The Ontology of Objects:
How can Arthur C. Danto’s ‘Transfiguration of the Commonplace’ aid us in the interpretation of artworks?
13th January 2017
As artists it is important to define the boundaries of what it is that we are contributing, not only to the art world but also to the world at large. The works of people such as Marcel Duchamp and the frequent dismissal of the pieces, by the public are perfect demonstrations of why we as artists should be challenging the viewer as well as the art institutions. It has been one hundred years since the submission of Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ 1917 to the ‘American Society of Independent Artists’, which he himself aided the founding of, and we still haven’t settled the argument of whether or not it is in fact an artwork. With other works, like Roger Hiorns’ ‘Seizure’ 2008, that border with science (due to the nature of it’s material manifestation) and operate in a similar sphere of everyday objects, the opinion of the viewer as to whether or not is an artwork differs greatly; implying that it is the spectacle which creates the artwork.
In this essay I will outline what I identify to be a shift in the relationship between the public’s understanding and appreciation of art and the ways in which artists simultaneously confirm these perceptions and challenge them. Using the writings of Arthur Danto as a starting point for an analysis of Institutional Theory and critique of both the artist and the viewers’ relationship to the art world; and Duchamp’s urinal, I will expand on the views often surrounding the piece and look closer at what happens when viewers are confronted with what appears to be an empty work.
Through a reading of Danto’s essay ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’ it is possible to ascertain that the core pieces of our understanding of artworks and the realms in which they reside can be broken down into three, increasingly overlapping, elements. The parts that make up our understanding of art sprawl broadly across the physical, mental and purely intangible planes of our everyday living, beginning with objects in their own physical rights, moving through to art as a discernable language, which naturally brings us to belief systems which find their ontological existence within the boundaries set by language, existence itself and how artworks as objects both define and defy their own logical existence within the art world’s domain.
Objects – The thingness of things.
Arthur C. Danto opens his essay by introducing a hypothetical painting, which consists of nothing more than a square of primed canvas. He goes on to broach the subject from three different angles, but maintaining the same subject matter of emptiness. He clearly demonstrates using this metaphor that there is a discernable difference between a thing that is about nothing, a thing that isn’t about anything and one because it is only a thing, is “neither about nothing nor about anything.”
The semantic complications of this can be simplified with the example of Joseph Kosuth’s ‘One and Three Chairs’ (1945) whereby he demonstrates three separate representations of the same object. From left to right in the installation beginning with a photographic wall-mounted picture of the chair, representing the object as image, the chair itself centre-stage in the installation demonstrating the object as object and the final being an also wall-mounted print of the dictionary definition of a chair, showing the linguistic value of the chair and it’s existence being contributed to the linguistic creation of the object.
While a whole piece of text could be written of Kosuth’s piece, I find the work a somewhat clumsy attempt to set about explaining what has already been said previously by Duchamp and since by Danto. The major failing of ‘One and Three Chairs’ being that it’s very inception negates the objectness of the chair itself, thus transforming the chair from object to artwork.
Let us look back to 1917 and Duchamp’s submission of ‘R. Mutt’s’ piece ‘Fountain’. The unmistakable urinal found its inception during a conversation between Duchamp, Walter Arensberg and Joseph Stella, with “the idea of making an experiment concerned with taste”. The fact that a urinal was selected as an object perceived as being tasteless reconfirms the fact that he was already confident of the outcome.
While I don’t want to dwell too much on the facts surrounding the early history of the work I will labour to point out that some time shortly after the piece was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz circa April 1917, the urinal had gone missing. The history of ‘Fountain’ is shrouded in mystery with most accounts of its whereabouts and even fabrication being found only in correspondences between the artist and friends. It wasn’t actually until 1964 when Galleria Schwartz manufactured an edition of eight replicas, which, working closely with Duchamp and working from the prior Stieglitz photograph, produced the reproductions with the ‘original’ R. Mutt signature as well as a copper etched version of Duchamp’s own signature on the underside.
What we have here is three different objects all representing ‘Fountain’. While each is different in their manifest, the quality of their indiscernibility is not a matter of argument as each of the three is unmistakably Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. I will begin by identifying the three manifestations of the piece by referring to the ‘original’ 1917 sculpture as ‘A’, Stieglitz’s 1917 photograph as ‘B’ and the 1964 reproduction as ‘C’. This hopefully will reduce complications and form something of a formula.
In ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’ when Danto writes of the three types of manifestation in reference to his hypothetical painting he indicates that we are left with an object ‘A’, a thing about the object ‘B’ and a thing representing the object as an idea ‘C’. When applying this to Duchamp’s piece we are left with something of a paradox as the first instance, which set out to prove it’s own worth as tasteless object, has retroactively come to criticise the future reproduction of itself. So as the timeline of the piece states that A becomes B and B becomes C, the very concept of A as we understand it, is created by C and simultaneously rejected by its former manifestation. Because of the existence of the reproduction, A is no longer an object but an idea, primarily due to its being lost or destroyed and is thus without a physical embodiment so becomes C.
This causes problems for the modern viewer on a level shared with the initial reactions to the submission of the work in 1917. While the intention of the artist was to submit a work with no obvious content, the content itself was created by the very submission of the work and solely due to this, causing the viewer to have to work harder than the piece for its justification as an artwork. This is an issue that modern viewers are concerned with in regards to the reproduction as much as the initial viewers were with the original.
So with this information what we are left with is a discussion regarding an object’s right to being defined as an artwork and the complicated task of discerning between object as an artwork and object as merely an object.
Danto speaks heavily on this topic within his essay and poses:
“To settle the matter of their differentiation, accordingly, we must go outside the objects and into the atmosphere of their ontological status”
To do this, we have to forget about how the object came to be and attempt to analyse its affects on the audience’s interpretation. With an object that does not ask to be read as an artwork while attempting to pose as one there has to be cues for the viewer that lend themselves towards a truth (the truth in this instance is whether or not it is an artwork).
These cues can come in many forms, but in the instance of ‘A’ we know that the gallery formed a staging for the artwork thus proving to the viewers that what they were seeing was not an ordinary object but an object that appears ordinary and must have a sort of inaccessible content. The process of transfiguration that happens here can be likened to that of alchemy, in so far as the art world, continually proves to audiences that it has the innate ability to transform the quotidian into the sublime; without an obvious hint at how, which can quite rightly anger the outsider.
A perfect example of how this alchemic transfiguration takes place is shown in Wittgenstein’s game of chess demonstrated in the form a conversation between two people by Joachim Schulte:
“Rodolfo: Do Adelheid and the Bishop play a real game of chess?
Valentino: Of course. They are not merely pretending – which would also be possible as part of the play.
Rodolfo: But, for example, the game has no beginning!
Valentino: Of course it has; otherwise it would not be a game of chess.”
The first thing that we can see from this interaction is that the stage distances anything occurring from the reality of the viewer. For example, a person reading a book on stage can be assumed to not really be reading, but acting as somebody reading. While the book itself could easily be a real book, and more than likely is as it would not be necessary to have a mock-book, it is not operating as a book but as a prop to aid the illusion of the scene. The same can be applied to our object ‘A’, where we know that the object was store-bought and mundane; there is no denying that it isn’t real. On the other hand, the staging of the object within an art context immediately draws one to the conclusion that it can’t be as simple as it seems to be and must therefore be a representation of something else. Thus removing it from its reality and placing it firmly in a scene of uncertainty.
Rodolfo here plays the part of the inquisitive viewer, believing that what they are seeing isn’t merely an object but a work of art. He is clearly picking up on the use of props and is noticing that ‘A’ has so far begun to become ‘C’ whereas Valentino is judging the object on face value, seeing that it has no meaning, because if it did then it wouldn’t be what it clearly is. To reference ‘Fountain’ again, if it was more than a store-bought urinal, say an artwork, then it wouldn’t be a urinal; which it obviously is.
The problem that I have with Valentino’s attitude is that he’s supposing that a thing cannot simultaneously be real and a representation of itself, as a representation implies that it isn’t real, again reinforcing what Danto has to say about the difficulty in discerning between artwork and object. The fact that the piece is titled ‘Fountain’ and not, rather, ‘Urinal’ suggests a further shift from object.
Titles and objects as language
Danto touches upon the use of titles within artwork and explains that the employ of titles within art is what we as human beings resort to when identifying differences between indiscernible objects. This puts forward a problem pertaining to linguistics more so than shear physicality and shows that it’s our use of language that helps us engage with our surroundings; demonstrating that meaning can differ greatly regardless of indiscernibility and that an object’s identification as a work of art is largely down to it’s relation to it’s own art-historical context. To quote Danto further:
“Mere things, in contrast with artworks, are unentitled to titles, even such churlish ones as ‘Untitled.’”
