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‘Between Art and Life’: NP Interview with Arthur Danto

From Naked Punch 03,  Summer, 2005.

NP: We’re familiar with the discontinuity between art produced before, say, the 14th century, and art produced after that period, with the earlier work being almost exclusively religious or devotional in character. The devotional and religious meanings really structured people’s relations to this art: their artistic character didn’t enter into their production, as an independently important thing, and the artist doesn’t really enter into our explanation of them— 

ACD: Not as the general rule. 

NP: Not as the general rule. You wrote about this in After the End of Art. And the period after this, beginning with the early Renaissance I guess, really inaugurated the era of the concept of art, where the aesthetic qualities did start to figure dominantly in the production of the work and the religious or devotional meanings accommodated the separate artistic meanings, made room for them. It was a major shift, a Kuhnian-type paradigm shift, and you’ve written—you’re perhaps best known for this idea—that a shift of comparable magnitude took place in this century with the work of Warhol and Duchamp. That the era of art has ended.  

ACD: I think so, yeah. When you talk about the 14th century, that’s quite a wipe of time, but I do believe something like that happened and Warhol is really the one who figures most in my reckoning. What was happening in the 60s with a lot of people—Cage, Duchamp, Fluxus, even Minimalism—where most of the borders or boundary lines were being washed away and there were no longer any basic aesthetic constraints on what could be considered a work of art. Now, the 14th century, I’m not really so sure about the dating of all this. Do you know Hans Belting’s book? 

NP: Yeah, Likeness and Presence.  

ACD: I’ve reviewed it. It’s had a big influence on me. I think he was talking about the devotional imagery, the things that people prayed to, which had no particular artistic merit but people prayed to them because they thought they had this power. That they gave people direct access to whoever the image was an image of. But I think its clear that medieval art had tremendously more aesthetic merit: the carvings on the facades of churches, the stained glass windows, the churches themselves. They were really aesthetically powerful works and worthy aesthetics was part of the impact they were supposed to have on people. So he, Belting, he more or less takes the devotional image up to the Renaissance where the aesthetics kicks in, and I think the whole of medieval art belongs to a different theme. He’s taking these devotional images from the last years of the Roman Empire and so forth and I think it goes a little differently. But, for all that, I think that the 1960s, whatever was happening that surfaced in the 60s, that was a similar change to a new period. We’re still in this new period and are likely to be for a very long time. 

NP: How would you characterize the difference between the post-historical moment and what you call “the era of art”, in terms of this transition in the 60s? 

ACD: You know the slogan they had at the time, where they talked about overcoming the gap between Art and Life—this was something that Fluxus talked about a lot—and Rauschenberg in a famous quotation said that he “worked in the gap between Art and Life”, and what he meant was that you could make art out of anything at this point. “A pair of socks”, as he puts it. That idea, that you’re interested in eradicating in some way or overcoming in some way the gap—that’s the word—between Art and Life, I think that characterizes it. Which opens up a great deal. The materials of the artist when Rauschenberg began, like his work Monogram, I mean he takes a stuffed goat and puts a tire around its midriff and slathers paint on it. Or he uses Coke bottles. From about ‘57 to ‘64 if you’re thinking in terms of periods, Rauschenberg and Johns ultimately connect, think of tributaries flowing in, with Duchamp and Cage and then Fluxus, Pop, these other things. Think of Minimalism, for example, which begins to open up in the middle ‘60s, using pre-fabricated sides of houses. Robert Mangold used piles of hemp, flax, things of that sort, that’s what I had in mind. That you can’t tell whether it’s a work of art by looking at it any longer. From that perspective I think aesthetics drops completely out of the picture. So then what are you involved with? You know I came across this wonderful formulation recently. There’s a book by a guy who’s at Oxford named Joseph Koerner, The Reformation of the Image, and at one point he talks about Hegel: he refers to a transition from “an aesthetic of forms to an aesthetic of meanings”, and I think that’s it. In that he book he talks about keeping iconoclasm at bay when the Reformation was taking place, and everyone was saying we don’t need images any more. People had become devoted to images and these icons that they prayed to, and they said that was in violation of the second commandment, so they began tearing them down, smashing crucifixions. Then Luther began to work out an extraordinarily interesting set of ideas in which the image would be understood as a text. It embodied the same ideas that Luther was trying to get across in his sermons. He talks a lot about this altarpiece in the church at Wittenberg by Lucas Cranach which tries to do that, particularly in the predella, where in the center is a crucifixion that looks sort of like a sculpture. You start to wonder what a sculpture would be doing there and are led to reflect on the reality of the crucifixion. It’s an interesting idea and I think that something like that, where meaning replaces form as a central organizing concept for thinking about art, that’s something that happened as a result of this transformation in the 60’s. I’ve got this idea but I haven’t published a lot on it yet, actually, that one of the main things that helped crystallize all this in New York in the 60s was Zen. Daisetz Suzuki’s lectures up here at Columbia on Zen. 

