Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art
by Arthur C. Danto
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2005
400 pp. Trade, $27.00
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,
Leonardos 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
Dantos 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."  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 Warhols
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. Dantos 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 artists 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"
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 dont enjoy
it. "Ive 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 couldnt
do that it would only be because they
had been told that they were not supposed
to like it."  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
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,
"Dont divorce yourself from
your true being [love of sentimental knickknacks],
embrace it. Thats the only way that
you can truly move on to become a new
upper class ..."  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 Greenbergs
universalist claims, but not to Koonss.
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 Liftons 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
This is not to suggest that Dantos
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 Koonss 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 Koonss
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. Dantos
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)
2. Jeff Koons, quoted by Arthur C. Danto
in Unnatural Wonders. (New York: Farrar,
Straus, Giroux, 2005) p. 296.
3. Jeff Koons in ibid.  p. 290.