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“Euripidean dilemma”: Nietzsche’s influence on Danto’s philosophical understanding of performance art

Benjamin Riado
p. 124-139


This essay addresses the theoretical foundations of Danto’s vision of performance art. In his writings, Danto rarely mentions this art form and when he does so, it is for the most part in a negative way. Still, there is one clue to Danto’s deeper engagement with performance art. This is his constant references to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Danto finds in Nietzsche a critical tool for engaging with contemporary artists: what he calls the “Euripidean dilemma”. This approach provides a basis for discussing the relevance of Nietzschean thought in developing a philosophical understanding of performance art.

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  • 1 Danto 1986: 119.

1In 1986 Arthur Danto, known for addressing the challenge of defining art, surprised his audience when he described the development of artforms as «shantytowns at the edges of what used to be thought of as the limits of art».1 Such a characterization questions the strangeness of both the means and the forms of the most contemporary art, on which he remains evasive. Still, one assumes from the examples he takes throughout his essay that he refers to performance art.

  • 2 Danto 1981: 8; 1998: 184-185.
  • 3 Danto 1997: 125.
  • 4 As Saul Ostrow puts it, in Danto 1998: xv.

2In his first contribution to aesthetic theory, Danto used a Kantian approach to describe how an artefact can be considered as an art product − how it can be included in the “Artworld”. The 20th century in art history has accustomed us to the incursion of the non−artistic into the art field − Danto took as an example the way Picasso sticked a real Suze bottle label on a collage representing a Suze bottle.2 Now contemporary art is characterized by the “colonization” of life by art. The historical evolution of art as seen by Danto, has led to the contemplation of things that were visually indiscernible both in the artworld and the outside world. Danto experienced this paradox for himself when he saw Andy Warhol’s iconic Brillo Boxes exhibited at the Stable Gallery in 1964. The strong impression these art products made on Danto led him later to conclude − as a good Hegelian would − that art had fulfilled its calling by creating a philosophical problem arising not from a dominant theory but from art production itself: «It seemed to me that now that the philosophical problem of art had been clarified from within the history of art, that history had come to an end».3 Therefore − starting in 1964 − it became clear that everything could be a work of art, once one acknowledges that «art is a concept rather than a category of objects».4 This was the beginning of “post-historical” art. This era is characterized by artistic pluralism; a piece of art can be absolutely anything and everything: documentation, appropriation, and of course performance art.

3But why does Danto use the pejorative “shantytowns”, a term of contempt?

4A shantytown is the urban excrescence made up of shacks belonging to those who cannot find space to live neither in the city center nor in the suburbs, which is why this type of clandestine makeshift housing − a mixture of resourcefulness and desperation − ends up forming the outskirt of the outskirt. But it can also be understood in another way. A shantytown, in Danto’s mind, is perhaps more of a temporal addition: this space grows bigger with the latest arrivals on the art scene. These additions do not follow the rules of the internal structure of the pre-established art scene, but they bear within them a theory of art at odds with the very one that made everything possible in art until then. In this paper, I will further analyze this new art theory that could explain the rise of performance art and what Danto understood as a disruptive essence. Oddly enough, Danto finds in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy [Die Geburt der Tragödie], published in 1872, the art theory supporting the new additions. I will draw a parallel between Nietzsche’s book that discusses the development of art being performed live before an audience in ancient Greece, and contemporary performance art. Danto uses ideas from Nietzsche to shape what he calls the “Euripidean dilemma”. Even though it takes its name from Euripides, the youngest of the three famous tragedian of classical Athens, this dilemma raises philosophical issues.

5To summarize, either the artist imitates a thing or a situation that comes from reality to create an artwork, or he only produces mysterious things that cannot be found in daily life. In the first case, one can wonder about the relevance of showing a duplication of reality. And in the second case, the artist undertakes the risk of only producing archaic and highly ostentatious works of art. Nietzsche’s thesis is that Euripidean tragedy marks the latest decay of an intense musical fete that professional actors now mimic on stage instead of having it. So “Euripidean dilemma” labels the alternative which consists of embracing primal force to make art or faking it through re-enactment or copy.

6This peculiar interpretation of Nietzsche’s analysis and its ties with Danto’s own thinking raises two questions. The first one is metaphilosophical: why would Danto use Nietzsche’s reflections on tragedy in order to think performance? Why would he refer to them every time he is led to deal with this art form? The second one is epistemic: why does Warhol’s work and Pop art in general mark the end of art in the History of its “disenfranchisement” by philosophy? At this point, according to Danto, Art emancipates itself from Philosophy and everything may become art, but then − if everything becomes possible in the art field − why would performance art be deemed disruptive by Danto?

  • 5 Or later “disturbatory art”, see Danto 2010a: 31.