He uses this to illustrate the point that titles used within art are there to lend a sense of direction towards interpretation. Titles such as ‘Untitled’ can come about accidentally if work is submitted without one and so is given a title by default. For a title to aid in interpretation is to support the idea that the defining feature of an artwork is that it withholds the right to be interpreted. A phenomenon that Danto states is not shared with objects that are not art.
For an object to retain that right we must consider that if it is to be interpreted, then we can expect that it has a cause, and causality isn’t something that is usually expected from objects. We know that a shelf in our home is not going to move (unless unsafely fixed to the wall) and that our interactions with the object will be of a utilitarian nature. It does not cause us to act, but our desire to act has caused it to exist. It’s not until we have placed the shelf in the gallery that the object begins to take on a more causal role and the viewer begins to assess the importance of it as a thing deserving of attention.
Whether our shelf is put forward as an artwork within it’s own right or used as a means of displaying another work, it is still the owner of a causal effect. This is so due to the nature of the artwork. You could ask why the artwork is on the shelf instead of a plinth, or whether the shelf offers the piece that it supports a more domestic value, which in turn would bring us back around to the same argument owing to the shelf’s ability to objectify in the most literal sense, the artwork sat atop.
Again, this descriptive nature that art holds is something that doesn’t belong to objects not of the art world. A shelf holding a painting will describe the painting as an object, but only under the pretense of the art-historical context. It could be argued that the painting is a painting and the shelf just a means of ‘hanging’ the work, but regardless of this they are both still of the nature of interpretation and causality.
To use an alternative metaphor, a chair is not a chair because of the table; it is the user of the table whose desire to sit has caused the chair to be placed there. Neither item has a particular meaning to be interpreted but if we take the table and place it within an exhibition as an installation we are then left with something similar to Duchamp’s ready-mades. Without the chair, the piece is without identifiable narrative (although not devoid of a narrative), once we introduce the chair to the same installation, we have then also introduced a narrative whereby we can ascertain that the table and chair combination represent a domestic situation contrary to actually being a domestic situation.
Whereas our chair and table combination at home cannot represent or illustrate a reality because it is a reality, the artwork cousin, although indiscernible from the none-artwork version side-by-side, can; in view of the fact that we understand the domestic connotation and therefore read it as a prop within an illusion. One subject that Danto fails to mention is this notion of narrative attached to artworks as objects.
To produce an artwork is to animate an object with narrative, this can be as simple as an object being a stand in for a theme; and be as complicated as several objects demonstrating a story. Either way, the same thing is happening, the artist is drawing on the previous experiences of the viewer and exploiting it in favour of furthering the field of art from their vantage of contributing practitioner.
This is frequently met by the viewer with a sense of disapproval, as art is seen as something to be enjoyed and this attitude of exploiting the viewer is quite often felt, with the example of pieces like ‘Fountain’, whereby there hasn’t been anything beforehand to make deciphering the work as a work of art an easy or at times even pleasant task. The involvement of narrative within an art object does make the task of interpreting work easier for the viewer but it creates as much problems as it solves.
The narrative of the object may be used to decide that it is art that’s being looked at, but if the narrative of the object draws upon particularly unpleasant, subtle or mundane experiences, then the viewer is being left with an often alienating experience. The fact that a work is exhibited is to assume that it is of some importance and when faced with something that we know to hold no particular importance, aside from utility, it can quite often feel as though the artist (or art-institution) is pulling the rug from underneath our feet. This is the importance of the semantic qualities of artworks, whether that be within the titles of the works or within the descriptive nature of art-objects, they act as a security net to catch the viewer when confronted with something unusual, tasteless or apparently irrelevant. As it states in ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’ the only thing that’s preventing art from turning back into object is the concept. Without the use of such descriptive tools as language we wouldn’t be able to maintain and stabilise the very concepts that are holding our artworks and institutions together.
It is precisely owed to the artist and art-institution’s ability to declare an object as art and thus it becomes art, that we have seen a progression within the field itself. For without works that bewilder and alienate, there would be a stagnation of ideas and a lack of the rebellion, seen one hundred years ago with Duchamp, needed to push art-historical concepts and art philosophy further as we travel forwards in time.
