Andy Warhol in 1964. Photo by Mario De Biasi/Mondadori/Getty
Ever since Hegel, artists and critics alike have been claiming that art is finished. But what could that actually mean?
There are more artworks, and more types of artwork, being produced than ever before. Galleries are widespread and – in some countries – free. Major art prizes, and major artists, receive frequent press attention. With all this abundance, it seems nonsensical to suggest that art had ended. It’s not clear that the claim even makes sense – how could art come to an end?
But this idea is not as obviously wrong as it seems. Talented and insightful philosophers of art have taken this claim quite seriously, even while acknowledging that artworks will continue to be produced in larger numbers, and in new and exciting ways. When these philosophers claim that art has ended, they are not saying that there will be no new artworks. Their claim is quite different. They are telling us that art has some kind of goal, or line of development, which has been completed; plenty more will happen in art, but there is nothing left to achieve. Just as Francis Fukuyama claimed in 1989 that history had ended – meaning not that nothing more would ever happen, only that all ‘viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism’ had been exhausted – so too some philosophers claim that art as a practice will continue, but has no more ways of progressing. Two of the more prominent philosophers to have made this sort of argument were G W F Hegel in the early 19th century, and Arthur Danto in the late 20th century.
Hegel was, in many ways, the father of what we now call the history of art. He gave one of the earliest and most ambitious accounts of art’s development, and its importance in shaping and reflecting our common culture. He traced its beginnings in the ‘symbolic art’ of early cultures and their religious art, admired the clarity and unity of the ‘classical’ art of Greece, and followed its development through to modern, ‘romantic’ art, best typified, he claimed, in poetry. Art had not just gone through a series of random changes: in his view, it had developed. Art was one of the many ways in which humanity was improving its understanding of its own freedom, and improving its understanding of its relationship to the world. But this was not all good news. Art had gone as far as it could go and stalled; it could, according to Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1835), progress no further:
the conditions of our present time are not favourable to art […] art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.
In 1835, Hegel claimed that art had ended. Almost exactly 10 years later, the German composer Richard Wagner premiered Tannhäuser in Dresden, the first of his great operas; the beginning in earnest of a career that would change musical composition forever. Less than a century after Hegel’s claim, the visual arts saw the onset of Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Fauvism, among other movements, and literature, poetry and architecture were deeply changed by Modernism.
In 1964, Danto attended an exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York. He came across Andy Warhol’s artwork Brillo Boxes (1964) – a visually unassuming, highly realistic collection of plywood replicas of the cardboard boxes in which Brillo cleaning products were shipped. Danto left the exhibition dumbstruck. Art, he was convinced, had ended. One could not tell the artworks apart from the real shipping containers they were aping. One required something else, something outside the artwork itself, to explain why Warhol’s Brillo Boxes were art, and Brillo boxes in the dry goods store were not. Art’s progress was over, Danto felt; and the reign of art theory had begun.
We could ask ourselves whether these claims were false – but a better question is, what would it mean for these claims to be true? What do philosophers mean when they say art has or will come to an end? Is it just hyperbole? And why does art keep ending, for philosophers, while the rest of us see it carrying on, taking new directions?…