Research - Danto - Short Note / by Ally McGinn

Danto is an extremely influential figure, I've read a few of his books. What I would normally be tempted to do here is write a few thousand words on him, his works and the implications of those works to my field. However, my list of potential blog posts is growing. So for now, as a place setting for a potentially longer text later.

Philosopher and critic Arthur Danto suggested a thinking test that is very useful in understanding the importance of context and concept in the understanding of art.

Imagine there are four seemingly identical paintings on the wall, all painted in the same, flat, red. Each is done by a different artist, but there are no real discernable visual differences between the work. However, the origins and context of each are vastly different; (1) one is a close-up painting of a red tablecloth, (2) one is a painting representing the Red Sea after the Israelites had crossed, (3) one is a pun on the communist flag, and (4) the final one is an unfinished painting that was included for it's similarities to the others, but had crucially never had the moment of nomination as art.

Each has art historical precedent, and in ’Transfiguration of the Commonplace’, where this analogy can be found, Danto describes some of the links that might be at play here. However, the links and reasons each artist chose to create their red painting are not as important as the comparison between them. (Danto, 1981)

These paintings now become vastly different simply because we understand more about them. This thought experiment serves to highlight the ontological reality of art.


I've discussed Danto in my post about Andy Warhol, but I will add one point here; Danto is also responsible for a term I have used liberally throughout this blog, and that my grammar checker hates, the ‘Artworld’ the title of an essay by Danto after he visited the Andy Warhol exhibition of ‘Brillo Boxes’. To Danto, these boxes represented ‘the end of art’ which, rather than being a sign that art was dead, was the mark of the moment when art became anything. The important factor, to Danto, was the ‘Artworld’, the theories surrounding art and it's history, that allowed anything to be considered as art. It's historical perspective. (Danto, 1964)

''Given two things that resemble one another to any chosen degree, but one of them a work of art and the other an ordinary object, what accounts for this difference in status?'' (Danto, 1981) It is the artworld that allows two seemingly indiscernible objects to have such disparate meaning and value.

This term has been incredibly useful for me, and part of my lexicon, but I tend to forget that it's meaning isn't common knowledge, although interestingly the meaning can be understood without knowing about Danto and his epiphany.


Danto is a prominent art critic, writing about numerous artists and exhibitions. In a text about Jasper Johns flag paintings, which I recently saw at the Royal Academy, Danto described them as ‘reverse readymades’, a term coined by Duchamp, which describes works of art that become the everyday. (Danto, 2001)


Danto, A C. (1998) Beyond the Brillo Box: The visual arts in post-historical perspective. California: The University of California press.

Danto, A C. (1964) ‘The Artworld’. The Journal of Philosophy, Volume (61): Pages 571-584.

Danto, A C. (2001) The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World. London: University of California Press.

Danto, A C. (1981) Transfiguration of the Commonplace. London: Harvard University Press.