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August 11, 2005

Fallacies Ain't Too Pretty, Neither

At Modern Kicks JL has offered some words on Arthur Danto's The Abuse of Beauty. Although I haven't read the book myself, I'll be damned if I'm about to let that keep me from weighing in.

According to JL, the crux of it is Danto's belief that, in his own words:

Beauty is an option for art and not a necessary condition. But it is not an option for life. It is a necessary condition for life as we would want to live it.

It's a sentiment I found myself initially inclined to agree with. However, on reflection, I'm growing increasingly dubious of the logic that follows from it, especially as Danto himself is apparently drawn to the patently strange conclusion that (again, Danto's words via JL):

...we may not lose a lot if artistic beauty were annihilated, whatever that means, because art has a number of other compensatory values, and artistic beauty is an incidental attribute in most of the world's artistic cultures.

It's enough to make me question the meaningfulness of the premise itself.

I'm no logician, so do pardon my awkwardness as I wrestle my way rather clumsily through the following...

Something just doesn't click here in terms of the respective scope of each half of Danto's equation. The more I think about it, the more the pair of questions lurking behind his proposition that beauty is incidental to art but necessary to life appear to be of different orders altogether: on the one hand we ask whether beauty is a necessary aspect of every specific instance of art, on the other whether beauty is a "necessary" part of the life we desire to live, considered in toto.

Danto would have us answer in the negative to the former and in the arfirmative to the latter, which answers strike me (again) as resonable, if debatable.

And yet, though beauty may indeed be a necessary part of any life well-lived, it does not thus hold that beauty must be integral or even party to every lived moment in its particularity. (In fact, I suspect one could make quite the case to the contrary, and think that the resulting proposition would be a far more appropriate parallel to the response to our other question.)

Likewise but in reverse, while we may concede that any given artifact need not be beautiful to qualify as art, it does not necessarily follow from this that art, generally considered, could exist without ever eliciting an experience of the beautiful. That is, I think you'd be hard pressed to show me a world in which beauty exists yet is never of more than peripheral significance when it comes to works of art.

Moreover, just as we accept that beauty is essential to the life "we would want to live" (and this seems to be begging the question a bit), I can't say that I would ever want to see this great amorphous entity we call "art" to exist with no recourse to the beautiful at all.

As JL suggests:

...let us do, as the philosophers say, a thought experiment. Picture youself walking through a great museum, one you know well—the Met, say, or the Art Institute of Chicago. Consider all of the different works from different cultures and times that you see as you pass. Now imagine all of the beautiful ones "annihilated"—whatever that means. Do you think a lot has been lost?

To state it plainly: beauty may not be necessary for art on the level of the particular, but neither is it always absent from art in general. (To conclude otherwise would, I believe, involve committing something in the realm of a distribution fallacy, though I may be talking out of my ass on this point.)

Quite honestly, the more I consider it, the more Danto's premise strikes me as all but meaningless (and, as a consequence, the more afraid I become that I've ultimately said nothing meaningful myself in the foregoing). One might, based on the very same assumptions set out above, invert Danto's quote to say that 'beauty is a possiblity in life but never a guarantee, while it is a necessary part of art as we wish it to be.' Would it then be prudent to determine that, 'we may not lose a lot from life if beauty were annihilated, because life has a number of other compensatory values, and beauty is an incidental attribute in most of our lives'?

I'll stop short of suggesting that the propositions Danto pairs for us have no consequential logical relation to one another whatsoever, but they are beginning to look a bit like apples and oranges to me. And, in any event, they hardly offer any sort of secure ground for concluding that beauty must always be incidental to art and that it may thus be "annihilated" with impunity.

("Whatever that means.")

Update: Franklin piles on, too.

"Fallacies Ain't Too Pretty, Neither"
Posted by Dan at 01:55 AM


What beauty is, depends from ones point of view. It's senseless to discuss a beauty on itselfs. If we took beauty away from a museum, than its empty, even the emptiness shouldn't remain, because it may be beauty too.