7First, in order to address this problem, I will show how Danto ties The Birth of Tragedy to the group of artworks he labelled «disturbational art».5 Second, I will thus be led to see Nietzsche’s influence on Danto. Even though Danto often refers to The Birth of Tragedy, this lineage between the two philosophers goes far beyond this mere reference. Third, given that Danto takes Nietzsche’s analysis onto the field of artistic conventions that appeared with classical theatre, one may wonder if this reference to Nietzsche could be a concession to the institutional theory of art, since performance art need to be labelled art in and outside of the institution to disrupt it.

1. Artistically controlled drift

  • 6 Danto 1964: 573.

8One of the features that make Danto’s thinking a pleasure to read and a food for thought is his ability to reason by induction, but also by iteration. An argument or situation already set out in one of his writings is often reused in another text. Thus, in The Artworld, his famous 1964 article, Danto demonstrates how post-impressionist painting at the end of the nineteenth century functions as a philosophical revelation of the fact that mimesis is no longer a necessary criterion for the concept of art, nor has it perhaps ever been.6 This reflection is echoed in Danto’s 1986 essay «Art and Disturbation». The idea is the same: the artistic phenomenon is disconcerting because its history continues to be written even if the principle that was thought to be its own for millennia suddenly turns out to be erroneous. As Danto puts it:

  • 7 Danto 1986: 118.

So the history of art in the twentieth century has been the history of transformations and revolutionizations of the concept of art in a kind of conceptual warfare so intense and unresolved that the face of high culture is a kind of no-man’s land, with the possibility that art today is just destabilization, owing its continued existence to the memory of boundaries no one can any longer respect.7

  • 8 See Tillim 1968: 45; Danto, 1998: 22. Barbara Haskell suggests in her catalog for the exhibition «B (...)
  • 9 Morris 1993: 229.
  • 10 Danto 1986: 121.

9Therefore, the disturbation the title refers to in Danto’s article is not only his own as a spectator. As shocked as he may be by the works he sees, he is mostly surprised by the direction this art takes. He might think this puzzling because of the philosophical mission he has given to himself: to develop the theory that made this art form possible in the first place. Nevertheless, this distress corresponds closely to the direction that American art has taken since the 1970s with the end of the Abstract Expressionism hegemony. One can recall that minimalist sculpture and Conceptual art put modernist criticism in disarray.8 Robert Morris, a minimalist dancer, performer and sculptor, is aware of how an artist’s work consists of being quite unpredictable, and how to reject the labels critics use to identify him. He writes with a defiant tone: «Art erodes whatever seeks to contain and use it and inevitably seeps into the most contrary recesses, touches the most repressed nerve, finds and sustains the contradictory without effort».9 Danto is therefore right to say that contemporary art is a challenge in itself, since many artists think the same way. Nevertheless, he sees in performance art a strive to extend the prerogative of art, which comes with a certain violence. At first, Danto seemed to focus on performance art as a threat to the physical integrity of its agents, artists and spectators alike. He diagnoses this excess not as a break in but as a break out from the artworld; «So it is disturbation when the insulating boundaries between art and life are breached».10

  • 11 Ivi: 119.
  • 12 Ivi: 120.
  • 13 See Daphinoff 2011: 81-82.

10To give a more precise idea of this breach, Danto draws a distinction between two types of disturbance: works «representing disturbing things», and works that affect the viewer through «disturbing ways».11 One can tolerate the former because the institutional context in which the spectators will be confronted with them has the power to neutralize them − to keep them at a distance. For Danto, torture scenes painted by Leon Golub, showing terrorists disturbingly smiling or striking a pose, would ultimately have an effect close to that of a dreadful fairy tale read to a child before a good night sleep.12 It emphasizes enough how much the artworld has the power to make us contemplate shipwreck scenes at sea from the safety of the shore. This very feeling is what Lucretius summed up with the Latin formula suave mari magno, and which Edmund Burke later called “delight”.13 It encapsulates the magic of art. This observable conversion from “disturbing” to “delightful” corresponds to a convention of art that Danto holds dear, and which explains why most performance art events take place within the museums’ walls: to contain their explosive charge. The performance artists have understood that. They can therefore propose unsettling actions that we would not accept to witness out of this reassuring context. So, the institution itself serves as a transition from disturbing representation in an artwork to disturbing ways to make art.

  • 14 Danto 2010a: 31.
  • 15 See Hoffman 2007: 158-159.

