Tag Archives: Arthur C. Danto

Danto’s Post-Historical Present

woodcut print by Arthur C. Danto
woodblock print by Arthur C. Danto, 1956

I had been curious about Arthur Danto and his thesis concerning “the end of art” since my graduate school experience worked some of the theory bug inside me. I’ve finally gotten around to reading one of his books, “After the End of Art, Contemporary Art and the Pale of History,” feeling up for the challenge, both in reading an academic philosophical book of this sort and in opening myself up to what I supposed would be arguments detailing the demise (irrelevancy, futility?) of art. I was a bit disappointed in his explanation: “…concerning the end of art—a somewhat dramatic way of declaring that the great master narratives which first defined traditional art, and then modernist art, have not only come to an end, but that contemporary art no longer allows itself to be represented by master narratives at all… Ours is a moment, at least (and perhaps only) in art, of deep pluralism and total tolerance. Nothing is ruled out. (pg. xiii – xiv)”

Wait, I thought, so it’s not the end of art at all, it’s the end of art allowing itself to be defined by master narratives? Basically, that seems to be it. In the first chapter he writes, “So just as ‘modern’ has come to denote a style and even a period, and not just recent art, ‘contemporary’ has come to designate something more than simply the art of the present moment. In my view, moreover, it designates less a period than what happens after there are no more periods in some master narrative of art, and less a style of making art than a style of using styles. (pg. 10)” From the second chapter: “No art is any longer historically mandated as against any other art. Nothing is any more true as art than anything else, nothing especially more historically false than anything else. (pg. 27)” “That is what I mean by the end of art. I mean the end of a certain narrative which has unfolded in art history over the centuries, and which has reached it’s end in a certain freedom from conflicts of the kind inescapable in the Age of Manifestoes. (pg. 37)” Danto appears to divide and categorize the history of art into three main epochs: an age of mimesis, when art was occupied with the representation of the world (from the Greeks, through the Renaissance, up until the modern era); the “Age of Manifestoes” or the period of Modernism, when art was fractured into various competing styles; and, the present, contemporary, or “post-historical” era. In the third chapter, he sums it up: “In our narrative, at first only mimesis was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the master narrative. It is the end of the story. (pg. 47)”

What he’s written doesn’t seem to entail the end of art at all. And while the theory seems to capture and highlight a particular movement in art history, I think it does so in an overly simplistic, reductive, and generalized way. Also, I’m finding it difficult to accept the point that the current state of art is one of complete pluralism and total tolerance. Is this true? Did art outstrip ideology, rules, supposed notions of truth, history? I suppose I’ll think it over some more, and try to finish reading the rest of the book as well.