Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Spring 2010
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 113B

Painting, Photography & Film

Professor Andreas Teuber
Andreas Teuber


"Works of Art and
Mere Real Things"
"This Is Not A Pipe"

When Arthur Danto wrote The Transfiguration of the Commonplace he was, as he himself would be the first to admit, "possessed with the history of art as a philosophical problem." The question, for him, was "why works of art form a kind of history of themselves?"- quite apart from the fact that they were obviously made in some sort of temporal sequence, abstract expressionism in the 1950's, Pop art in the 60's, etc.

Of course, this is exactly what Gombrich sets out to do in Art and Illusion, to answer the question, put in almost Hegelian fashion: how is a history of art possible? And Gombrich (surprise, surprise) has an answer, but Gombrich's answer is not applicable to the whole sweep of the history of art. It's only good for a stretch of it, from the early Renaissance period through French Impressionism where the theory starts to break up or break down. Gombrich's answer is an answer to a limited version of that history. Art and Illusion answers the question: how is a history of representational art possible? This in itself is no small feat, but what are we to make of so much of modern art where the works are "made to exist as objects without depicting or resembling any other object?" To Harold Rosenberg the work of art in the twentieth century became more and more "a thing added to the world of things rather than a reflection of things that already exist."

Suzi Gablik sees "the creation of two separate works" as "the turning point in this crisis of symbol and object: Robert Rauschenberg's The Bed and Jasper John's Flag '54 . . . unexpectedly contract aesthetic experience by eliminating the separation between the real object and that which represents it."

Rauschenberg hung an actual bed, encrusted with paint, on the wall, instead of painting the image of a bed on a canvas . . .


Jasper Johns, on the other hand, brought the revolution full circle when he made his American flag in 1954 . . .


. . . the physical character of the flag as an object is asserted, even though it is painted. The important thing is that it is not a painting of a flag; the work is looked at rather than into."

And Robert Morris commenting on Johns' Ballantine Ale cans (Painted Bronze, 1960)


. . . and other works of Jasper Johns like the ale cans remarked . . .

Johns took painting further toward a state of non-depiction than anyone else . . . That is, these works were not depictions according to past terms which had, without exception, operated within the figure-ground duality of representation. Johns took the background out of painting and isolated the thing. The background became the wall. What was previously neutral became actual, while what was previously an image became a thing.

But is this news? Or how new is this?

Plato's censorship of the arts and poetry was based on a theory of mimesis as not so much a matter of creating representations of the world and the objects in it in a separate and external way, but of presenting the subject again, of the subject' s being present again in the mimesis of it.

Or think of photography which is sometimes charged with precipitating the whole crisis by removing the need for modern painting to create likenesses.

Think, for an example, of Nickolas Murray's photograph, Babe Ruth, and ask yourself whether or not Babe Ruth is "in" the picture or whether you are looking at him or "into" a picture of him

Babe Ruth

You may, just may begin to rethink the role photography played in the historical evolution of Rauschenberg's Bed (1955), Johns' American Flag (1954) and Painted Bronze (1960) and Andy Warhol's Brillo Box (1964).

Or take Gombrich's use of a photo of an African rhinoceros on page 81 of ART AND ILLUSION to show how us how a rhinoceros really looks. What's that in the photo if not a rhinoceros?

Durer Woodcut, 1515:


Schulthess photograph, 1959:


If a bed can be seen as getting "into" the art and Babe Ruth and a rhinoceros can be seen as getting into the picture and a brillo box can be seen as getting into the Sable Gallery in New York in 1964, what object cannot get in(to) the art? I am reminded of Jimmy Durante's line: "everybody wants to get into the act". Perhaps this is the wrong way to go about thinking about "the thing." Danto appears to approach the question from another direction. He wonders "what was done to this or that object to transform it into a work of art?"

In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace he seeks to find a way to mark the difference between mere real things and works of art, between Andy Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" and their commonplace, everyday counterparts in supermarkets as well as to understand why Warhol's "Brillo Boxes" are works of art while the supermarket ones are not.

Magritte 1

In sorting this business out, Danto finds himself exploring the differences, if differences there be, between works of art and mere real things, and later, between works of art and mere representations.

Danto "sees" the problem of contemporary aesthetics as follows: since we know that some things are not works of art, the philosophical problem is to explain the difference. And this problem becomes especially intractable when the art-object looks, in all its particulars, like an object that is not a work of art.

Magritte 1

To quote Danto, "a work such as Brillo Box cannot obviously be distinguished, on formalist grounds, from the ordinary object it resembles: a photograph of Warhol among his boxes looks just like a photograph of a stock boy among the cartons in the stockroom." In other words, we cannot define art in terms of how things look.

What distinguishes the art-work from "a mere real thing" for Danto are several criteria that the art-work has and that its counterpart that it looks like does not have: "an artwork must have content, that is, it must possess aboutness and it must embody that content." Of course, brillo boxes have content; they contain soap pads, so we need a larger story to understand fully what Danto is claiming.

