Several days ago, or so I seem to remember, I found myself reading something on (it must have been) the internet, pertaining to the thesis that art forms can become exhausted, at which point there's nothing for it but for new forms to be innovated into existence; the author made the sensible point that it is people who find art forms no longer to hold out new, or relevant, possibilities, and also people who move on to other forms. Ok. Author quoted at some length someone else's writing on Chinese painting, making basically the same point but with more, like, empirical data. Being, ever since I remembered having done this, completely incapable of relocating the text in question, I broke down and asked metafilter, where the sole respondent suggested that perhaps it was in one of Danto's writings. Though it is unlikely that I would have forgotten, in that case, I dutifully googled up some stuff.
End of prologue! In one of the pieces thus partly skimmed insofar as it contained the word "Chinese" ("The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense", History & Theory 37(4):127–43), after rehearsing some of his examples of perceptually indiscernible pairs one of which "is art" and the other of which is some mere (ugh) thing, Danto reiterates one of the guiding threads of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, namely, that artworks are representations (n.b. not "representational"); they are about things. Which is already, one might think, sliding; something uncontroversially an artwork of the old mimetic school might indeed represent something, e.g. a sitter, without, necessarily, being about that person or anything else in particular (perhaps all good such artworks would also be about something, in this sense, but we strive for greater generality than that, surely). It's clearly, anyway, the aboutness of saying something about … that Danto means. There seems to be little else to discriminate between two 600-pound blocks of chocolate. So: emphasizing aboutness "at least helped force a distinction between an artwork and its non-art counterparts, real or imagined. An artist was affirming some thesis by means of the block of chocolate, or at least it was appropriate to ask what it was about". To which one have several reactions:
(a) Why does not the block of chocolate by means of which the artist affirms this thesis simply remain a mere object here? It has always seemed to me that, in Danto's eyes, there is much more to the propriety of an interpretive stance toward some object than simply that it is enshrined in some practice to take it up to this but not to that, or that no one (credible, or licensed by the practice to do such) will come along and show us that our stance is misplaced (these dust bunnies are merely dust bunnies; the art bunnies are down the hall), or whatnot—his is not the institutional theory. That, to him, if mischevious philosophers infiltrated a gallery with a humdrum block of chocolate and replaced the art-chocolate with it, they being perceptually indistinguishable, the patrons who came by the next day to comment on and be enriched by the artwork (or whatever it is one does in response to exposure to a block of chocolate), they would be making a mistake. The art has left the building. But surely either block of chocolate would equally well serve for the affirmation of whatever thesis is in the offing (the philosophers will have arranged for this to be so; that's what they do). So why is this block the artwork, rather than the artist's affirming p by means of a block of chocolate? In which case much of Danto's attempts to divide his pairs according to what individual things possess meaning loses its attractiveness.
(b) (or (a) by other means) Suppose that I, being a gourmand with no self-control, order a 600-pound block of chocolate and then, when it is in fact before me, realize the absurdity of what I have done. I decide to leave it around as a standing testament to my foolishness. In doing so I affirm (why not put it this way?) theses, such as that I have a tendency to indulge desires I ought not to indulge and should be more mindful. Or anyway: it would be correct to interpret—what?—the block itself? the block's standing there still? My not doing anything with the block? in accordance with those thoughts. I take it that it's the second or third, not the first, that's so to be interpreted. (Moreover I have a hard time seeing this as now being a work of art, but, at the same time, Danto does admit that not every interpretandum is one. Though I'm not sure what it's supposed to lack, precisely.)
(c) One dearly hopes that the artist's affirmation of theses through his or her work is entirely optional! Danto: "Anything, of course, can be seen interpretively as long as one supposes it to embody a meaning. Upon discovering that it does not, the interpretation withers away." Well—it depends on what you mean by discovering it doesn't, I guess, since you might stick with it—but I only mention this by way of drawing a contrast, namely that were I to discover that Andy Goldsworthy, for instance, thought of his works as vehicles of thesis-affirmation or as embodying any particular meaning at all (and it wouldn't always be implausible to make this supposition—uninteresting stuff about transience), they would become, despite there having been no change in their sensuous qualities, extremely uninteresting to me. Upon discovering that they had been made with this purpose the more plainly nonsemantic aesthetic pleasures I derive from them would be contaminated in a way that, I suspect, I could not get rid of or easily put from my mind. (This suggests looking to see if Danto has written about Goldsworthy in his capacity as art critic, actually.)
(d) On the other hand it's hardly strange that someone so committed to the legitimacy and relevance of performance and conceptual art would end up making such a claim, because, well, what else have they got going for them. Whereas I—did you guess it?—tend to take a much more dismissive attitude to such things, not being sure in the first place how one affirms theses by means of a block of chocolate (separate from the stage-setting provided by, for instance, an artist's statement, since if those are admitted it is not always clear why anything else, such as the putative artwork itself, is necessary), or, really, why anyone would think that what artists do is articulate and get across theses. How, uh, boring it would be were that the case. (I suppose to some extent I agree with Sepp's horrifying visage.) And, one would like to think, how curiously inefficient an institution art would be, anyway, since I take it that Danto does not think that what an artwork communicates to the viewer is something nondiscursive. If the object is an artwork solely in virtue of its having some meaning, then it is (when appreciated as artwork, that is, not in virtue of its merely aesthetic qualities which an indiscernible counterpart might share) something that can be cast aside once its meaning is discerned, and that meaning isn't even occult! How strange. (Danto claims not to neglect the material dimension insofar as his work is an attempt to show how the meaning is "inscribed" in the objects, but, again, I don't see how this trick is turned. (God knows a literal inscription would also be present in the indiscernible chaff.))
I am also surprised to see Danto endorse someone's claim that there has always been abstract art, though it didn't always know itself as such. No! Read yer Wölfflin! All things: not possible at all times! (Ok, it doesn't follow immediately that this thing wasn't possible in ancient Egypt, but, you know, it's pretty plausible.)