11More worrying indeed is the art that disrupt audience’s expectations surrounding art by any means necessary, and this seems to be the case with many performances. According to Danto, disturbation comes with the impossibility of keeping these awkward events at a distance, in the museum or anywhere, precisely because they summon the reality of the ordinary world in art, whether one is ready for it or not. As Danto points out: «disturbation was the mark of seventies performance»,14 which he intends to prove with examples. Thus, he holds Chris Burden responsible for one of these breaks out of art into life. On November 12, 1972, the artist laid down at the side of the road on La Cienega boulevard, Los Angeles, covered with a canvas tarpaulin.15 Two 15-minute flares were placed near him as a signal of emergency, but fact is he could have been mowed down at any moment by a car. Accurately called Deadman, this performance encapsulates the dangerous liaisons between art and life. Yet one could comment this other performance, when Burden was deliberately shot in public with a gun for the piece Shoot, one year before. There was no distance for the audience to take from this shot, no second-degree shooting. It was not as in theatre, just an actual shot. Picture were taken. One one of them shows a pale Burden with blood running down his left arm. All of this was for real.

  • 16 Davies 2004: 219.

12In order to underline the excesses that prevailed at the time, and suggest that they were unacceptable, Danto wryly imagines the disturbing piece entitled Boom. It would be just a time bomb placed in an art gallery that could explode at any moment, including opening hours. It would be alarming indeed, though in a way this piece already exists. The same Chris Burden had installed in the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, a 100-ton jack connected to a gear box and a turnstile, beautifully entitled Samson, a device capable of destroying the building, once again, for real. Samson is not a performance in the sense of David Davies’ definition – an event focusing on action «publicly observable», and «taking place upon a stage or in a room or in an external location».16 Almost a piece of sculpture, Samson relies on the notion of danger, and involves the audience contemplating a potential catastrophe. Moreover, the examples chosen by Danto emphasize the suffering artists undergo during their performances, the epitome being the Austrian artist Rudolf Schwartzkogler, who allegedly died from self-inflicted injuries during the art process.

  • 17 Danto 1986: 123.
  • 18 Ivi: 126.
  • 19 Nietzsche 1999: 40.

13The link between this art form and Nietzsche’s theses in The Birth of Tragedy is not absolutely obvious, yet Danto aptly points out that usually our involvement with art is not life-threatening for anybody, which is a Nietzschean topic. «We are therefore, he says, in a very different artistic space than anything the philosophy of art has equipped us to construe as one of the possibilities of art, internal to something being a work of art».17 This is where the relation is more explicitly established, given that the «existential spasm» that this disturbational art intends to produce reconnects with «dark impulses out of which art might be believed to have originated».18 This magical frame of thought is the initial state of primitive celebrations of god Dionysus in ancient Greece. Nietzsche analyses these celebrations as a philologist and observes (§ 7) that it was performed by the priests of the God through dances and choral music, causing a «Dionysiac state, in which the usual barriers and limits are destroyed, […] all personal experiences from the past are submerged».19 Dionysus is with Apollo the only God who manifests himself by “epiphany”, so that during the cult, the God was supposed to appear in person and trigger episodes of trance and sexual frenzy among the participants.

  • 20 Danto 1981: 18-19.
  • 21 Ivi: 19. This action is not actually played on stage, as it is elliptical, but the image evokes for (...)
  • 22 Danto 2000: 112-113.

14Danto recalls that the first meaning of “representation” is precisely the fact that the god presents himself again each time he is invoked.20 The second meaning is derived from the former since «over whatever interval of time it took place, this ritual was replaced by its own symbolic enactment»,21 in which someone “represented” the god, i. e. played his role. The actor just pretends to be him in order to keep the illusion for the sake of the audience. In Nietzsche’s eyes, this is typically what happens in Euripides’ play Bacchae. As he recalls it, the drama takes place outside Thebes at the Dionysian festivals, where «believing she had participated in killing a mountain lion, a woman realizes she had torn her son, the king Pentheus, limb from limb, and is now holding his bloody head in her hands».22 Dionysus is actually the main character of this tragedy, but of course his role is played on stage by an actor wearing a theatrical mask. Thus, the Dionysian cult becomes some sort of pantomime. All the worshipers that used to participates in the fest now symbolically compose the chorus in the drama.

  • 23 Danto 1986: 129.

15This peculiar cultural context, somewhat idealized, is brought to attention by Danto in order to theorize a world before sophisticated artistic conventions, almost like the state of nature for social contract philosophers. Danto notes that bacchanals were orgiastic and possibly repugnant, in a word, “disturbational”, but occasionally tolerated by society «for the sake of the epiphany».23

  • 24 Nietzsche 1999: 62
  • 25 He turned the phrase “philosophic disenfranchisement of art” into the title of a collection of arti (...)

