Kant and the Critique of Judgment

KANT’S SYSTEM of JUDGMENT

Beauty, Taste, and Indifference

In the eighteenth century, art and beauty were considered synonymous. During Kant’s time, the criteria for the “beautiful” was a simple—and specific one—based upon and derived from the supposed Greek ideal of nature perfected. The spell of classicism had long been a part of the Western criteria for art, but the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the middle of the century provided the artists and designer with a historically accurate glimpse of the way Romans lived in antique times. The result of this encounter with the past was, at first, expressed in terms of fashion and design from the architectural masterpieces Robert Adam in England to the emergence of the “empire” high waistlines in women’s clothes. But the idea of the classical went beyond passing trends in furniture design and expressed the concept of that which is timeless, transcendent of historical phases because of its perfection that defied change. Among the early articulators of the historical implications of artistic apotheosis was Johann Winckelmann who inspired art theorists of the eighteenth century to believe in the superiority of classical art. It was Winckelmann who developed an early art historical methodology of studying the past and posited the theory that the ancient Greek artists had started from nature and perfected its imperfections, creating, through the medium of art, a sublime, and perfect beauty. The role of art and the artists was to follow the lessons of Greek art, attempt to emulate it, and achieve the Greek standards of “perfection”. According to the first art historian, Johann Winckelmann, “To take the ancients for models is the only way to become great.”

To fully appreciate the impact of Winckelmann’s writings on antiquity in Germany, it is important to note the timing of his writing. His first significant book, the one that allowed him to make his mark, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and the Art of Sculpture, was published in 1755, during his formative years working in Dresden he was able to visit the paintings, many of which were Italian, of the Dresden Gemäldegallerie. Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works was both so widely read and so controversial, that Winckelmann wrote no less that three follow up books. It was also in 1755 that Winckelmann went to Rome as the librarian of the Cardinal Alessandro Albani, a move from his native Saxony that allowed him to visit the archaeological excavations around Naples. On four visits, he was able to view and critique the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii and Stabae, through 1764. in his introduction to Johann Joachim Winckelmann on Art, Architecture, and Archaeology, David Carter stated that Winckelmann visited the “best preserved Greek temples in Italy” at Paestum. He wrote four books on ancient architecture based upon these Italian observations. Although Winckelmann’s knowledge of antique art was based upon a combination of belated works of classicism from the seventeenth century, Roman copies of Greek originals and preserved examples of Greek classicism, his 1764 book History of the Art of Antiquity, was enormously influential not just to the discipline of art history and archaeology but also to the gradual formation of modern Germany as a united nation with an indentity tied to Greece. When he stated, “The only way we can achieve greatness and if possible to become inimitable is the imitation of the ancients and what some say of Homer that whoever has learned to understand him learns to admire him. The same can be said of the art of antiquity,” he was writing in German to a German audience, possibly referencing more than art. In his recent 2012 book, Winckelmann’s “Philosophy of Art”: A Prelude to German Classicism, John Harry North discussed the cultural changes in Germany during the eighteenth century:

Politically and socially speaking, there was a slow shift from a strictly hierarchical to a more egalitarian configuration of authority, accompanied by a marked increase and widening of the spread of literacy and of economic power to the professional and free-thinking citizens..The positive reception of Winckelmann’s classicism was partly due to the emphasis placed by him on pagan models of ‘nobility’ and ‘freedom’ that he found in pre-Christian society and which he thought found expression in Hellenistic art.

In writing, “His language is almost entirely German, which is a radical statement in itself, since access to the courts and the German nobility would have been in French and to the learned community mainly in Latin. The language he used and further developed was the basic Saxon version of the German language as used by Luther in his translation of the Bible, a language that was familiar to Winckelmann from his Protestant religious upbringing and from the dialect used in the region of his childhood,” North seems to be suggesting that the art historian was participating in the building of a national identity for the Germany to come. In fact, earlier on the author wrote of the role of Winckelmann in inspiring an ideal of freedom and self-actualization in Germany based upon his misinterpretation of Athenian Greek culture:

Interest in Winckelmann and his œuvre began with his first publication in 1756: ‘Thoughts about the Imitation of Greek works in Painting and Sculpture’.1 This work was of importance among the literary elite of Germany and it continued to be read beyond his death in 1768. Winckelmann was one of the originators of the illusion that there had been in late antiquity democratic government in Greece; a government that fostered the freedom of the individual citizen and of the artist. The idea of such a cultural homeland, i.e. Griechentum, spread through the succeeding generations of German philosophers and historians, resulting in a second illusion: the notion that classical Greece was somehow ancestral to German culture, to Deutschtum. This theory of an imagined German Hellenism persisted for centuries and came to a close only with the end of the Third Reich.

