Lydia Goehr, Red Sea–Red Square–Red Thread: A Philosophical Detective Story, Oxford University Press, 2021 (photo by the author)

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.  

Lydia Goehr’s Red Sea–Red Square–Red Thread: A Philosophical Detective Story (Oxford University Press, 2021) is a 650-page commentary focused on interpreting Danto’s three-page discussion. Danto’s thesis can be stated in one short sentence; while his particular examples are amusing, they are not needed to understand the thesis. Why then is Goehr’s book so long? She discusses Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème (1896), which starts with a scene of the bohemian painter trying to make a painting of the Red Sea. (Goehr’s first book, it may be relevant to know, was a study of musical aesthetics.) William Hogarth was said to have painted that subject, the Red Sea, and so she considers him at length. And, of course, the Red Sea is associated with the emancipation of the Jews from their Egyptian captivity, thus the history of anti-Semitism is pertinent. Also relevant here is Kazimir Malevich’s “Red Square” (1915). In short, once you start to look in art history, in music and in cultural history, you find a great many red paintings and allusions to the Red Sea. 

And the color red has many political associations. There’s Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black (1830). In 1818 Stendhal, who was an opera lover, wrote a famous description of Gioachino Rossini’s Mosè. In several operas by Richard Wagner, as well as in Puccini’s Tosca, are more paintings. Raymond Pelez’s 1843 caricature of the Parisian Salon, which depicted a monochromatic black painting, was one anticipation of Alphonse Allais’s better-known red monochrome, “Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea (Study of the Aurora Borealis)” (1884). Also, perhaps, Goehr suggests that Danto “had in mind the redness and squareness associated with the communism culminating in a Red Moses of revolution.” Her examples multiply, for in Red Sea “everything and everyone are discussed according to the contribution made to the Red Sea emancipation narrative and its anecdote.”

You don’t need to consider Kierkegaard’s example of the Red Sea painting to present Danto’s basic thesis. In his essay “The Art World” (1964), which was the source of Transfiguration’s argument, Kierkegaard isn’t mentioned. (The last sentence in my first paragraph states the basic thesis.) Examples do, however, help to motivate that thesis. Sometimes Danto considered the idea that philosophical texts are like artworks. Perhaps, then, we cannot fully understand his theory of red squares as artworks without considering their artistic, historical, and political contexts, which Goehr so elaborately constructs — the terse, abstract statements of philosophy and their expansive exemplification in the world cannot be separated.

At any rate, Goehr’s way of thinking is infectious; Red Sea inspires this search for associations and antecedents. Her aim seems to be to erase or at least undercut the usual distinction between philosophical texts and the commentary that explicates them. As she says: “For me, philosophy works best when it walks through the material, abstracting its results, reasoning with care and truthfulness, but not with the result of leaving the matter and bindings behind.” More precisely, Red Sea is not just, or not only, a commentary on Transfiguration but also a rival text that offers a radically original philosophical theory of aesthetics. Goehr argues that Danto didn’t present the full philosophical story. What he missed, she suggests, was understanding “his anxiety toward analytical philosophy […].” Her full historical discussion aims at identifying the limitations she finds in his account. If she is right, we need her complete assembly of examples to link Danto’s seemingly apolitical aesthetics to political and social history in ways that she spells out. 

So much for exegesis. Does Goehr offer a plausible or even coherent way of thinking? I am not sure, but I am certain that her account is passionately interesting. In an essay that is germane here, Danto remarked: “I cannot think of a field of writing as fertile as philosophy has been in generating forms of literary expression.” He doesn’t include an example anything like Red Sea, a commentary so ambitious, so original, so detailed, and so poetic that it transcends mere commentary and becomes itself a distinguished contribution to philosophy. What thus is most admirable is that Goehr has not just presented an abstract theory of interpretation, but has actually demonstrated her practice by working out exquisitely the elaborate details of Red Sea, which is great fun to read. By the time I reached the end, admittedly a little exhausted, I was sincerely sorry that there wasn’t more to read. 

Red Sea–Red Square–Red Thread: A Philosophical Detective Story by Lydia Goehr (2021) is published by Oxford University Press and is available online and in bookstores.

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David Carrier

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s...