Hearing Danto Out: A Critique of the "End of Art" Thesis Through Music
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Arthur Danto’s “end of art” thesis contends that art followed a progressive historical narrative from about 1300 until 1964 AD, when Danto realized that Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes demonstrates that an artwork can look like anything without thereby losing its status as art. I critique Danto’s revelation that an artwork can look like anything by showing how what Danto really and quite rightly means is that an art object can now look like anything. Making the art object/artwork distinction clear shows how Danto axiomatically excludes important perceptible qualities of artworks from his scope of perception which might provide outlets to the future changes to the definition of art, and thus the continuation of art history. I work up to this criticism by first addressing an apparent blind spot in Danto’s oeuvre: while Danto depicts the history of art as progressing and culminating within the realm of the visual arts, he is explicit that its implications apply to all artforms. It is a prima facie interesting question whether music can rightly be subsumed under Danto’s grand claims, since Danto’s history of art centers upon painting’s representational properties, which I argue that music lacks. Despite these differences however, music was, like painting, drawn into a Modernist search for its own essence that resulted in John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece which showed that music could sound like anything just as much as visual artworks could look like anything. However, 4’33” is unlike Brillo Boxes in that any two instances of the former can sound completely different from each other, while Brillo Boxes must always look like Brillo boxes. With reference and reverence to George Dickie, I explain how what I call “institutional cues”, which are devised, implemented, debated and changed within the “artworld”, are needed to perceive art as art in some cases, and especially in the case of 4’33”. These institutional cues are what allow art objects to be perceived as artworks, and present opportunities for innovation that Danto’s arbitrarily limited account of what is perceived when perceiving an artwork obscured from him.