The Question Lacking at the End of Art: Danto and Heidegger
Dronsfield, Jonathan Lahey, Philosophy Today
Arthur Danto's influential "end of art" thesis argues that art relinquishes responsibility for answering the question "What is art?" and that as a consequence the question of what art is, is passed to philosophy to answer. But in spite of the fact that Danto attaches a great deal of weight to the terms "question" and "answer," neither he nor his many commentators have explicitly addressed what exactly is meant by them. Danto takes these important terms for granted, despite likening the way in which art raises the question of its identity to Heidegger's account of Dasein as self-questioning. That the manner in which definitional accounts of art of the sort Danto seeks are made impossible by the way modern art performatively transforms what is meant by "question" in its asking itself what art is should be so close to the way in which, for Heidegger, definitional accounts of what the human being is are ruled out by how they raise the question of their being in their being only exacerbates our puzzlement. In his version of the end of art thesis Heidegger takes great pains to unfold what he means by "question" and "answer," for art is the privileged means by which modernity can be put into question. Yet although he accords art this status in the "history of the truth of being" Heidegger, unlike Danto, has very little to say about art of the post-war period on, a time characterized by Danto as the history of art's self-questioning, the very time in which the question of what art is becomes part of what it is, indeed as much part of what art is as the art object itself. Instead, beginning with his writings in the late-1930s, Heidegger suggests that the "truth about being" might only emerge in a time lacking art, and that modern art, or as I shall go on to say modern visual art, has little role to play as a questioning activity. Ostensibly opposed ontologies of art notwithstanding, both Danto and Heidegger appear to give up on art as a questioning activity. This essay argues that Danto avowedly, and Heidegger in an unacknowledged and ambiguous way, aggregate to philosophy the right to answer for art, and that their shared but differently expressed claims that art of the mid-twentieth century gives up on questioning in a serious way are arbitrary, largely because of the privilege accorded perception and representation in their respective conceptions of the history of art.
Danto claims that after Warhol's Brillo Box (1964), which for the first time as far as art is concerned casts the question "What is art?" in its "pure" and "true" philosophical form, "art no longer bears responsibility for its own philosophical definition.'" If artists wish to participate in the process of answering the question of what art is (which Danto sees as the next stage of its progress), "they would have to become philosophers," since art has "turned the responsibility for progress over to philosophy."2 Danto would have it that the way in which art cedes to philosophy the right to define art, the authority to define it, has a direct bearing on artistic responsibility in that it relieves art of a certain responsibility for itself, of the responsibility for answering the question of its own identity that it itself raises.
But if the answer is philosophy's, how can art be said to have raised the question of its own identity in its own way? Indeed, can it raise the question of its identity in its own way if it cannot answer it, or if it does not have any responsibility of its own with which to answer? Does not passing responsibility for answering over to philosophy mean that the question too is given over to philosophy? The question What is art? has always been philosophy's question about art insofar as it seeks a definition of art; and the question What is art? has been art's question about itself from the start, ever since it had reason to welcome different ways of making art. But Danto elides the latter, which he refers to as the "identity question," art's question about what it is, with the question of art's definition. …