and I also got to learn about why he was doing what he was doing. I learnt a great deal. I later wrote an article for The Nation on Giacometti. There was a wonderful exhibition here of his work just after 9/11 at the Museum of Modern Art, which seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to pour out my memoirs.
Zoe: Do you find that writing about art, for The Nation for example, being an art critic, was a good way of balancing out the academic work you were doing? I mean do you think that it in some way prevented your philosophy from becoming too abstract, like those canonical thinkers you have described, encouraging it to remain anchored in dialogue with the actual art that was being made around you?
Danto: Yes, precisely. It was wonderful, really wonderful. It was the most wonderful thing in the world for me to be able to do that. I was a little tired of writing analytical philosophy, but I didn’t know what else to do. I mean honestly, I didn’t do it for any other reason except to have a great time. That’s what it boils down to. Betsy said, “come down and we’ll discuss a show” and I said, “OK”. There was a show on at the Whitney and it was called BLAM! which was the title of a painting by Roy Lichtenstein. The curator at the Whitney envisaged it as a show about New York art from 1957-64. 1964 was when the famous Warhol show was so it was a pretty important year for art and I thought, “Wow”. I mean 1957-64, I had really studied that existentially. I came back from France specifically to study that and I had really immersed myself in it. Before that I had being looking at De Kooning and Pollock and Rothko and after I came back from France I was looking at Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and Warhol. So I thought “I wanna do BLAM! I wanna do BLAM!” Yeah, so basically, I had a lot to say about BLAM! I can tell you that and so I wrote this piece for it. Betsy was a really tough woman but she said ‘this is really thrilling’. She really loved how I wrote about it. No typical art critic was going to write the way I did about Pop Art. I asked her if she paid by the word or by the piece or whether I would get paid at all. It was only $100 an article back then, but then it comes out immediately: you don’t have to wait for four years for it to get published in the philosophical review. It was right away, it was instant gratification and that was really nice. So she said ‘what are you going to do next’? And I thought “well, I can’t write about Pop Art for the rest of my life, I need something new”. There was an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about Van Gogh in Les Arles. He had gone down there thinking it would be like Hokusai in Japan or something. There was a big snowstorm when he arrived. The south of France is not as warm in the winter as you want it to be. Anyway, I decided to write about Van Gogh. I got interested in the fact that Van Gogh cut his ear off within six weeks of Nietzsche going mad. I found that very interesting that both the great philosopher and the great artist of that time had these coeval breakdowns and I started to wonder why. Part of the reason that Van Gogh cut his ear off is that he couldn’t concentrate for very long and then of course Nietzsche would write these very small aphorisms, so I began thinking that what they probably both suffered from were these very short attention spans. They were both suffering intense headaches and so forth. They were both dying of syphilis basically at that point.
Zoe: You are suggesting that Nietzsche’s tendency towards aphoristic writing is the result of some kind of ADD syndrome?
Danto: It was an interesting way into thinking about them. I thought I could maybe bring them together in that way. I’m sure you need great talent to write aphoristically, that it requires great structure. He was thinking and writing in creative bursts though, all the time. If not in aphorisms then in short little essays comprised of little bursts of concentrated thought.
Zoe: Speaking of Nietzsche, you wrote a book about him in 1965 when it seemed like the rest of academia was largely demonising, or at the least, avoiding him, following the events of World War II. I was wondering what motivated or inspired you to do that? Why did you think it might be valuable and was it a premeditated attempt to somehow redeem his name?
Danto: Yeah, he was pretty demonised wasn’t he? Yeah he really was. I studied Nietzsche as an undergraduate in Michigan, which, at that point was the only philosophy course I had ever taken. It was a course on Nietzsche, taken through the German department. I really got to like Nietzsche when I was reading him, but nobody else had read him at all when I got to New York. Nobody was interested in Nietzsche back then. This guy, Paul Edwards, who was kind of an entrepreneur about putting out philosophy books, asked me if I would write about Nietzsche for a series called A Critical History of Philosophy. They couldn’t find anybody else that they respected who had even read him.
Zoe: So it wasn’t some kind of statement then?
Danto: On my part, no, not at that time at least. But then I read him a lot in the profession of a philosopher and I thought, “Good God, this guy is an analytic philosopher”. I mean that was what knocked me cold, that Nietzsche was writing all these things about language and science, even logic. He was really more like us than he was like any continental thinker. I called my book Nietzsche as Philosopher and Lionel Trilling said it was the snottiest title he had ever heard of. He thought it was really hysterical. It was definitely brash.