16Every performance in contemporary art is not Dionysiac per se, but what is interesting about Danto’s theoretical inspiration of Nietzsche’s thought is that it underscores the idea that art is a kind of energy that flows through all individuals indiscriminately. This energy, at a certain point in its history, was captured by artists who sought to contain it through specific conventions. These conventions are pointed out by Nietzsche as he accuses Socrates, via tragedian Euripides, of having distorted this primal force to obey the demands of reason. All this, for the sake of art, gave birth to tragedy, Nietzsche asserts in § 12 of his essay, speaking of «aesthetic Socratism».24 According to Danto, this means that philosophy indeed interfere with artists’ business, a phenomenon he calls “philosophic disenfranchisement of art”.25

17What are artistic conventions? What makes an art form possible? These two questions are raised by Danto reflecting on performance art, but it leads him, oddly enough, to comment on its philosophically disenfranchised ancestor, tragedy. This suggests an influence of Nietzsche’s thinking on Danto quite profound, an intimate knowledge that requires further inquiry.

2. Performing the irrational

  • 26 Danto 2005: 27-28.

18Reputed to be confused, contradictory or literary on the American continent, Nietzsche is the subject of a philosophical rehabilitation by Danto, in an essay begun in 1964, then completely reworked, in which Nietzsche «emerges almost as a systematic as well as an original and analytical thinker».26

19The monographic work is entitled Nietzsche as Philosopher, a title that sums up the two objectives that Danto set himself. First, to extract from Nietzsche’s legacy the adulterated and brutal thinking that the Nazis fabricated in order to restore him to the suit of a philosopher. Second, to capture the analytical essence of his thinking, which questioned language to such an extent that it reinvested other philosophical uses of language, such as aphorism. To accomplish this task, Danto targets a point in the aesthetic doctrine that Nietzsche formulated very early on in his work and which he never disavowed in his writings. It is the distinction between Apollo and Dionysus that structure the Greeks’ existence.

  • 27 Danto 2005: 53.
  • 28 Danto 1986: 119.
  • 29 Danto 1986: 123. About Abramovic Seven Easy Pieces, see Danto 2010a: 30.

20Apollo is the deity of order and harmony. He was invoked in Antiquity to watch over the works of human intelligence,27 which require structure as well as a beautiful appearance. So he is first and foremost the god of art. Dionysus, on the contrary, is associated with all that is shapeless and changing. He symbolizes the forces of nature. The relation to language, through which Danto finds an entry point into Nietzschean doctrine, can be summarized as follows. On one hand, the human ideas structured by an effort of intelligibility are Apollinian, while the real world, on the other hand, is shapeless, tumultuous and uncontrollable. The whole question is to see how one can conceive an articulated language expressing Dionysian thoughts or experiences. Danto explains this in Chapter II of his book, entitled «Art and Irrationality», that we can read as commentary of the first ten paragraphs of The Birth of Tragedy. In this chapter, we learn that thoughts and perceptions do not reflect the world as it is; what our language conveys is an illusion, as for the way we imagine the world. Most of the time, we can refer to the objects of the world, for communication purposes, with the help of concepts (table, animal, freedom), while personal experiences, and the exploration of borderline or reckless behavior − once encouraged by pagan religious festivals − are only said through a non-literal, non-conceptual, impossible language. Danto was not wrong to underline the parallel between “disturbation” and “masturbation”,28 since the Dionysiac sexual impulses, praised by Nietzsche for their artistic function, says a lot about the propinquity between art and irrational urge. Let’s take two examples, one is Danto’s, the other one most known by him because he has been commenting its re−enactment by Marina Abramovic.29

21Danto mentions a performance whose goal was to impose a masturbation performance on the art world. Deliberately provocative, Vito Acconci’s 1972 piece consisted of a false floor lining the real floor of the Sonnabend Gallery, under which the artist could lie down and masturbate for a long time. A loudspeaker transmitted the artist’s moans. This device favored the interpenetration of intimate and public space. Ironically entitled Seedbed, the action, which was deemed infertile, was contradicted by the artist’s statements affirming his desire to sow the earth. It is a clear reference to the Old Testament where Onan, who refuses to impregnate his deceased brother’s wife, spills his seed on the ground at the wrath of God (Genesis, 38: 9-10). Shameful in Judeo−Christian culture, this self−indulgent act is clearly symbolic. It reinforces with a prosaic detour the sanctity of the institution, which feeds on the creative energy of artists.

22The second example is Joseph Beuys’ “action” entitled How to explain pictures to a dead hare, which took place on 26 November 1965 at the Schmela Gallery in Düsseldorf. For this performance, Beuys locked himself in the gallery with a dead hare in his arms, so that the action was only visible to visitors from the outside. With his face covered in honey and gold leaf, he then walked around the exhibition to explain the paintings to the dead animal in a strange form of dialogue. This work of course has to do with the impossibility for art to deal with intelligible language and for language to clearly express something that comes from the depths, which the animal symbolizes, since it literally lives in the earth. These examples show that performance art, as a medium, encompasses what is irrational in art, through impulse and language stalemate.