NP: You wrote about that in your essay on Munakata.  

ACD: On Munakata, yes! And I’ve got an essay but it’s not out yet called “Upper West Side Buddhism”. I listened to Suzuki, went to those lectures, and Cage would come up, Guston would come up, Duchamp, that whole Suzuki thing was very important at the time. Cage’s idea was basically just that, overcoming the gap between Art and Life. Why shouldn’t any sound be a musical sound? Why restrict it to just the sounds that classically have been regarded as musical sounds? You know the famous piece 4’ 33”? 

NP: It had its anniversary a couple years ago. 

ACD: Yes, it was 1952 the first time it was performed up in Woodstock, New York. It was performed by Anthony Tudor. Essentially you let the sounds of the world flow in and that’s the piece. Whatever particular sounds happen to be occurring, that’s the work. 

NP: And it would be the structure of silence that permits those sounds to flow in. 

ACD: Well, in a way it is. But the silence isn’t necessarily part of the meaning. If somebody should play Bach while that’s happening, that would be the piece. But mostly it’s just coughing and shuffling papers and motorcycles going by. And Suzuki opened things up for that, too.  

NP: You’ve also written about the “disciplined spontaneity” of Zen.   

ACD: Yeah. 

NP: Which one could argue has been part of the story of the genesis of art all along, even in the Romantic period. That art is produced out of a disciplined spontaneity. “The spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility”, where a logic is generated out of and then imposed back on to a free flow of emotion. It’s an old idea, at least. 

ACD: It’s an old idea, but I think it took on its ontological meaning in the 50s. What I think was interesting to people at that time was that there’s no particular way that religion has to be practiced. There used to be all these books, Zen and the Art of Archery, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there are all these ways,or you could cook or whatever and these are all, or can become, so to speak, religious practices. There is no one way. This was one of Suzuki’s ideas. At first I thought about spontaneity and I saw that one of the ways this was taken in was in the Abstract Expressionists work, the gesture, but now I think Zen had less of an impact on Abstract Expressionism than it did on this other idea: that there is no one way the work of art has to be. 

NP: And you’ve also said that that represents a particular kind of self-consciousness, a Hegelian-style self-consciousness on the part of the artistic tradition. 

ACD: I think so. That was the idea, at any rate. 


NP: Right. 

ACD: I’ve been chipping away at these thoughts, one way or the other. 

NP: One interesting way is that, you’ve written that “Art has ended with the disclosure, with the coming to consciousness, of its own philosophical structure”. 

ACD: I thought that. That’s right. I’ve had a lot of different formulations of that. The “end of art” idea came to me around 1984 when I published the first paper. I thought that when it was no longer possible to tell which is a work of art and which isn’t, that there are no formal differences, so to speak, then there is no longer the possibility of a direction. That means the end of “history” for Art. There’s no longer any possibility of a master narrative, and I think we are really living in that kind of a world at this point. Philosophical ideas are not supposed to come out like that, but I think Art actually did come out that way. I got very keen on the question. After all, Hegel talked about the end of Art in the Lectures on Aesthetics, but he meant something different. I don’t think he could’ve acknowledged as art most of what I was perfectly willing, at the end of the 20th century, to see as art. I think he thought “the end of art” meant that art could no longer do what it had done, now philosophy could do that…but I’ve lived in a less robust period of philosophy. People didn’t expect anything of philosophy anymore. They didn’t know what to do with philosophy anymore. It wasn’t as though art, as Hegel puts it, was dependent on the senses, was “the sensory presentation of ideas” and so forth, which philosophy can dispense with. It was a very different notion, therefore, the “end of art”. It was really a different kind of thesis. I used to say, a little bit outrageously, that it ended in April of 1964, which is kind of specific. Things began to fall into place in that way. It kind of astonished me, but it turned out to be true, this new way that art began to be made. 

