The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, October 28, 2013

In Memoriam, Arthur Danto

I am profoundly saddened to see that Arthur C. Danto, the great professor of philosophy specializing in the philosophy of art has died. The Times summarizes his achievements succinctly:
The author of some 30 books including “Beyond the Brillo Box,” and “After the End of Art,” Mr. Danto was the art critic for The Nation magazine from 1984 to 2009 and a longtime philosophy professor at Columbia.

“His project, really, was to tell us what art is, and he did that by looking at the art of his time,” said Lydia Goehr, a Columbia University philosophy professor who has written extensively about Mr. Danto. “And he loved the art of his time, for its openness, and its freedom to look any way it wanted to.”

This led Mr. Danto to propose a new way of defining art — not according to any putatively intrinsic, aesthetic qualities shared by all artworks, but by the “artworld,” a community that included artists, art historians, critics, curators, dealers and collectors who shared an understanding about the history and theory of modern art.

If that community accepted something as art, whatever its form, then it was art. This required an educated viewer. “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry — an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld,” wrote Mr. Danto in his oft-quoted, 1964 essay “The Artworld.”


But if so many different kinds of things could be viewed as art, what if anything did they have in common? The common denominator, Mr. Danto concluded, was meaning, and that led him to propose that the art of our time was mainly animated by philosophy. Artworks in the Postmodern era could be viewed as thought experiments about such problems as the relationship between representation and reality; knowledge and belief; photography and truth; and the definition of art itself.
I give this extract, because my own experience of Professor Danto was related to, but only indirectly, his main project. Professor Danto generously volunteered his time as an expert witness for us in Nitke v. Gonzales (earlier Nitke v. Ashcroft), the challenge to the application of the "local community standards" test for defining obscenity to material posted online. Although we did not win the larger point--that the speech on the internet cannot logically be defined by the standards of any one community from which it can be viewed, the three judge panel we were before did reject the notion that the most restrictive community in the Nation could be the venue (and thus the applicable standard) for any prosecution of online speech that could be seen from within that community. That rule, based on an older (1996) case from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals had effectively allowed prosecutors to claim that the most restrictive community standard in the country governed the whole country. It is no longer good law, and that is some achievement, at any rate.

Professor Danto testified about the artistic merit of the speech of our lead plaintiff, Barbara Nitke, and how the aesthetic and artistic importance of that speech was both serious, and could be misunderstood by prosecutors, judges and jurors.

In his Foreword to Barbara's new book (the link is illustrated with some of her photographs, so if such work offends you, do not click), Arthur writes "Alas, Nitke’s suit did not establish the unconstitutionality of the CDA. I was a poor expert." He is, on that one point alone, in error. I know this because I defended his deposition. In a little room at the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, a very shrewd, very able Assistant United States Attorney ("AUSA") representing the Government (and an admirer of Professor Danto's, as well; a very likable adversary, really, as all of my adversaries on the case were) conducted a thorough deposition. Arthur looked tired that day, and I thought that the trek from the Upper West Side to lower Manhattan might have been arduous for a man of his age (this was, after all, in 2004, so he would have been 80).

Now, at a deposition, you are helpless as counsel. You can object to the form, and instruct your client not to answer questions that call for privileged information, or where (as only rarely happens) the question is inherently abusive ("When did you stop beating your wife?" sort of stuff). If the witnesses crashes and burns, you go down with the ship, looking as unconcerned as you can. After the initial pleasantries, and pedigree, the AUSA made her move. She spread out several pictures by Barbara, and then laid out a series of similarly-themed photos from some of the sleaziest porn magazines you could find. The latter depicted similar activities to those in Barbara's pictures, and were superficially similar in layout. She then asked Arthur why Barbara's had serious artistic value and the others did not.

Arthur's pause was just about the longest I can ever recall a witness taking. It seemed to go on forever, and I felt butterflies in my stomach. The AUSA even seemed conflicted.

Then, having collected his thoughts, Professor Arthur Danto gave a cogent, thorough disquisition in which he pointed out the differences in composition, layout, viewpoint, and analyzed the different goals of Barbara and the anonymous photographer in the ratty magazines. He pulled from his memory examples of Medieval and Renaissance art to illustrate his analysis, and my adversary, far more informed in matters artistic than am I, was rapt.

It was a hell of a performance.

I met Arthur's wife Barbara Westman Danto, at their apartment on one of my visits there to discuss the case, and I grieve for her, and his two daughters, Ginger and Elizabeth. I realize that my little anecdote is just one small tile in the mosaic of a great career, but thought it should be shared. The Times reports that he did not do negative criticism, because he found it cruel. I did not know that, but I believe it. He was a kind man--a good one, with an infectious sense of humor and modest withal.

And quite possibly the most adroit witness I ever called to the stand.

If the pause didn't kill you, that is.

Rest in peace.

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