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What Art Is [Paperback]

Arthur C. Danto
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

1 April 2014
What is it to be a work of art? Renowned author and critic Arthur C. Danto addresses this fundamental, complex question. Part philosophical monograph and part memoiristic meditation, What Art Is challenges the popular interpretation that art is an indefinable concept, instead bringing to light the properties that constitute universal meaning. Danto argues that despite varied approaches, a work of art is always defined by two essential criteria: meaning and embodiment, as well as one additional criterion contributed by the viewer: interpretation. Danto crafts his argument in an accessible manner that engages with both philosophy and art across genres and eras, beginning with Plato's definition of art in The Republic, and continuing through the progress of art as a series of discoveries, including such innovations as perspective, chiaroscuro and physiognomy. Danto concludes with a fascinating discussion of Andy Warhol's famous shipping cartons, which are visually indistinguishable from the everyday objects they represent. Throughout, Danto considers the contributions of philosophers including Descartes, Kant and Hegel, and artists from Michelangelo and Poussin to Duchamp and Warhol in this far-reaching examination of the interconnectivity and universality of aesthetic production.

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What Art Is + But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory
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Product details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (1 April 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300205716
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300205718
  • Product Dimensions: 19.9 x 13 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 114,334 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


"'Danto was and remains the high priest of pluralism, and arch-critic of the view that art has a distinctive essence.' (A. C. Grayling, Financial Times) 'Arthur Danto is America's leading philosopher of art: deeply knowledgeable, clear sighted, adventurous.' (Richard Sennett, author of The Craftsman) 'Danto is an elegant and erudite writer, and his sentences go down smoothly.' (Deborah Solomon, New York Times Book Review)"

About the Author

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Columbia University and former art critic for The Nation. He is the author of numerous books, including Andy Warhol (Yale), Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life, and After the End of Art.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent reference material 11 Nov 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Art Student son had his eyes opened by this book and others by Danto. He would recommend this book as a must read for art students.
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Danto has the great teacher's ability to make you feel smarter than you are 13 April 2013
By Mitch Orfuss - Published on Amazon.com
Danto taught a philosophy class I was lucky enough to take more than 40 years ago, and he was stupendous. This book reminds me of why. Danto manages the great teacher's trick of appearing to stay just one step ahead of the student, so I feel tremendously stimulated and challenged--and increasingly up to the task of glimpsing what he has to say about a topic I have thought about but with only a tiny fraction of his context. Danto's short book is a walk in the woods alongside Arthur Danto, hearing him describe how to think about what art is. Danto is a master philosopher, art critic, and teacher who has spent a lifetime thinking about it.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What I needed 19 Mar 2013
By A reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I am not a philosopher so I will leave it for others more articulate than I am to discuss the ideas rather than their affect on the reader - as I am here. As an artist the perennial question of what art is is very much present on my mind on a daily basis.

I am racing through the digital version of the book, forging ahead breathlessly. Mr. Danto's writing flows effortlessly and is a joy to read. Even more joyful is the realization that I am learning so much thanks to his ability to present complex ideas in a comprehensible manner. Pure bliss.

Mr. Danto's work resonates deeply within me on many levels from the evolution of ideas, art movements, the making of art... In a period of creativity desert and doubt this book for me is an anchor, but also it is igniting the sparks that will lead to a new, unfettered journey.

After I finish this marathon I will go back and reread it slowly, savoring every word, rethinking what I am doing, and sensing the future.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Embodied Meaning and Interpretation 10 Aug 2013
By Andrew Everett - Published on Amazon.com
The dust jacket sums up Arthur Danto's definition of art nicely. "A work of art is always defined by two essential criteria: meaning and embodiment, as well as one additional criterion contributed by the viewer: interpretation."

He explains in chapter one, "The artwork is a material object, some of whose properties belong to the meaning, and some of which do not. What the viewer must do is interpret the meaning-bearing properties in such a way as to grasp the intended meaning they embody." He later adds, "I have decided to enrich my earlier definition of art--embodied meaning--with another condition that captures the skill of the artist. Thanks to Descartes and Plato, I will define art as 'wakeful dreams.'"

I think the most interesting part of the book is where Danto analyzes the differences between painting and photography. In the 19th century, Muybridge photographed horses in motion in order to see if all four hooves touched the ground at the same time, which cannot be seen with the naked eye. This influenced some painters like Degas, "who sometimes portrayed a horse moving stiff-legged across the turf, exactly the way it can be seen in Muybridge's photographs, but never in life... This confuses the optical truth with the visual truth. Muybridge mocked Victorian painters, whose depictions of horses racing were visually far more convincing than his optically correct photographs could have been."

