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What Art Is

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  570 ratings  ·  63 reviews
What is it to be a work of art? Renowned author and critic Arthur C. Danto addresses this fundamental, complex question. Part philosophical monograph and part memoiristic meditation, What Art Is challenges the popular interpretation that art is an indefinable concept, instead bringing to light the properties that constitute universal meaning. Danto argues that despite vari ...more
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published March 19th 2013 by Yale University Press (first published 2013)
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Average rating 3.73  · 
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"In my first book on the philosophy of art I thought that works of art are about something, and I decided that works of art accordingly have meaning. We infer meanings, or grasp meanings, but meanings are not at all material. I then thought that, unlike sentences with subjects and predicates, the meanings are embodied in the object that had them. I then declared that works of art are embodied meanings. [...] The art object embodies the meaning, or partially embodies it. [...] The artwork is a ma
Peter Tillman
Oct 14, 2019 rated it did not like it
A near-worthless series of essays on art by a dead Columbia philosopher. Danto appears to embody pretty much all that I dislike about New England classics professors, who use a lot of words to say nothing in particular. Skimmed only, but I think I gave Danto a fair chance. Yuck. Not for me!
Roderick Mcgillis
Mar 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
A good introduction to a discussion of art, what art is, its ontological status. I especially enjoyed Danto's discussion of Warhol and James Harvey, brillo boxes and Brillo Box, although he might have explored the question of meaning here in greater detail. Commercial Art means, but how does such meaning differ from the meaning of so-called High Art? And just how many kinds of art might we identify, and how do they connect to meaning? And why, if meaning must be "embodied," does Formalism fail t ...more
Spyros Passas
Dec 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
A very economical, dense and compact book attempting to answer a notoriously difficult question. Danto starts by recapping the most common approaches in defining art (art as imitation, as aesthetic value, even as something that cannot -and does not need to- be defined), before proposing his own approach (Art as embodied meaning). After explaining his theory, he elaborates on how this affects the artwork restoration, the body in philosophy of art, how it distorts Kantian definitions and finally, ...more
Maxwell Foley
Dec 13, 2016 rated it did not like it
I picked up this book because I felt like I needed to familiarize myself more with the institutional discourse surrounding the arts rather than just entirely relying on my own idiosyncratic methods of analysis. This book, being very short and having a title which promises a sufficiently broad scope, was a good candidate. As it turns out, I think I may have some reason to prefer my own subjective opinions to that which passes for expertise and intellectual sophistication, at least in this specifi ...more
Camila Pedraza
Oct 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful and enchanting.

(view spoiler)
Mary Overton
Danto's dense, delightful book was, for me, a 4 month reading experience and crash course in art history. Every other page refers to an artist or philosopher, and I’d stop to look up the person, learn about him/her (alas, mostly him), see the art or read a bit of the writing.

My absolutely favorite newly discovered artist is Charles Simonds, who “made little clay dwellings in the cracks of building in what was going to be SoHo - which he insisted were occupied by ‘Little People.’” (34-5) Ever si
The Art Book Review
Jun 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
" We should not be content with making little amendments and comments on beauty and taste. Visual artists now have the opportunity to use any medium possible to weigh in on any subject and the only criteria is the depth and clarity by which that “embodied meaning,” as Danto calls it, reveals itself. This is liberating and scary. Artists are required to be better and viewers are required to be smarter."

--Ed Schad on Arthur C. Danto's "What Art Is" from Yale University Press

Read the full review he
Oct 11, 2016 rated it liked it
Though well written, the book seemed a bit random to me - someone who is interested in art history & theory, but was not aware of every theme developed in the book. It lacks a game of argument & contra-argument, and seemed a bit one-sided, more like a personal opinion rather than academic or analytic text. Without a wider context, I experienced the book as a middle of the conversation without knowing how it began or ended.

