the abuse of beauty/arthur danto

Published in 2003, The Abuse of Beauty was an attempt to resolve the ongoing cultural argument re: the presence/absence of beauty in contemporary art. To accomplish this task, Arthur Danto revisits ideas of beauty and art from Kant through Hegel to artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Leroy Newman. There is reason to argue with Danto, as in: “Beauty may indeed be subjective, but it is universal, as Kant insisted.” But in his roundabout way, Danto arrives at a unique position that is informed by both contemporary art and classical philosophy. Instead of defending beauty (or its absence) in art, Danto instead proposes the importance of beauty in all its manifestations to human experience. For Danto, art doesn’t need to be beautiful to be effective: it can be critical, disgusting, or ironic; but a life lived without beauty is a life lived in unhappiness and despair. In this way, Danto imagines art as a vital part of what it means to be human, without ever losing sight of the fact that what it means to be human is lived out in individual lives engaged in the pursuit of happiness.

Danto’s focus on emotional experience transforms his readings of artworks (Duchamp’s Urinal, Barnett Newman’s Onement, Maya Lin’s Vietnan Veterans’ Memorial, Felix Gonzales Torres’s Untitled (Perfect Lovers)) from markers for various philosophical or political positions into memorable meditations on the human condition. That he is able to describe the relationship of beauty to grieving in Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic, is not so much about the philosophical structures or art-historical contexts of the work as it is about Arthur Danto’s own humanity and his willingness to bring the experience of being human to complex critical readings. This determination to render artwork resonant with human values is more than a critical position for Danto; in the deployment of his arguments and the depth of his readings, Danto exposes the underlying desire shaping his book, a desire that understands all human beings capable of responding to beauty and worthy of happiness. If there is such a thing as hope in the day-to-day spectacle of the contemporary artworld, this is probably what it looks like.