Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Arthur Danto talk – not so good

Arthur Danto makes you want to write art criticism. His writing makes it obvious how looking at and thinking about art is a serious intellectual activity. Sure, he’s smarter than you (at least that’s the case for me), better read, but you think maybe you could write a review that does a little of what he does, that uses your experience of art as the basis for an interesting idea or two.

So I was looking forward to his Thursday talk at Vanderbilt a great deal. The topic was the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t obvious what he would do with that, but I was sure he wouldn’t linger long on the controversy, but would go from there to observations about the nature of art, of making art, of viewing art, of social and institutional meaning-making.

Well, to some extent he did exactly what I thought he wouldn’t do. The talk focused on making the case that the restoration was ill-conceived. He made a compelling case that the restorers screwed up, but you don’t have to read much to see how that is likely the case.

The talk itself was badly organized. It was emblematic when he threw up a Powerpoint slide that showed a tiny, indecipherable patch lost in the middle of the big screen. It utterly deflated the impact of offering visual evidence to support his point. The whole talk seemed organized or mis-organized that way.

Many of his arguments circled back time and again long after a point was made. For one, he kept returning to the point that Michelangelo was more of a draughtsman than a colorist, so restoration approaches that emphasized the vividness of color and diminished the emphasis in lines would run counter to the nature of the work. This is a point about Michelangelo that I believe is well accepted, and in the context of his talk, he made the point the first time it came up – he didn’t need to marshal additional evidence.

The main Danto-ism in the talk was the idea that the approach taken by the head of the restoration, Gianluigi Colalucci, was a form of positivism which loses sight of more essential arguments about how to approach the restoration. Colalucci’s approach relied on a micro-level analysis of the fresco as an object, examining each brushstroke and taking away anything they determined Michelangelo did not put there. The primary critics of the restoration argue that the restorers could not correctly identify what materials Michelangelo did put there. Did Michelangelo go back after the plaster dried and add paint or soot black highlights a secco?

Danto cuts through the very basis of this argument, and says you have to start by examining the work (not the object) and its meaning (not just its physical characteristics), and see what decisions that leads to. An utterly sensible reading of the Chapel ceiling is that an important theme is humanity’s struggle to emerge from darkness of sin into light. Once you accept that as a possibility, brightening up the colors becomes a dubious proposition, and any place where there's a question about whether to leave in elements that give the work shadows and darkness, the obvious choice is caution and preservation.

This is a good point, and the elevation of interpretation in deciding what to do with art has great implications. But Danto didn’t really get into that, and he wasted a lot of time backing up his points about the Sistine Chapel from every angle. I wish he had taken his ideas, left the Sistine Chapel, and talked about other implications of relying on interpretation more fully and fearlessly. It’s a good opportunity to go back to intent—should you look for intent in interpretation, or is interpretation based on the inherent qualities of the work? Does it matter whether Michelangelo was engaged with Neo-Platonism in Rome, or are the ideas of lightness and dark fully evident in the work without recourse to biographical reinforcement? But he didn’t do this.

In the interests of full disclosure, at the end I asked a completely confused and confusing question that was perfectly designed to thwart anyone’s attempts at responsiveness. I was trying to redirect him into applying his ideas in some sort of contemporary context—I should have stopped myself when I couldn’t remember Christoph Buchel’s name, the artist who is in court with Mass MOCA trying to stop them from exhibiting an installation that is either substantially but partially completed, or completely detached from the artist’s intentions and will, depending on your point of view. I made a pathetic plea for someone to bail me out with the name, but ended up sputtering about “this case at Mass MOCA, I’m sure you’ve heard of it...” Ychyfi.


  • he was my favorite art writer for a moment there, in there with the end-all-be-all definitions of art, even did an interview with ali g!! too bad about the lecture. but one of the guys here at koons is his nephew, so maybe i can lend an inside scoop for the ole' blog one of these days. lord knows i've already got enough on jeff!!

    By Blogger Julian, at 9:49 PM  

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