Arthur Danto in his paper “The Artworld” (2003) discusses the nature of art. His starting point is criticizing what he calls the Socratic notion of art, which views art as an attempt to mirror appearances of objects. According to Danto this notion of art, or as he calls it “imitation theory of art (IT),” has dominated the history of art. The merit of this theory is that it simplifies the complexity of art history by bringing a wide range of human creations under a conceptual umbrella as artworks; however, it has its own defections. Domination of IT throughout history, Danto maintains, has led to prejudices against new artistic creativities, considering them as deviant, pervert, or even inept art, for instance, in the case of post-impressionist paintings. Accepting the post-impressionist artworks was due to a theory change.
A major paradigm shift in the history of art was when the imitation theory of art was replaced by an opposite theory, which posited that art is not imitation of reality but creating a new reality. In this respect, the artist’s creations had the same ontological status as reality itself, and the artist viewed as a person who had a godly power to create new things ex nihilo. Danto maintains that the way we need to understand today’s art is not through IT but the non-imitative theory that is the theory of art that emerged in the post-impressionist era.
However, if imitation of reality is not a necessary condition for art, Danto asks, then what distinguishes between a piece of art and an artifact? For example, is Rauschenberg’s bed hanging on a wall a mere artifact or a piece of art? His bed in fact imitates bed in real life. According to IT, his bed is imitative, though, imitation of an artifact. However, according RT, his bed is a piece of art real, which has the same ontological status as a real bed. In fact, Rauschenberg’s bed has no similar function as an artifact bed. However, it does not have similar function since people do not ascribe this function to it, or they do not use it as an artifact. So it seem that an element of identification of a thing as artwork is recognition of the artist or audience. Therefore, the social and cultural context of artworks becomes a determining factor whether an object is an artwork or not, a notion that give birth to art as a socially constructed phenomenon. As Danto puts it, “ To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of history of art; an artwork” (580). What makes something art is the previous contexts that allow it to be viewed as a piece of art. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes are a good example of this ontology of art. In 1964, Warhol placed bunch of Brillo boxes on top of each other in the corner of exhibition as a piece of art, which made many wonder about the nature of modern art.
The same issues arise when we take Andy Warhol’s display of Brillo boxes. What make us to think that they are art? I think when we rule out the fact that there is nothing intrinsically about a thing that makes it a piece of art, then we are inclined to argue for subjectivity or intersubjective of ontology of art. In fact, this path that Danto takes is the predominant ontology of modern art. In the case of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, he maintains that there is no difference between a Brillo box and Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and what makes us to consider Warhol’s boxes art is “a certain theory of art” (581). It is the theories of art that enable us to locate certain things in the realm of art, or as he calls it “worldart.” Without these theories, objects will fall into the realm of brute objects. Danto’s analysis of artworks reminds me of Heidegger’s hammer example. Heidegger says that a hammer for a different culture that does not have exposes to it, a hammer can be an artwork, while for us it is a tool with certain functions. For Danto theories of art, like Midas that by touching objects turned them into pure gold, transform objects into artworks.
If Danto’s subjectivist ontology of art is true, then a piece of art is nothing but an appendix to intertwined historical and theoretical contexts. To Danto, if an object fits in these contexts, and they are displayed in respectful galleries, then they are art. This reductionist ontology of art strips off many valuable and essential features of art that those theoretical and socio-historical contexts fail to recognize.