NP: So what ended was not the production but the narrative that had previously existed to explain, to give meaning to that production, and the questions about narrative which Duchamp and Warhol and Cage, Rauschenberg, all the artists you’ve been talking about, the questions their work represented were all at bottom the question of master narratives. Here you have the question of art, of what art is, being asked by a work of art itself from inside the realm of art, and that this is a special kind of self-consciousness, maybe a terminal kind. The self-consciousness of meta-narrativity.  

ACD:  That’s right. 

NP: And I was wondering if…I mean you’re right: we are living in what you call the post-historical moment, where narratives have collapsed across the board, not just in art. It seems however that there isn’t really anywhere to go once you’ve made the meta-narrative point. Once you’ve asked the question of questioning.  

ACD: Yeah. 

NP: You either retreat into a kind of nostalgia or studied naivete, or just keep boringly repeating the question, or you throw up your hands and say the hell with it like Duchamp did— 

ACD: But people do go on making art in this fantastically diverse way. That’s what really astonishes me. The impulse to make art is as powerful as its ever been, more powerful in the sense that you don’t even need to have any formal training. You can just start making it. You go into art schools today and you find that they no longer teach skills. They no longer teach painting. They may have it for those who want to make portraits or something, but basically you go there to work out these ideas. To find out what it is that you want to say and how you want to say it. The faculty is just there to help you with that kind of thing. And more and more people want to do it. I was just invited out to Utah State, in Logan, Utah, way up in northern Utah, and they have an art department. I was invited out to give a lecture—they do these things, invite people from New York to come out and give the students some idea of how people in New York think—and I asked how many art students they had. Well they had about 650, and I thought that was amazing. Just wonderful. That 650 people are majoring in art at Utah State. Then I got back to New York—this turned out to be a magic number—I got back and asked the head of the visual arts department at Columbia, who was reviewing applications at the time, about the size of the applicant pool. He said 650 people were applying for 22 places. And at Columbia you’re going to be paying tuition like you were going to medical school or law school, and there’s no help. None to speak of, really. 

NP: Jesus. 

ACD: Yeah. So people stagger out of art schools these days with this enormous debt, but this is how they want their lives to be. This is the kind of life they want to have. And I think a lot about that, I’d like to get a better idea of why that’s happening, but for one thing most of the formal obstacles have been withdrawn. You don’t have to have the kind of talent that used to be necessary to be an artist. You can be an artist in a very different way, and there are all kinds of means available to you. I was thinking about the end of the 60s and into the 70s, when these marvelous photographers like Nan Goldin or Cindy Sherman were appearing. Photography was a natural first step because right away anybody can get a creditable image by means of the camera. Nan Goldin took something out of vernacular culture, the idea of a slide show, and that work—The Ballad of Sexual Deependency for example—that work that she was doing was remarkably good. 

NP: So would you say then that now you need, really, a talent to notice or a talent to think, rather than a talent to craft? 

ACD: Exactly. That’s it. I mean, Barbara and I just visited her nephew, who’s a sculpture student at Rutgers, and he’s building these intricate house-of-cards structures with tiles painted with nail polish. He gets all the girls to give him their old nail polish. It was really quite beautiful and he has this incredible patience. So you know it seems to be a transformation of a really remarkable sort. I felt with the Whitney Biennial of 2002, where you had all of these artists that no one ever heard of, that they were all working. Here was a beautiful work: it was a little collaborative called Praxis, just a man and a woman and they had this little storefront down in the East Village. You could go in on Saturdays and get one of three things: you could get a hug, you could have a band-aid put on and they would kiss it, or you could ask for a dollar and they’d give you a dollar. Simple things, but people would go in, they’d line up, get hugged, ask for a band aid—she’d put it on and make them feel better—or they’d get a dollar. And I thought, God how simple can life get, but there was something very moving about that work. It was interactive, people just came in, the couple were being artists in this kind of way. I thought it had a lot of meaning.  

NP: Would you say that the meaning of this particular work, for example, is mostly intelligible because it’s in dialogue with the institution of the Whitney? That here there’s this very simple practice going on, you know, playing with the idea of the museum as this sacred hall of seriousness. 