  • 30 Danto 2005: 57-58.
  • 31 See Nietzsche 1873 [2010]: 35-36. Danto 2005: 222-225, 229. Danto 1986: 159, in an allusive fashion

23The fact that internal sensations are not meant to be shared with communicational language, according to Nietzsche, explains the existence of the metaphor.30 It expresses in language something of our relationship to a world that remains deaf to our rationalization efforts. And we experience this world, regaining the pulsation of dreams and drunkenness, which are accessible to everyone. These two phenomena are thought of as a mystical connection, a visit from the gods. Apollo sends the images of dreams that are often remembered on waking, and Dionysus accelerates the feeling of letting go that comes with the consumption of alcohol. The artistic phenomenon in its primitive form comes from these states of modified consciousness, according to Nietzsche, and as we have all experienced them, the philosopher does not hesitate to declare, in the unpublished opuscule On Truth and Lie from an Extra−Moral Point of View [Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn], 1873 − mentioned several times by Danto31 − that we are all artists. We are all endowed with this original “artistic talent” (Urvermögen, in German) ready to take form. Danto recalls this in a later text of his study (A comment of Nietzsche’s “Artistic Metaphysics”) when he comments on the emblematic words of Beuys, who basically says the same thing: «everyone is an artist».

24The analogy between Nietzsche and Beuys is accurate because they both think that art is a potentiality that exists in parts of our existence. Dreams are accessible to everyone as a spontaneous production of images, while:

  • 32 Danto 2005: 229.

[…] the initial impulse of language is to make metaphors, which means that in its initial phase language is poetry. Metaphor gives rise to language, rather than being something language is merely capable of − an embellishment of speech, or speech used ornemently […].32

  • 33 Danto 1981: 25.
  • 34 Ivi: 49. He quotes Descartes in French: “les choses qui nous sont représentées dans le sommeil sont (...)

25Nietzsche’s conclusion, according to Danto, is that «it is not art unless it defies rational explanation, and unless its meaning somehow escapes us».33 But what Danto takes from this is a little different, since what interests him is to examine art as a form of immersive experience by analogy with dreams. This is why, in Danto’s writings, the evocation of Nietzsche’s thinking generates a regular parallel to Descartes’, who likens dreams to a kind of painterly representation34 in his first Meditation.

26In his Nietzsche, Danto has some observations on Descartes that prefigure his essay The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. For him, the French philosopher’s contribution to the question of our grasp over reality serves as a revelation of the fact that art plays on this grasp. So, in a way, the irrevocability of cognitive activity (which he calls cogito), does not prevent us from fantasizing about the whole world. The thing is one shall be certain of oneself in doing so.

  • 35 Danto 2005: 35.

Any experience which is intelligible to us is already and in the nature of the case, an illusion, created by the human Urvermögen which gives form to experience, this form answering to nothing in the world itself.35

27In short, let us not fear with Descartes to be prisoners of an illusion forged by an “evil demon” with no hope of ever seeing the world as it is, since empirical reality, even being our own creation, can only cause superfluous angst. Even more so, in the case of art: the angst caused by our consciousness of being mortal and leading a vain existence is quickly alleviated by the prophylactic formation of images and, at best, works of art.

  • 36 Danto 2005: 30.

Again, Daydream, or fantasies, are ways of manipulating images we produce in such a manner as to gratify certain emotional requirements without having to make the adjustments or concessions or to take the risks required were, we to seek satisfaction of them in reality.36

  • 37 Breton 1969: 125; in French, see Breton 1988: 782-783.

28Obviously, what is important for Danto is that the artistic energy, which everyone feels pulsating through dreams, is both expressed and contained. It cannot be released wrongly like some weapon discharge, as French poet André Breton anticipated provocatively in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism: «The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd».37

29Since art cannot cannot spill over into the real without risk, the real would have to be reconstituted in the artworld, but is it possible? According to Nietzsche, it is not, because simulating reality is too rational a program to accurately express our Urvermögen of divine impulse. According to Nietzsche, Euripides’ intention has always been to obey a Socratic injunction to understand the motives of the hero as a person, struggling with his prosaic preoccupations or his emotions, but this is not what tragedy was initially about. The paradox of creation identified by the philologist in Greek culture thus extends to the very nature of art. This is why Danto comes to it at a time when he is trying to understand his mixed feelings about performance art, whose radicality and novelty he perceives along with its primitive energy. He is therefore engaged in a kind of Nietzschean exercise by exhibiting what he calls the «Euripidean dilemma». This research could just as well be called The Birth of Performance.

3. The performer as a tragic hero

30In the thought experience that Danto imagines from his readings of Nietzsche, Euripidean dilemma is the artist’s dilemma. It concerns mimetic art, since Euripides is a playwright who wanted to imitate the action of the characters in such a way that their choices, in the most extravagant situations, seem sensible to us.

