Danto’s predicates on art

Just over a month ago, I was considering the possibility of taking up future philosophy classes as a supplement for my planned art theory classes. I had read up on a few philosophical works, mostly on phenomenology and aesthetics. However, I didn’t know much about the University’s philosophy department. Nothing came out of my sparse attempts to ask people what the department focused on, and I thought it was weird that there are hardly any students from art studies department taking philosophy electives. Online listings of subjects confirmed that they do have one aesthetics class, although I wasn’t sure if it was even still being offered.

I eventually had a clue of what the philosophy department was all about when I waited for a friend attending a graduate student’s symposium. Outside the event venue, they had posters describing each department in the college. Apparently, the focus of the department was on analytic philosophy. I had only taken up Philo 1 and everything I knew about philosophy was rudimentary and a product of my own self-directed readings, and so I was baffled on what analytic philosophy even meant. A quick google search eventually gave me a beginner’s perspective of what I needed to learn: that there was a difference between analytic and continental philosophy rooted in what appeared to be historical (and even geographical) antagonisms, that analytic philosophy concerned itself with language and meaning, and that it was more readily applied to scientific fields, while continental philosophy was more often read by people from the humanities and arts. The thinkers that I had often read about were squarely on the continental camp. The only one I have read on the Analytic camp was Wittgenstein. Then again, I did first encounter him in Philo 1 class, and although I enjoyed reading about his ideas, I wasn’t sure if it was possible to apply them to the study of art.

Things didn’t sound very promising for my planned art studies direction. Briefly, I flirted with the idea of taking up philosophy classes in a nearby private university– they seemed to have a broader program and had faculty members who studied continental philosophy– and hoped that it might be possible for me to cross-register my units. I verbalized these thoughts to my friend, who rightly pointed out the unwieldiness of my plan and the heavy financial costs it would entail.

Days later, was able to obtain a better perspective of what philosophical ideas had been in play with regards to art when I cracked open my copy of Contextualizing Aesthetics. While the list of authors in the analytic camp, aside from Danto, were strangers to me, the Continental list was extremely familiar– there was Barthes, Foucault, Heidegger, Derrida, Benjamin, Adorno, Jameson, Lyotard, and even the art historian, Pollock. I decided I probably should read up on analytic philosophers who delved into aesthetics.

Of interest was Arthur Danto’s “The Artistic Enfranchisement of Real Objects: The Artworld”. Danto has been credited for developing the institutional theory of art, a theory which views art as existing within the physical and institutional structures of the art world. Thus, an object is an artwork if it is created by an individual accepted institutionally as an artist, when it is presented in a context from which it is viewed and consumed as an artwork, and/or  the discourse surrounding that object allows it to be accepted and understood as an artwork. In the essay, Danto further explains “the theories that make artworks possible” through a matrix that looks like this:

F        G

+        +

+        –

–        +

–        –

Now, Danto asks us to assume that there is a class of art objects called K which are either F or non-F. He goes on to explain the matrix:

“Now it might happen that, throughout an entire period of time, every artwork is non-F. But since nothing thus far is both an artwork and F, it might never occur to anyone that non-F is an artistically relevant predicate. The non-F-ness of artworks goes unmarked. By contrast, all works up to a given time might be G, it never occurring to anyone until that time that something might both be an artwork and non-G; indeed, it might have been thought that G was a defining trait of artworks when in fact something might first have to be an artwork before G is sensibly predicable of it– in which case non-G might also be predicable of artworks, and G itself then could not have been a defining trait of this class.”

One might wonder what all this theoretical gymnastics might be useful for. It is by this time that Danto asks us to assume that G stands for representational and F for expressionistic. This brings us to an appreciation of the quoted paragraph and of the matrix. For the latter, we can understand artworks as being representational and expressionistic (fauvism), representational and nonexpressionistic (neoclassical), nonrepresentational and expressionistic (abstract expressionism), and finally, the double negation nonrepresentational and nonexpressionistic (such as hard-edge abstraction).

But surely artworks are more complex nowadays as to be confined to those four combinations? But Danto’s matrix is not rigid. Stylistic changes and shifts can be accomodated with the addition of new predicates. This happens when new styles or -isms appear which change the course of art production and theory. When predicate H appears, “both H and non-H become artistically relevant for all painting, and if his is the first and only painting that is H, every other painting in existence becomes non-H and the entire of community of painting is enriched, together with a doubling of style opportunities.” What is fascinating about this conception of art is that it makes room for the understanding and appreciation of works that were unfortunately out of fashion when they were created. Every new style does not obliterate/turns passe everything that came before it, but rather opens up avenues for richer art discourse.

It also helps us to understand art that has been so stripped of everything, we are left with, say a monochromatic canvas. These are the works which occupy the bottom row of the matrix, all of the negatives.

“In this regard, notice that, if there are m artistically relevant predicates, there is always a bottom row with m minuses. This row is apt to be occupied by purists. Having scoured their canvasses clear of what they regard as inessential, they credit themselves with having distilled out the essence of art. But this is just their fallacy: exactly as many artistically relevant predicates stand true of their square monochromes. Stand true of any memeber of the Artworld, and they can exist as artworks only insofar as “impure” paintings exist.”

Danto’s ideas can be particularly helpful for someone who is just beginning to understand art theory, for we are often tempted to choose a certain camp over another, or to dismiss a certain style/ way of art-making because we think only G types of works are relevant or important.