ACD: Yes and no. When the curator found them they were doing the same thing. Praxis already existed out there, they had their storefront, and when they took it into the museum it was a performance. At certain times you could come and participate in this performance, but the performance was ongoing. So it didn’t draw its energy from the institutional factor of the Whitney. It was the other way around.  

NP: Interesting. 

ACD: And then there was this extraordinary guy, William Pope L. Do you know about him? 

NP: I don’t. 

ACD: A black guy. He was doing a performance, which was ongoing, called The Great White Way. He dresses in a Superman suit and he was crawling up Broadway, from the tip of Manhattan, from the Battery—he gets off the Staten Island Ferry—and he’s working his way up Manhattan— 


ACD: I don’t know how long he’s going to do it. 

NP: Ages. 

ACD: He has a skateboard occasionally and he pulls himself along. People look at him getting off the boat, he goes to the Statue of Liberty and so on. They showed a video of him doing all this, William Pope L.’s The Great White Way. But no, it didn’t draw its energy from the institution at all, and people were astonished that William Pope L. was doing this. You can see the symbolism in all of that. It was a tremendous ordeal. Talk about devotion, it was like somebody crawling to Mecca. So it was very different kind of show. A lot of people hated it but I thought it was very interesting, because it actually showed what people were thinking about and doing. It gives people a chance—I don’t know what kind of career they’re going to have—but it gives people a chance to embody these meanings in some form that people can grasp, and that’s a great deal. I talk to a lot of young artists and you don’t always know what they’re doing, but often you find out that it’s connected with something in their own life, with something that’s meaningful in their own life. 

NP: Like good old Tracy Emin’s stuff.  

ACD: Exactly. She would be a paradigm case of that. There’s a young sculptor who my wife and I know, who is very skilled—he teaches sculpture out in Las Vegas—and he makes these toy trucks. You’d probably know what they’re called. 

NP: Tonka. 

ACD: Tonka! Tonka. You know, it’s after my time. 


ACD: But these things meant a lot to him when he was a kid, he buys them on E-Bay, and he makes them. He reproduces a Tonka truck to a certain proportion which corresponds to what his size is now, relative to then. They’re very beautiful and skillful, but you wouldn’t know what they’re about to look at them. They’re radically indeterminate objects. You say what is this—is this pop art? But a lot of it has to do with the personal meaning of these Tonka trucks in his life, and presumably in the lives of a lot of people in your generation. A lot of people would know. I had to have it explained to me. 

NP: It makes a lot of sense, where you would ask where does it take its energy from, well maybe it takes it from the homogenization of the culture since the 1970s. Everybody growing up since the 70s shares pretty much the same range of reference, and an artist, just by telling a truth about his own life, can embody something in a common object that we all get the connection to. This is what happens when the culture gets so flattened out. 

ACD: That’s right. And that’s the sort of thing that I have in mind at this point. Everything’s possible now. There are thousands of galleries, people go to the shows, there are collectors, that side of it seems to be working.  

NP: Do you think that this radical stylistic freedom, formal freedom, demands new responsibilities? A lot of conservative art critics claim that with the expansion of styles, the plurality of styles as permissible outlets for art-making, that the critical principles—what you might call the discourse of justification—hasn’t caught up with this radical expansion, hasn’t kept pace with it. 

ACD: I think that it has in a way. But that’s the problem. That’s just it: as a critic, what do you do, you know? You try and find out what’s happening, try and explain it, explain it to yourself.  

NP: Do you think that art now has a much deeper obligation to be interesting because it has so much more formal freedom? 

ACD: Well I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s always pretty interesting because it has so much autobiography in it, and individual lives are interesting. I feel as though it’s evolving in ways that I don’t have any control over. As a critic I feel that I can’t redirect it, and neither can Hilton Kramer. He can’t redirect it. 

NP: Thank God. 


ACD: You try and give people a sense of where things are going and you can’t do much more than that. But the obligation to be interesting, yeah, in some sense that’s true. The diversity of things that you see when you go down to Chelsea just amazes me. There’s a young artist that’s a friend of ours, Janine Antoni. Do you know Janine? 

NP: Lick and Lather?  

ACD: Yes, right. She’s an interesting artist. Most of her work is connected with her body in some way. She paints floors with her hair as a brush, draws with mascara, with her eyes—she calls them “butterfly kisses”, a page of butterfly kisses. It’s very feminine, everything involves some aspect of her body. She had this idea and worked on it for a year, learning to do tightrope. She learned how to weave flax and made a tightrope, then learned to walk it, and made a large cushion for her to fall on. In the work she walks across the tightrope and at a certain moment falls and leaves an impression of her body in that. And the whole thing is the work. It’s very magical, very poetic. 

