It is rare for an analytical philosopher to become a real force in the cultural life of his country. On the whole our academic sages write excruciating prose about matters of no conceivable relevance to the life of the spirit. And when, as occasionally happens, they discover that there is more meaning in a Beethoven quartet or a Poussin landscape than in the entire corpus of literature devoted to the truth-conditions of “Snow is white,” they write about that too in their desolating idiom, eager to close the one known exit from their tomb.

Arthur Danto is, therefore, a remarkable man. He is a skilled philosopher, able to write of the most abstruse questions with wit and charm. His mind is fertile not only in arguments but also (rare combination) in metaphors and images. And when he looks at the world, he sees it as it really seems, and transcribes its semblance in luminous words. His new collection of essays, Encounters and Reflections, shows him to be a talented art critic; it also presents a distinctive voice in American culture.1 Whether you agree with him or not, he is always instructive and usually a pleasure to read. He also has the rare gift of literary taste, knowing exactly how to suggest more than he says, while ensuring that what he suggests endorses what he says and also enlarges it. Here is the beginning of a splendidly succinct essay on Courbet:

The glens and glades of Gustave Courbet are afflicted with an aggravated nymphlessness. His rocks and rills are goddess-free. No angels hover by when honest folk are buried at Oman. “I am above all a total realist,” he confesses on one of many proclamatory occasions.

Only “nymphlessness” lets slip that the writer was brought up on Quine. Carrying his considerable scholarship as lightly as a Japanese princess wears a two-stone kimono, Danto sweeps across the style and mind of Courbet, gives you the entire artist in half a dozen pages, and leaves you impatient to get to the show.

Most of the essays reprinted in Encounters and Reflections originated as exhibition reviews. For Danto, an exhibition is a serious event, like a religious festival, a time of study and reflection, an occasion to consult the authorities and attend to the soul. His reviews are therefore also surveys of their subject. He attempts to place an artist in context, and to persuade the reader that the objects on the museum wall are really as interesting as Danto finds them to be. Nor is he the only American to take exhibitions so seriously: a whole culture has grown around the ceremonial display of art. One by one the great artists of the past—and the famous artists of the present—do the rounds of the American galleries, appearing like visiting royalty with their court of sycophants, and for a few weeks occupying every available space in the crowded public conscience. It is for this reason that a book of reviews can also be, like Danto’s, a window onto the world of painting. Danto’s judgments are far from unerring. He has his fads and protégés like David Sawin, and his phobias like The New Criterion and its editor; he is over-engagé in the cause of the American moderns, and coarse and offensive when he catches a whiff (in Anselm Kiefer) of the Volksgeist. But the most important pieces consist of eloquent reflections on the indisputably great: on Sargent, Van Gogh, Kokoschka, Klee, Correggio, Gauguin, Raphael, and Fragonard (concerning whom he made me think entirely anew). There is a splendid essay on Sienese painting, and an interesting attempt, lightly sketched in several places, to bring a new periodization into the history of Western art. For such reasons, the book will surely be regarded as an important expression of East Coast culture in the Eighties.

Danto is a hedonist in the mold of Pater and Wallace Stevens. Experience, as he presents it, is for relishing, not judging. His values easily consort with his love of pleasure. Although he makes considerable room for the kind of art which he calls “disturbatory,” he would hate his readers to regard this term as expressing disapproval or to believe that disturbance is not to be savored like everything else.

Nevertheless, the judgment haunts the page that refuses to make it.

However, every hedonist encounters the problem of other people’s pleasures. Am I obliged to approve of the things which disgust me, because others delight in them? When pleasure becomes a political issue, the paid-up hedonist is duty bound to go along with the “oppressed” group: what they like, he likes. Or if he doesn't, he must at least make a show of doing so, and cancel any implication that the things he is trying to like are really disgusting. The problem comes to the fore with the homosexual photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. These, having become a “political issue” at the time Danto wrote about them, posed a certain challenge to his style. For if Danto’s writing is gay, it is only so in the good old English sense of the word. Like many American aesthetes, he is frightfully grown up about sex, and can describe a set of genitals as beefily as the next man. But he cannot, for the life of him, reproduce that dark intimacy with his own body which lies at the heart of the homosexual experience. Hence, following his normal practice of vivid description, he writes of Mapplethorpe’s photographs in such a way as to establish beyond doubt that they are utterly obscene. Of course, it would violate every liberal propriety to say so. Nevertheless, the judgment haunts the page that refuses to make it, and makes you wonder what Danto is up to when, having pussyfooted around the problem of AIDS, he concludes in a hushed whisper:

The afternoon I visited the Mapplethorpe exhibition, I was impressed by my fellow visitors. They were subdued and almost, I felt, stunned. There were no giggles, scarcely any whispers. It was as though everyone felt the moral weight of the issues. And one felt an almost palpable resistance to face the thoughts the show generated, which each visitor had to overcome. It is not an easy experience, but it is a crucial one. Art is more than just art, and the Whitney took on a higher responsibility in supporting this exhibition.

