Transfiguration Vlad Morariu
I / Definitions of the Artwork
In 1964 Arthur C. Danto, also known to nonphilosophers as an art critic for the American weekly The Nation and the author of several significant articles for Artforum, signed a highly influential article which made famous the concept of the “artworld,” which its author understood to be “an atmosphere of art theory.”1 As he himself and later critics have explained, this concept helps us to construct a conventional definition of art grounded in five necessary and sufficient conditions for “arthood.” An artifact is an artwork if and only if (a) it has a subject (the “aboutness” condition); (b) the subject is approached from a certain point of view or attitude (the style condition); (c) the approach is performed by means of a rhetorical ellipsis (usually metaphorical); (d) the ellipsis engages the participation of the audience, which fills in what is missing in the inferential construction; and (e) there is an art historical context which contributes to the constitution of the artwork in question and of its interpretations.2 The last condition is what makes the definition conventional—that is, institutionalist. George Dickie later developed the general lines of Danto’s article into what is known to us today as the institutional theory of art. This theory presupposes that a work of art is an artifact which is created by an artist and then presented to an artworld public. Dickie’s institutionalism has evolved over time and has undergone several revisions. Its latest version defines the components of art making (artist, artwork, artworld) as follows: (a) the artist is that person who participates with understanding in the making of a work of art; (b) a work of art is an artifact created to be presented to an artworld public; (c) the public is a set of persons whose members are prepared in some degree to understand an object which is presented to them; (d) the artworld is the totality of all artworld systems; (e) an artworld system is a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist to an artworld public.3 The institutional theory has largely been criticized, and even Arthur Danto, who is credited as having fathered it, later distanced himself from it. Some of the most powerful arguments against it argue that art created outside the institutional framework—that is, lacking professionals and a public with a certain degree of knowledge about art—seems impossible, a fact which the definition leaves aside; also, the definition, as it stands, does not exclude the possibility of an artworld making an error. The artworld can at times consider an artifact not to be an artwork when in fact it actually is. The definition also seems obviously circular, as it defines key concepts like artwork, artworld system, artist, and artworld public using the terms themselves.4
Almost 20 years later, in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Arthur Danto proposed another theory which, although it still did not dismiss the concept of the artworld, offered a new definition for the work of art. Transfiguration bases most of its arguments on fictional experiments which envisage series of works of art that are perceptually indistinct (for example, a series of red square canvases which bear different titles, like Israelites Crossing the Red Sea, Kierkegaard’s Mood, Red Square, Nirvana, etc). In Transfiguration, Danto comes to the conclusion that, faced with such a series of physically identical works, we would be left with no other alternative than that each must be individuated by a difference in content. Therefore, for something to be a work of art, it must be an artifact which embodies a meaning. The meaning is embodied through the artist’s intentionality, his vision upon the world, and the outcome of his artistic interpretation is a commonplace object acquiring an “aboutness,” a “being-about-something”: the object is thus transfigured. Hence an infinite series of perceptually indistinct artworks is possible: “an object o becomes an artwork only under the interpretation I, where I is a sort of function that transfigures o into a work: I(o)=W.”5 The artist’s interpretation of the world takes the form of an elliptical metaphor, which is later completed by the audience’s participation. A constitutive type of artistic interpretation is thus met by an epistemic type of interpretation—that of the artworld public.
Danto’s new approach to the definition of art has satisfied fans of essential, intrinsic conditions for “arthood”: it is an ontological approach, opposed to the institutionalist version in that is tries to get beyond the sociological, externalist description of a system which only constitutes “arthood” under several strict conditions. As it stands, it allows the possibility of art-making outside institutions. However, it is evident that the two conditions—(1) meaning and (2) embodiment—are, by themselves, insufficient; on this view, texts of art criticism or articles on fashion could be easily regarded as works of art. A third condition is required and Danto fails to provide it—even after several critical anthologies dedicated to him. Nonetheless, although this theory is obviously incomplete, I believe that the concept of transfiguration is useful in helping us understand the practice of art today, and I will make use of it below.
