Works of Art &
Mere Real Things



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 . . . Johns, on the other hand, brought the revolution full circle when he made his American flag in 1954, and now historic Ballantine Ale cans in 1960 . . . 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 his like it points out

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.