by Daniel A. Kaufman
The complete lecture notes and video for my unit on Danto, in my upper-division Aesthetics course, PHI 320.
In my view Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace represents the most sophisticated, best effort to define ‘art’ in what I have called “the New Wave” in the Philosophy of Art.
The theory presented in the book takes its main inspiration from the Readymades and from Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes.” It is an effort to overcome the previously discussed “problem of indiscernibles”; the fact that there can be two things, perceptually indistinguishable from one another, one that is art and the other not.
Danto accomplishes this through an innovative, original set of hypothetical cases, all of which involve indiscernible counterparts, some of which are art and some of which are not, designed to approach the problem from a number of angles. In my lectures on Danto, I will focus on several of these hypothetical cases and discuss their implications for the definition of ‘art’.
The Red Squares Exhibition
Danto imagines a hypothetical exhibition in which every painting is a perceptually indistinguishable red square. Included in the exhibition are:
- “The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea,” in which the artist depicts the scene after the Israelites had crossed and the pursuing Egyptians were drowned.
- “Red Square,” a “clever piece of Moscow landscape.”
- “Red Table Cloth,” a still life executed by an embittered disciple of Matisse [who of course painted the famous Harmony in Red].
- “Kierkegaard’s Mood,” a representation of the psyche of the great philosopher.
- A canvas, primed in red paint, on which the Renaissance master, Giorgione, was going to paint his last masterpiece, but who died before he could do it.
There are a number of conclusions Danto draws from this hypothetical case.
First, we not only need some principle by which to distinguish the artworks [1-4] from the non-artwork , we also need some principle by which to individuate artworks; that is, to distinguish one artwork from another. 1, 2, 3, and 4. are all different paintings, and yet nothing that is perceptible in them will enable us to differentiate one from the other.
Second, what seems to distinguish the artworks [1-4] from the non-artwork  is that 1-4 have interpretations – they mean something – while 5 means nothing. If you interpreted it, you would be making a mistake.
Third, interpretations and meanings themselves require some principle of individuation that goes beyond what is perceivable, since two perceptually indistinguishable paintings can have entirely different interpretations/meanings, as is the case with 1-4. Each not only has a different interpretation, each belongs to a different genre. Respectively: historical landscape painting; political art; still life; and psychological portraiture.
Fourth, what seems to distinguish one artwork from another is its specific meaning. So, what distinguishes 1 from 4 and makes each an individual artwork is that 1 is about a story from the Bible and the second is about the psyche of a famous philosopher from history.
Fifth, while being interpretable/meaningful may be a necessary condition for being art, it cannot be a sufficient condition, as there are interpretable/meaningful things that are not artworks, like the nutritional information on the back of the soda bottle I am drinking from.
Sixth, what makes the individual elements of a work of art the elements they are must also be due to some principle that goes beyond what is perceptible. What makes 3 a picture of a tablecloth and what makes 1 a picture of the Red Sea can’t be anything to do with what they look like, as they look identical.
Danto will try to work all of these issues out in the remaining hypothetical cases in the book. The next one we discuss is the case of the two Don Quixotes, which Danto takes up in Chapter 2.
One of the things that the “Red Squares” exhibition showed is that two things can be perceptually indistinguishable, and yet one means something while the other does not. It also showed that two things that mean something and which are perceptually indistinguishable from one another can mean entirely different things. As meaningfulness/interpretability is for Danto what distinguishes art from non-art and meaning/interpretation is what distinguishes one artwork from another, the question of meaning and its individuation has to be explored. This is what Danto does in the “Don Quixote” and “Cezanne’s tie” cases from chapter 2.
The first example he uses originates in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” In that example, we are asked to imagine that Pierre Menard creates a literary “readymade,” a word-for-word replica of Cervantes’ 17th century novel, Don Quixote. Danto then goes on to discuss the significant differences in meaning between the two works, sometimes quoting Borges directly. For example:
Menard’s…Quixote is more subtle than Cervantes’. Cervantes crudely juxtaposes the humble provincial reality of his country against the fantasies of the romance, while Menard chooses as his ‘reality’ the land of Carmen…
He also points to a distinctive difference in language:
The contrast in styles is equally striking. The archaic style of Menard … is somewhat affected. Not so the style of his precursor, who employs the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness.
