More befuddled by what they say about modern art than the art itself? Take heart!

December 22, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

There is a popular image of the "serious" modern art critic or scholar as a high priest of cryptic orders, as a hooded sentry keeping "them" away from high-artdom's "us," an enforcer of The Knowledge.These writers condescend to clarity, as if to be widely understandable is to be common and thus unclean.The connotation of vileness in the term "popularize" suggests that the populace is a mass of animals, and nasty, smelly ones at that.

Some of that kind of talk is libelous, but there is vast justification, somewhat more within the academy than amongst artists, practitioners, curators.

Those obscurantist commentators and scholars are not great. All great critics are distinguished by the accessibility of their writing. Any reasonably literate, attentive person can make out Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling on literature, Whitney Balliett on jazz, Virgil Thomson on music, Arlene Croce on dance.

Consider Arthur C. Danto. Among contemporary art critics writing in English, I believe he has best achieved that level of accessibility. His newest book, "After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History" (Princeton U. Press, 239 pages. $24.95) nourishes that conviction. It is important. It is clear. It will arrive in bookshops just after the holidays.

If you are simply indifferent to art and the meaning of art, his book has little utility. If you are seriously attentive to contemporary art, you are already aware of Danto and his general positions, and owe it to yourself to read this book. If you are not, but are genuinely curious, you would do well to follow him.

The end of art

Danto breaks what most of us would call the history of art - the entire known body of painting, sculpture, drawing - into four vast territories. The first is, roughly speaking, pre-art; the second, for want of a better phrase, is representational art (you might call it art art); the third is modernist art. Then, by a slogan he famously established, art ends (or, really, breaks free of history). What remains is what's going on now, generally designated as postmodernist art or, perhaps, contemporary art.

Art after the end of art? Yes. That's what the book is about. Lest you be confused about Danto's position, he insists: "My own claim about the end of art has to be resolutely distinguished from claims regarding the death of painting. Indeed, painting after the end of art has been extremely vital."

Before unscrambling that riddle, quickly, the territory: Before about 1400 A.D. images, paintings and sculptures (however beautiful, magnificent) were utilitarian, impersonal. Much of that "pre-art art" comprised devotional images. Much fitted into the line of, say, road signs and commercial advertising "art" today.

The Renaissance changed all that. The artist was born, or became important, even central. But still, Danto explains brilliantly, art was presentation of people and landscapes and events "just as they would present themselves to the eye."

Then, two-thirds of the way through the 19th century, came modernism. It was not a stylistic change, a shift in manner or form. It was a radical leap to something profoundly different from all art that led up to it. Modernist art was - and remains - not primarily representational, but rather primarily concerned with "some kind of reflection on the means and methods of representation." It was driven by "a new agenda in which the means of representation became the object of representation." Thus art became its own subject.

Think of any impressionist and you've got the point.

Then what happened?

Postmodernism. But nothing's neat. Arguably, though Danto doesn't really press the point, the first postmodernist was Marcel Duchamp, who about 80 years ago put forward the insistence that a bicycle wheel and a urinal, among other "ready made" objects, were as much art as, say, the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's Pieta. Certainly, the die was firmly cast by Andy Warhol, by presenting, for example, precise reproductions of commercial wholesale Brillo boxes as works of art.

Danto celebrates that revolution, declaring that now art "can be anything artists and patrons want it to be."

Democracy of style

He argues that with the onset of postmodernism "there is no further direction for the history of art to take." That history had been developmental, cumulative, frontier-reaching and -crossing. Now, he says, "All styles are of equal merit, none 'better' than another. Needless to say, this leaves the option of criticism open. It does not entail that all art is equal and indifferently good. It just means that goodness and badness are not matters belonging to any right style, falling under any right manifesto. That is what I mean by the end of art."

For the vast preponderance of the public, postmodernism in art tests the very meaning of "meaning." Sensitive to the ironies here, Danto raises the question of what is the meaning of any piece of art. He answers sternly that a work of art must not mean, it must be.

Danto insists that since "there is no longer a pale of history for works of art to fall outside of. Everything is possible. Anything can be art. [And] this inaugurates the greatest era of freedom art has ever known."

This is not a hot beach read. But there is nothing opaque, cryptic about it. Throughout, it is clear and direct; at best, it is brilliantly crystalline. There is a good deal in it with which I disagree. But a great strength is that Danto's writing is extraordinarily modest in presentation, balanced by giving full voice to many arguments he dismisses. I know of no more useful single book on art today.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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