Posted by: Hans on August 11, 2005 at 03:49 AM

Franklin responded, too, and makes a couple of points similar to yours. I'm getting error messages when I try to post a comment at his site, so I've emailed him my response. I'm a little pressed for time, so I'm repeating some of it here:

"It's true, as Dan says, that when treating art Danto argues in one fashion, life, another. I'd guess he'd say that's because they're different things. He'd agree that, taken as a general matter, we would not want a world in which art did not have the capacity for beauty. Where he would disagree is with the insistence that all instances of art be beautiful. There are different ways of pleasing. But as serious as art is, life is more so. Life without beauty, a world of pure disgustingness, would be an abomination. That some art achieves its ends through means other than beauty, not such a big deal."

This comment is predicated on seeing Danto's "annihilated" comment as mere rhetorical overkill - that he was so intent on demonstrating that art didn't have to be beautiful, he went too far and said something foolish. One could offer the less generous interpretation, however, that it was instead a revealing slip. I don't, though I do think that even as Danto says he's trying to properly place beauty's role in art, he still underrates it. I'd agree that it's hard to imagine a world in which beauty exists but had no role in art, though perhaps it's not logically impossible to do so. But to clarify, that beauty is necessary for life doesn't mean for Danto that life is always beautiful.

Posted by: JL on August 11, 2005 at 09:31 AM

> But to clarify, that beauty is necessary for life doesn't mean for Danto that life is always beautiful.

I never figured otherwise, but probably could have been more clear about that myself.

> He'd agree that, taken as a general matter, we would not want a world in which art did not have the capacity for beauty.

Yeah, I can see how it could be an ungenerous interpretation to say that Danto feels that because beauty is accidental to art, it may also be irrelevant to it.

Is Danto then merely saying that one could assemble a set of instances of the class "art" in which beauty never shows its face? Again, I think this is probably true, but it's debatable (and, of course, it all hinges on one's defintion of that ridiculously slippery term "beauty"). And, insofar as a lack of beauty is not itself necessary for art, this set of non-beautiful art would not necessarily exhaust "art in general."

And, as with the proof that not all art is beautiful, a single example ought to suffice to render the logical possibility of a world of art without beauty moot (readers are encouraged to furnish their own).

Ultimately, though, I ask this: so what? If we accept modern art as such, then I think we've already either accomodated our notion of beauty to what's there or abandoned it as the be all, end all essence of the stuff. Is this all he's really saying, apart from the silly rhetoric?

As I suggested above, I tend to agree with the general thrust of Danto's claim that beauty is optional in art but essential for life, but only (I think) insofar as it remains little more than a credible platitude. Much like the very legitimate sentiment that "as serious as art is, life is more so," while offering a dose of perspective, I find this tells me precious little about art itself.

But maybe I should read the book.

Posted by: Dan on August 11, 2005 at 01:07 PM

Is Danto, then, merely saying that one could assemble a set of instances of the class "art" in which beauty never shows its face?

That's one part of his argument, yes. The fact that there exists even one work of art that is not beautiful dictates that beauty is not a defining element of art.

Yet, insofar as a lack of beauty is not itself necessary for art, this set of non-beautiful art would not necessarily exhaust "art in general."

No indeed. But Danto I think would say that non-beautiful art has become the dominate mode for art over the past century or so. I'm not so sure about that, but that's part of his claim.

Which leads to the "so what?". I didn't mean to imply that it's a really groundbreaking book - it's not. It's a fairly modest effort, a collection of lectures and some reworked magazine articles that clocks in at only a little over 150 pages. I'd say his reasons for producing it are twofold. First, at the level of criticism and aesthetics, there's a certain conceptual misunderstanding involved in thinking that art = beauty. Clearing that up is the sort of precision-oriented thinking of an analytic philosopher. The more substantive reason is that Danto seems to feel that the reaction against beauty has gone too far, that a corrective is needed. And so he explores what ends beauty serves in art that other modes do not, how those other modes work themselves and why they've been (in his eyes) more dominant, the role that different ideas of morality have played in the shifting aesthetic field, and so on. Anyway, I don't think anyone would call it his most important book, but it's not without interest.

Posted by: JL on August 11, 2005 at 02:22 PM

Referenced in this post:

Amazon: The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art—Arthur C. Danto
Artblog.net: danto abuses beauty
Modern Kicks: philosophy is not pretty
Wikipedia: Fallacy of distribution