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Dante contra Danto

by Miles Mathis

I see no reason for an introduction, no reason to ease you, the gallant reader, through three cozy and coddling paragraphs, chummy with ingratiating adjectives and warm-hearted with anecdote, to get to the kill. Where we are going it is better to leap. Straight to the ninth circle of hell, fourth ring. Judecca. The Pit. Where Lucifer licks his lips.

We have descended through fire and darkness, and already we have arrived. Our guide (not Virgil but Vincent, in a pale-blue peasant frock clogged with paint) points through the vapors and mists and we see the Blackest Souls of All, buried in mid-gasp in the solid blue ice, not even a nose poking from the freeze. We look for acquaintances, old junior-high teachers, maybe, or CEO's. Even they do not merit such distinction. But soft, what soundless pool of Cocytus lies here, awash with bodies moving not, speaking not, speak though they would? Our fiery-haired guide van Gogh enlightens us: ah, they are the art critics. See, there is Ruskin, a farthing frozen to each eyelid. And Greenberg, staring ever at the lovely flatness of the translucent surface only iches from his face. And what is this? Arthur Danto, like Fra Alberigo and Branca Doria, still alive on earth but already in hell? Van Gogh explains:

"This icy place you see, my friends," he says, blowing smoke and patting a crushed velveteen cap that sits on his head like a toy dog, "this, the inmost ring of the inmost circle, is reserved for traitors against their benefactors. The art critic is dependent for his livelihood on what field? Art, of course, Eh? Certainly. And art is created by?—yes, artists. We alone, fidus Achates.

Well then, as Socrates might continue, what is the primary product of the field of art? Criticism or art? Art. Can art exist without criticism? Yes. Can criticism exist without art? No. Artists, as a whole, make possible criticism, and thereby the critic. Reasonable, Eh! Raisonnable?

Donc, the artist en general is the benefactor of the critic. Logically, no critic would be here for attacking an artist. That is to say, an individual artist. This is clear. Clear as ice, n'est-ce pas? A critic is a traitor only by undermining art as a whole, purposefully, for his own gain. Only by attacking the history of art, the foundation of art, and thereby all artists, is a critic a traitor. Only in this way does he become the damned of the damned.

"I have Danto's file right here," continues Vincent, taking a swig of absinthe from a sweating flask and grinning like a sky of stars. "Full of the most horrible heresies, shocking really the level of presumption that one man can attain, but only one document is necessary. Necessary and sufficient, one might say. The book, Embodied Meanings, the Introduction, page 12. Alors, after telling us that he moved from philosophy (as a university professor) to criticism because 'I wanted to become famous in a way which went beyond having a reputation among philosophers,' Danto said this:

I thought in particular that Warhol (though not Warhol alone) had brought within art the question of its true philosophical nature~namely, how something can be a work of art while something else which resembles it as much as Brillo Box resembles a carton of Brillo, is not art. That is like asking how two experiences can be exactly alike while one is dreamt and the other real. Nothing internal to the pair will account for the difference.... One needs a theory of the real, against which to talk about dream, in the one case, or art, in the other. And it struck me at some point with the force of revelation that this problem could not have been raised as a philosophical problem within art at any earlier moment in the history of art: it was as though there were some internal historical development in the course of which art came to a kind of philosophical self-awareness of its own identity. In a curious and somewhat perverse way, I thought, art has turned into philosophy.... From now on the task is up to philosophers, who know how to think in the required way.

"If it were not in print," adds Vincent, toothing his pipe and peeling paint from his tie, "no one would believe that a man could leave such incriminating evidence. C'est incroyable. To be so transparently self-serving was once a sign of poor writing, a tactical failure, if nothing more. And a sentence like the next to last one is positively Freudian: does the phrase 'in a curious and somewhat perverse way' modify 'has turned' or 'I thought'? What do you think, Eh? Comique? And yet all this stands unquestioned on earth. Danto is famous, as he wished.

