The Pluralism of Art’s Autonomy: Reflections on Modernity and Modernism
These reflections were published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol 5., 2013 as part of “Autonomy, Pluralism, Play: Danto, Greenberg, Kant, and the Philosophy of Art History.” Download a pdf of the complete article here, or cite this post as: Buckner, Clark. “The Pluralism of Autonomous Art.” www.clarkbuckner.com. Web. Day, month, year the post was accessed.
Arthur Danto’s concept of the end of art rests upon three intersecting histories of the relationship between art and ideas in the West. Most broadly he argues that, since Plato banished poets from his imagined republic, philosophy has seen art as an enemy and worked to neutralize its force, either by “ephemeraliz[ing]” it as divorced from reality, or by “taking it over” as “doing what philosophy itself does, only uncouthly.”[i] For Danto, this thesis concerns the history of philosophy perhaps more than the history of art – until the rise of modernist art, and, what he explains as, the emergence of the problem of art’s self-definition. From the Renaissance until the end of the 19th-Century, he contends, art history conformed to the model provided by Giorgio Vasari, and concerned itself only with the success or failure of artists’ mimetic representations of the world. However, he argues, with the invention of film, this conventional role for artists was usurped, and the arts were thrown into uncertainty. Whereas sculptors and painters could only infer movement, film could present it directly.[ii] Danto writes, “The issue was what was painting now to be, and this in the end could only be answered with a philosophical theory.”[iii] Art suffered an identity crisis, which compelled it for the first time to address the problem of its self-definition. In the process, he contends, art was infected with its age-old enemy, philosophy; and he reads the history of art after 1880 as successive attempts to provide a philosophical answer to the problem of art’s definition. As rehearsed already above, Danto argues that art’s “philosophical” pursuit of its definition exhausted itself in the 1960’s, giving rise to the objective plural of contemporary art. When carried to its limit, he contends, the excessive nature of the demand it entailed became clear, and artwork was purged of its philosophical confusion. The problem of art’s definition was left to philosophers, and artists were liberated to pursue their work without concerning themselves about the definition of their practices.
The first striking feature about Danto’s speculative art history is his assertion that modern art remained fundamentally unproblematic from its inception in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance through to the late 19th-Century, securely and uniformly defined by the principle of naturalist representation until challenged on those same terms by the rise of moving-image technologies. In the formulation of his philosophy of art history, Danto thus excludes the problem of self-definition from representational practices themselves, framing definition instead as a strictly theoretical problem that properly belongs to another domain and only accidentally infects art, which he posits as originally an uncomplicated given. However, as art historian Arnold Hauser famously argues in his study of Mannerism, problems concerning art’s definition emerged concomitantly with the earliest developments of modern art.
Most superficially, Mannerism presents a crisis in art that results paradoxically from the extraordinary accomplishments of the High Renaissance. In the wake of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, what were artists to do? The elevation of painting and sculpture from crafts to liberal arts, and the correlative appreciation of the artist as an intellectual who contributes to the understanding of the world, placed a newfound burden on the subsequent generation. At the same time, the talents of Renaissance masters threatened to overwhelm and stifle their successors’ creativity. The force of their accomplishments turned the attention of subsequent generations to the study of their art rather than the careful attention to nature on which it was based, reducing renaissance naturalism to – or perhaps even revealing it to be – a set of technological contrivances. At the same time, the remarkable accomplishments of the Renaissance masters left little room for novelty, compelling artists to systematically complicate and even distort the representations of figures and space in their works. In the immediate wake of the High Renaissance, Mannerist artists such as Parmigianino, Tintoretto, and Giambolonga thus produced the first self-consciously non-representational art in the history of the West – four and a half centuries before the formal experiments of post-Impressionism.
Beyond their departure from Renaissance conventions, the anti-classical distortions of Mannerist art furthermore reflect a deep-seated skepticism about the very veracity of naturalist representation. To the contrary, Mannerists evidence a fascination with art’s capacity to suspend the apparent objectivity of experience and to supplant its purported laws with rules of its own. Hauser writes, “The age had lost confidence in the unambiguity of facts, had lost the sense of actuality altogether.”[iv] What Danto posits as the unproblematic definition of art, until challenged by the development of film, is thus subject to profound skepticism as soon as it is asserted. Hauser continues, “In every mannerist work, the artist seems to be trying to demonstrate that artistic values do not have to be, or actually cannot be, simple.” [v]
Radicalizing the problem still further, Mannerist tendencies already are evident in the work of the High Renaissance masters. Mannerism’s challenge to the standard of naturalist representation cannot be therefore simply dismissed, as symptomatic of the Renaissance’s decline. Instead, it must be recognized as an anxious self-criticism intrinsic to the very project of Renaissance humanism. Rather than established standards, the principles of Renaissance art are utopian aspirations whose value, authority, and ability to sustain themselves across generations are uncertain from the very moment of their inception. Instead of instituting a definition of art that goes unchallenged until the late 19th-Century, the naturalism of the Italian Renaissance thus initiates a problematic struggle between artists, and within their respective practice, about the value and aim of their work; and this struggle – as evidenced already in Mannerism and the too often overlooked complexities of Renaissance art – drives the development of the diverse artistic styles that constitutes the history of early modern art.
