Aesthetics: Arthur Danto

Featured in the Aesthetics Lessons
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Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1964, Installation at The Andy Warhol Museum, ©AWF

Arthur Danto is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, an author of numerous books and essays and an art critic for the Nation, Artforum and other journals. Danto has spent much of his career exploring the philosophical questions of aesthetics and how these have shaped and been shaped by contemporary art. When Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes were first exhibited in 1964, they were greeted by many with puzzlement or skepticism. For Danto, these works were revolutionary, as they offered a completely new answer to the philosophical question of the nature of art.  In his writings, Danto explores a line of questioning: if Warhol’s sculptures are visually identical to the real packing boxes; why then, are Warhol’s boxes art, while the supermarket originals are not? The function and value of the objects are very different even though they look the same. In a bold new voice, Danto proclaimed that the difference between “the art” and “that-which-is-not-art” has nothing to do with the idea of art as the more beautiful object. The difference is no longer visible at all; the ideas and intent behind an artwork are now important determinants. 

For many decades, the study of aesthetics was concerned with the idea of beauty.  If something was not beautiful, it was not art. By the 20th century, numerous styles of art co-existed and beauty became a non-compulsory characteristic of a work of art. The internal beauty of an object— the ideas it embodied and how it was conceived, the intellectual process of the artist who created the work – became more important features of works of art.  Likewise, the study of aesthetics evolved with Danto’s writings, considering how appearance and meaning impact one another in a work of art.

Danto views the long history of art in three phases. Until the late 19th century, art was mimetic; that is, it imitated reality. Art developed in a linear progression and there was a single narrative of the history of art. The rise of Modernism, beginning in the late 1880’s, ushered in the second phase, a period in which several kinds of art co-existed at any given time; for instance, from 1910- 1930 traditional and experimental styles of art multiplied, including abstraction, minimalism, futurism, dada and cubism. By the third phase, about the time that Pop art emerged in the early 1960’s, there were so many forms of art that none could claim to be the only ‘real’ art. In this contemporary era, anything and everything could be art. Without limits there could be no more singular vision or linear progress.

Danto has written extensively about “the end of art,” an idea originated by the German philosopher Hegel, which views the development of the history of art as a process in which art became increasingly conscious of itself, becoming a philosophy and thus coming to an end.  Danto is not talking about the death of art, but the end of a certain narrative about what art was. The transition from one era to another is not clearly visible to those living and working through it. For Danto, Warhol’s Brillo boxes were a perfect example of a work that showed a fundamental shift had occurred in art. 


What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference [between art and non-art] merely by looking.  The eye, so prized an aesthetic organ when it was felt that the difference between art and non-art was visible, was philosophically of no use whatever when the differences proved instead to be invisible.

Arthur Danto  

Comprehension Questions

  1. What was compelling to Arthur Danto about Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes? What line of questions did this artwork pose for the philosopher?
  2. What happened in the 20th century to make the idea of beauty less important in a work of art?
  3. Do you think visible beauty in a work of art is important? Why or why not?