What are we to make of that? What is causing Danto to waft off the page with his head in the air and a cork up his arse? It must be the “moral weight” of the “issues.” Should we include among them homosexuality, promiscuity, and the liberal morality which led to this disaster, and which tries to see nothing wrong with obscene photographs of men canceled by their sex? (Imagine if the subjects had been women, displayed to the eyes of greedy men: what would the feminists have said?)

I suppose you can't blame Danto for being no more explicit than he is. If he wrote of these matters in any way that challenged the liberal consensus he would find himself out of a job—not only as art critic for The Nation, but also as professor at Columbia. His stopping short as he does is precisely what makes him an authentic voice of East Coast culture. Nevertheless, this is not the only essay in which I felt that he was being less than honest—that he was, as it were, gritting his teeth in the cause of pleasure, and trying to silence the knowledge that there are pleasures it is better not to have. Faced with the Whitney Biennial of 1987 he is almost prepared to say that the bulk of it is rubbish, but he stops irritatingly short of doing so. Elsewhere Danto indicates that he is secretly aware that the American art world abounds in frauds and psychopaths. But again, he draws back from the judgment. He is also careful not to blame the critics who, taking their cue from Clement Greenberg, have cornered their protégés and bumped up the sales. If he has any harsh words it is for the “frenzied rich” who he imagines to be crowding the museums out of the market. But it does not occur to him that the museums are the richest and most frenzied of all. Not only do their curators spend other people’s money; they are also committed to promoting the view that everything they buy is worth what they paid for it. This, working on the awe with which educated Americans view museums, is the best guarantee that art works exchange at ever higher prices.

In fact, Danto is very much at home in MOMA’s world, and willing stepfather to her fleeting favorites. He is proof that a man can be truly intelligent and still believe in Andy Warhol. His eloquent essays did nothing to persuade me that Warhol was other than a monstrous fraud. Nevertheless, it caused me to wonder about the roots of Danto’s criticism. How is it that a man who responds sensitively to what is truly great, can make such a show of relishing a Brillo box? What kind of philosophy is it that leads him to believe that this pretentious little joke can be discussed in the same tone of voice as Duccio, and that there is a “message” contained in the Brillo box that may be reverently set beside the message of the Rondini Pietà? (The message being, roughly, “Hey, I like it here,” which Michelangelo clearly did not, for all that he found it agonizingly beautiful.)

He is proof that a man can be truly intelligent and still believe in Andy Warhol.

In the three interesting theoretical essays that conclude the book, Danto addresses himself to such questions. To understand these essays, you need to go back to his philosophical aesthetics, and in particular to The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981). Like many works of American aesthetics, this centers on the question “what is art?”—a question prompted by an earlier and even sillier joke of Marcel Duchamp’s. With consummate skill and wit Danto dances around the question until the reader is thoroughly dizzy and prepared to accept almost any answer (and also no answer) just so long as the philosopher will stop. He does stop—for he is an expert judge of cadences—and you are none the wiser. Danto makes much of the puzzle that two works of art may be indistinguishable and yet distinct. But there is less to this puzzle than meets the eye, and it has nothing in particular to do with aesthetics. A paperweight may exactly resemble an ashtray: what makes it a paperweight is its use. The same is true of every artifact: its nature and identity is determined only when we understand how to use it. Works of art too are artifacts. To ask what they are is therefore to ask how we use them. The simple answer is that they are “used aesthetically.” And the real puzzle is this: art is designed for a purpose, namely to be an object of aesthetic interest; but aesthetic interest involves seeing an art work as though it had no purpose but itself. If Danto never gets to this puzzle, it is because he stays fixated on paintings and overlooks the state of mind with which we perceive them. Hence, despite his philosophical expertise, which ought to have made him a world expert on the question “what is art?,” he is unable to tell us what should hang in our museums.

Am I obliged to approve of the things which disgust me, because others delight in them?

This deficiency is illustrated in his essay “Masterpiece and the Museum.” This arose out of a conference in which the art establishment and its “conservative” critics debated the question of the museum. Should museums aim to get hold of “masterpieces,” whose value lies in their lasting place in the culture which produced them, or should they be conscripted to fashionable causes, and their wall-space filled with agitprop? (I admit that’s not a neutral way of posing the question—but you see what I mean.)

The conflict, then, is between a traditional view which maintains the reality of aesthetic values, and a radical view which places political relevance in the place of aesthetic merit. The new criterion of museum membership is phrased in political terms: does the work make a “political point,” and one that we approve of? In particular, does it constitute a “challenge” to the heterosexist, racist, and patriarchal culture which has hitherto “controlled” the museums? If the result of adopting such a criterion is that the museum is stuffed full of posturing trivia, with a boredom quotient equal to the record levels established by American feminism, then so be it. After all—and Danto cheerfully accepts the possibility—we may be living through “the end of art,” a period when artifacts which once were treated as objects of aesthetic veneration have acquired a wholly novel use—not exactly to épater les bourgeois (who are no longer épatubles, consisting as they do largely of Dantos) but at least to “challenge” the “structures” of etc., etc. Discussing this issue, Danto argues that

the museum is, to use an expression widely borrowed from Jacques Derrida, “always already” political in its very inception. The struggle that gave a certain shape to the conference on the masterpiece was not between the political and the nonpolitical, but between two political positions, one held so long that it had until recently forgotten or suppressed the consciousness of how political it was.