In building a nascent theory of analyzing art, Winckelmann also established the theory that the art of a particular culture rises, peaks and then declines. Today, we understand Winckelmann’s hierarchy for artist phases to be imposed upon what were stylistic evolutions and changes connected to shifts in culture. Contemporary art history examines art, not from a superimposed theory of “rise and fall,” but from an appreciation for each phase as an entity in itself. But two hundred years ago, the fields of art history, art theory, art criticism and aesthetics were in their infancy, and, for these early writers, the starting point of emulation was Greek art. Winkelmann’s books were coded messages, writing to an educated audience in his German homeland, a place that was experiencing the Enlightenment and longing for freedom, while bent under the yokes of princelings. The art historian’s message to be like the Greeks would have had a wider meaning in Germany than in France, where the classical antique would have been more of a recipe for art making than an account of an early democracy where art flourished. The idea of copying the Greeks, the ancients, is also stated by Quatremère de Quincy in “An Essay on the Nature and Means of Imitation in the Fine Arts” (1823). De Quincy wrote that the final perfection of art is to reproduce, not things as seen with all their faults and imperfections, but as objects refashioned into an ideally beautiful nature. In this fashion, nature became art, never experienced in the actual but “corrected” by the Greeks into “superior beauty” which is the goal of all art. The equation of the art of the ancient Greeks with idealized beauty would establish a standard, or a canon, that would be challenged by the later generation. The quarrel between the old generation and the new will be termed the “Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns.” The new generation, the Romantics, would not only reject the ancient as subject matter but would also refute the notion of idealized ‘beauty”.

Whatever the political subtexts of Greek art may have been, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the idea of “beauty” as being an attempt to renew the artistic quest for perfection of the natural, based upon Greek models was firmly entrenched and frozen into academic dictum and practice. However, in practice, as could be seen in any academy, a slavish reproduction of classicism quickly turned sterile. Academic practice had confused great art with great ideas and great subjects with large works of art whose merit began to rest more and more upon the excellence of technique and morals rather than upon inherent greatness. Writing decades after Winckelmann, in the Critique of Judgment in 1790, Kant, a Prussian subject, thought in universal, rather than in Germanic terms. In his book The Idea Of Nationalism: A Study In Its Origins And Background, Hans Kohn wrote that “Kant has sometimes been regarded as a Prussian in a deeper sense than that of a mere subject. Prussian emphasis upon duty and discipline and Kant’s primacy of duty seemed to reveal a certain affinity between their ethical attitudes. In reality, the similarity is purely superficial and is confined to one point; in their origin and enhance the two attitudes, were not only different but opposed. Prussianism centered in the state, for which Kant’s philosophy showed hardly any understanding or love. Prussia was founded upon authority and subjection; Kant’s philosophy, upon equality and autonomy..”

In his appreciation of human freedom, Kant was a typical Enlightenment philosopher. Like Gotthold Ephriam Lessing, a close associate of Winckelmann, who as Kohn noted, “represented a synthesis of the spirit of Enlightenment and of the new humanism.” The author continued, “Kant’s ethics never knew any other horizon than the universal one of mankind..Kant visualized mankind, a universal society of free individuals, as the goal of all human development.Kant thought exclusively in the concepts of a rational order for mankind. The principles of the French Revolution were enthusiastically welcomed by him.” It is in relation to the Enlightenment principles of universality and transcendence that Kant’s final volume can be read. Kant established the grounds for judgment about art on the basis of “disinterest,” writing, “Everyone must admit that a judgment about beauty, in which the least interest mingles, is very partial and is not a pure judgment of taste. We must not be in the least prejudiced in favor of the existence of the things, but be quite indifferent in this respect, in order to play the judge in things of taste.” Kant divided judgments into the categories of “the pleasant, the beautiful, and the good” which “designate then three different relations of representations to the feelings of pleasure and pain, in reference to which we distinguish from one another objects of methods of representing them.” He concluded that “We may say that, of all these three kinds of satisfaction, that of taste in the beautiful alone a disinterested and free satisfaction; for no interest, either of had sense or reason, hence forces our assent..” Therefore, Kant stated, Taste is the faculty of judging an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful.”

