Obituaries News USA

Friends remember Arthur Danto at Columbia University

Memorial service for the art critic and philosopher held in New York

Arthur Danto

The collector Agnes Gund, the painter Sean Scully and the Whitney Museum of Art director Adam Weinberg joined dozens of academics, friends and family members at Columbia University on Thursday afternoon to remember Arthur Danto, the philosopher of art who died last October, aged 89.

“We all, at one time or another, wanted to be Arthur Danto,” said Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia. The Detroit-born philosopher spent much of his 60-year career at the university, first as a student under the GI bill and then as a professor. During the student-led demonstrations against the Vietnam War in 1968, he also acted as a peacemaker between students and the administration, according to his cousin Michael Stone.

Bollinger described Danto as a pioneer of interdisciplinary thought who refused to draw harsh lines between art history, history and philosophy. Over the course of the afternoon, Danto was also described as generous, goodhearted, quick-witted and “disarmingly persuasive”.

As a young boy, Danto became fascinated with art after watching Diego Rivera paint the Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He went on to make paintings and woodcuts of his own before devoting himself to philosophy. While at Columbia, Danto developed his now famous theories defining art and declaring its end. “He was the culmination of a road that began with Plato,” said Lydia Goehr, a professor at Columbia.

Danto was remembered not only for his elegant philosophical treatises but also for his more accessible art criticism. Goehr recalled introducing him at an event shortly after she arrived in the US from England. At the time, Danto was an art critic for The Nation, where he worked from 1984 to 2009. “I thought being the art critic for The Nation was equivalent to being the poet laureate of the United States,” she recalled. Although no such official post exists, Danto did serve as a kind of poet laureate for art criticism in America, Goehr said.

“He was a pied piper we were happy to follow,” said the painter Sean Scully, a close friend of Danto. “We may have been just as confused at the end, but we were much better for the journey.”

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8 Feb 14
17:20 CET


This was a splendid service and tribute to Prof. Arthur Danto. Who could ask for more? Sean Scully, among others, was so elegant and persuasive. Would that all memorials in the academy were carried out with such deference and dignity. --Donald Lindeman, MA, Art History, Columbia U., '76

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