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What Is the End of Art?”

How many times in contemporary art museums we hear the question: “is this art?” or the statement: “my six-year-old kid could have done this!” Actually, these observations are not as trivial as they sound.


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How many times in contemporary art museums we hear the question: “is this art?” or the statement: “my six-year-old kid could have done this!” Actually, these observations are not as trivial as they sound. These people have a point, something has actually changed in art. As the art philosopher Arthur Danto explained in his essay After the End of Art art ended when it became aware of its philosophical nature. This means that looking at the physical appearance of an object is no longer enough to understand if it is art or not. Art has entered the philosophical domain, which maybe made it lose its immediacy.  However, even if art is over, it does not mean it has been annihilated. It just means it has changed.


Almost ten years before Danto, another eminent art historian, Hans Belting, examined the theme of the end of art. Although both of them use the term “end,” this is not meant to be a caustic judgment. What both of them have tried to explain is that art is not dead; what is over is a certain narrative, a certain development that had previously characterized the history of art. Art history, as the 16th century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari thought it, was conceived in terms of a growing adherence to the outer reality. What is over now, then, is the story of this kind of evolution, even though the protagonist of such story – art – is still alive. It is like saying that our favorite TV series has finished after six seasons, but the main actor is still alive and is now acting in another series.


The first step towards art’s philosophical self- awareness was taken during Modernism, in the second half of the 19th century. With the diffusion of photography and cinema, painting did no longer aim at imitating reality. Rather, its new objective became that of differentiating itself from these new technological means of representation. The only way to accomplish this was by highlighting painting’s own nature, instead of hiding it, and this led to flat surfaces, thick color, and evident brushstrokes. Manet and Impressionist painters were the first to adopt such approach. They did not give up on reality, clearly. What they abandoned was pictorial illusion. This process of self-criticism and self-reflection initiated the end of art’s old narrative.


Éduard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Parigi, Musée d'Orsay. Concessione del museo. Sopra: Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1928-1964.

Éduard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Courtesy of the museum. Above: Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1928-1964. Courtesy of the artist.


Artists became more and more concerned with art’s materiality. The outer reality literally stepped into their canvases. Picasso’s collages, for instance, were made using newspaper fragments and included into the artistic domain what was previously excluded, namely common objects. From this moment on, artists started to acquire full power while the form was losing its predominance. The next step was taking objects as they were, putting the artist’s signature on them, and turning them into art. This is what Duchamp did, with his Fountain, a urinal that he took as it was, except that he changed its orientation, and gave it a title that completely changed its identity. What was important, in this case, was not the artist manual skills, but the idea, the concept he wanted to express.


In such circumstances, but maybe already with Picasso’s and the Cubist multifaceted figures, the audience started to wonder what was going on with the art they had loved for so long. That was just the start of a shocking practice that not only turned concrete objects into art works but also started to imitate those mass-produced items that everyone could find on the supermarkets’ shelves. We can only imagine how puzzling it could have been for the 1960’s audience to deal with Warhol‘s Brillo boxes or to enter Oldenburg‘s Store.


oldemburg store

Claes Oldenburg, The Store, 1961. Courtesy of the artist.


The kind of art we are confronting nowadays is a direct product of these changes. It is not relevant whether these changes are an evolution or just an involution of art. As the sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann explained, art operates in its own domain, which is completely independent from the systems “society” and “psyche,” and has the function to express the clash between these two. Being independent, art has to find its own way to survive, which consists in working with the paradox of a continuous self-denial. Any time a provocation fails to affect the audience, art has to renew itself, and it does so by including in its domain what was previously excluded. The result, as Luhmann put it, is that “why a work of art is a work of art remains a mystery, as if this mystery were meant to symbolize the unobservability of the world.” Art survives by concentrating on its philosophical identity. That means that what is dead is not art in and of itself, but rather, as the German sociologist asserts, academic aesthetics. 

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