31This dilemma critically concerns the essence of art, since the question that arises for the mimetic artist who wants to succeed in his art is to ask himself: should art resemble the ordinary world or should it be a world in itself, resembling nothing but itself? To figure this out, like Danto, we must test the two possibilities offered by this alternative. The first is fidelity to reality.

32One remembers the legendary episode of Pliny, telling how the trompe l’œil paintings of Zeuxis were so convincing that even the birds tried to peck at the painted grapes. Is it what passes for a sign of great technical mastery in Pliny an artistic achievement? Danto suggests the opposite. Relying on Plato’s condemnation of mimetic art in The Republic, he points out that mimetic art is no more art as it reaches a perfect likeness, otherwise mirrors would be supreme masterpieces.

  • 38 Danto 1981: 26.

33On the contrary, it seems to suggest that the mastery of mimesis engages the artist in a game of who-lose-win: the more the artist succeeds in counterfeiting the ordinary world − through his formidable mastery of art – the more his work is struck by the question of its necessity: «What is the point of having in art something which so resembles life that no difference between art and life can be marked in terms of internal content?».38

34For Danto it is clear – and here he seems to be following Nietzsche’s position – that mimetic art, which in its simulation seeks to be true, does not enlighten us as to what makes an object a work of art.

35We must therefore test the other possibility of the dilemma, namely an art that rests on a plastic discontinuity between it and life, an art that produces objects such as we have never seen before in our lives.

  • 39 Ivi: 27.

36Is it possible not only to avoid illusionism, but also to keep with the spectator something like a common world? Is the solution to continue on the path of mimesis but without trying to excel at it? In the theatre, for example, this could consist in cultivating in the tragedy the traces of its ancient ritual expression and making a drama marked by «a self-conscious woodenness, a deliberate archaism, an operatic falseness»?39 It is this anti-Euripides program that Nietzsche sees in Wagner’s opera, powerfully musical, whose source of inspiration comes from ancestral myths. But the problem then arises in another way. As Danto rightly points out:

  • 40 Ivi: 29.

The effort to escape this dilemma, by exaggerating non mimetic elements [...] results in something so unlike reality that the question just raised is stunned. But another, of virtually the same force, remains: what, given that at the extreme we have something discontinuous with reality, remains to distinguish this as art − and not just another piece of reality […]?40

  • 41 See Andina 2011: 72.

37On this point, we can see how Nietzsche showed naivety in The Birth of Tragedy, because the stiffness or grandiloquence he preferred to see artists show rather than abandon themselves to aesthetic Socratism had no chance of working.41 Wagner, who concentrated all his hopes and to whom the work is dedicated, could only disappoint Nietzsche.

  • 42 Danto 1981: 29.

38For the aesthetic specialist, the alternative calls for the following questions: how can one differentiate between an artistic object that is at odds with reality as the public conceives it and a simple non-artistic but new object? Danto in The Transfiguration of The Commonplace takes here the example of a can opener.42 Before it was invented, this object did not belong to the ordinary world, so how can we be sure not to make an ontological error by classifying it as a utensil and not as a work of art?

  • 43 Danto 1997: 183.

39The end of the first chapter seems to be a failure. If the only way to differentiate an unknown object from an unknown work of art rests on our mastery of the cultural conventions defining the different contexts in which we are led to discover them, then the definition of art remains suspended to institutional considerations. But Danto won’t have it. He argues that «Now there is one feature of contemporary art that distinguishes it from perhaps all art made since 1400, which is that its primary ambitions are not aesthetic».43 This means that for Danto, understanding art cannot be the result of a reflection on the specificity of museums or on the behavior of people when they are spectators. This is the whole point of his reasoning on “disturbational art”, it can arise anywhere, impose itself on any group of people without being less art.

  • 44 Ibidem.

40Therefore, Danto seems to go in another direction and focus his analysis on «art which seeks a more immediate contact with people than the museum makes possible». He specifies that this “Extramuseal art” is primarily concerned with performance.44 For Danto, however, being interested in performance means being interested in the artist’s own person, who works with their body.

41The presence of this acting body at work provokes Danto’s hesitation. He seems torn between the affirmation of the immanence of the body and its transcendence. At a first level of analysis, the classical performance setup seems to challenge an immanent body. Danto writes in his essay Postmodern Art and Concrete Selves:

  • 45 Danto 1999: 139.

Of the new forms, performance is in certain respects the easiest to grasp. In it, an immediacy of presence of the artist in the work is assured, and hence an immediacy of confrontation between artist and audience, in which both are in some way put at risk. The performance artist is not endeavoring to create beauty, but to achieve the transformation, possibly the explosive transformation, of consciousness.45

  • 46 Danto 2010a: 29.
  • 47 Danto 1964: 582; Danto 1981: 18.
  • 48 See Danto 2010b.

