Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Autonomy, Pluralism, Play: Danto, Greenberg, Kant, and the Philosophy of Art History

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Autonomy, Pluralism, Play: Danto, Greenberg, Kant, and the Philosophy of Art History

Article excerpt

Autonomy, pluralism, play: Danto, Greenberg, Kant, and the philosophy of art history

Clark Buckner*

San Francisco Art Institute


Arthur Danto's celebrated declaration of "the end of art" might seem to accommodate well the apparently open-ended aesthetic diversity of contemporary art. However, in his philosophy of art history, Danto treats the pursuit of autonomy as a misdirected philosophical concern, and denigrates the aesthetic pluralism of contemporary art as a matter of empty indifference. As a result, Danto not only fails to do justice to the explosion of artistic forms in recent decades, he contributes to their misconstrual. Accordingly, this paper revisits the opposition between autonomy and pluralism on which Danto's philosophy of art history rests, arguing that artistic self-definition ought to be conceived, not as a misplaced conceptual problem, but rather as a distinctly aesthetic concern, integral to art practice and criticism. So understood, autonomy and pluralism do not stand opposed but rather mutually implicate one another, and the historical responsibility for artists to define the terms of their own work, rather than having been exhausted, persists amidst the broad field of formal possibilities presented by contemporary art's complication with everyday life.


Clark Buckner teaches in The School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute. Along with articles on philosophy, psychoanalysis, and contemporary culture, in both popular and peer-reviewed journals, his previous publications include the edited collection, Styles of Piety: Practicing Philosophy After the Death of God (Fordham U.P.), and the forthcoming monograph, Apropos of Nothing: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Coen Brothers (SUNY U.P.).

Keywords:contemporary art; modernism; aesthetic judgment; the end of art

Published: 16 May 2013

*Correspondence to: Clark Buckner. Email:

© 2013 C. Buckner. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License (, permitting all non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 5, 2013

In apparent opposition to the modernist pursuit of autonomy, contemporary artists often no longer define their practices in terms of specific media, and artworks frequently are not easily distinguished from industrial projects, commercial advertising, social gatherings, and other aspects of everyday life. Accordingly, Arthur Danto famously concludes that art history has come to an end.1 While some might mistake Danto's declaration to be cynical, in fact, it is celebratory. According to Danto, the modernist pursuit of self-definition was misguided: the displacement of an essentially philosophical problem, provoked by a crisis in, what he takes to be, the conventional role of art to represent the world. By contrast, he argues that the exhaustion of this pursuit in the pluralism of contemporary art made possible the proper, philosophical formulation of the problem of art's definition, and emancipated artists to pursue their work without concerning themselves with defining their practices.

Danto's philosophy of art history serves as a necessary supplement to his ontology of art, and stakes a claim within philosophical aesthetics for best accommodating the seemingly open-ended diversity of contemporary art. However, because Danto elevates art's definition to a point of philosophical principle, and denigrates the aesthetic properties of artworks to a matter of empty indifference, his declaration of the end of art not only fails to do justice to the lavish formal diversity of art in recent decades, but also contributes to its misconstrual: as either the rhetorical vehicle for pre-conceived notions, or mere entertainment. …

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