In both of these cases what we see is the impact of historical time and place on interpretation. Menard, a 20th century Frenchman, could not “crudely juxtapose the humble provincial reality of his country against the fantasies of the romance,” as he is not writing in a satirical vein 17th century Spain, in the midst of the disintegration of the country’s medieval, feudal past. Cervantes, of course, was doing just that. Similarly, Cervantes’ use of Spanish could not be “archaic,” as he is writing in the Spanish of his day, whereas Menard, writing again, in the 20th century, is doing exactly that. Similarly, Cervantes couldn’t set Don Quixote in the “land of Carmen,” as Cervantes was writing in the 17th Century, and Carmen is a 19th century opera.
Notice that the issue isn’t just that certain interpretations/linguistic traits are impossible given certain times and places. There is the deeper point that certain things are only possible to intend in certain times and places. Menard couldn’t have intended certain things by his Don Quixote, given his “historical situatedness,” and the same goes for Cervantes. Given that what it is possible to mean by something is a function of what it is possible to mean by something, given that the former is historically dependent, so is the latter.
This point is at the center of the “Cezanne’s tie” case. Danto’s discussion of the case is somewhat sprawling and runs across many pages, so I am going to distill it to its core elements.
Imagine that Pablo Picasso [1881-1973] created an artwork that was simply a tie painted blue, called Blue Tie. The blue paint is applied in such a way as to hide any evidence of brushstrokes, in the manner of mid-20th century color-field painting. His idea was to combine some of the ideas behind the Readymades with the repudiation of painterliness common to color-field painting. Picasso was already known for creating artworks out of ordinary objects, like the bull’s head made of a bicycle seat and handlebars.
Pablo Picasso, Bull’s Head 
Imagine also that a team of art historians has discovered a previously unknown work shed of the great post-Impressionist painter, Paul Cezanne [1839-1906]. Inside the shed is found a tie-shaped strip of cloth, painted blue, that is perceptually indistinguishable from Picasso’s Blue Tie.
The idea behind the example is that it would be a mistake for these art historians to think that they had found an artwork in the blue tie-shaped cloth in Cezanne’s shed. In the time when Cezanne was working, the Readymades had not yet been created, and the conditions in which they were created – an industrial era in which mass production was becoming common and about which the Readymades offer a kind of commentary – did not yet exist. Similarly for color-field painting and its particular way of repudiating painterliness. The world in which Cezanne existed is not one in which it is credible to think that he might have intended to mean these things by such a gesture. The far greater likelihood is that the piece of cloth was little more than something Cezanne had used to mop up paint and that its similarity with Picasso’s Blue Tie is a coincidence.
Danto strikes the point home by imagining a third case, where a young girl takes her father’s tie and paints it in the same fashion, producing a third indiscernible tie-shaped object. Here it is quite clear that a young child, entirely ignorant of the history of painting and of industrial capitalism, could not possibly intend to mean such things by her painting of the tie.
The main insight developed throughout these cases is one that was first made by the art historian, Heinrich Wolfflin [1864-1945], in his book Principles of Art History :
Every artist finds certain preexisting ‘optical’ possibilities, to which he is bound. Not everything is possible at all times. Seeing as such has its own history, and uncovering these ‘optical strata’ has to be considered the most elementary task of art history.
We’ve seen that one of the things that is essential to the identity of artworks is their interpretation. Not only are interpretations necessary [though not sufficient] to distinguish artworks from things that are not art, they are necessary [and sufficient] for distinguishing one artwork from another.
Yet another thing dependent on interpretation is the structure or the elements of artworks. What makes some bit of paint or clay or wood count as a this or a that is itself a function of interpretation. In order to work through this, we need to introduce two concepts that are central to Danto’s philosophy of art: the ‘is’ of artistic identification; and the concept of transfiguration.
Works of art are unique in at least one interesting sense: they are things that can be other than they actually are. Pieces of marble are not arms and legs, but in a sculpture they can be.
For example, take the Florentine Pieta, created out of marble by Michelangelo between 1547 and 1555.
Now, suppose I point to the right arm of Nicodemus, and say “that is Nicodemus’ right arm.” This seems obviously true. And yet, the following is also true: “that is a piece of marble.” And this is also true: “Arms are not pieces of marble.”