42It is by taking a closer look at performing artists such as Joseph Beuys and especially Marina Abramovic, that Danto is led to discern another dimension to their art than just the connection with the audience. It is noticeable that these artists work essentially indoors in an institutional context, unlike Chris Burden, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, or Vito Acconci. It is in any case about Marina Abramovic that Danto notes: «Artists are not saints, but there is certainly a sense in which the question of their presence in a performance has at least a resonance in the metaphysics of art».46 Danto once again sees in the performance something of a manifestation of the sacred but not specifically carried by the museum, which he does not hesitate to describe as a secular sanctuary in his writings, notably in The Artworld.47 It is true that Abramovic’s retrospective at the MoMA, particularly her piece The Artist is Present, in which the artist faces the public for 8 hours a day, was a sign towards the idea of “parousia”, a Greek theological term designating the return to earth of the incarnate god. The solemnity of the museum was an asset for this, but also the table that separated the public from the artist for the first days. Abramovic then considered it unnecessary and had it removed48 to give way to a simple face-to-face sitting position, in a modern noli me tangere.

43Despite the church-like silence, the virgin’s mantle, the immobility of the statue, Danto insists:

  • 49 Danto 2010a: 35.

Through this setup, she will inadvertently have re−created the primordial scene described by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, where some member of a group is possessed; becomes a hero, thereby transforming the rest into a chorus. What will now take place? The hero, to continue to speak in Nietzsche’s terms, may sit in silence across from the artist, much as Ulay [her former partner in art and in life] and she sat in silence across from one another in Nightsea Crossing.49

  • 50 Danto 1999: 139.

44For Danto, Marina Abramovic is a sort of priestess «who performed in such a way as to obliterate the gap between her and her audience»,50 and it is true that many performances resemble strange ceremonies whose stakes are not anticipated by the audience, who find themselves drawn into the rite with the risk of being disturbed by it.

  • 51 Danto 2005b: 343.

45As we can see, the transfiguration often dealt with by Danto easily refers to a Christian symbolic context when it comes to works of art. But it’s quite different when it comes to performance art. In his contribution to performance theory, the decisive reference is always that of Nietzsche. It is always a question of a sacramental context, but pre-Christian and above all pre-tragic. This is why if Danto goes so far as to consider the figure of the performance artist as a tragic hero, it is above all because he explained, with Nietzsche’s support, that this hero is a more fundamental, more esoteric entity, linked to the Urvermögen. It is only recognized as a hero and not as an apparition or epiphanic presence because artistic conventions have come to codify and frame artistic events. One could object, however, that not all performances have this aura of mystery and great seriousness. Danto himself acknowledges the specificity of a current like Fluxus within performance art. Resolutely more playful, Fluxus pursued the same objective as most performers, namely to imagine an art to be experienced rather than to be seen. But even in this case, something like an actor’s figure, a Dionysian satyr, imposes itself on the philosopher. Fluxus is, concedes Danto, «not an art of heroes but of comedians – or what Maciunas spoke of as ‘jokers’, dedicated to play instead of sacrifice.51

  • 52 Danto 1999: 139.

46The place occupied by performance art is thus, as Danto announced in 1986, a place apart, and somewhat clandestine, which justified the use of the term “shantytown”, but which invariably «connects with a very early form of art»52, the art of pre-convention and pre-institution, and which, while failing to offer tangible elements of the necessary definition of art, comes to plead with Nietzsche in favor of its primordial and essential existence to human life.

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Andina, T. 2011, Arthur Danto: Philosopher of Pop, New York, Cambridge Scholars.

Breton, A. 1969, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. by H.R. Lane, R. Seaver, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press.

Breton, A. 1988, Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Paris, Gallimard.

Danto, A.C. 1964, The Artworld, “The Journal of Philosophy”, 61, 19: 571-584.

Danto, A.C. 1981, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. A Philosophy of Art, Cambridge (MA) - London, Harvard University Press.

Danto, A.C. 1986, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, New York, Columbia University Press.

Danto, A.C. 1992, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, New York, Straus & Giroux.

Danto, A.C. 1997, After the End of Art. Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Danto, A.C. 1998, The Wake of Art: Criticism, Philosophy and the Ends of Taste, G. Horowitz, T. Huhn T. (eds), Amsterdam, G&B Arts International.

Danto, A.C. 1999, Philosophizing Art, Berkeley - Los Angeles, University of California Press.

Danto, A.C. 2000, The Madonna of the Future, New York, Straus & Giroux.

Danto, A.C. 2005a, Nietzsche as Philosopher [1965], New York, Columbia University Press.

Danto, A.C. 2005b, Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life, New York, Straus & Giroux.