Conceptually, Kant had to separate worthy subject matter from a worthy work of art, because subject matter or content cannot be timeless. Subject matter that is meaningful in one era may be meaningless in another. The worth of any work of art must be transcendent and universal, allowing the viewer of any time and place to appreciate the work of art in its own inherent terms which, for Kant, were excellence of drawing (line) and design (composition), without consideration of color which was subjective and emotional and content which was extrinsic to form. The role of color was solely to enhance form. The argument over line or color was somewhat related the Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns, as the Ancients, Line and disciplined behavior were linked to strong ruling régimes and color and feelings were related to the new and dangerous ideas of freedom and democracy. From Kant’s perspective, however, color is secondary to preserve the universality of line, which is unchangeable and, supposedly, beyond interpretation.

Kant sought a universal standard for judgment in the realm of art, a set of values that would be independent of personal likes and dislikes, of subject matter which was bound up in its own time, of morality or fashion or passion. Upon what can universal judgments that are timeless and absolute be based? Kant wove certain prevailing ideas into a coherent system, which differentiates the Judgment of aesthetic pleasure from other pleasures. Aesthetic judgments are both subjective, that is, not provable in any scientific way, and also universal, that is, agreed upon by everyone. A thing can be “proved” to be beautiful because it belongs to a certain class of things or characteristics. A phenomenological judgment is the result of a direct aesthetic experience. The subjective aesthetic judgment is the feeling or the response of the subject when the object is apprehended, contemplated, and then judged.

Even though subjective (not empirical), the aesthetic judgment is opposed to a relativistic doctrine in which beauty is dependent upon individual likes and dislikes. Kant was quite opposed to such relativistic judgments, for they are based upon personal responses, which are tied to a particular place and time as well as to the individual. Kant also rejected the concept of “interest” as the basis for determining beauty and art. Interest is desire, a concern for the existence of a thing; it is a utility judgment: this thing is “good” for something, especially sensory pleasure. Kant excluded sensory pleasure: “That taste is still barbaric which needs an added element of charm and emotion in order that there may be satisfaction and still more so if it adopts these as the measure of its approval.” He denied aesthetic pleasure or value to beautiful tones in music and to the beauty of color in art.

Kant advocated disinterest and indifference to content or subject matter and appreciated only design and composition. Purity in tone or color make form more definite and clear and easily intuitable. Form, clearly and purely delineated, sustains attention to the object itself. Thus, Kant puts forward the concept of “free beauty,” or pure aesthetic beauty, which has its own internal or inherent or intrinsic purposiveness: “The beautiful is that which pleases apart from a concept.” For the judgment of the beautiful to be universally valid, it must be detached from individual and personal feelings. For this aesthetic judgment to claim to be correct, it must not be singular or unique to a particular object. “Art” must rest upon the principle of disinterestedness. This judgment, from a universal standpoint, assumes the existence of common sense, which is universally communicable.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Kant and Aesthetic Theory

KANT AND AESTHETICS

While Kant was writing the Critique of Judgment, 1790, the answer of the role of the artist in society was increasingly unclear, and the social and cultural situation was increasingly unstable. The artist was looking at an abyss, gazing into the unknown of a new era, when Kant solved the problem of art and shaped its definition for the next two centuries. Kant began with assumptions common to his time: we can recognize “art” and we know what “art” is and that “art” is something we can see. He also assumes “beauty” and hence assumed its existence as an unquestionable quality universally agreed upon. Kant never dealt with specific works of art and thus was removed from the current taste and vogue for classical art. Neo-classicism was the new art in Kant’s time, and it was, briefly, a revolutionary art movement denoting (Greek) freedom and democracy and the promise of individuality, along with (Roman) gravitas and stability. But Neoclassicism was quickly co-opted by post-Revolutionary Academicism. A once-revolutionary movement became a forced and regulated status quo. The Neo-Classical ideal of beauty, before the ideals became rules, was associated with the art of ancient Athens, considered eternal and transcendent. As the poet John Keats best expressed it, in Ode on a Grecian Urn:

….