This would seem to violate the law of noncontradiction. But Danto observes that it is the result of a peculiarity in the logic of the ‘is’ of artistic identification. That logic is transfigurative, rather than indicating a simple identification, as the term ‘is’ does when used in ordinary contexts.
‘Transfiguration’ is supposed to be evocative of ‘transubstantiation’, which comes from Catholic and Orthodox theology and refers to the turning of the wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ, during the Eucharist. It’s not as if the wafer, upon blessing it, turns into one of Christ’s arms or legs or the wine into a cup of blood. Ostensibly, they remain wafer and wine. And yet, nonetheless, they are Christ’s flesh and blood – in these traditions, this is not understood as a metaphor – and so they both are and are not Christ’s flesh and blood; they both are and are not wafer and wine.
Danto wants to analogize the ‘is’ of artistic identification with the ‘is’ of transubstantiation, and he gives the effects of this ‘is’ the name ‘transfiguration’. It’s not as if through Michelangelo’s efforts, the marble literally turned into a human arm. Yet, it is an arm – Nicodemus’ arm – and this is not a metaphor, anymore than that the entire statue is Nicodemus is a metaphor. And yet it – and the whole statue – is also a piece of marble.
In the case of transubstantiation, the mechanism of transformation is Divine Agency. In the case of transfiguration, the mechanism of transformation is interpretation. It is because the whole is interpreted as Nicodemus that it is Nicodemus, and it is because of the place the part occupies in that whole that the part is Nicodemus’ arm.
This perhaps will be easier to see in the abstract example Danto gives in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. He imagines a science museum/library commissioning artists to make paintings depicting scientific principles, theories, laws, etc. And he imagines two submissions which, despite being perceptually indistinguishable from one another, are paintings of two different scientific laws.
The first painting, A, we are told by the artist, is a painting of Newton’s First Law, which says: “if a body is at rest or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, it will remain at rest or keep moving in a straight line at constant speed unless it is acted upon by a force.” The line bisecting the rectangle, the artist explains, is the path of a particle moving across space, and the fact that it extends to the edges of that space indicate that it’s motion is uninterrupted and ongoing.
The second painting, B, we are told by the artist, is a painting of Newton’s Third Law, which says: “for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. If object A exerts a force on object B, then object B also exerts an equal and opposite force on object A.” The artist explains that the two halves of the rectangle are masses pushing against one another, with the line across the middle being the point at which the opposing forces meet.
The first thing to notice is that the elements of these paintings are products of the ‘is’ of artistic identification and possess its distinctive characteristics. The line of paint bisecting A both is and is not the path of a particle. The two shapes in B both are and are not masses pushing against one another.
The second thing to notice is that as was the case in the Florentine Pieta, the mechanism of transfiguration – what makes the line in A the path of a particle across space and what makes the line in B the boundary between two opposing masses [despite their being perceptually indistinguishable] is the interpretation of the whole – in the case of A, as a region of space, and in the case of B, as two masses pressing against one another – and the interpretation of the roles played by the two lines, respectively, in the context of their wholes.
One of our remaining issues has to do with the fact that not everything that is interpretable is an artwork. Interpretability/interpretation is a necessary, not a sufficient condition for being art/being a specific work of art.
As Danto always does, he will address this issue through a series of “twins cases”: specifically, a case involving a literary Readymade – a “newspaper article” about a murder in Patchogue, NY – and a case involving the pop artist, Roy Lichtenstein, and Cezanne’s Portrait of Madame Cezanne (1885-1887).
Imagine a writer who is a creator of a very specific kind of literary Readymades; one who creates replicas of non-literary writing, like calendars, grocery shopping lists, and newspaper articles. His idea is similar to that of Warhol: to blur the lines between fine art and commercial products; specifically, between literature and commercial, non-literary writing. Danto imagines that he may have been inspired by Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood (1966) blurred the line between literature and crime reporting.
This artist’s latest work is based on a newspaper article in Newsday (a Long Island newspaper), about a murder in Patchogue. Not only is the article’s content replicated in the artwork, but also all of its formal qualities. It is presented in the columnar format of a newspaper article, printed on newsprint, complete with byline, and the reporting is conveyed identically as in the newspaper article, by way of the “inverted pyramid” that is definitive of the newswriting format. Indeed, so faithful is the reproduction that if one was to place the newspaper article and artwork side-by-side, one could not tell them apart.