Danto, A.C. 2010a, Danger and disturbation: The art of Marina Abramovic, in Christian M. (ed.), Marina Abramovic, The Artist Is Present, New York, The Museum of Modern Art: 28-35.

Danto, A.C. 2010b, Sitting with Marina, in The New York Times, May 23th, 2010,−with−marina/ [link non disponibile: 29/02/24].

Hoffman F. et al. 2007, Chris Burden, London, Thames & Hudson - Newcastle upon Tyne, Locus+.

Daphinoff, D. 2011, Catastrophe Observed from an Unsafe Distance: Terrorism and the literary Imagination, in T. Austenfeld, D. Daphinoff, J. Herlth (eds), Terrorism and Narrative Practice, Zurich-Berlin, Lit: 81-98.

Davies, D. 2004, Art as performance, Oxford, Blackwell.

Morris, R. 1993, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, Cambridge (MA), The Mit Press.

Nietzsche, F. 1999, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, R. Geuss, R. Speirs R. (eds), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. 2010, On truth and lie in a nonmoral sense [1873], in T. Carman T. (ed.), On Truth and Untruth. Selected Writings, New York, Harper Collins.

Rollins, M. (ed.) 1993, Danto and His Critics, Oxford, Blackwell.

Silk, M.S., Stern, J.P. 1981, Nietzsche on Tragedy, New York, Cambridge University Press.

Tillim, S. 1968, Earthworks and the new Picturesque, “Artforum”, 7, 3: 42‑45.

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1 Danto 1986: 119.

2 Danto 1981: 8; 1998: 184-185.

3 Danto 1997: 125.

4 As Saul Ostrow puts it, in Danto 1998: xv.

5 Or later “disturbatory art”, see Danto 2010a: 31.

6 Danto 1964: 573.

7 Danto 1986: 118.

8 See Tillim 1968: 45; Danto, 1998: 22. Barbara Haskell suggests in her catalog for the exhibition «Blam!» (1984) that for younger artists, Abstract Expressionism, critically acclaimed by modernists, was just getting old. See Danto 2005b: 339.

9 Morris 1993: 229.

10 Danto 1986: 121.

11 Ivi: 119.

12 Ivi: 120.

13 See Daphinoff 2011: 81-82.

14 Danto 2010a: 31.

15 See Hoffman 2007: 158-159.

16 Davies 2004: 219.

17 Danto 1986: 123.

18 Ivi: 126.

19 Nietzsche 1999: 40.

20 Danto 1981: 18-19.

21 Ivi: 19. This action is not actually played on stage, as it is elliptical, but the image evokes for Danto some Butoh dancing situation. It is also reminiscent the true story that takes place in pre-war Japan, where a passionate love story ended up badly: the woman being found walking in the streets, disoriented, her male lover’s genitalia in her pocket. Ôshima drew inspiration from this story for his film The Realm of the Senses, released in 1976.

22 Danto 2000: 112-113.

23 Danto 1986: 129.

24 Nietzsche 1999: 62

25 He turned the phrase “philosophic disenfranchisement of art” into the title of a collection of articles in 1986, from which the essay «Art and Disturbation» is drawn.

26 Danto 2005: 27-28.

27 Danto 2005: 53.

28 Danto 1986: 119.

29 Danto 1986: 123. About Abramovic Seven Easy Pieces, see Danto 2010a: 30.

30 Danto 2005: 57-58.

31 See Nietzsche 1873 [2010]: 35-36. Danto 2005: 222-225, 229. Danto 1986: 159, in an allusive fashion.

32 Danto 2005: 229.

33 Danto 1981: 25.

34 Ivi: 49. He quotes Descartes in French: “les choses qui nous sont représentées dans le sommeil sont comme des tableaux et des peintures”. See also Danto 1997: 35.

35 Danto 2005: 35.

36 Danto 2005: 30.

37 Breton 1969: 125; in French, see Breton 1988: 782-783.

38 Danto 1981: 26.

39 Ivi: 27.

40 Ivi: 29.

41 See Andina 2011: 72.

42 Danto 1981: 29.

43 Danto 1997: 183.

44 Ibidem.

45 Danto 1999: 139.

46 Danto 2010a: 29.

47 Danto 1964: 582; Danto 1981: 18.

48 See Danto 2010b.

49 Danto 2010a: 35.

50 Danto 1999: 139.

51 Danto 2005b: 343.

52 Danto 1999: 139.

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Benjamin Riado, «“Euripidean dilemma”: Nietzsche’s influence on Danto’s philosophical understanding of performance art»Rivista di estetica, 77 | 2021, 124-139.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Benjamin Riado, «“Euripidean dilemma”: Nietzsche’s influence on Danto’s philosophical understanding of performance art»Rivista di estetica [Online], 77 | 2021, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 13 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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