Made me google a lot, which is never a bad thing. Good reference for futur
Elliot Chalom
DNF. Chapter one was somewhat what I expected the book to be about. Gave up on chapter 2 midway through and same for chapter 3. Skimmed the rest and realized this wasn't what I was looking for. I won't blame Danto - maybe it's too advanced given my lack of art education. I was hoping this book would be a lot more accessible and less abstract. ...more
May 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
I am always amazed at how Danto manages to make even the most obscure topics interesting and occasionally even amusing. His writing proves that academic writing needn't be dry and monotonous. He provides (of whimsical, or at least intriguing/challenging) examples to support his theories which are in and of themselves intriguing and worth the time to consider. I always enjoy reading Danto's work because of his wide range of knowledge and his ability to integrate all of this knowledge in one cohes ...more
Feb 27, 2019 rated it liked it
As we know a lack of epistemology which runs forever causes ontological incompleteness in everything. So how you can take such a risk to define something (ART) through ontological arguments?! You can find that kind of "heroic" books in market easily. And of course, it is not simple to handle the question which starts with "ce que c'est ... ?"... ...more
Brandon Hall
Jun 11, 2018 rated it liked it
I am only interested in the fifth chapter, "Kant and the Work of Art." The fifth chapter is as a shaken soda bottle that's opened and left alone, full of drama and substance in the beginning but embarrassingly flat at the end. ...more
Mar 23, 2020 rated it liked it
More of an essay collection than a single argument with a sustained thesis. I was hoping for the latter—a comprehensive argument for an essential definition of "art." So I was a little disappointed. Still, the first essay—"Wakeful Dreams"—was beautiful and worth reading. ...more
Nov 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Danto brings a different angle to discussions on art and philosophy, in that he was a practicing artist before he turned his considerable talents to philosophy and aesthetics. I love his questioning and eloquent style.
Rachel Loy
Apr 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Answered my curiosity of what art is and how it could possibly be defined and interpreted.
Erika Mulvenna
Jul 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
I enjoyed this book and the author's point of view on modern art. Easy to read and lots of clear examples from history to support his ideas. ...more
Oct 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don’t think he answered the question very well at all. But the rest of the book was quite interesting.
Sam Gilliland
Nov 04, 2020 rated it it was ok
I appreciated the essay about photography vis-a-vis painting and the flattening of space.
Dec 30, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wasn't the best for reading pleasure but included very interesting material regarding perspectives of art. Easy to read. ...more
Deb Oestreicher
Oct 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very interesting philosophical discussion of what art is, which takes you on a little tour of art history along the way. Danto's main points, that art is the embodiment of meaning, and that aesthetic value is not necessarily pertinent, are persuasively argued. Detailed discussions of Warhol and other artists are also compelling. A brief and thought-provoking volume. ...more
Henri Tournyol du Clos
Nov 02, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: art
It starts well but gets bogged down in its contradictions fairly soon.
Oct 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
My daughter saw this book on the counter and said, “Everyone knows what art is” and when my wife asked, “Okay, what do you think art is?” Without a pause she said that everything is art. She rapidly pointed to several objects saying “this is art”: the book cover, then the counter top, the silver bar spoon, and finally her foot! Danto addresses this particular view on page 26:

"Where are the boundaries of art? What distinguishes art from anything else, if anything can be art? We are left with the
Commander Law
Well that took a while.

Not a light read.

So there's not a definitive answer.

Ideas to ponder though.
Dec 13, 2015 rated it liked it
I enjoyed reading the brief descriptions of artistic movements and about the upheaval photography caused in the art world. That being said, I don't think I was in a position to enjoy much else. Having read very little philosophy the numerous philosophers and theories the author mentions felt tedious. Someone with a better philosophical base would probably enjoy this book despite some oddly structured crucial sentences. I could've done with more history and connections between movements and the p ...more
River Moluf
Oct 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
The title of this book caught my eyes because I have been thinking of for a really long time about what art really is and couldn't find the answer. One of the two definitions that the author gave to set the basis of art is "embodiment of meaning". I still have questions about it: what is meaning? What kind of meaning is valued as meaning from the perspective of art. It would be wonderful if the book can answer these questions, which I think are very important to define art more profoundly. I'm s ...more
Jan 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
Danto philosophically derives what I felt all the time, namely that art is about meaning and not about beauty nor skill. "... works of art are embodied meanings." If art without beauty or skill is any good, seems to be outside the philosophical dispute, which is a position that I can live with. The book, in any case, is a fascinating read, and gave me a few new thoughts. Incidentally, the most interesting part of it, in my view, is the discussion on the Sistine Chapel, which seems to somehow dig ...more
Muath Aziz
A philosophy of art book. As history of art, I enjoyed it especially the history-focused first chapter. As for philosophy and theory, it's boring! It doesn't really answer the question.

Nonetheless, it's informative and thought-provoking and sets the conversation on on what art is. After reading the book we had many fruitful discussions on the topic, my friends and I.
Jun 19, 2013 added it
Shelves: 2013
the tl;dr: "Something is a work of art when it is [sic?] has a meaning--is about something--and when that meaning is embodied in the work--which usually means: is embodied in the object in which the work of art materially consists."

Jan 01, 2015 rated it liked it
The first long chapter was interesting and helpful, but some of the others which seemed a bit tacked together were less meaningful to me. In the end, however, it did give me some added understanding of the perplexing world of contemporary art.
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Arthur C. Danto was Johnsonian Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation. He was the author of numerous books, including Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life, After the End of Art, and Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective.

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