Arthur C. Danto, a provocative and influential philosopher and critic who championed Andy Warhol and other avant-garde artists and upended the study of art history by declaring that the history of art was over, died Friday at his home in New York. He was 89.
His daughter Ginger Danto confirmed the death, citing a heart ailment.
Mr. Danto, art critic for the Nation from 1984 to 2009 and a professor emeritus at Columbia University, died of heart failure at his Manhattan apartment, daughter Ginger Danto said.
Starting in the 1960s, Mr. Danto, an academically trained philosopher, became central to debates about art. He was initially troubled and then inspired by the rise of pop art and how such artists as Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein could transform a soup can or a comic strip into something displayed in a museum as a work of art.
Starting in the 1960s, Mr. Danto wrote hundreds of essays. He also taught at Columbia University.
He often returned to the most philosophical question: What exactly is art? In a 1964 essay about Warhol’s now-iconic reproductions of Brillo boxes, Mr. Danto wrote:
“Is this man some kind of Midas, turning whatever he touches into the gold of pure art? . . . Never mind that the Brillo box may not be good, much less great art. The impressive thing is that it is art at all. But if it is, why not indiscernible Brillo boxes that are in the stockroom? Or has the whole distinction between art and reality broken down?”
In such essays as “The End of Art,” Mr. Danto noted the progression of styles in the 19th and 20th centuries— impressionism, modernism, abstract expressionism, pop art. After Warhol’s Brillo show at New York’s Stable Gallery in 1964, art had reached its ultimate expression and became a medium not of trends but of individuals.
“When I first wrote about this concept, I was somewhat depressed,” Mr. Danto later observed. “But now I have grown reconciled to the unlimited diversity of art. I marvel at the imaginativeness of artists in finding ways to convey meanings by the most untraditional of means. The art world is a model of a pluralistic society in which all disfiguring barriers and boundaries have been thrown down.”
Mr. Danto would be praised by the New York Times as “arguably the most consequential art critic” since Clement Greenberg, an influential critic who helped propel the abstract expressionist movement. But Mr. Danto’s ideas were not universally accepted, and he frequently had to explain that art wasn’t dead, only art history.
Rival critics such as Hilton Kramer, writing in 1987, described Mr. Danto’s views as one of “those ingenious scenarios that are regularly concocted to relieve the tedium of the seminar room and the philosophical colloquium.”
In “What Art Is,” published this year, Mr. Danto responded that his goal “was to describe art” in a way that did not fit “the conservative taste of most of the New York critics.”
“That is to say, my role as a critic was to say what the work was about — what it meant — and then how it was worth it to explain this to my readers,” he wrote.
Mr. Danto’s books included “Encounters and Reflections,” winner of a National Book Critics Circle prize in 1991, “Beyond the Brillo Box” and “After the End of Art.”
Arthur Coleman Danto was born Jan. 1, 1924, in Ann Arbor, Mich., and raised in Detroit. He served two years in the Army during World War II, then studied art and history at Michigan’s Wayne State University and received master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University. He taught at Columbia from 1952 to 1992 and chaired the philosophy department.
After the Warhol show in 1964, Mr. Danto pursued a definition of art that could be applied to both the Sistine Chapel and a Brillo box. He rejected the ancient Greek idea that art was imitation and the Renaissance ideal that art was defined by aesthetic pleasure. In “What Art Is,” Mr. Danto concluded that art was “the embodiment of an idea,” defined not by how it looked but by what it had to say.
Mr. Danto’s stature as a critic overshadowed his early career as an artist. He was an accomplished printmaker whose woodcuts were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art and elsewhere in the 1950s.
Mr. Danto’s first wife, Shirley Rovetch, died in 1978. Survivors include his wife of 33 years, Barbara Westman, and two daughters.