The grammar of the prepositional phrase by itself does not mark the difference, although Danto gives his answer in such a way that mere real things, such as brillo boxes, are (really) not about anything at all. Like ordinary tables, chairs, beds and pipes, they lack aboutness. This, however, cannot turn out to be true of the art object. Or can it?


Of course, there is a sense or respect in which brillo boxes are about something. But if they can be said to be about something, they are not about what an art work is about. The design of a bottle of Coca-Cola announces its contents, as literally, a soft drink. The outside of a brillo box on sale at the supermarket promotes its contents, as literally, soap pads.

But, as Danto wants us to think, "one may be certain that this is not what Andy Warhol's Brillo Box is about."

It has been said that "the work of a small number of exceptional individuals can always be found to anticipate the problems that will preoccupy successive generations."

Picasso, shortly after the turn of the last century, already worked to upset the assumption of a painting as a "window on reality" by pasting pieces of real newspapers into his Cubist paintings. He claimed that he was merely seeking to replace the very idea of trompe l'oeil ("fooling the eye") with, in his words, trompe l'esprit ("fooling the mind"). Through the pasting of pieces of newspaper into the paintings, "reality was introduced into the work." Picasso: "Reality was in the painting."

It has also been said: "Magritte was such a precursor."

What does it mean to write across a painting of a pipe "This is not a pipe"? Does Magritte's painting harbor a view about the difference between works of art and mere real things?

Magritte 1

In puzzling, ruminating, thinking about what it might mean, you may wish to make use of a short essay written by Magritte in 1929 which he called, simply enough, Les Mots et Les Images (Words and Images). You can find English translations online by clicking HERE.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe was painted in 1926.

The other painting was painted in 1966; Magritte called it Les Deux Mysteres. See also Foucault's This Is Not A Pipe for images of the two paintings.

Magritte 1

Danto's effort to distinguish works of art from mere real things and from mere representations may suggest ways to think about Ceci N'est Pas une Pipe and Les Deux Mysteres, may give you some ideas.

Michel Foucault puzzles about some of these questions in his little book This Is Not A Pipe which also contains an exchange of letters between Foucault and Magritte as well as some more Magritte paintings. You may find Foucault's book helpful. Does Foucault help to reveal or obscure what Magritte is up to? What do you think?

Then there is Gombrich and his history of art and what he has to say in ART AND ILLUSION. Magritte's paintings may call Gombrich's sense of what art's about into question or, again, at the very least cast a shadow over his inclination, Gombrich's inclination, to see aesthetics as "concerned with the problem of convincing representation, the problem of illusion in art " In Gombrich, too, perhaps, one might find ammunition, reflections, ideas that help one come to grips with what Magritte's paintings are about. Then again it may not. What do you think? Do Magritte's paintings fit easily or uneasily into Gombrich's analysis of art and illusion? Can they be made to fit? Or do they serve as an implicit criticisms of Gombrich's account of pictorial representation?

Again, what do you think? Do Gombrich's "readings" of painting reveal or obscure what Magritte may be up to?

And then there is Goodman and Goodman's WAYS OF WORLDMAKING which at first glance appears to call Gombrich's view into question by shaking it at the foundations. What might Goodman say of the Magritte or how might Goodman be used, if at all, to illuminate Magritte's paintings?

In Ways of Worldmaking Goodman suggests that we make worlds. Among the worlds we make are the worlds of science and the worlds of art. Goodman is a world-pluralist. Many versions, hence many worlds - all "of independent interest and importance, without any requirement or presumption of reducibility to a single base." Goodman's recipe may make the Magritte more palatable. Then again it may not. Indeed, Magritte may have a thing or two to "say" to Goodman. What do you think? Does Goodman's view of art and worldmaking obscure or reveal what's going on within the pictorial spaces of the Magritte?

Drawing on Danto, Foucault, Gombrich and Goodman, what do you think is the difference between a work of art and a mere real thing, between a pipe and Magritte's painting of a pipe?

Again: what does it mean to write across a painting of a pipe "This is not a pipe"?

Magritte 1

Is there a way to interpret the painting so that its apparent paradoxical character can be made to disappear? Or perhaps it is not paradoxical? What do you think?

* * *


What might Elaine Scarry in On Beauty and Being Just and Cynthia Freeland in But Is It Art? have to say, have to tell us in answer to this question: "what's the difference between a work of art and a mere real thing?"

Scarry intimates, perhaps more than intimates that works of art move us in certain ways, strike us in ways that can be said to matter. What way is that? Is she onto something? What do you think? Freeland emphasizes the diversity on theories of art and yet she seems to resist throwing up her hands and "declaring art is indefinable." She appears to have a view.

What precisely is Scarry's view on what makes something a work of art as opposed to a mere real thing? What is Freeland's?

Do you agree or disagree with Scarry and/or Freeland? If so, why? If not, why not?




Send comments to: Andreas Teuber
Last Modified: 04/30/10
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