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats (1795 – 1821)

“Aesthetics” was that which is sensuous or the perception of sense data. Aesthetics has evolved into a more inclusionary definition that is applied to the arts but in the middle of the Eighteenth Century when A. G. Baumgarten founded a “new science” and published Aesthetica in 1750, aesthetics connected art to life. Although Emmanuel Kant did not invent aesthetics, he formalized the philosophical concept and elaborated aesthetics into a new notion of art that turned out to be uniquely suited to the new century. Although Emmanuel Kant did not invent aesthetics, he formalized the philosophical concept and elaborated aesthetics into a new notion of art that turned out to be uniquely suited to the new century. For the first time “art” became a distinctive value in life and was considered the result of a mode of knowledge, called aesthetics or feelings registered by the subject/viewer in response to the stimulus of an art object. Regardless of the intent of the client or of the artist, the art object is a unique object in that it is contemplated for insight and delight. Alexander Baumgarten widened the field of aesthetics from art to human conduct, opening possibilities for another philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who would build upon Kantian aesthetics to create theories of art as participating actively in life itself. For all of the eighteenth century pioneer writers, “Aesthetics” is a middle ground, existing somewhere between reason and morality. Aesthetics concerned itself with that which was material or sensuous or plastic—physical life. Like other aspects of human experience, aesthetics needed to be brought into the Kantian epistemological system and subjected to the rigors of reason.

Aesthetics is a dualistic concept, a philosophical play between the artist and the art critic or philosopher. Aesthetics as a branch of philosophy, is not concerned with particular works of art but is more concerned with the question of “art” itself. Obviously, the contemporary meaning of the word, “aesthetics” as a particular quality or style of the art or intent of the artist is superficial and limited and incorrect. Fundamentally, Aesthetics, like any other branch of philosophy, attempts to determine the grounds of “art,” its ontology, and the system of knowledge that produces and constructs the mode of judgment or contemplation of art, its epistemology. Once art had been justified as an activity legitimated by its role in society as teacher and instructor and educator, working for the benefit of the community. In Giotto’s time, his profession was ancillary to the needs of the religious institution that contracted for his services. As Michael Baxendall pointed out in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, the artist or artisan or skilled workman, was a contract worker, doing what he was told. However, four hundred years later, in the modern period, art needed two things. First, a reason for being: ontology, and second, a definition: epistemology. Although it was not Kant’s precise intention to create a new meaning and purpose for art, the effects of his philosophy was to link art to personal expressiveness and individual freedom. It was Kant who ushered in Romanticism by devising a theory of aesthetics that perfectly suited the times.

Given that aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, Kant proceeded by putting art into his transcendental system. As is characteristic of his system, the idea of art was divided into two parts that correspond to self and object, that is, contemplation by the viewer of the work of art itself. The ontology of a work of art is not the object, not even the artist, but the recognition of “art” which is a perceptual and conceptual act. Too see is to judge/contemplate. Art vision, like any vision, is never raw; it is always tempered and educated and acts according to (Kantian) rules. Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) was the third in his trilogy of epistemology. In his first two Critiques, Kant established new ground for reason and morality and the third Critique had to establish a universal and transcendent basis for making a judgment. What did one have the occasion to judge? One judges all the time and one judges emotionally, often based upon a physical reaction or a sensation to a perception or a sight of an object considered “beautiful” or “ugly” and so on. Depending upon the extent of the reaction, one could judge the man as more or less beautiful or the house as more or less ugly. These reactions are personal and localized and are dependent upon individual taste. In other words, Kant could have selected any category of experience in which humans exercise judgment, such as the law which weighs the fate of human beings, but he selected art, a surprising choice.

To select the judgment of art as the centerpiece of this critique was a very modern move on the part of a man who had little experience of art himself. Kant was born in, lived in, worked in, wrote in, and died in one place, Königsberg, and, as far as we know, knew of art only through reading about it. In an age before color printing, he might have seen engravings of famous works; in a time before photography, he would have had only an approximate idea of what any work of art looked like. One can surmise that perhaps he selected art as the center of his Critique on judgment because he had no strong feelings about the topic. We know, for example, that Kant had a strong reaction to the French Revolution, which erupted a year before this last book was published. Surely, the judgment of the revolutionaries upon the hapless aristocrats would have provided a dramatic case study, but Kant selected areas far less topical and far more eternal and universal: nature, the sublime and art, which involved volatile taste, a troublesome reaction that needed to be brought under control. Unlike the sentencing of criminals, art was not amenable to judgment under a system of laws from the state and did not fall within the sphere of morality, nor did art traffic with reason. Simply by removing art from the rule of law or morality was to free works of art and artists from age-old tutelage at the hands of the powerful or the religious. Like the rest of society, art had become secular, and, in becoming secular, it had lost its place in society. Coincidentally, Kant was writing at the precise time the artist was losing the class that had been the traditional patrons, the aristocrats, to the guillotine in France. In the Nineteenth Century, the purpose of art and the role of artists were questions, and, regardless of his intentions, Kant’s aesthetics proved to be the new answers.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast Episode 14: French Romanticism: Delacroix, Part One