II / The Catholic Transfiguration of the Artwork
Danto’s concept of artwork transfiguration depends heavily on Catholicism’s Christian idea of transfiguration. The title of his book, Danto tells us, was not an aleatory choice or an editor’s marketing strategy. It was inspired by a fictional book written by a character in Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Brodie named Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, a rogue teenager from Glasgow who undergoes a religious transfiguration. The first lines of the The Transfiguration of the Commonplace recall the “original transfiguration” of Jesus Christ on a mountain, in front of his apostles, as narrated by the evangelists, a metaphor for “art’s subtle miracle of transforming into works of art objects of … commonplace existence.” In this small but significant miracle Danto grounds the difference between, say, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and an ordinary supermarket Brillo box. Also, the concept of embodiment—with “embodied” taken as meaning sheltered by a physical object—makes direct reference to the Christian story of the divine being embodied in human flesh. As early as 1964, Danto had appealed to the Catholic theology doctrine in order to define the concept of the artworld, arguing that “the artworld stands to the real world … [as] the City of God stands to the Earthly City.” This kind of view entails the subsidiary idea that artworks are transfigured into a sort of higher ontological order, entirely different from our world’s domain of ordinary things. An artwork and a mere thing might be perceptually indiscernible; however, the latter shares, along with other ordinary things, in the realm of degraded things, while the former is elevated to a kind of holy grace shared by entities of the same kind. This realm is a slightly modified version of what Danto had previously called the artworld, namely, an ontological community of artworks with strong interrelationships and affiliations. Throughout his book there is further elaboration of the radical ontological distinction between these two categories (artwork/mere real thing). Danto could be contrasted with Plato: while Plato despised artworks qua representations, seeing them as mere copies and the most degraded forms of existence, Danto elevates them from the lowlands of the mere things to new ontological heights.
Danto’s idea of the artwork’s transfiguration was inspired by Hegel, who held that art is “born of the spirit and born again”; we welcome, therefore, the insight that the role of art is to reveal some of the most recondite mysteries of human life to us. But we still look suspiciously upon the inflationary ontology which posits two distinct realms, as well as the transcendental Catholic imagery with which Danto has pursued this separation. Here transfiguration implies a radical shift of metaphysical status, from the realm of spatial-temporal entities to a different, spiritually transcendent existence. Prominent among critics expressing this view, Richard Shusterman tried to show that Danto’s attempt to increase the number of types of ontological entities was unnecessary. His alternative is a deflationist approach, although it also parallels a religious model—that of Zen. However, I believe that it is worth paying further attention to Shusterman’s idea that art’s transfiguration is reduced to a “suffusion of ordinary objects and events with intensified meaning and value through heightened attention, care, and insight.”6
III / The Politics of Transfiguration
The core of Shusterman’s critique is that a project such as Danto’s has as its most unacceptable outcome the fact that the difference between art and life seems to be irremediably fractured. But then we might ask, “How are we to understand those artworks which acquire a vital space among all our surrounding ordinary objects? What is their status?” I find, therefore, Shusterman’s contrasting project of a pragmatist aesthetics7 to be most appealing, as it retains the significant distinction between the sacred and the profane—involving, however, differences of perception, attitude, and use, not the ontology of objects. “In the same way, the immanent interpretation of art’s transfiguration will assure that our experience of the transfigured ordinary object will be intensified and charged with special meaning, but without implying a radical shift of ontological status, elevating the object into another world defined by its essential contrast to mere real things.”8 Thus Shusterman proposes (following his Zen model) an immanent transfiguration which no longer marks a radical distance between two different ontological worlds, but rather a difference in how the same world of things is perceived, experienced, and lived. Shusterman sees the transfiguration in question as a transformation of perception, meaning, use, and attitude. It does not presuppose a vertical transposition to an elevated ethereal realm, but rather “a vividness and immediacy of being in this world, of feeling the full power and life of its presence and rhythms, of seeing its objects with a wondrous clarity and freshness of vision.”9
But if we accept Shusterman’s view of transfiguration, and refrain from regarding art as transcendent, we might begin to see that art has an important subsidiary political significance. This means that an immanent, transfigured art grants democratic access—which would otherwise doubtfully be possible—as the transcendence of divinity is not open, so to speak, to free and unconditioned access. More specifically, art’s political significance is achieved not because an artwork can carry content with political meaning, but because through the very act of artistic transfiguration an artwork is capable of transforming reality in the eyes of the audience.10 Therefore, it is art that makes us attentive to the ordinary realities around us; it is art that develops, through transfiguration, the invisible potentialities of the commonplace. Experiencing the transfiguration of the artwork is, in its own terms, a transfiguration of the one who experiences it, who starts to see the world with different eyes. Often enough Danto argues that artworks behave like convex mirrors which “tell us what we would not know about ourselves without them”; it follows that they are key instruments of self-revelation and self-recognition.11 The paradigm case of the experience of art is when one grasps a work’s metaphor by filling its empty spaces and one’s life is identified with what is depicted: the artwork becomes itself “a metaphor for life and life is transfigured.”12 Artworks as metaphors require a change within the viewer: art’s calling represents an invitation to see the world as inhabited not only by “mere real things,” but also by meaningful things. An artwork, Danto tells us, does not change the configuration of the real, but fills it with significance. In contrast with ordinary cognition, experiencing an artwork thus becomes a primary, irreplaceable experience.