Both pieces of writing are certainly interpretable, so whatever makes the artist’s work art and the newspaper article not art cannot be interpretability. The question here, then, really, is what distinguishes “artistic” meaning from non-artistic meaning, and Danto thinks it has everything to do with the way in which formats are used.
The newspaper article is written in the journalistic format because that’s how news articles are written. The format is designed entirely for the purpose of quickly and clearly conveying the relevant information about the story in question, in descending order of importance. It’s use is a direct function of its purpose, which I will refer to as the “transparent use of a format.”
The artwork is using the journalistic format in a very different way and for a very different purpose; specifically, to make a point. Newspapers are quintessential examples of throwaway literary products, and the format conveys that. Employing it in a work of art that is presented in artistic contexts like galleries and museums draws attention to the disconnect between the format, on the one hand, and the context in which it is being employed, on the other, and is what conveys the artist’s message, blurring the lines between literature and non-artistic forms of writing. Let’s call this the “opaque, metaphorical use of a format.” What Danto says is that in the case of artworks, whatever format is employed, it is always employed in this latter way; in a way in which it is not simply the vehicle for delivery of the relevant content, but actively contributes to that content itself. It is because the format of newspaper articles has the connotation that it does that it can be used in an artwork to say the kind of thing that this artist is saying, through his Readymade of the Newsday article.
This is made even clearer in the second example involving Roy Lichtenstein’s Portrait of Madame Cezanne (1962). This is one of those occasions in Transfiguration of the Commonplace where the twins-case involved is not a hypothetical invention of Danto’s but is based on a real case.
In 1943, painter and art-historian Erle Loran published a book entitled Cezanne’s Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs, in which he purported to demonstrate how the great post-Impressionist/proto-Cubist painted his paintings. One of the paintings analyzed in that book is Cezanne’s Portrait of Madame Cezanne (1885-1887) (Fig. 3). Part of Loran’s analysis includes a diagram he did of the painting, complete with all the sorts of elements that one expects to find in explanatory diagrams, including lettered sections, dotted lines, pointing arrows, etc. (Fig. 1)
Then, along came Roy Lichtenstein, one of the most well-known of the Pop art movement, who in 1962 created a near-perfect replica of Loran’s diagram, which he entitled Portrait of Madame Cezanne. (Fig. 2) Loran, furious at what he viewed as little more than stealing – and who, beyond that, strongly disliked Pop art – sued Lichtenstein, albeit unsuccessfully. The Wikipedia article on the subject gives a decent account of the train of events.
The Loran diagram, while interpretable, is not an artwork. It is an educational tool whose purpose is to help us to understand how a particular artwork was made. It’s use of the diagrammatic format, therefore, is transparent in the way I described earlier. Loran uses the format of a diagram because it is a format designed for analytical and pedagogical purposes, and the book in which it appears is an exercise in analysis and pedagogy.
Lichtenstein’s use of the format is very different. Diagrams have many connotations, and often communicate cold, clinical, reductive points of view and postures. When asked about the painting, Lichtenstein indicated that he was trying to satirize or lampoon the reductive way in which some academic historians and critics approached painting, a way which he thought simplified the process of painting to a point that rendered the analysis essentially useless for understanding it. But notice that given the connotations of diagrams, Lichtenstein also could have used it to make a critical statement about Cubism itself, in which things in the world are reduced to their underlying geometrical forms.
In either case, the diagrammatic format, rather than being used transparently, is being used in the opaque, metaphorical way that I described earlier. Far from merely being a tool by which to deliver content, the diagrammatic form is being used as an active part of the painting’s content. That use is metaphorical precisely because it is one that depends, essentially, upon the common connotations that diagrams have for us, the association with which makes it possible for Lichtenstein to say what he wants to say by way of the painting.
Danto’s view, then, is that [using ‘mean’ as a verb] artworks always mean by way of the opaque, metaphorical use of formats that we have been discussing, while non-artworks do not; their use of formats is transparent. And Danto thinks that this is the last element we need in order to fully account for what defines ‘art’ and distinguishes it from “mere real things.”