Works of Art &
Mere Real Things



But is this news? Or how new is this? Plato's censorship of the arts and poetry was based on a theory of mimesis - so not so much as a way of creating representations of the world and the objects in it, but of presenting the objects again in the mimesis of them. 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 example, of Nikolas Murray's photograph, Babe Ruth.

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 and you may just 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).

If a bed can be seen as getting "into" the art and Babe Ruth can be seen as getting into the picture and a brillo box can be seen as getting into the Stable Gallery, what object cannot? Or is this the wrong way to go about putting the question? Perhaps one should ask "what has to be done to this or that thing to transform it into a work of art?"

"Everybody wants to get into the act."
- - Jimmy Durante

In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace Danto tries 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. 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.

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-objects in terms of how art-objects look, in terms of its features.

What distinguishes the art-work from "a mere real thing" for Danto are several conditions that the art-work meets and that its counterpart in the super market 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 tables and chairs, they lack aboutness. Works of art (art onjects) are like beliefs. They are belief-like, not table-like. They are sbout something.