Other crises requiring artists to reflect on the value and end of their work can be traced throughout the history of Modern European Art.[vi] However, the period of the late 18th and early 19th-Centuries most clearly brings to light how the problem of self-definition is integral to art rather than infecting it from without, and how the problem of art’s autonomy doesn’t oppose but rather entails aesthetic pluralism. During this period of profound social change, art finally shed its moorings in religious ritual and feudal social conventions. It emerged for the first time fully in its autonomy as a distinct field of practice, whose value and significance did not depend upon external institutions or ideologies; and, while this accomplishment of art’s autonomy might be celebrated as a triumph, it simultaneously – and for the very same reasons – was suffered as a crisis concerning art’s definition. At this moment, art historian T.J. Clark writes with particular regard to Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat,
Contingency enters the process of picturing. It invades it. There is no other substance out of which paintings can now be made – no givens, no matters and subject matters, no forms, no usable pasts. Or none that a possible public could be taken to agree on anymore.[vii]
With the breakdown of the social institutions in which the arts previously had been produced and had found their meaning, artists were saddled with a still greater burden to define their own projects, resulting in an explosion of diverse new forms and contents in art.
In the late 18th Century, painting in particular ceased to be organized as a profession among others in the feudal guild system. Knowledge of the trade was no longer passed down from masters to apprentices, who grinded their colors and assisted them in their practices. Instead, as emblematic of its newfound modernity, painting was now taught like philosophy, on the basis of abstract principles derived from a whole canon of past masters. This abstraction presented an intrinsic problem concerning the transmission of inherited knowledge, for which Sir Joshua Reynold’s anxious insistence on the careful study of classical models provides a vivid example. But the broader ramifications of these changes ultimately manifested themselves in the marketplace. Artists no longer painted for individual patrons whose express wishes they knew, or even for the general public whose mood they could try to gauge. Instead they found themselves competing for success in academic exhibitions – now so familiar to us – in which melodrama and spectacle might easily win out over more quiet, sincere work, or art that otherwise requires more thoughtful attention. And many artists indeed rebelled against the standards established by the academies and their annual exhibitions, resulting in a general crisis concerning the definition of art.[viii]
The most immediate and visible effect of this newfound autonomy of art, and the crisis it entailed, was a pluralistic proliferation of novel subject matters. Previously, paintings primarily presented religious subjects from the Bible and lives of the saints. Even secular subjects remained largely limited to Classical mythology. However, in the late 18th Century, artists began to produce works depicting anything from Shakespearean dramas, to recent historical events, to personal flights of the imagination. Benjamin West’s “The Death of General Wolfe,” for instance, famously scandalized the academy by depicting historical figures in contemporary dress rather than classical costumes. In their etchings and prints, artists such as Francisco de Goya and William Blake depicted private, fantastic visions, which previously had been found only in poetry. And John Turner and John Constable contributed to the elevation of landscape from its status as above only still life in the established hierarchy of painting to an art form rivaling history painting.
Along with this pluralistic diversity of subject matters in the newly autonomous art of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, the work of the period furthermore exhibits a heightened uncertainty about art’s appropriate form and a correlative proliferation of formal experiments. In his study of David’s Marat, Clark draws upon Max Weber’s theory of modernity as marked by “the disenchantment of the world,” to argue that the force of the painting hinges on “the impossibility of transcendence and shows us politics as the form of a world.”[ix] He situates it historically in light of the cult that developed around Marat after his death and interprets it as part of the Jacobin struggle to lay claim to representing the people of the new French republic. He writes, “the Jacobins found themselves negotiating with too many things – too many interests and energies – calling themselves Marat.”[x] What was Marat’s legacy to mean – and how? If West’s Death of General Wolf presents a newfound attention to historical details, Clark contends the need to develop a properly historical form of representation riddles David’s Marat with uncertainties about the practice of painting itself. In this light, the 18th-Century transformations in historical painting provide evidence of artists not only searching for new subject matters, but also working to develop new forms of representation appropriate to the modern world.[xi]
Finally, rather than exhausting the problem of self-definition in modern art, the complication of art and everyday life lies at its very center. Of course, in the history of modernism, this complication develops along many distinct, even contrasting lines, from the socially charged sculptural installations of the Russian constructivists to the elaboration of John Cage’s insight into the temporality of musical form in Fluxus’ performance; and, when reflecting on the precursors to Warhol, Danto pays particular attention to Dadaism, whose repudiation of aesthetic conventions appears to support his own arguments (despite their categorical differences). However, the complication of art and everyday life develops equally – in fact, one might say, essentially – as an integral component of modernism’s pursuit of aesthetic autonomy, in the synthetic cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.
