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Arthur C. Danto, philosopher and art critic, has died, aged 89

He answered the question "what is art" but also declared its end

Arthur C. Danto

Arthur C Danto, the noted philosopher and art critic, died on 25 October. He was 89. A professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University, Danto helped answer the age-old question of “what is art”, but also declared its end.

Born in Ann Arbor and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Danto studied art, history and philosophy at Wayne University and Columbia University. He received a Fulbright scholarship in 1949 to study at the Sorbonne in Paris and then returned to Columbia as a professor.

In a 1964 essay Danto coined the term “artworld”, which he defined as the cultural and historical context in which a work of art is created. The notion laid the groundwork for the philosopher George Dickie’s institutional theory of art, which states that an artefact becomes a work of art when “the artworld” confers “upon it the status of a candidate for appreciation”.

Twenty years later, Danto published his most famous essay, "The End of Art". In it, he recounts a visit to Andy Warhol’s exhibition of Brillo boxes at the Stable Gallery in 1964 and argues that the show marked the end of art history. By turning art into its own philosophy, the Brillo boxes ushered in a new era of pluralism and “post-historical art”. “If artists wished to participate in this progress, they would have to undertake a study very different from what the art schools could prepare them for. They would have to become philosophers,” he wrote.

At the age of 63, having enjoyed an accomplished career in academic philosophy, Danto surprised some in the field by accepting a post as art critic for The Nation. From 1984 to 2009, he turned his attention to art objects and reviewed the work of artists including Eric Fischl (“beautifully brushed and deeply intelligent”) and Julian Schnabel (“fuel for the engines of the art market”). As he wrote in his essay "Narratives on the End of Art", “Art does not end with the end of art history”.

Danto will be remembered “as a philosopher who took art seriously, not just a philosopher of art,” says Lydia Goehr, a professor at Columbia who worked with Danto for 30 years. His respect for art “gave him a very important place in philosophy and was good for the field at a time when aesthetics had fallen by the wayside in the 1960s,” she says.

Although Danto is considered a pioneer of the institutional theory of art, he “deeply disagreed” with it, according to Goehr. “He thought the art world set down the conditions for an internal definition of art, one that was about aboutness and embodiment, not some kind of external baptism ceremony,” she says.

Danto served as president of the American Philosophical Association and the American Society for Aesthetics. He was among 120 academics and philosophers to sign the second "Humanist Manifesto"!in 1973. In 1996, he received the Frank Jewett Mather award for art criticism from the College Art Association. He published his final book, What Art Is, a summary of his 50 years of thought on the definition of art, earlier this year.

This article was updated on 29 October

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8 Nov 13
15:32 CET


Thank you for this piece. As a philosophy student always looking for definitions, Danto taught me that there is little difference between art and life. I wrote an essay on my blog explaining his central claims to the general public. Please read if you are interested in indiscernibility, or the difference between art and non-art:

4 Nov 13
17:44 CET


A small correction. I did not work with Danto for thirty years. I only know him for that long.

30 Oct 13
15:54 CET


An open memorial for Arthur Danto is being planned for Early Spring. In lieu of flowers, we suggest a donation to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Arthur Danto's interest in art was first awakened at age five by watching Diego Rivero painting his celebrated murals.

28 Oct 13
16:28 CET


We at the radio show Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life are grateful to have hosted Arthur for what may be one of his last radio interviews. To hear his remarkable mind at work, unscripted and unedited, readers might want to visit:

28 Oct 13
16:32 CET


Knew Arthur from ATOA panels he delivered over a decade & videoed him at gallery openings like Fischl when Mary Boone first opened in Chelsea. He was favorably disposed to my Pollocksquared indie feature & once filmed a scene at his apartment where he played a cameo Pollock. Great fun for him -- I only gave a general idea that he was a Pollock surviving the car crash, & Arthur wryly recounted his own made up scenario that after the car crash & being burned out by the art scene left for Costa Rica in anonymity & hired onto a fishing boat -- & he was good! He was on my ATOA Pollock Passion Panel at SVA in 2004 during which we had a bit of a flap about the minimalists -- & I was wrong. It may be my photo of Arthur from 2004. Brightest deepest mind ever.

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