13 November 2011
The End of Art
We are experiencing “The End of Art” as the visual perception of surface gives way to the conceptual grasp of inner significance. In Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Columbia University philosophy professor Arthur Danto discusses how Andy Warhol’s 1964 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York marks the end of art. In the art gallery, Warhol stacked boxes on which he had screen-printed the Brillo logo. They looked identical to the cartons of Brillo soap pads that we see in supermarket aisles. We could no longer see the difference between Brillo Boxes (the work of art) and Brillo boxes (the mere real things). What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference by merely looking. The history of Western art as a progressive historical narrative of one art style superseding a previous style came to an end.
I believe that what we are witnessing is not the end of art, but the end of art derived from a Hellenistic structure of consciousness. The contemporary redefinition of art is emerging from a Hebraic biblical consciousness as expressed through the oral Torah. Danto’s radical new proposal that concept and context rather than visual appearance gives meaning to images and objects was seriously discussed centuries ago by rabbis dealing with idolatry and Greek aesthetics. In the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah (Strange Worship), rabbis discuss whether found fragments of an image such as the hand or foot of a statue that was worshipped are prohibited or permitted. If the idol fell down and broke, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish reasoned, then the hand or foot are permitted because the owner of the idol annuls it by saying, “If it could not save itself, so how could it save me?” Samuel explained that if they were mounted on a pedestal they were still valued as idols. Therefore, the exact same hand or foot would be prohibited.
The Greek Proclos, son of a philosopher, put a question to Rabbi Gamliel who was bathing in a pool in front a large statute of Aphrodite. “If your Torah forbids idolatry, why are you bathing in the Bath of Aphrodite?” The rabbi answered, “I did not come into her domain, she came into mine.” If the statue of Aphrodite was erected and then a pool was made to honor her, it would be forbidden for a Jew to bathe there. However, if the pool was made first and the statue was placed there as an adornment, then it is permitted. Concept and context determine meaning in the case of the idol fragments and the statute of Aphrodite, like Brillo boxes in an art gallery rather than in a supermarket and a panel of plywood hanging in a museum rather than stacked in a lumberyard. The visual sense alone cannot discern between art and non-art today or between idol and mere decoration yesterday.
Excerpt from the chapter "Semiotic Perspectives: Redefining Art in a Postdigital Age" in The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness.