Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 11, 2003
Arthur C. Danto The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 2003. 224 pp.; few b/w ills. Paper $19.95 (0812695402)

Beauty returns and is redeemed (perhaps) in Arthur C. Danto’s The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. The central concepts and examples, especially Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, will be familiar to those who know the philosopher’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981) and After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). The readable Abuse of Beauty, based on the Paul Carus Lectures that Danto presented to the American Philosophical Association in 2001, connects earlier points—his query of how to distinguish “art” from “object” when surface appearances are almost identical, and his assertion that when anything is possible in art it has reached an “end” that permits theorizing about art as a whole—to the excoriation of “beauty” in the twentieth century and beyond.

Danto, who is the Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation, writes under the seeming paradox that his “philosophy of art aspires to the kind of timelessness at which philosophy in general aims,” even as works of art and his own arguments are clearly the product of a “given historical moment” (ix). In this case he takes the traditional quests for beauty, along with its apotheosis in a trinity that includes the good and the true, and clarifies the challenges against these ideals by modernist innovation and postmodern attitudes. Beauty has become suspect, seeming an opiate or tool in the hands of the wrong social forces. As Danto writes, “beauty had almost entirely disappeared from artistic reality in the twentieth century, as if attractiveness was a stigma, with its crass commercial implications” (7).

To defend beauty, Danto draws on the philosophical context of Immanuel Kant (with qualification) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (with agreement); he supports his argument with examples that include Brillo Box (a cultural touchstone for Danto); Robert Motherwell’s Elegies for the Spanish Republic, which “transform” pain into bearable beauty; Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, with its elegant finish and taboo subject matter; and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, which moves art critics and the general public alike.

Danto explains the liberating realization that beauty is not essential to art but rather is one of many possible qualities. He attributes to modern artists—the “Intractable Avant-Garde”—this liberation, which also politicized aesthetics: “the ‘abuse of beauty’ became a device for dissociating the artists from the society they held in contempt” (48). He quotes Dadaist Tristan Tzara on the “great negative work of destruction” that would sweep clean the “aggressive complete madness of a world abandoned to the hands of bandits” (49). However, Danto does more than offer historically based clarifications as he asserts that the concept of beauty cannot be dispensed with altogether:

But even if beauty proved far less central to the visual arts than had been taken for granted in the philosophical tradition, that did not entail that it was not central to human life. The spontaneous appearance of those moving improvised shrines everywhere in New York after the terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001, was evidence for me that the need for beauty in the extreme moments of life is deeply ingrained in the human framework…. But beauty is the only one of the aesthetic qualities that is also a value, like truth and goodness. It is not simply among the values we live by, but one of the values that defines what a fully human life means. (14–15)

As part of his defense of this “value,” Danto offers an insightful (but debatable) categorization of what has been considered beauty: the First Realm of “natural beauty” which is not created by human beings; the Second Realm of art, which involves “embodied meanings” and to which Danto applies Hegelian ideas of spirit and inwardness; and the third realm of “beautification,” which “seems an exercise of frivolity” (69) as surface appearance but not substance is altered. This Third Realm is the one often attacked by cultural critics on the Left for commodifying personal appearance (which can undermine the self-realization of unbeautified women and ethnic groups) and for spawning class-based judgments of what magazines call lifestyle.

This definition of the Third Realm separates out what has become manipulative or destructive under the name of beauty and thus allows for the reconsideration of what “had almost disappeared” from art, “namely enjoyment and pleasure” (8). Danto’s argument implies that attacks on beauty are more precisely attacks against injustice and exploitation, so that in a just and less-commercialized life one would want and have more beauty (of person, place, thing, or weather) as part of daily experience: “Beauty is an option for art and not a necessary condition. But it is not an option for life. It is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it. That is why beauty, unlike the other aesthetic qualities, the sublime included, is a value” (160).

This defense goes a long way in making beauty possible again for artists and viewers. However, strict postmodernists, and some other readers, might be troubled by several assumptions. Although Danto generally avoids debunked terms, “beauty” can seem here platonically timeless, and the author is very comfortable with Hegel’s “three ‘moments’ of Absolute Spirit: art, religion, and philosophy” (136). The boundaries between Danto’s Three Realms may be more fluid than he suggests. While these categories posit that beauty is a core value (with associations to moral worth) and beautification a seeming appearance (like Claudius as rightful king in Hamlet), it can be argued that changing a surface modifies the social presentation of a person or object, and alters not only a market value but also internalized, emotional value. But Danto, who always sorts out what he believes are the best of past and current theories, does not merely speak for an old guard that wants traditional values. He warns against reducing art to lessons in form or politics or anthropology, while remaining aware that art includes all of the above. He reinvests the idea of art (and beauty) as “transformative power” (130): he does so by consciously avoiding the sentimental trap of the phrase and by examining works by a Dutch mannerist painter, a contemporary feminist, and an artist whose lover died of AIDS.

The Abuse of Beauty, based on lecture form and often conversational in style, provides an accessible introduction for those new to Danto’s thought. Initiated readers may wish to focus attention on second half of book, which provoke us, in an age when anything seems possible in art, to think in fresh ways about how and why art and beauty still matter.

Priscilla Paton
Department of English, Denison University