NP: Very Peircean. 

ACD: Yeah. But, you know, the guy who reviewed it at the Times couldn’t see it. He thought it was an artworld spoof of some kind. That’s the trouble, if you just rush in and don’t ask any questions, or think its wrong to ask questions, you’re going to write something silly and you’re going to make the work look silly. To work for a year and get a review like that? And you have to review Janine because she’s an important artist, but to do it in that way, that’s a critical disgrace as far as I’m concerned. But I feel that happens a lot, people don’t do the work that they need to do to find out what’s really happening. Critics have something against fraternizing with artists or they feel like they can go in and tell right away whether something’s good or not, just by looking at it, things of that sort. 

NP: So this kind of work, instead of contributing to the deterioration of critical principles or whatever, like some conservative art critics claim, actually tries to cultivate a quality of attention that is pretty rare, you know, in the world, with everything moving so fast. 

ACD: I think so. It’s analogous to what Paul de Man called “close reading”. It doesn’t just mean peering, it means doing a little legwork, trying to find out what’s really going. And then you form a judgment on top of that—was it worth it, is it any good, and so on.  

NP: Do you think that philosophical aesthetics has kept up with the development of art?  

ACD: A little bit. People who are doing aesthetics, younger than me for sure, but people who have been influenced…what I did, I think, more than anybody, was to bring contemporary art into philosophy. 

NP: People like Shusterman? He works a lot with contemporary art. 

ACD: Shusterman, absolutely. Absolutely. And people like Dave Horowitz, who writes about Richter. Contemporary aesthetics is one of the most interesting parts of philosophy now because there is that vital connection between what happens in the art world and people working philosophically, working with what they are given. 

NP: Do you think that the work that goes on in the art world, especially under this expanded concept of art, produces specific kinds of truths that are maybe different from the kinds of truths philosophers produce or discover? 

ACD: I don’t know the answer to that, but I do feel that there are lots of things that artists are dealing with that philosophers aren’t dealing with, issues of gender, sex, moral issues.  

NP: Political issues. 

ACD: Poltical issues definitely. 

NP: I mean just look at Richter, and what he was able to do in October 18, 1977. It was a tremendous achievement.  

ACD: That’s right. And everybody’s doing it. There’s this great hole out there that artists are dealing with and philosophers are not, and I’d like to see philosophers do it a bit more. 

NP: Why do you think philosophers don’t deal with it? 

ACD: I don’t know, I think there are certain constraints in academic life that prevent that from happening. If you’re a philosopher it means these days that you’re ambitious for an academic career, and that means you must have a certain kind of bibliography and certain standards. I don’t knock it, by any means. Philosophy has absolutely been a great in a period when everything else has gone to hell in the academy. I mean the intellectual values, the virtues of logic, the virtues of clarity, that philosophy has maintained. If anyone wanted to rebuild the curriculum, the only thing they’ve got is philosophy to work with because everything is swamped. 

NP: But some people would claim that they’ve preserved certain standards at the cost of a greater dialogue with, as you’ve said, real cultural and human issues. 

ACD: They may have, yeah. I think that’s true and I think philosophy has paid a pretty heavy price for that. But I’m not so sure the way in which anyone else in the academy has dealt with it is very good either. 

NP: Do you think that it’s a necessary price? That there’s an inverse relation between precise academic defensibility and real depth or inclusiveness?  

ACD: No, I don’t think that. I think it would be great if philosophers took on more of it. I don’t know if post-analytic philosophy will…there was a reader some years ago, right, an anthology of post-analytic writing? 

NP: You’re in it. An essay you wrote… 

ACD: It was my APA address. 

NP: Philosophy as/and/of Literature 

ACD: That’s right. Who edited it? It was John Rajchman and… 

NP: Cornel West. 

ACD: Cornel West. It was a great idea, that book. 

NP: Rorty and Cavell were in there too.  

ACD: And Donald Davidson. 

NP: He had very interesting things to say about literature, about the operations of metaphor, Davidson did.  

ACD: Well he was a very cultivated man. You know he was a classics scholar. 

NP: He wanted to be a novelist when he was young. 

