The Nation's controversial critic considers art of the past and the present in 45 engaging and resonant essays. Danto (philosophy/Columbia Univ.) remains the sharpeyed art-world interloper (see his The State of the Art, 1987), expanding here on his declaration that Andy Warhol's ""Brillo Boxes"" signalled ""the end of art."" In this posthistorical period, art has not stopped, he explains, it has simply been released from its philosophical mission of self-definition. These ""bad aesthetic times"" are the just deserts of dealers and collectors who wanted to ""get art history back on track"" and got ""industrial-strength artworks"" by artists like David Salle and Julian Schnabel. Yet he acknowledges that ""it is a heady moment, inevitably confusing to us all."" His reviews of contemporary art take the reader on an exhilarating search for meaning in the clowning of Red Grooms (""perhaps the only public artist we have""), in the ""unsettling"" ""performance art"" of Cindy Sherman, and in works by Frank Stella that emanate a ""certain feminist sensibility."" Danto brings the same wit, logic, spontaneity, and boldness to his thought-provoking ""encounters"" with paintings and drawings dating from long before art's end by some of history's greatest artists--including works by Raphael, Goya, Courbet, Degas, van Gogh, and Gauguin. He describes Fragonard as ""beached by the rush of history,"" and Raphael, the West's ""most influential artist,"" as ""academic."" Throughout, the lucidly wrought argument brings in the wider cultural context by referring to writers like Vasari, Hegel, E.M. Forster, or Henry James. What draws the common reader to these brilliant essays is the critic's ability to conjure visual images--Stella's ""drop-dead colors and clashing conjunctions,"" or a Degas drawing where a pinafore is ""picked out in wet strokes of bluish white."" Danto centers art in a cultural dialogue where critic and public (including an uninitiated reader) both have a place. A rich, challenging work--criticism at its best.