What Art Is

by Arthur C. Danto

The dust jacket sums up Arthur Danto’s definition of art nicely. “A work of art is always defined by two essential criteria: meaning and embodiment, as well as one additional criterion contributed by the viewer: interpretation.”

He explains in chapter one, “The artwork is a material object, some of whose properties belong to the meaning, and some of which do not. What the viewer must do is interpret the meaning-bearing properties in such a way as to grasp the intended meaning they embody.” Danto’s three elements are an interesting way to think about art, although conceptual art, which doesn’t require embodiment, throws a monkey wrench into the definition.

He later adds, “I have decided to enrich my earlier definition of art—embodied meaning—with another condition that captures the skill of the artist. Thanks to Descartes and Plato, I will define art as ‘wakeful dreams.’”

I think the most interesting part of the book is where Danto analyzes the differences between painting and photography. In the 19th century, Muybridge photographed horses in motion in order to see if all four hooves touched the ground at the same time, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. This influenced some painters like Degas, “who sometimes portrayed a horse moving stiff-legged across the turf, exactly the way it can be seen in Muybridge’s photographs, but never in life… This confuses the optical truth with the visual truth. Muybridge mocked Victorian painters, whose depictions of horses racing were visually far more convincing than his optically correct photographs could have been.”

Danto also writes about photographic portraits. “With a film speed of ASA 160 and shutter speeds of one-sixtieth of a second we could now capture the face appearing in ways which the eye never sees—‘between expressions,’ as it were. That is why we reject as not ‘really me’ many of the images on a contact sheet, which don’t look like what we see in the mirror… The still shows ‘optical truth’ but it does not correspond to perceptual truth, namely how we see the world stereoptically.”

Another interesting quality is spirit in art. “When we speak of spirit… we are speaking of the creative power of the artist…  A painting can even be beautiful, as far as taste is concerned, but defective through lacking spirit.” According to Goya, “we may be less happy with a highly finished work than with one in which less care has been taken. It is the spirit in art—the presence of genius—that is really important… Frenhofer gives a natural reading of ‘lacks spirit’ as ‘lacks life.’”

This book is only 156 pages, but the writing is somewhat esoteric. Danto is a professor of philosophy, and as such, he uses words like epistemological, physiognomic, and ontological.

Postscript: Arthur Danto died on October 25, 2013 at the age of 89.

Danto, Arthur C. What Art Is. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. Buy from Amazon.com