Philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto, who famously declared the end of art history, died from heart failure on Oct. 25 at the age of 89. A professor emeritus at New York’s Columbia University and the former art critic of the Nation (1984-2009), Danto published over 30 books, including Beyond the Brillo Box (1992) and After the End of Art (1998).
A Michigan native born in Ann Arbor and raised in Detroit, Danto served for two years in Italy and North Africa during World War II. Upon his return to the States, he received his undergraduate degree in art and history from Detroit’s Wayne State University, where he took courses in printmaking. Danto later donated his prints and woodblocks to his alma mater. He went on to earn both his master’s and his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia, graduating in 1952 after having studied with philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Paris on a Fulbright grant.
Danto began teaching at Columbia in 1951, and became a professor there in 1966. His career in academia took a radical turn with the publication of his seminal 1964 article “The Artworld,” which coined that now-ubiquitous phrase. Danto wrote the piece in response to “Brillo Box” (1964-69), an Andy Warhol series of silkscreened plywood boxes that appeared to be perfect replicas of the cardboard Brillo containers lining supermarket shelves.
In A.i.A.‘s March 2006 issue, critic Ken Johnson reviewed Danto’s Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life (2005), and provided this summation of the epiphany that jumpstarted Danto’s career as a critic: “Art was no longer evolving along traditional stylistic lines but had jumped the tracks into philosophy, where it would challenge viewers with problems we might paraphrase as ‘if two things look exactly alike, then how can one be art and the other not art’ or ‘what is the relationship between art and life?'”
Where the ancient Greeks understood art as imitation, and Renaissance thinkers believed art had to bestow aesthetic pleasure on the viewer, Danto determined that the only prerequisite for an object to be considered a work of art was for that object to be accepted as art by society. In the case of Warhol’s “Brillo Box” series, the work’s display in a gallery legitimized it as an art object. He went on to revisit this realization in several of his other writings, such as his most famous essay, “The End of Art” (1986), which appeared more than 20 years after the “Brillo Box” encounter.
In an e-mail to A.i.A., Danto’s successor at the Nation, Barry Schwabsky, recalled studying “The Artworld” in an undergraduate philosophy course on aesthetics. “It’s amazing that after essentially opening up a whole new field of inquiry in philosophy, he was then able to shift to being a critic looking closely at particular artists and works of art from this incredibly broad perspective. In that way he gave something to the field of criticism that no one else would have been able to provide.”
In addition to teaching and writing, Danto was an editor of the Journal of Philosophy, a contributing editor to Artforum and president of the American Philosophical Association. He retired from Columbia in 1992, but continued writing, publishing his most recent book, What Art Is, in March of this year.
Among Danto’s many honors, his book Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present (1990) received that year’s National Book Critics Circle prize for criticism, and he was the 1996 winner of the College Art Association’s Frank Jewett Mather Award for art criticism.