Allow me to finish with a case of a beautiful transfiguration. In 2007 the Romanian-German artist Daniel Knorr glued metal labels and spray-painted stenciled signs on several buildings in a part of Berlin very close to the now-famous Skulpturen Park, a wasteland which has been the site of artistic open-air interventions for several years. Daniel Knorr was thus making reference to the written culture of graffiti and performing a critique of the privatization of urban spaces. The labels and stenciled signs read “Public Space/1 Year Warranty.” By signing the label, Knorr provided a seal or certificate of approval: it was the artist himself who was constituting the new public space and providing it to the public. As neither the labels nor the stencils were dated, the newly constituted space would remain open for as long as the labels stayed on the walls. Thus it was up to the public to reconstruct this metaphorical puzzle and to perceive and comprehend the transfiguration that had taken place there.
1 / Arthur C. Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy 61/19 (1964), p. 571–584.
2 / Thomas Adajian, “The Definition of Art,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2007, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/art-definition/.
3 / Adajian, “The Definition of Art”; George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1974.
4 / Noël Carroll, Theories of Art Today, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 2000.
5 / Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1981, p. 125.
6 / Richard Shusterman, “Art as Religion: Transfiguration of Danto’s Dao,” Online Conference in Aesthetics: Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace 25 Years Later (2006), http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/philosophy/events/.OCA/ShustermanDantoConference.pdf: http://artmind.typepad.com/onlineconference/.
7 / Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, Blackwell, Oxford 1992.
8 / Ibid.
9 / Ibid.
10 / Mario Wenning, “Transfiguration and the Illusion of the Real: Danto and Adorno on the Political Meaning of Aesthetical Semblance,” Online Conference in Aesthetics: Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace 25 Years Later (2006), http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/philosophy/events/.OCA/WenningDantoConference.pdf: http://artmind.typepad.com/onlineconference/.
11 / Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, p. 173.
12 / Ibid., p. 172
Thomas Adajian, “The Definition of Art,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, 2007, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/art-definition/.
Noël Carroll, Theories of Art Today, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 2000.
Arthur C. Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1981.
Arthur C. Danto, “The Artworld,” The Journal of Philosophy 61/19 (1964), p. 571–584.
George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis, Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1974.
George Dickie, Art and Value, Blackwell Publishers, Malden 2001.
Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, Blackwell, Oxford 1992.
Richard Shusterman, “Art as Religion: Transfiguration of Danto’s Dao,” Online Conference in Aesthetics: Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace 25 Years Later (2006), http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/philosophy/events/.OCA/ShustermanDantoConference.pdf: http://artmind.typepad.com/onlineconference/.
Mario Wenning, “Transfiguration and the Illusion of the Real: Danto and Adorno on the Political Meaning of Aesthetical Semblance,” Online Conference in Aesthetics: Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace 25 Years Later (2006), http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/philosophy/events/.OCA/WenningDantoConference.pdf: http://artmind.typepad.com/onlineconference/.