To return to Wittgenstein’s game of chess and the discussion between Rodolfo and Valentino, the debate as to whether or not it is a real game of chess is largely manifested by the pretense that it’s a stage production and two actors, who as thespians are there to deceive. The question that Rodolfo fails to ask is that if we stop calling it chess or do not have a defining linguistic signifier for chess, are the actors still playing chess? Or is it still even a game of chess at all?
The two players, regardless of the fact that they may or may not be playing by the rules of chess, without the name we no longer have chess as a thing and now have chess as an action. The metamorphosis of noun to verb is very helpful with our discerning between art and object insofar as we learn very early on in schools that every action has a positive and negative reaction. It is not relevant to dwell on the types of reaction in this formula (although it does fit very neatly into the thought that not everybody is going to like every piece) however the knowledge that a reaction can only happen in response to an action clearly demonstrates that when something is a mere object (noun) it is not possible to identify it as art because art either always has a reaction or is of the correct ontological type to create one. Conversely, when something is an artwork, it cannot escape its causality therefore retaining its status an action (verb).
Beliefs: the viewer and what they’re seeing.
If art is defined by it’s semantic qualities and sets about demonstrating narratives through the use of visual language, then this suggests a shift from physical replication of the world towards a sense of belief in the intangible. In this chapter I shall set about to explore what Danto identifies as illusion and its counter, imitation. He marks the difference between illusion and imitation with the example of somebody imitating a crow and the pleasure derived from hearing the imitation, and further remarks:
“The pleasure here is available only if I know what he is imitating and that he is imitating it, and the latter will depend upon my belief that the noise in question is not the real thing it rather is of, and in the former case that these are not just the noises the poor man makes.”
This tells us that to imitate is to produce under the pretense that the witness to the imitation is aware of the falsity, this being an important factor as without the awareness of falsity, the boundaries needed to assure the viewer (or listener in Danto’s case) that what they are experiencing is not of the real world, but about it are non-existent. In the case of illusion, he continues to clarify that for something to be catagorised as an illusion, the viewer must be under the impression that what they perceive belongs to reality. This notion of illusion can be detrimental to the artist in terms of presenting works, especially objects, as to create a sense of illusion is to convince the onlooker that what is occurring in front of them is of less intellectual significance and more pertaining to reality than that of an object concerned with cognitive dissidence.
As mentioned in the first chapter, there are numerous cues on offer for the viewer to discern between illusion and imitation within the art context. In our example I will remain with the idea of staging, by means of the art gallery. The fact that a work has been placed within a gallery is what, as previously said, makes it identifiable as a work. There are two recent examples of this staging system breaking down in front of the viewer and ultimately shattering the belief that what is seen within a gallery space is that of imitation and not reality. The first being the story of a schoolboy leaving a pair of spectacles on the floor of a gallery and an inquisitive crowd gathering, taking photographs, and attempting to interpret the object as a work of art. A situation such as this excellently draws an example of the converse of Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. Whereas he brought a non-artist made object into the artistic realm and tried to pass it off as art, largely failing at the time, the misplaced glasses have accidentally become part of the art-historical context without intention of doing so, demonstrating a paradigm shift from the power of artist as maker to the power of objects and context. This shift is an important one to note as an artist, as it aids us in identifying a major problem within the displaying of work, akin to finding a loose thread in the fabric of modern day artistic practice. It shows that artists are no longer in charge of how their work is perceived and that the rapidly increasing accessibility of art institutions is taking the power from the artist and placing it more within the objects and audiences.
That is not to say that art has become illusion, but that the nature of the imitation happening within the staged arena of the art gallery has become so charged with a certainty of falsehood that it has become nearly impossible to ascertain what is reality and what is fiction.
The second example of this breaking down of the stage came about when a young woman was stabbed in the neck and arms by another visitor to the Art Basel gallery, Miami. The incident demonstrates an obviously scary move towards disillusionment with the art-institutions. Other visitors to the exhibition that was happening looked on as the altercation broke out, under the impression that what they were witnessing was a piece of performance art. With audiences so used to feeling tricked by artists it, is of no surprise that this was the reaction as it is much more usual to view a shocking scene, without consequence, within an art gallery than anywhere else. This real life scene draws an exact parallel with an example set by Danto himself in ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’ and he refers to this phenomenon as:
“…reverse illusions, as when the man playing Hamlet really is stabbed by the man playing Laertes and left flat on the stage while the players take their final bows, the audience delighting in this as an exercise of thespian wit.”