Vincent seems to lose himself for a moment as he adjusts and readjusts his cap, like a fetish. "See this chapeau? Drole, no? I won it off Duchamp in a game of chess. The man has no imagination. He plays like one of your modern robots. Zip, zip, zip, I hit him with some moves he won't see in a book and he's finished. Forty years learning a lousy game and he can't even beat a stupid Dutchman. That's hell, Eh? But where was I? Ah oui, le petit litterateur. Mes amis, does it take a dead artist to see the level of sacrilege involved in a philosopher seeing himself as the end of art's 'internal historical development.' It is a 'revelation' to Danto that the question of art being subsumed within philosophy could not have been raised until he, a philosopher, raised it. Tres bien!

"When he was brought here, before the judges, he whimpered in cross examination, pointing his finger at the white-haired one, that it was not him, but Warhol, who raised it. But we reminded him of page 7, ibid., where he bragged, 'I was the father of that theory.' Danto cannot argue that he is mis-contextualized or 'judged from a detail.' He contextualizes himself for us, merci, in this his own introduction, admits that this is where his fame lies, explains his own theory. He says: 'A whole history is finished.' And 'A great narrative ended in 1964.' Quoi? What was 1964? Page 7 again: 'I was invited to talk on the philosophy of art at the American Philosophical Association meetings that year—it was 1964—though I'm afraid nobody much understood what I was trying to say.'

Oh, sans doute, someone understood, have no fear. See that three-headed fellow over there slobbering on Brutus and Cassius? He understood.

"Oh how!, mes confreres, how can a non-artist, a man never touched by the Muse, a chandala for all the Muses, how can he replace inspiration with cognition, replace doing with thinking, redefining history around his only ability, and find himself heroic for it? He has helped kill a thing of beauty for the aggrandizement of theory, and he revels in it. Il l'amuse. But let me quote," says Vincent, now sputtering with the cold, waving his arms and skating across the ice in his huge muddy clogs over the very heads of the inert critics, "Let me quote one of the other tour guides down here, a chap who went mad at the same time as me, another benefactor of that fellow Danto [Danto has also written a book on Nietzsche, but there is no double jeopardy in hell, no double "forever"]:

Nature, which gave the bull his horns and the lion his chasm odonton [his mouthful of teeth], why did nature give me my foot?...To kick, Holy Anacreon! and not only for running away; for kicking to pieces these rotten armchairs, this cowardly contemplativeness, this lascivious historical eunuchism, this flirting with aesthetic ideals, this justice-tartuffery of impotence.

"Mon Dieu!" yells Vincent, getting down on his hands and knees to face the entombed cube of Danto, caught forever immobile in a vast leering grimace. "Art is not theory, you pompous bastard! Do you hear? Art is Emotion! Art is Passion! Art is making art. Idiot! Putain!" Vincent gets up and looks around, stomping his feet. "Where is Cellini? If he and I could have just one more round with these fellows before the Big Guy gets them. Salauds!

"Benvenuto! Leave Pollock alone and bring your fists over here, you great Baboon! Oh well, we don't have time to melt them out anyway. But this ice is too good for them, I say! Diables! Frozen are you? Hah! Is freezing punishment for a man whose ability to love is already gone, like hoarfrost? A man who can admire only his own eyeballs? Let him live! Let him live to see his precious theories ridiculed by those who can create, and will, no matter how many of his ilk say "all that" is over. Let him live to see a frozen block of marble, merely touched by Michelangelo, or a weave of linen dusted with oily dirt, merely brushed by Rembrandt, outlive him over and over and over. Let him wander like Ahasuerus, till he comprehend the true reach of criticism.

"Yes, I have read your filthy pages," snarls Vincent, going back down to the ice and shaking his gnarly fist at the critic. "I know you: 'Until one tries to write about it, the work remains a sort of aesthetic blur,' you wrote. Pah! Absurdites! Stuff and nonsense!—the man who would teach us how to see art, cannot see art. He can think about art, but cannot feel it. Art is not analysis. It is synthesis. Creativity! Yes, for us artists, a work of art is actually more powerful than its verbal retelling. Only for you, the all-too-many, the lastmen, Les Nains, is art indecipherable. You must make do with the pathetic agon between non-artist and non-artist, the cackling of critic to critic."

With that, Vincent stuffs his hat in his pocket and wanders off to find Friedrich in the Second Ring, leaving us to climb back to the surface unescorted. Through a fissure in the rock we squeeze into the present at Pietrasanta, and I mail this report at the first Italian postbox before getting back to work. And you? Quo vadis?

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