Nothing is more right than anything else.

Arthur Danto

My friend and fellow painter, Jim Mott, once asked Arthur Danto if it was okay to paint landscapes again. It makes me laugh to write that, and I’ll bet it made Danto laugh to hear it, or at least smile. I don’t think Jim seriously thought he needed Danto’s permission, but he got a nice and predictable reply: “Yes, it’s okay to paint landscapes again.” Or do anything else and call it art, for that matter, as Danto points out in After the End of Art. Jim also got a bonus observation from Danto that Jim’s project as an itinerant artist was also a bit of performance art, with the landscape painting as only one element of the endeavor. It isn’t every day you get a favorable comment on your work from Arthur Danto. Or any day, for most of us. One passage from the book I just mentioned stands for me as justification for what I do as a painter, in the way Danto’s reply to Jim’s query works as an argument in favor of what Jim does in his painting. The passage I’m posting here ofers a wonderful, concise overview of why the pursuit of the New in art makes no historical sense anymore, though the experience of seeing with new eyes will always remain, for me, the goal of painting:

The history of Western art divides into two main episodes, what I call the Vasari episode and what I call the Greenberg episode. Both are progressive. Vasari, construing art as representational, sees it getting better and better over time at the “conquest of visual appearance.” That narrative ended for painting when moving pictures proved far better able to depict reality than painting could. Modernism began by asking what painting should do in light of that? And it began to probe its own identity. Greenberg defined a new narrative in terms of an ascent to the identifying conditions of the art, specifically what differentiates the art of painting from every other art. And he found this in the material conditions of the medium. Greenberg’s narrative is very profound, but it comes to an end with pop, about which he was never able to write other than disparagingly. It came to an end when art came to an end, when art, as it were, recognized that there was no special way a work of art had to be. The history of art’s quest for philosophical identity was over. And now that it was over, artists were liberated to do whatever they wanted to do. Paint lonely New England houses or make women out of paint or do boxes or paint squares. Nothing is more right than anything else. There is no single direction. There are indeed no directions. And that is what I meant by the end of art when I began to write about it in the mid-1980s. Not that art died or that painters stopped painting, but that the history of art, structured narratively, had come to an end.

 

  1. No Comments