Zoe: Why not Nietzsche as Analytic Philosopher? I mean it’s interesting how Nietzsche went from being demonised by both sides to being claimed somewhat by both analytic and continental philosophy.
Danto: As far as I was concerned at that point, philosophy was analytic philosophy. Once I had written the book on Nietzsche other people could read it and see that he was a really great philosopher, and he really was. You have to remember that he was writing at a time when nobody else was thinking about such fabulous questions. He was really something to consider. After my book came out, it set in motion a kind of industry of Nietzsche: everybody wanted to write about Nietzsche. I think it did help analytic philosophers who wanted to write about something a little more interesting than reduction sentences or bridge laws and so on. I was perfectly content with reduction sentences and bridge laws. I really liked the philosophy of science in a formal way, but I wrote the book and people took it up. But I wasn’t trying to make anything, except a little bit of money. I had the knowledge and I had read the stuff so why not do something with it? After I had written the first draft Paul Edwards said, “Look, its too long but this is what I’ll do. If you cut it down for the book then I’ll get you a contract to write a bigger book on Nietzsche. You could just expand it in one direction or another”. He got me a contract where I would get $1500 advance on the book. That seemed like so much money at that time. It’s still quite a lot of money for an academic book, so I said, “sure”. I finished up in France, writing The Analytic Philosophy of History and my wife wanted to go somewhere else, she didn’t like it that much down there, so we went to Rome. In Rome there was a German library, which I was able to go to. I read a lot of Nietzsche, including all the correspondences he had with his friends. There wasn’t anything philosophical in it but you did get a sense of him as a human being and that was very interesting.
Zoe: Did you have much contact with any of the Abstract Expressionist artists? Were you writing about art at all around that time? It seems like it would have been an exceptionally exciting time in the New York art scene.
Danto: Yes, it was extremely exciting times. I didn’t actually know any of the artists though and wasn’t really writing anything much like that in the 50’s. I just didn’t know how to write about them. The first thing that I wrote on the philosophy of art was an essay called ‘The Artworld’ in 1964, nothing really before that. A man called Paul Ziff was supposed to give a talk at the APA meeting in Boston and he had to pull out, I don’t know why. They knew that I had an interest in art but had never written and thought it would be interesting for me to try. I knew just what I wanted to write. It was so exciting. It just practically wrote itself. After that I didn’t really write anything else until The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.
Zoe: In retrospect, what do you think the Abstract Expressionists were trying to achieve?
Danto: Oh they were wonderful! But what were they trying to achieve? … What were they trying to achieve? Um, that’s a really interesting question I think. You know, people had pieces of theory for them but … I think they were trying to find a way of being an artist and also being a very private person. That is to say that before that in the New York artworld, one of the problems was whether to be a Communist or not. If you were going to be a Communist then your art should be for the people.
Zoe: Obviously these dilemmas became more acute following the period of censorship, right?
Danto: Yeah, that kind of thing. As an example, I remember the artist Arshile Gorky had great contempt for a certain Communist painting. He said it was poor painting for poor people. The Abstract Expressionists, due to the WPA (Work progress Administration), which Roosevelt put in place during the depression, had a chance to be artists without having to align themselves with a specific political identity. I mean there may be politics in there somewhere but it was not necessarily explicit. I think that was very important to them. Take Gorky for example. Sometime in the late 40’s or early 50’s, he really had a breakthrough as an artist. His work at this time was really exciting and suggested ways of using paint that nobody else had thought about. He took a vacation and went to Virginia with his wife and started painting these fields. He came from Turkey you see and was Armenian and the fields reminded him of the meadows in Armenia. It was a very private thing that he discovered in himself, these forms and colours from Armenia. He came from a part of the world where he had suffered a great deal though, due to the persecution of the Armenians and he began to think more and more of his homeland as a paradise and he tried to get that into these paintings. There is politics in there of course, but it was a beautiful moment in Gorky’s life in that, I think, he was a paradigm of an artist who had an experience that was uniquely his.
(Featured in NP 14, which you can purchase from our shop for 3 pounds including postage and delivery: http://nakedpunch.com/site/issues)