The end of art theory.

Author:Rosenstein, Leon

"In aesthetics ... one can argue more and better than in any other subject."

Anatole France (1)

A Mildly Polemical Preface

It needs finally to be said, in paraphrase and in extension of Hegel, that art theory on the side of its highest possibilities is a thing of the past. How did this come about? How did art theory come to its demise?

Things die off in various ways: they wear out, they dissipate into triviality, they self-destruct, they no longer have any raison d'etre. Postmortem analysis of art theory will reveal that at the turn of the millennium it has succumbed to all four of these.

Hegel's premature obituary concerns art, of course, and not art theory. (2) The precise and complete quote reads:

Art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it, and found in it.... Consequently the conditions of our present time are not favorable to art.... In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. (3)

As to the manner and cause of art's end, Hegel adds: "it is precisely at this its highest stage that art terminates, by transcending itself; it is just here that it deserts the medium of harmonious presentation of mind in sensuous shape and passes from the poetry of imaginative ideas to the prose of thought." (4) In the present age Hegel claims that "the form of art has ceased to be the supreme need of the spirit," (5) because art as a vehicle of the evolution of Spirit is now no longer competent to bear its load, that this task is now the burden and right of pure thought, of philosophy (indeed, of Hegel).

Hegel was wrong about the art of his own "now" (roughly the 1820s when he composed his lectures on art which were posthumously published after his death in 1831). We all know (or well believe) that art--even great art, on the side of its highest possibilities--was being produced then and has been produced since. But perhaps it was just his timing that was off. Thus, while his obituary for art may have been premature, that error does not entail that in principle the basic assumption on which it rests, namely that of its possibility, is false. Surely it is possible that at some time art might die.

In fact, I think he may have been right on two counts--(1) that art can demise, on the side of its highest possibilities (after all, other modes of human endeavor have disappeared), and (2) that upon and through its death, art is destined to be transformed or subsumed (aufgehoben) into philosophy. Historically, I would argue further (but not here) that art's time probably came several decades ago. What I do intend to show, however, is that art theory's time has now arrived.

Arthur Danto and his followers and critics have made much of some of the foregoing--that art might be dead and that it has been (to use Danto's term) "philosophically disenfranchised." (6) The implication is that philosophy has overtaken (more properly "taken over") art, in the same fashion as a greater power subsumes a weaker. Danto also, like Hegel, seems to think that the disenfranchisement (if not quite a necessary event) is a good thing--for art and for philosophy.

While I would agree that philosophy has supplanted art, I would view the process in the other direction and reach a different appraisal. It is, rather, that philosophy has been artistically coopted, that art has (perhaps from the ennui of exhaustion, perhaps in a crisis of despair, perhaps as an emetic from constipation) attempted to transform itself into philosophy, which has become the mere handmaiden (or the "evil confidante with bad advice") of art. And I think, further, that this transformation, or transubstantiation, is not a good thing--neither for art nor for philosophy.

Lamenting the demise by transformation of the great art of the past, Nietzsche made a similar point in the 1880s in The Will to Power:

No one is simply a painter; all are archeologists, psychologists theatrical producers of this or that recollection or theory. They enjoy our erudition, our philosophy. Like us, they are full and overfull of general ideas. They like a form, not for the sake of what it is, but for the sake of what it expresses. They are the sons of a scholarly, tormented, and reflective generation--a thousand miles removed from the old masters, who did not read and only thought of feasting their eyes. (7)

One might say of Nietzsche the same as was said of Hegel--that his timing was off. But his point was sound.

Of course--to be polemical--the fundamental problem with contemporary art theory the cause of its demise, has been brought on by its subject matter, by contemporary art. Having stretched itself to its limits in every direction--from being a mere sensuous medium to mere disembodied thought--art of the last several decades became everything and nothing. And died:--on the side of its highest possibilities, of course. Art theory, in consequence, trying to swallow this whole realm of being and nothing, simply expired by engorgement (or by starvation, depending on one's viewpoint).

But having had my polemical moment, I do not wish in what follows to address the issue of the death of art per se--nor whether the actual event occurred (or the onset of the disease began) with Duchamp's Dadaist "ready-mades" such as "Bicycle Wheel" and "Fountain," or with Kandinsky's Nonobjective Expressionism (both of which emerged during World War I), or with Pop Artists such as Warhol and Ed Ruscha in the 1960s, or with Conceptualism and various forms of Ideological Art (where the idea or message, even a written text, becomes the art object) in the 1970s. My concern is with the death of art theory. I intend to show that contemporary art theory is at an end and why that is so.

The Context and Scope of the Argument

I do not want here to discuss the death of art. I do wish to discuss the death of art theory. But is it merely a happy coincidence that Danto's preoccupation with "the death of art" has led him to propose the "artworld theory" of art and that this has spawned such successors as George Dickie's "institutional theory of art" which are the paradigms of art theory at the end of its time? The reader may let this question pass for the moment as a rhetorical one, for we need to consider what is meant by "art theory at the turn of the millennium," which I am claiming is at its end.

Unlike science, philosophy has never spoken in the collective voice of consensus that would allow it to talk about the philosophic view of reality in the late nineteenth century, for example--or about the philosophic view of anything at any time, for that matter--as one could speak of a similar view in physics. There is no equivalent in philosophy of "the quantum theory" in physics. Hardly surprising, then, that one cannot really speak of "art theory at the turn of the millennium" and expect this to denote anything so neat as a single theory accepted as true by the vast majority of philosophers. From this basic fact regarding the nature of the philosophic enterprise and the status of theories in philosophy, one could not reasonably argue for the death of the current philosophic "theory of such-and-such."

There are many contemporary prominent philosophers of art and they do in fact espouse a variety of philosophical positions. Among current important philosophers of art who defend theories evidently different from the one(s) I shall discuss here are Margolis, Walton, Scruton, Goodman, Wollheim, Carroll, Stecker, Levinson, and Arnheim, to mention only major ones. There are others. Nevertheless--and one does not have to be a Hegelian to believe it--there are some philosophers who are so influential in their time that they may be said to speak for their time. Such a philosopher was Hegel in his time, as was Kant in the generation before him. So--at least in the realm of art theory--is Danto in our time.

Thus, while I am aware that I cannot completely make my case for "the death of art theory" in general without taking all these different theories into account and showing their separate failures (and the necessity of their individual failures) or by showing that they are really the same theory--and such an endeavor would indeed take a lengthy book rather than this short article--by setting forth the failure of the preeminent theory (and its simulacra and progeny), the failure of art theory at the end of the millennium may be epitomized and a path cleared for the eventual demonstration of the collapse of all art theory. (8) That is why taking Danto's theory as the contemporary art theory nonpareil and as paradigmatic for much contemporary theorizing about art by others and then showing its failure as art theory is important for all those who concern themselves with these matters.

That Danto's "artworld" theory and Dickie's "institutional" theory (which is more or less its derivative (9) are themselves different theories it is true. Their overarching similarity has hardly gone unnoticed, however, even by their authors. (10) And this similarity rests on the same essential claim--that art works are entitled to that name not in terms of any particular intrinsic properties they possess nor in virtue of unique consequences they occasion in experiencers but rather because of a contextual certification of some sort--in Danto a historico-theoretical context called the "artworld" and in Dickie a set of persons comprising the "institution." This point is too well known to most readers to need argument at this juncture and I will take it as given.

But one may specify their apparent connection more precisely than similarity or historical derivation. To be exact, Dickie's theory seems to be a more inclusive or generalized case of Danto's, since Danto...

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