In their radicalization of the problem of art’s autonomy, post-Impressionist artists challenged the paradigm of painting in particular as a window onto the world, asserting the work of art instead as an object in its own right, defined by the terms of its construction. As commonly understood, art thus established a new independence, setting itself off against its surroundings in its radical self-definition. However, as evidence already in the collage techniques of Manet’s paintings, rather than transcending its context, the work of art thus came to be more profoundly complicated with its surroundings. As an object of its own, the painting stands alongside other objects. If the work of art indeed articulates a point of opposition to its surroundings, it does so from within their midst. And, in the synthetic cubism of Braque and Picasso, this implication of modernism’s reflexivity is brought to fruition. As H.H. Arnason contends, by combining the oil cloth of his 1912 painting Still Life with Chair Caining, with an actual rope, Picasso “encourages a reading of the painted surface itself as a horizontal tabletop,” and complicates the painting with “the presence of still-life objects.”[xii] In his collage, Fruit Dish and Glass, Braque’s use of commercial lettering and faux-bois paper, similarly plays “multiple roles, both literal and descriptive.”[xiii] And, in a manner that anticipates both the dissolution of medium-specificity, and complication of art and everyday life – which Danto takes to be definitive of contemporary art in its distinction from modernism – Picasso’s three-dimensional construction, Maquette for Guitar, “closed the breach that separated painting and sculpture, uniting the pictorial realm with the space of the external world.”[xiv]
If art since the late 18th – Century is pluralistic in its autonomy from traditional social and religious institutions, why then does Danto feel justified in opposing it so categorically to art since the 1960’s?
[i] Danto, “The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art,” in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, New York, 1986) 7
[ii] Arthur Danto, “The End of Art,” in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (Columbia University Press, New York, 1986) 89. Danto’s claims concerning film’s impact on art are dubious. Rather than capturing objective experience with a newfound veracity, film challenged the very sense of objectivity that dominated the positivist ideology of the 19th-Century. See Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows, (Penguin Books, New York, 2003).
[iii] Arthur Danto, “Art After the End of Art,” in The Wake of Art, ed. by Gregg M. Horowitz and Tom Huhn (G and B Arts International, Amsterdam, 1998) 119
[iv] Arnold Hauser, The Crisis of Mannerism and the Origin of Modern Art (Harvard U.P., Cambridge, 1986) 29 – my emphasis
[v] Ibid., 25
[vi] The Protestant Reformation and the outcome of the Thirty Years War, for instance, famously compelled artists to compensate for the loss of the clergy’s and the aristocracy’s patronage by appealing to the taste of the largely anonymous public of protestant merchants in the burgeoning popular art market. While, unlike the crisis of Mannerism, these changes did not motivate artists to defy the conventions of naturalism, they did effect fundamental changes in the definition of art by contributing to the advancement of previously minor art forms and, through the shift to more secular and otherwise mundane subject matter, contributing to the development of aesthetic appreciation as an end in itself.
[vii] T.J. Clark, Farewell to An Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale U.P., New Haven, 1999) 18.
[viii] E. H. Gombrich. “Ch. 24, The Break in Tradition,” in The Story of Art (Phaidon, London, 1997) 475 – 499
[ix] T.J. Clark, Farewell to An Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale U.P., New Haven, 1999) 23.
[x] Ibid., 27
[xi] As anticipated in the reference above to the challenge presented by romanticism to the neo-classicism of the academies, art of the late 18th and early 19th-Century thus anticipates the formal experimentation that is the hallmark of the art that – a century later – registers for Danto the development of the problem of art’s definition. In this vein, Renato Poggioli, describes “romantic aesthetic experimentation” as “the anxious search for new and virgin forms, with the aim not only of destroying the barbed wire of rules… but also of creating a new morphology of art, a new spiritual language.” (Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, (Harvard U.P., Cambridge, 1981) 57
[xii] H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 2004) 173
[xiii] Ibid., 174
[xiv] Ibid., 177