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Philosophy of Aesthetics That's Actually Fun to Read

Arthur C. Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art (1981), a classic of American philosophy, widely read by contemporary artists, opens with a marvelous example. Søren Kierkegaard described a fictional red monochromatic painting, “The Israelites Crossing the Red Sea.” Imagine, Danto proposes, a sequence of visually identical artifacts with very different subjects: “Red Square,” a Moscow landscape; “Nirvana,” a Buddhist sacred work; “Red Table Cloth,” a still life; and a plain painted red square. These indiscernible images would, he argues, be very different artworks because, as the titles indicate, they have diverse subjects. Look, if you will, at how differently they are described. And so what follows, Danto concludes, is that a visual artwork is not identified by its appearance. 

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