Danto also writes about photographic portraits. "With a film speed of ASA 160 and shutter speeds of one-sixtieth of a second we could now capture the face appearing in ways which the eye never sees--'between expressions,' as it were. That is why we reject as not 'really me' many of the images on a contact sheet, which don't look like what we see in the mirror... The still shows 'optical truth' but it does not correspond to perceptual truth, namely how we see the world stereoptically."

Another interesting quality is spirit in art. "When we speak of spirit... we are speaking of the creative power of the artist... A painting can even be beautiful, as far as taste is concerned, but defective through lacking spirit." According to Goya, "we may be less happy with a highly finished work than with one in which less care has been taken. It is the spirit in art--the presence of genius--that is really important... Frenhofer gives a natural reading of 'lacks spirit' as 'lacks life.'"

This book is only 156 pages, but the writing is somewhat esoteric. Danto is a professor of philosophy, and as such, he uses words like epistemological, physiognomic, and ontological.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Back to the Brillo Box 20 July 2013
By Conrad J. Obregon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Arthur C. Danto has been one of the most influential of aestheticians of the last fifty years. To my experience he is also the only philosopher I know of, discussion of whom can stir up violent confrontations at a dinner or cocktail party. Perhaps that is due as much to his work as an art critic for the magazine "The Nation" as for his work as a philosopher, but it is pleasant to encounter a philosopher who can still stir people up.

"What Art Is" is his latest book, and although it breaks little new ground, it is still pleasant to read his accessible style, personal reflections and logical development. The book is a series of unrelated (except that they all deal with Art with a capital A) essays. They include an introductory essay "Wakeful Dreams" that answers the title question; "Restoration and Meaning", a discussion of whether the restoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel helped or harmed the meaning of Michelangelo's work; a rambling discussion of "The Body in Philosophy and Art"; a comparison between photography and painting as art forms; a discussion of Kant's view of art; and a discussion of "The Future Of Aesthetics".

Wakeful dreams is a recapitulation of Danto's redefinition of art, which was stimulated by Andy Warhol's "Brillo Boxes". For those familiar with Danto's work, the essay may at first seem rambling, but if one keeps Danto's goals in defining art in mind, it clarifies itself into a well-constructed definition, i.e., "embodied meaning". At the end of the article he adds an additional concept to his definition: "wakeful dreams". I wish he had spent more time explaining how this concept would help to separate other objects and works that might also fit under the rubric "embodied meaning" that Danto would not consider art.

At the other end of the book, Danto seemed to express the belief that changes in the nature of art away from the beautiful signaled the future irrelevance of this branch of philosophy. I wondered why a man who was able to accept the definitional change of art from imitation to embodied meaning was not able to suggest that the old definition of a field of philosophy could also evolve to reflect current ideas of art.

It is easy to say that "What Art Is" will not provide the individual first considering this question with a thorough exploration of the issue. It is just as easy to say that those who have enjoyed the writings of this great philosopher in the past will take joy in this latest presentation.
4.0 out of 5 stars Very, very good, but not as succinct as it could be. 4 May 2014
By KURT47 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I recommend this book, but with the following assistance:

I benefited from Amazon's introduction to the book: "Danto argues that despite varied approaches, a work of art is always defined by two essential criteria: meaning and embodiment, as well as one additional criterion contributed by the viewer: interpretation." That's sorta the Rosetta Stone that you need to understand and appreciate what Danto is saying. But it's isolated and stated that clearly on the Amazon page, not in the book itself.

Without that clue you can miss what Danto is saying. This review would give a 5-star rating if it weren't for that significant flaw in the framework of Danto's book.

Here's my summary of Danto's point: Art is an embodiment of meaning as interpreted in the mind of the viewer.

Danto conveys that in the book, and supports it robustly. But he never makes it as clear as it is in art, and as clear as it could be in his words about art. He forgets to simplify and clarify. I fault the writing and editing process for that. I feel strongly that he is completely correct, and supports it strongly [altho' a bit philosophically], but the content rarely summarizes and simplifies his point. I sense that that failing is the cause of the negative reader reviews on Amazon.

My hope is that this review will encourage you to read the book and apply this Rosetta Stone assist: "Art is the embodiment of meaning as interpreted in the mind of the viewer."
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