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Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life

by Arthur C. Danto
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2005
400 pp. Trade, $27.00
ISBN: 0-374-28118-1.

Reviewed by George Gessert

The psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, found that people cope with profound change in two different ways. One way is to adopt rules that provide stability and order in the midst of flux. Often, though not always, these rules evoke the past and the authority of tradition. Lifton calls this the "fundamentalist" response. The second way of coping with change is what Lifton calls "protean", after the Greek god Proteus, who could assume any form. A protean response to change is to try something new because it is new. Each mode has its advantages and disadvantages. Most of us, according to Lifton, combine the two modes.

Arthur Danto responds to much of the bewildering flux and diversity of contemporary art with protean openness. A philosopher and art critic, Danto has written 16 books of philosophy, four of art criticism, and six art monographs, but is best known for his reviews in The Nation. Observant, generous to a fault, erudite but always accessible, and master of an admirable prose style, he has become the most widely read art critic in America. He has also achieved what until recently seemed an impossibility in the United States: He is a well-known art critic who artists rarely criticize.

Unnatural Wonders is a collection of his essays, most of which were previously published in The Nation. The majority of these essays focus on the works of modern or well-established contemporary artists, among them Paul McCarthy, Barbara Kruger, Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter, John Currin, and William Kentridge. In addition, there are essays on Chardin, Leonardo’s drawings, Artemisia Gentileschi, and the effects of 9-11 on New York art, along with reviews of two Whitney Biennials, and one essay each on Fluxus, the intersection of painting and politics, and the erotics of Surrealism. Unnatural Wonders concludes with several theoretical texts. What ties all of this together, besides Danto’s distinctive warmth and intelligence, is his belief that contemporary art has raised "the question of its identity" and has "carried the responsibility of the philosophy of art farther than the philosophers of art would have been capable." [1] In other words, contemporary artists do work that in the past would have been done by philosophers.

Danto believes that with respect to art, what he calls "our time" began in the early 1960s, when many artists broke from paradigms that had governed art since the Greeks. According to the earlier paradigm, art and life are related in complex ways, but comprise separate phenomena. Danto presents compelling evidence that over the last four decades a shift has occurred toward work that challenges the distinction between art and life. His prime examples are Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, and the productions of Fluxus, works that not only mimic the things of daily life, but which in some cases are indistinguishable from them.

The breach of ancient barriers between art and life creates Zen-like ambiguities, and these require new ways of looking at art and life, as well as new approaches to art criticism. Danto’s approach favors an open, inquisitive, and unassuming spirit. He observes what is before him, attempts to understand what an artist is saying or trying to say, and then seeks to communicate the artist’s intent to a larger audience. The role of the critic, Danto believes, is less to judge than to explicate. Danto is far from being the only art critic to have embraced the role of explicator, but he has been exemplary in fulfilling it, at least with respect to work that has already gained the approval of curators at important institutions.

Lifton believes that in balance the protean response to radical change is likely to be psychologically healthier than the fundamentalist response. However, the protean approach also has its limits. In Unnatural Wonders these limits are occasionally evident, but nowhere more clearly than in an essay on Jeff Koons. It begins with a quotation from the philosopher Charles Peirce. "I am inclined in my aesthetic judgments to think as the true Kentuckian about whiskey: possibly some may be better than others, but all are aesthetically good." Here Peirce voices a primary way of experiencing the world. However, this primary experience is impossible to maintain for long without the aid of an acquired discipline, such as science. Perception generates judgments, which flow from recognition that experience can be pleasant or unpleasant. From such simple beginnings we evolve "good" and "bad".

Most artists do this too, of course. Kitsch, according to Jeff Koons, is good, because we enjoy it, while much contemporary work in the lineage of high art is bad, because we feel guilty when we don’t enjoy it. "I’ve tried", Koons wrote, "to make work that any viewer, no matter where they came from, would have to ... say that on some level ‘Yes, I like it.’ If they couldn’t do that it would only be because they had been told that they were not supposed to like it." [2] Koons is reflecting here on his polychrome sculpture Ushering in Banality. It depicts a ribboned pink pig, pushed by a small boy and guided by two cherubs, all depicted in a classically kitsch manner.