ACD: Really? I never knew that. It would’ve been rough, because Donald for a long time had this writer’s block. I mean he couldn’t even write philosophy for years and years. He had therapy, was psychoanalyzed, and that broke this problem and suddenly he started doing all this wonderful writing. But Donald was a far more open person than most from that perspective. But yes, that was a nice idea, post-analytic philosophy, although I don’t think it caught on as anything more than a slogan. 

NP: Well the idea behind it I think represents the effort on the part of younger scholars to overcome this divide between analytic and Continental thinking, where the Continental people were working on questions that were deeper, or seen to be deeper in a more human way, more captivating, but their methods were so shoddy that intellectual responsibility compelled you to preserve the analytic idiom.  

ACD: It’s something that I’ve found with the younger British philosophers. They’re trying to do that, work things out. I’m very hopeful but I don’t see their counterparts, really, in America.  

NP: You’ve talked about the influence on your work, not only from the contemporary arts scene but philosophical influences like Sartre, for example.  

ACD: That’s right. People always think of Sartre as being locked in the period of World War II, but I’ve always thought of Being and Nothingness as a great book. My book on Sartre was based mostly onL”Etre et le Neant, on those ideas, and I use them all the time. For example, I just published a piece in Artforum, in the September issue. They wanted to do a whole issue on politics and the editor asked me to write the keynote statement on the relationship between art and politics in America. I really began with a Sartrean idea, where he talks about two modalties of consciousness: conscience pour-soi andconscience pour l’autre. I used it in terms of nationalities. There’s a certain American pour-soi, what it is to be an American, and there’s certainly a pour-l’autre for being an American, and they don’t coincide at all. From the pour-soi side Americans find it very difficult to understand why they’re hated, and so forth—“we’re such good guys”— 


ACD: And that was a very beautiful piece of metaphysics that Sartre had worked out, and I thought people would enjoy thinking about nationality in that way, as a mode of consciousness. I find a lot of use for Sartre, particularly in that distinction. 

NP: What about his writing on art or his literary work? He sort of gets a lot of stick for it, as a committed writer who let his artistic choices be determined by his political thought. 

ACD: I wrote a piece towards the end of 2001 on Giacometti. That was an opportunity for me to go back and read Sartre on Giacometti, I thought that it was a great essay he’d written on him. Giacometti was such a kook that he found what Sartre had written on him very offensive, although it had nothing to do with the philosophy. It had to do with like an automobile accident that Sartre said happened at the Place Vendome, but it actually happened at the Place des Pyramides, but you know “How could he have made a mistake like that!” But Sartre’s essay on Giacometti is priceless. When I put it next to what most people have written on Giacometti, there’s no comparison, it was all about distance and space and so on, wonderful. And I thought his essay on Tintoretto was wonderful. But I never got much out of the literary work. These art essays were short and there was no temptation to go off and write four volumes. 

NP: In the Notebooks for an Ethics he takes the ontological categories of Being and Nothingness and he says that if we actually set them in motion toward authenticity we’ll see that the point of the pour-soi is actually something very much like an aesthetic construction. He says that you are “revealing creation”… 

ACD: He does say that, yeah, that aesthetics is very fundamental in a way that most people wouldn’t think of. Actually, I was over in Ireland attending a conference on the future of aesthetics, and I found these writings of Peirce on aesthetics where he says that aesthetics is the most fundamental discipline. Ethics builds on aesthetics, logic builds on ethics. It’s a fascinating idea. It was in the lectures he gave on Pragmatism in 1909. I’ve been trying to come to terms with those ideas for some time, but yes it’s true that Sartre thought aesthetics was fundamental in some way. Both he and Peirce never spelled it out that much though. 

NP: Was Peirce a great influence? 

ACD: Oh yeah. When I was developing an idea of sententional states, beliefs as  sententional states, that’s a very Peircean idea, that beliefs are made out of language. That man is a sign. There are passages in pierce that are just amazing.  

NP: Could I ask about Dewey as well? Because I think of him as someone who was trying to tell a sort of Hegelian story without the metaphysics and, your democratizing remarks about art in this post-historical age seem to bear some relation to that. 

ACD: Yes, well his great work was Art and Experience, although I never had much time for Dewey. He was just so tedious, went on and on and on. Although did you read this book The Metaphysical Club

NP: Louis Menand’s book. 

ACD: Yeah, it was great book, and I got a better sense of Dewey reading that book than almost anything I’ve read. 

