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the Complete Review
the complete review - art criticism

The Madonna of the Future

Arthur C. Danto

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To purchase The Madonna of the Future

Title: The Madonna of the Future
Author: Arthur C. Danto
Genre: Art criticism
Written: (2000)
Length: 450 pages
Availability: The Madonna of the Future - US
The Madonna of the Future - UK
The Madonna of the Future - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : useful overview of art in the contemporary world, fairly well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 2/10/2000 .
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/8/2000 Sarah Boxer

  From the Reviews:
  • "One of Danto's signal qualities is his openness to new types of art, a trait much on display here (.....) But it doesn't follow from this that the reader will find him universally positive on the work he considers." - The Nation

  • "Like him or not, Danto is the critic we deserve now (.....) Danto is a content hunter. In that he is quite old-fashioned -- not so much postmodern as premodern. He searches for the philosophical meaning in paintings the way children look for Waldos in a "Where's Waldo?" book. This will frustrate those who believe in visual experience for its own sake, but for those who are more skeptical or simply less visual, Danto offers a kind of access to art that few other critics do." - Sarah Boxer, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Madonna of the Future collects about fifty pieces Arthur C. Danto wrote for The Nation between 1993 and 1999, along with a piece from the Warhol catalog raisonné, framed between two "philosophical essays" about the art of the moment.
       Aside from a few tributes (to previous Nation critic Clement Greenberg, and to Meyer Shapiro), as well as a piece on Yasmina Reza's play, 'Art' (see also our review), Danto's pieces for The Nation are basically art-reviews, covering a wide variety of exhibits and shows from the period 1993-99. Most of the exhibits were in New York (where both magazine and author are based), though Danto also ventured farther on occasion.
       With New York still one of the centers of contemporary art (and densely packed with museums and galleries) many of the major shows from this decade were shown there, and Danto does discuss many of these. Among them: the notorious "Sensation" show that caused an uproar both in London and then at the Brooklyn Museum, the two-part Whitney retrospective of "The American Century", some Whitney Biennials, and various retrospectives (Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock). If nothing else The Madonna of the Future is thus a useful survey of the major shows of this period.
       While Danto does concentrate on the blockbuster shows he also writes about some that attracted less attention. And though he focusses most of his attention on contemporary art he does cover a fair amount of older art as well. From the opening piece on the brilliant photo-monteur John Heartfield to an appreciation of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the paintings from the 17th century Padshahnama to an amusing consideration of "Degas in Vegas", there is considerable variety here.
       Danto considers the work of Sofonisba Anguissola, Vermeer, Picasso, Léger, Rodchenko, Delacroix, and Duchamp, but it is the modern Americans that get most of the attention. It is these artists that are of greatest interest to Danto and whose work is generally most amenable to his philosophical musings. Danto is a professor of philosophy, and he approaches art from a philosophical vantage point, concerned primarily with the meaning of an art work. Ironically, for the casual reader it is often the pieces on the (generally older) artists that do not fit his philosophizing as neatly that are the more interesting pieces.
       For the most part Danto's philosophizing is not overwhelming. Aware of his magazine's readership (a non-specialist audience) he rarely gets too caught up in jargon or notions that are too abstract. There are quite a few quotes from favourites Wittgenstein and Hegel, but he manages to weave even these quite gently into his arguments.
       The title of the book is taken from a Henry James story, in which an artist wants to paint a Madonna the equal of Raphael's Madonna della Seggiola but spends twenty years studying the old masters in order to learn their secrets rather than just getting on with it. At the end all he has to show for it is a canvas that is still blank. Danto is fascinated by blank canvases and monochromatic paintings, and there is considerable consideration of the meaning (and possibility) of art in our time -- as well as the simple question of what makes something art -- in this volume. Danto previously discussed the question of how to define art in his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, focussing especially on the example of Warhol's Brillo-boxes, and he revisits the question in a number of the pieces in this collection.
       Danto presents his pieces fairly well, managing to inform as well as offering critical and theoretical points about the art under consideration. Some pieces are a bit coy -- a review titled "Lucien Freud" goes four pages before mentioning the name of its ostensible subject -- but overall Danto focusses on the matter and the art at hand, and generally has some interesting things to say. The pieces read well, and Danto generally manages to avoid repeating himself -- remarkably, considering some of his subjects. Danto is also a generous critic, and there is little venom here -- indeed, he is perhaps too agreeable.
       The book is fortunately not solely about contemporary art, and there is actually a great deal of variety here. Ordered chronologically, The Madonna of the Future can even be enjoyably read through front to back, allowing one to revisit many of the artistic highpoints (and some of the lowpoints) of the 1990s. Certainly, it is a useful reference work. These are (by and large) not the definitive pieces on the exhibits under review, but they are excellent overviews, useful both as reminders and as starting points.

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The Madonna of the Future: Reviews: Arthur C. Danto: Other books of interest under review:
  • Yasmina Reza's 'Art' (reviewed by Danto in his book)

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About the Author:

       Arthur Coleman Danto lived 1924 to 2013. He was Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and an art critic for The Nation

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