Tributes to the Life and Work of Arthur Danto

Arthur Danto

Earlier this week we had a short post on the death of Arthur Danto, the influential philosopher and art critic. Not surprisingly, a variety of tributes to and assessments of Danto has poured forth. The following are just a few we’d like to highlight.

Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy. Bilgrami gives an overview of Danto’s career along with a look back on what he meant to philosophy, art criticism, and the department of philosophy at Columbia. In this excerpt, Bilgrami identifies what made Danto’s art criticism for the Nation so extraordinary and considers his distinctiveness as a philosopher:

The special quality of Arthur’s reviews in the Nation is that they are unmistakably the writings of a philosopher, revealing often how a line or image or stone was the stimulus or the station of some idea, even sometimes of an argument. The Nation has, as a result of his essays, managed to become something of a philosophical magazine, and that is no bad thing. And conversely, in philosophy, what he managed to assert in public ways in these last thirty years was a personality that made him quite unusual, if not almost unique, among analytic philosophers —a genuinely cultured man. Not just someone grabbing every week the offerings of a prodigious metropole, but someone whose ideas and perceptions are tuned by a daily awareness of how the city and its arts have come to be what they are, and how it stands among the productions of other cities in America and the world. Culture, in Arthur’s philosophical thinking was perhaps more important than anything else, and this emerged in ways that were sometimes amusing – and appalling. I remember once how Isaac Levi and I were struck dumb when we asked him, after his visit to Calcutta, how he had managed to cope with the awful condition of its suffering, and he replied in a trice: “Oh that was nothing, you see poverty is part of the culture of Calcutta.”

Santiago Zabala, in an essay forAl Jazeera cites the importance of Danto’s seminal essay “The Artworld” and his declaration of “the end of art.” Zabala concludes by writing:

Danto had a deep respect for artists not only for the works they created, but also because they posed, and sought to solve, philosophical problems, at least indirectly. For Danto, to be an artist, meant to become a philosopher. This is why until recently he had been at every major international biennale and many show openings, and even took part in a performance piece, as he testified in one of the last articles he wrote. If those artists who were fortunate enough to capture Danto’s interest&Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and many others – endure in history, that history will be partly formed by Danto’s news that the history of art had ended.

Finally, though it came out before Danto’s death Action, Art, History: Engagements with Arthur Danto, includes a variety of perspectives on Danto’s work from leading philosophers as well as Danto’s responses. In their introduction, Daniel Herwitz and Michael Kelly, the editors of the volume write the following:

Were Danto’s writing more overtly political, he might be called the Diderot of his time—except that instead of an encyclopedic mentality, his is one that seeks to revel in its times and expand them. In an age when the humanities are all too often consumed by bitter complaint, Danto’s work is that of a Ni­etzschean personality surprised and delighted by his times and ready to convert that surprise into an audacity worthy of them. Being surprised, he wishes to be philosophically surprising. Danto’s is perhaps the philosophi­cal personality Nietzsche wanted to have but couldn’t. To take one’s times and make of them something as rich as possible, that is a kind of philo­sophical goal. To speak for the future as it is crystallizing all around, to speak before the crystals of the future appear: this is something as critical for philosophy to do as anything. No one has succeeded more admirably than Danto, nor with as much graciousness and generosity of spirit. It is for this monumental ability that he is admired and loved.

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