NP: Some very juicy gossip on Peirce in there too. I never realized he was such a cad, and a drug addict.  


ACD: Yeah, he was. Probably worse things than we know.  

NP: What about aesthetics and ethics, after all, the relations between them? We’re now at war. And I understand you were in the army during World War II? 

ACD: I was never an infantryman. I was trained as an Army engineer and was overseas for three years. I was in the Italian campaign and in North Africa. 

NP: What would you say about thesis that there is an internal connection between war and aestheticization? The pageantry of war, the use of aesthetic elements in battle. In Fahrenheit 911, for example, there’s a scene in the film where they’re interviewing an American tank commander and he says that they play heavy metal during combat. You can put it on the PA system in the tank, and while they’re destroying homes and such in Baghdad they like to blast this heavy rock music. That struck me as a continuation of the old drumbeat, the martial music played when armies were marching into battle, and that the detachment that attends to the aesthetic relation helps break down the barriers, the moral restraint against violence. Berel Lang wrote a book in which described the aesthetic elements of the Holocaust, of life in the camps, where there was a band playing at Auschwitz, the use of irony in “arbeit macht frei” and so on. You can see artisitic elements enabling the perpetration of evil, precisely because of the autonomous or nonmoral character of the aesthetic, its freedom. 

ACD: I think that’s true, and the whole Nazi movement was an aestheticization of society. The organization of rallies, the way people should look, the banners. That was certainly true. I don’t know whether it overcomes morality in battle, I mean if you’re a soldier you don’t think about moral questions, really. You’ve got to destroy someone who is firing at you. But I don’t know the answer to that.  

NP: Do you think art has a specific obligation, a moral obligation, to what it’s representing in certain cases? 

ACD: I do have that kind of feeling. I wrote an essay called The Naked Truth about Avedon and an artist named Peter Hujar, a photographer who is dead now. I was trying to argue that the subject has certain rights. People always talk about the rights of the artist, but I thought that when you’re a photographer you have an obligation in representing people, to take their own estimation of how they should be represented into consideration. And there’s a question about the human subject in science, how the subject has to be treated, particularly in social psychology. There are certain famous experiments in social psychology that can no longer be done. 

NP: Milgram. 

ACD: Milgram would be one. Stanley Schachter would be another, where you don’t inform the subject of what’s actually happening. You can’t do that anymore. And I thought that there’s a lot to be said for that in art. I respect the way Nan Goldin photographs people. If people object to the way they’re represented she’s not going to go ahead and say, “Well I’m the artist”. I was writing about Avedon and there were things I hated about him. I saw a portrait he did of Isaiah Berlin, who was a friend of mine, and I thought it was terrible way to photograph Isaiah, I really objected to that. But in particular I talked about one of the people named James Slattery, who was in the Warhol entourage. He was a transvestite and he was called Candy Darling. A very fragile human being, James Slattery, and there was a very beautiful photograph of Candy On Her Deathbed by Peter Hujar, where he takes seriously how Candy Darling wants to present herself, wants herself to be seen. And Avedon just disregarded that totally when he went to the Factory and said “take off your pants”, that kind of thing, which I thought was cruel. It was a form of cruelty. 

NP: Would you say that it makes the photograph worse as a photograph? That sense of violation.  

ACD: I don’t even know how to look at it. It means that you’re abstracting so much from the photograph when you say “Well, it’s a good photograph anyway”, when you take away those things I don’t know what’s left of it as a photograph. People say in a hundred years nobody will remember what any of these people look like, but of course none of us are going to be around to see what that means. 

NP: But that you can tell from inside the photograph, you can tell that there’s something that the subject wants and that the photograph is refusing that condition. It testifies against its own moral character. 

ACD: In some way, yes, you feel that. I worked out this idea about looks. There is no look that you would ever see in life that Berlin’s face has on it. That’s because the speed of the shutter is faster than the human eye. We compose our looks. So you can take something out of the contact sheet and say “well, he looked like that”, but you would never have seen it. The camera fixed it, but you wouldn’t see him that way. It doesn’t look like the look, so when you rob people of their looks, the way they express themselves, its transitional from look A to look B. Just because it’s in a photograph doesn’t mean its real.  

NP: It’s a lie. Artistically. And good art can never lie.  