Koons does not allow for the possibility that someone might genuinely dislike Ushering in Banality without first having been intimidated by some snob or elitist. Not that Koons is opposed to elites. He writes, "Don’t divorce yourself from your true being [love of sentimental knickknacks], embrace it. That’s the only way that you can truly move on to become a new upper class ..." [3] But Koons is concerned about much more than status: he claims to have found in kitsch something that is universally appealing.

Danto is hostile to Clement Greenberg’s universalist claims, but not to Koons’s. Why? Danto does not explore the question, but an obvious difference between Greenberg and Koons is that Greenberg voiced concerns of an earlier generation, while Koons, although hardly new to art audiences, is still contemporary. The jury, it seems, is out on contemporary universalist claims, but not on claims from the recent past.

Another difference is social: Greenberg was always embattled and hostile to dominant culture, while Koons speaks for it. He identifies with forces vastly more powerful and oppressive than anything Greenberg contrived. In Lifton’s terms, both Greenberg and Koons are to significant degrees fundamentalists, but Koons is a fundamentalist of the status quo, while Greenberg was a fundamentalist in opposition to it.

This is not to suggest that Danto’s response to Koons is simplistic. Danto finds the Banality works deeply disturbing, and goes so far as to describe them as "aesthetic hell." But he does not explain what he means by this. The reader is left on his own.

In traditional art, representations of hell are meant to engage viewers, fascinate them, and at the same time to deliver warnings. Hell draws us in, traditional paintings demonstrate, but imagery of pervasive pain makes for an easy choice: hell is something to avoid at any cost. Ushering in Banality may draw us in, but clearly Koons is not delivering any kind of a warning. To the contrary, he does all he can to validate kitsch, to prove it "easy fun." Koons is suggesting that kitsch is aesthetically equal to classical beauty or the sublime. Danto explicates Koons’s work, but avoids its challenges.

The subtitle of Unnatural Wonders is Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life. Danto uses "life" in a narrow sense of the word, to refer only to the objects and happenings of daily life. Plants, animals, and microorganisms are not included, although he briefly discusses live works by Yoko Ono and Dieter Roth. Danto does not mention one of Koons’s better-known works, a bioart installation titled Puppy. It is a 12-meter-high outdoor installation in the shape of a dog. The armature is steel and wood, with a skin of earth and flowering plants. Danto’s silence on the subject of bioart limits his discussion of the gap between art and life. More vividly than Warhol or Fluxus, live art closes the gap.

The question of what can or cannot be art remains interesting, but no longer has the sharp edge that it once did. Some time ago Fluxus won: anything can be art - or almost anything. Innocuous flotsom and jetsam of daily life have long since ceased to mark the frontiers of the possible. The same is true of states of absence, piles of debris, and the manufacture of shit. But could an envelope full of anthrax spores be art? More telling than George Maciunas, Andy Warhol defined art as whatever you can get away with.

Bioart confronts us with biological concerns, the most important of which have to do with processes and systems that make human existence possible. Not so very long ago Westerns took the continuity of life and what Alfred Wallace called "the great aerial ocean" for granted. If someone talked about the weather, they were talking about something of little consequence. All this has changed. The limits that we face imply new cycles of change, new exercises in protean adventurousness, and new opportunities for fundamentalist judgments. Questions and objections immediately arise. What grounds exist - or have ever existed - for making judgments, in art or anywhere else, that extend beyond the merely personal and local in time, or at most beyond some subset of humanity? If we must make decisions about art relevant to the impacts of climate change and mass extinction, how can we protect against conditions that silence individuals and groups? Once again artists can use the help of philosophers, among others. However, as an artist, it seems to me that to the extent that we value human consciousness, a common reference point must be the well-being of the biosphere. Art that contributes to the integrity, sustainability, and diversity of life, especially nonhuman life, is good for us. Art that does not is bad for us.


1. Arthur C. Danto, Unnatural Wonders. (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005) p. 11.
2. Jeff Koons, quoted by Arthur C. Danto in Unnatural Wonders. (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005) p. 296.
3. Jeff Koons in ibid. [2] p. 290.



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