The perpetual inhibiting of reality within the art gallery suggests a belief that the art world is that of a fantasy world, where any conceivable narrative cannot only exist, but reserves the right to do so. The disillusionment of the audience towards the institutions is in no way surprising when we consider that even since Duchamp, artists have been blurring the lines between imitation and illusion, artwork and reality and even object and concept.
This fluctuation to a more theatrical event is something that has had to happen for the practice to retain its relevance to human existence. Celebrity culture and the impossible availability of information in an increasingly mechanised world is not only a topic, but an impatience that artists have to continuously grapple with in modern culture. We have reached a point where it is no longer satisfactory to merely present an object as art or vice-versa, but have to be critical of the understanding of what it means for that object to earn its right to be considered art and even for the audience to be operating on a level of critical consciousness not previously required of them.
Jean Baudrillard attributes this to Andy Warhol, whose controversial life and work, has only ever previously been matched by Duchamp. In the very first paragraph of Baudrillard’s book ‘The Conspiracy of Art’ he states:
“Everything that characterizes his work – the advent of banality, the mechanized gestures and images, and especially his iconolatry – he turned all of that into an event of platitude […] he was the greatest simulator”
The reappearance of simulation within art is an important gesture, the use of imitation to attempt to break down the staging of the art-institutions and push the audience into a feeling of discomfort is an idea that only reinforces this notion that we as art viewers must be confronted with the elements of daily life and forced to reflect on the consequences of inconsequential things.
The fact of that matter is that the only possible future for the pushing forward of artistic knowledge is for artists to continue confusing and confirming the perceptions of the audience. While this can become a distressing pursuit for both parties, the only logical progression is one fraught with reflection and consciousness in the production of work. The field of art is one of research, production and reflection but also a place where individuals involved must be aware of it’s own vulnerability, whether that be by vocal criticism or by the very instability of creativity as a practice.
Although the ontological status of artworks as object can be determined with the use of linguistic formula, it is the very fact that it can be debated and demonstrated that makes producing artwork and analysing artwork such an important pursuit. While the world is already overpopulated by objects of various designs and technologies, from the research done for this text I predict that for art to stay afloat as an institution grounded in history and philosophy we need to see a shift towards making work pertaining to the oversaturation of ideas that we are beginning to see due to the advent of the internet and other such means of communication. As opposed to artists of the likes of Duchamp and Warhol, producing works concerned with exploiting the nature of the quotidian, it would be of great benefit to the progression of art to see artists start to make pieces that manifest and exploit the growing number of everyday ideologies. Too long have the art-institutions been concerned with facing the viewer with ‘fresh’ perspectives on objects and images found frequently within their lives, it’s now time to bring the audience’s ideas, anxieties and concerns into the gallery space; whether that be by means of physical objects or time-based media such as video or sound is not relevant to the cause, because as I’ve demonstrated in this text, it’s not the object that makes the artwork exist, but the idea in context.
• Baudrillard, J, 2005. The Conspiracy of Art. 1st ed. New York: Semiotext(e).
• Danto, A, 1974. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Volume 22, Issue 2, 139-148
• http://www.independent.co.uk. Woman Stabbed in Attack. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/woman-stabbed-in-attack-mistakn-for-performance-art-at-miami-gallery-a6762426.html. [Accessed 13 January 2017].
• Schulte, J, 1991. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Text and Context. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
• Schwarz, A, 1969. The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp. 1st ed. London: Thames and Hudson.
• http://www.tate.org.uk. 2000. ‘Fountain’, Marcel Duchamp, 1917, replica 1964. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573
• Camfield, W, 1989. Marcel Duchamp, Fountain. 1st ed. Houston: Houston Fine Art Press.
• Danto, A, 1964. The Artworld. The Journal of Philosophy, Volume 61, Issue 19, 571-584
• Danto, A, 1998. The Wake of Art 1st ed. Amsterdam: The Gordon and Breach Publushing Group.
• Jones, A, 1994. Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Krauss, R, 1986. The Originality of the Avante-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. 1st ed. Cambridge MA.: MIT Press.