ACD: It’s a lie, that’s right. It’s a funny kind of lie. It’s something I’d like to go back too, but I’m not sure if I can develop it beyond the points I did in that article. 

NP: You haven’t written much on literature, but you did claim in a recent interview that Henry James was important to you, on your thinking and on a personal level. Could you maybe talk about that importance and what we can say about literature through that? 

ACD: It’s very important as a guide to life. I remember reading The Ambassadors after I’d been widowed. After a certain age you start to move around with women again, and you start to think about how you work that out. There are a lot of books about young people, but what about somebody in their 50s starting a relationship, a sexual relationship? The Ambassadors was one of the few books I’d come across that treated somebody of my age as a romantic hero or at least with these kinds of problems. Later on, when I got married again, my older daughter was getting married and The Golden Bough talks about how you work out that relationship between a wife and a daughter, the complexities of that relationship. Nobody had ever really treated it the way James treated it. After a certain age, there’s really nobody you can turn to but James for these kinds of analyses. The depth of his insight always astounds me. I go back all the time to James and to Proust, those are the two writers I read more than anybody. Just because of the usefulness of it. My book The Abuse of Beauty has a lot of Proust in it.  

NP: Would you say then that its sort of definitional of the literary novel, that it’s main virtue artistically is to offer this psychological identification, to instruct in this way? 

ACD: That was the idea I working out in Philosophy As/And/Of Literature, that it’s about the reader. That I am Anna Karenina, that my first wife was the Duchess de Guermantes, that people see their lives in these terms. They give you these metaphors, because how much opportunity to do you have in a single life to work out these roles for yourself? That, for me, is the main consideration, that it is the psychological penetration and the way it gives you an opportunity to see yourself in these various situations. It’s not just reading for the pleasure of reading, it’s doing what philosophy ideally would do, that is, to help you understand yourself a little bit better. I don’t know what I’ll do when James runs dry on me. 

NP: Would you say that film does some of the work of the novel and some of the work of the painting? I know you’re a fan of Shirin Neshat’s films.  

ACD: Yes, but you know those are very different kinds of films. 

NP: They’re wonderful narratives. 

ACD: They are wonderful narratives, yes. I loved Rapture. I loved Turbulent. But it’s not an accident that you see them in art galleries, they’re short, you’re physically situated with regard to them, I mean there’s a screen on one end and a screen at the other and you sit between them and watch. I certainly love Shirin’s work and I love her too, she’s a wonderful artist. And the films of my youth were very important to me but I haven’t written much on them, like Stanley has in that book… 

NP: Pursuits of Happiness. On the remarriage comedies. 

ACD: The comedies of remarriage, that’s it. That was a knockout. 

NP: Yeah he writes interestingly on this aspect of life, on what’s involved morally and intellectually in remarriage, and how it wasn’t treated since Shakespeare up until this time in the 40s and 50s, in Hollywood. That certain modes of life fall out of the main artistic forms and are recaptured later on. 

ACD: He thinks about remarriage in a very deep way.  

NP: He links it with the overcoming of skepticism. 

ACD: And cynicism, I would say, to tell you the truth. But philosophers have said very little about marriage, basically, so Stanley is a very modern figure for that reason, if you think marriage is a central question in life and in ethics. I wrote something about marriage recently. I had a young friend, I supervised his dissertation, and he was getting married to a California girl. He asked me if I would marry them. He said you could do that in California, you could get the license and anybody could do it. But I said “you want the marriage to be built on a little more secure a foundation than that”— 


ACD: But I said I’d give a talk at the marriage, at the wedding. I went out to Santa Monica and gave a lecture on philosophers and marriage at the wedding. Everybody thought they were back at school. It was the first time I’d tried to think out a little bit what could be philosophical questions about marriage. I tend to think the relationship between a husband and a man is a little bit like the relationship between the Brillo Box as an artwork and the Brillo Box as a mere real thing.  

NP: Could you expand a little on that? That’s really interesting.  

ACD: Well, he asked, why should a couple who are getting along well should get married? Why take the next step? My idea was that when you do marry, you’re suddenly in all sorts of different relationships with other people, other institutions. All sorts of things come in and you’re obliged to interpret it and so forth, so it’s very much like the Brillo Box-Brillo Box structure. 

NP: Where there’s no perceptual difference between the normal relationship and the marriage, right, but yet the whole thing is somehow different. 

ACD: Exactly. The whole thing is different.  

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