In his paper "The Art World Revisited" Arthur Danto writes:

The thesis which emerged from my book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace is that works of art are symbolic expressions, and that they embody their meanings. The task of criticism is to identify the meanings and explain the mode of their embodiment. So construed, criticism is just the discourse of reasons, participation in which defines the art world of the Institutional Theory of Art: to see something as art is to be ready to interpret it in terms of what and how it means.

If one painting is art and the other non-art how might Danto's idea of meaning help if at all explain this difference between the art and the non-art? Is "meaning" according to Danto something perceptual or visible in the object or is it something invisible?

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    See Arthur Danto: the Artworld: "Danto laid the groundwork for an institutional definition of art.... After about 2005, Danto attempted to streamline his definition of art down to two principles: (i) art must have content or meaning and (ii) the art must embody that meaning in some appropriate manner." Aug 25, 2020 at 8:14
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    Thus, in a nutshell, art is not only "aesthetic pleasure"; it has meaning. The way it "expresses" the meaning (compared to other modes of expression), i.e. the "embodiement" of meaning, is what is peculiar of art. Aug 25, 2020 at 8:17
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    This is somewhat speculative: Gaugin and van Gogh were friends, but they argued furiously about what constitutes 'serious' work in art. Gaugin did not understand what his friend's 'intention' was. Until finally he realized that van Gogh was 'embodying ' n paint how and what he experienced of the world. Van Gogh could 'see' the essence, being, and substance of his world of experience. That's what drove him mad. He lived in a type of dreamscapes at all times. What he 'embodied' or brought to life was his uniquely unfiltered world view.
    – user37981
    Aug 25, 2020 at 19:07

1 Answer 1


I am not familiar with Danto's work specifically, and therefore I don't know whether he was trying to distinguish between art and non-art, although I suspect that he would say that stating that a painting is not art is an oxymoron. But to me, from this quotation, he seems to be saying that there is no such thing as a meaningless work of art, and that its meanings are expressed symbolically, not literally, through the forms, shapes, colours, lines, marks, or whatever, comprising the object [we may find the Grand Canyon beautiful, but it is not a symbolic artefact; a picture of the Grand Canyon may express our feelings about it, but it does so symbolically, since is not the Grand Canyon itself, but a set of coloured splodges on a flat surface]. These meanings are entirely encapsulated within the work, often in a set of symbolic codes that may or may not be consciously placed there by the maker, and may or may not include contextual factors, but nonetheless are limited by the object, which is conceived of as a passive receiver and transmitter of these meanings. In other words, our task as critics is to unpack and interpret this finite set of meanings (implicitly including the 'invisible', or at least the obscure, or not immediately obvious, or requiring specialised knowledge to detect). Thus "criticism is just the discourse of reasons".

There are a number of objections to this approach. Some examples:

(1) Material culture theory argues that meanings are (also) embodied in the uses to which an object is put, or in the perceived purposes of the object at any one time in any culture, which may have nothing to do with the symbolic expression of its makers' ideas, or the culture that produced it; for example, the 'Mona Lisa' can be understood as a prime focus of an economically crucial international activity, tourism, and of a whole lot of other things peculiar to our time that could not have been anticipated in the early 16th century, rather more than as a portrait of a long-dead Florentine called Lisa Gioconda.

(2) The concept of 'agency' argues that the work is a receiver of meanings, but is not passive. For example, once made, it may encourage of itself the creation of other similar objects, or even classes of objects, that would not otherwise have existed; or the particular visualisation of something may have an unanticipated impact on the understanding, or misunderstanding, of a phenomenon. And so forth.

In other words, once made, an object seems to have a life of its own, and continues to receive and transmit all sorts of meanings. So perhaps Danto is right to say we must be "ready to interpret it in terms of what and how it means", but wrong to suppose we can ever fully do so, since these meanings will continue to accrue as long as the object exists (and probably afterwards too), and wrong to suppose these meanings are entirely embodied by the object — if that is what he is arguing: to repeat, I am responding only to this question, not generally attacking a theorist whose work I have not studied!

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