Now the East Coast is a peculiar place, and a lot of things which “go without saying” in its electric atmosphere can be repeated elsewhere only at the risk of sounding rather cute. Nevertheless, it has to be assumed that in a place where Warhol can be seriously considered to be a touchstone of artistic value, Derrida might also carry some weight in philosophical discussion. This does not prevent me from reacting with shock when an analytical philosopher adopts the rhetorical manner of a Parisian gauchiste. Haven't we seen through all that stuff—that “diagnostic” way of argument which floats around in Foucault and his followers, which pollutes the mainstream of sociology, and against which, one might have thought, a philosopher would have long since been inoculated by his training (it is, after all, just about the only benefit that his training can confer)? Or are we to accept that, whenever we oppose the politicization of something (be it art or sport or hiking or religion) we are “merely” taking another (and of course necessarily conservative) political position, and that every institution, from the tennis court to the tea table, is “always already” political? Here, surely, is where the analytical philosopher should roll up his sleeves and get down to it. So here goes.

Here, surely, is where the analytical philosopher should roll up his sleeves and get down to it. So here goes.

Among the many interesting mathematicians, there are at least two kinds: those who discover proofs, explain them lucidly, and advance the sum of mathematical knowledge; and those who develop a “mathematics of protest,” devoting their writings and their classes to the promotion of radical causes, and prepared, if need be, to prove that 2+2 = 5 when the Sandinistas, the gays, or the feminists stand in need of it. Which of them should we appoint to our chairs of mathematics? When the “conservative” says that the appointment of the second type of mathematician is political, he means that it is only political, and nothing else. But now comes the gauchisant response: so too is the traditional alternative! To appoint mathematicians on the basis of their mathematical competence, as defined by the existing structures, is “merely” to endorse the existing structures, and our inherited mathematical culture, with all its hidden racist, sexist, patriarchal, etc., etc. What a yawn!

It is of course a political choice to teach mathematics in our universities, rather than to replace it by political attitudinizing. But it is not merely a political choice. Mathematics stands above and beyond politics, and can only be damaged by the attempt to endow it with a political profile. If you choose to teach mathematics, then you must appoint the person who is good at it, regardless of his political views. Chomsky did not get to the summit of his discipline by espousing left-wing causes, any more than Quine got there by being a conservative. (If you can get to the summit of a discipline—”women’s studies,” for instance—on the strength of your political profile, that is because there is no such discipline.) In short, mathematics has its own criteria of value, and these have nothing to do with politics.

Furthermore, there is a reason to teach mathematics which lies above politics: namely, that mathematical knowledge is part of what the Greeks called “the good for man”: in whatever circumstances, under whatever political regimen, it is better to know these truths than to ignore them.

The argument about the museums runs parallel. The “conservative” defends the old conception because he believes that there are aesthetic values, and that it is part of the “good for man” to be acquainted with them. And once you choose to pursue aesthetic values, it is they that prevail, regardless of the politics. Moreover, aesthetic values, like mathematical truths, have a way of siding with no one in the political fray. Picasso isn't hung in our museums because of his Communist commitments, nor do those commitments show clearly in his greatest paintings. And when art lapses into propaganda, it doesn't last long on the walls. (Consider the fate of Socialist Realism.)

Danto makes it clear that he doesn't like conservatives. Having perceived that Aristophanes was one, he decides that he doesn't like him either. But it was Aristophanes who saw that philosophers are among the worst judges of human nature. Sophistication in argument is too tempting a substitute for knowledge of the heart, and it is knowledge of the heart which is most evidendy missing from Danto’s more reflective essays. Art matters far more than the fleeting fads of the liberal conscience; think hard about the Oresteia, Troilus and Cressida, or Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women and you will see how gross are the terms which are flung at each other by the feminists and those who offend them, and how deep and ambiguous is the human reality which they abuse. It is because they open onto these deeper regions of feeling that aesthetic values are important. Yet the values of the hedonist point always in a contrary direction, toward a blithe acceptance, a refusal to judge, which is also a refusal to feel.

Danto would not regard that as a criticism: his carapace of sophistication is not so easily breached. Besides, he will argue, who are you to tell me what aesthetic values are? On whom lies the burden of proof? It is partly because he must be encountered at this abstract level that Danto is interesting. His hostility to The New Criterion should not deter readers of that journal from his book. His essays are only occasionally ideological, and only fleetingly combative. For the most part they are true expressions of the writer’s joy in art; and one should be thankful for a writer who is more eager to praise than to condemn, and who can always find a sparkling phrase for doing so.

1 Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present, by Arthur C. Danto; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 356 pages, $22.95.