Art Review Archives:
The Madonna of the Future:
July 2000, 450 pp.
Good writing on art should be informative, lively, and point a viewer toward what is worth seeing and why. As a critic for The Nation for some fifteen years, Arthur C. Danto has fulfilled those criteria with relish. Danto writes with intelligence and from an engagement with art, and if at times he has rattled a few cages, aptly or not, then there has rarely been a more provocative writer -- which is a bonus. His latest volume of essays and reviews, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, must be ranked among his best of offerings for the general reader.
In his books, Arthur Danto has plied duel roles: as art critic, and as a philosopher of art, activities distinct, although intertwined and collaborative. Danto has himself noted this in his "Philosophy and the Criticism of Art," which, for a new reader is a key to this acclaimed critic-philosopher. (In Embodied Meanings, Farrar Straus Giroux: 1994). In The Madonna of the Future, Arthur Danto, the writer, has given us some excellent pieces. One is particularly grateful for essays such as "John Heartfield and Montage," and it serves as example. In clear, direct prose, the author presents much background and explanation, and in a well-crafted flow of thought draws out informed observations and germane analysis. The essay intelligibly encapsulates Dada as a phenomenon, its history and context. It clarifies a necessary philosophical point about "the somewhat uncanny relationship we intuitively feel holds between things and their pictures" and, to a reader's great pleasure and understanding, applies it appropriately and with precision to reveal how only photomontage could have served the purposes of an artist such as Heartfield. In the process, Danto the writer showcases the power in Heartfield's work, the milieu which feared and drove it out, and further, provides a lively, enjoyable talk about the medium's subsequent uses and implications. In eight pages, Danto, art critic and historian, ultimately lays bare the problematic question (not just in art, but in physics, mathematics, human perception) of 'original' and 'reproduction.' Art, politics, philosophy -- "John Heartfield and Montage" manages in a few pages what many full books fail to accomplish. And it is, for all this, a delight to read. And -- it is not a fluke.
As with any writer or critic, Arthur Danto has particular interests, sympathies, strengths. He is a Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Columbia University: thus, in addition, Danto professionally philosophizes, has had to 'Publish or Perish' and win tenure as a hierarchical preferment. His gifts survived it all. The Madonna of the Future has numerous fine essays which confirm first-rate writing on art, a genre all too often prone to extreme personalization, theorization and, as noted by Danto of Abstract Expressionism's apologist, Clement Greenberg, (quoted in this volume's preface): " the most ungrateful form of 'elevated' writing I know of." (This same citation concludes: "It may also be the most challenging -- if only because so few people have done it well enough to be remembered --but I'm [Greenberg] not sure the challenge is worth it.") The Madonna of the Future proves it is indeed worth it.
A careful reader will find many valuable and refreshing well-springs in The Madonna of the Future -- essays such as "Salvador Dali". Here, Danto as writer brings to the fore a polemic on the relation of Abstract Expressionism (as propounded by Clement Greenberg) to Dali's own avenue toward a polished and 'painterly' Surrealism. This is thought-provoking, even creative. Danto, with a wide overview of art as practiced, draws the viewer from the now textbook-standard expectations of Surrealism qua Automatism into Dali's own individual and meticulous expressions of, as that artist coined it: "critical-paranoia." The expression is based on Salvador Dali's assertion, quoted by Danto, that people "... find vulgar and normal everything they are used to seeing often, however marvelous and miraculous it may be." "Critical-paranoia" casts an eye to everything, and especially, the accepted common-place. Dali's "critical-paranoia" takes the beliefs of others as falsifications, asserting Dali's way was, at least, Dali's Right Way.
In his preface, Danto notes: "...my editor asked only that my reviews appear while it was still possible for the shows discussed to be viewed." and that "...I was otherwise entirely free to write as I wished on whatever I wished, often at the length I thought necessary." Where a subject stimulates Danto the writer, or speaks to his particular philosophical stance, the results are stimulating and often revelatory.
In The Madonna of the Future, Danto offers honesty with intelligence. In "Meyer Schapiro: 1904-1996," the author interweaves personal anecdote with assessment in a excellent tribute to an important scholar of art. Danto's essay-review, "Lucien Freud," might at first seem critical, but in fact it is a faultless assay of the artist and his work: articulate about the art, and an aid in relating it to what has been done elsewhere by others and in history.
Arthur Danto, in this book's preface, cautions: "Art is not immune to moral criticism, and when I am negative, as in the essays on Richard Avedon and Bruce Nauman, it is because their work, in my view, violates what I feel is the respect due human subjects. The openness of art no more gives artists license to degrade than the etymology of 'criticism' licenses what is tantamount to a public rape." Knowing the work of these artists, and having read Danto's essays, one can only say that Danto is on the mark.
The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, as with many of Danto's books for a wider public, does have a two-fold content: reviews of exhibitions, primarily in New York City; and concise essays drawn from his activities in philosophy of art. The interests are distinct, at times at odds, but both offer stimulating enjoyment.
The Madonna of the Future prompts one regret, and it is widespread in publishing today: It is unfortunate that budgets frequently do not allow for illustrations of the art discussed. There are pieces in The Madonna of the Future which beg for visual examples. A dedicated reader might find a further lacuna in not listing, perhaps as an addendum, the actual titles, times and locations of the exhibitions under review. Such listings are common in published collections and serve the motivated to search out catalogues or other sources to make good the failing. In The Madonna of the Future, Danto the writer has given good value, now and for the future.
Finis Part I
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Many books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews are in print and may be purchased through this site's Barnes & Noble link. Particularly recommended are Arthur Danto's Embodied Meanings (Farrar, Straus, Giroux: 1994); Encounters and Reflections (Farrar, Straus, Giroux: 1990); The Transformation of the Commonplace (Harvard University Press: 1981); and Nietzsche as Philosopher (Columbia University Press: 1980).