DELACROIX THE ROMANTIC

Part One

A member of the famous Bohemian crowd of French avant-garde art, Delacroix was considered the rebellious leader of French Romanticism. Like all artists of his generation, he had missed out on Napoléonic glory but found excitement in the clash of civilizations between the Europeans and the Muslims with the war between the Turks and the rebellious Greeks. The paintings of Delacroix followed the struggle for democracy among the Greeks abroad and the lower classes at home. The painting of Liberty Leading the People was so stirring that it was decades before it was permitted by the French state to be displayed in a public museum. However, Delacroix was a conservative, who feared revolution and preferred peace and quiet in order to make art. His greatest battles were fought in the Salon with his supreme rival, Ingres.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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Kant and Aesthetics

Kant and Aesthetics

The Creation of Artistic Freedom and Art-for-Art’s Sake

France became the titular home of the Enlightenment because of the necessity of opposing the decadence of the ancien régime, but it must be recalled that there were numerous important philosophers in England as well—the Earl of Shaftesbury, John Locke, David Hume–who were operating in a more “enlightened” society where royal power had long since been effectively curbed. England had had its revolution, endured the rule of the middle class, the Puritans, and had gladly restored the monarchy in 1688. The English, wary of religious extremism, endured in Cromwell, established a careful balance of power between the Crown and the People and Religion.In the next century, while they were building their colonial empire, the British learned the hard way about the power of the people when the American colonies rebelled and fought their way to freedom, using the ideas of the Enlightenment that were developed in Europe. The American Revolution was a philosophical affair, a grand experiment in democracy. To the amazement and alarm of Europeans, the Americans were turning philosophical systems into a Constitution, a government, and a way of life. And yet, it was in what we can only call “the Germanies,” not yet a modern nation, but a collection of principalities, that philosophers synthesized Enlightenment philosophy and extended it to a world now called “modern.”

“Dare to reason—have the courage to use your own minds—is the motto of the Enlightenment.” This powerful statement, defining the Enlightenment, was written by Emmanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) in 1784 in Germany, a singularly un-Enlightened disunited land. In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Kant defined the Enlightenment briefly and cogently as the foundation of a new conception of the essential qualities of the state and of history. “History” exists as a concept, according to Kant, only in relation to a series of events moving towards an ideal unity or an immanent end. Writing belatedly at the end of the Enlightenment period, Kant coupled history with a teleological purpose. The question, for the Enlightenment philosopher, is that of the goals of history. The contemplators of past events–the historians–are no longer standing in the midst of a simple series of discrete events, but are philosophers observing a series of actions that include the idea of individual freedom. History was a process of self-liberation, a process from natural bondage towards a sense of individual becoming in a spiritual sense. Ending with a tribute to his ruler, Frederick the Great, Kant asked and answered a simple question:

If we are asked , “Do we now live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, “No,” but we do live in an age of enlightenment. As things now stand, much is lacking which prevents men from being, or easily becoming, capable of correctly using their own reason in religious matters with assurance and free from outside direction. But on the other hand, we have clear indications that the field has now been opened wherein men may freely dea1 with these things and that the obstacles to general enlightenment or the release from self-imposed tutelage are gradually being reduced. In this respect, this is the age of enlightenment, or the century of Frederick.

In place of irrational belief systems, the Enlightenment has created a doctrine of rational faith (perhaps a contradiction in terms)—faith in the powers of human reason. Kant has been called the First Modernist, probably because he was among the most significant late-Enlightenment philosophers. Kant sought to solve the problems put forward or suggested by the early Enlightenment philosophers and sought to establish an epistemology of knowledge based upon the deductive powers of human reason. He had to establish a system of modern morality and ethics for human behavior, without God, based upon “practical reason.” He had to establish a universal means of arriving at a judgment recognized universally as being valid. Ultimately, Kant had to create an architectural structure for the new individual in an Age of Enlightenment and to do that he wrote three foundational books upon which modern philosophy would rest and develop.

The Enlightenment is deeply concerned with politics: how people can rule and/or be ruled without God or King and the divine right of aristocracy. The issue of freedom must be balanced against morals and truths and social controls. Society and culture are in a state of change and flux and doubt under pressure from the rising aspirations of the lower classes and the growing power of the middle class. Enlightenment philosophy both witnesses these changes and seeks to contain an unprecedented social situation that upends prevailing traditions. Art is but one casualty of a culture, which goes into shock from experiencing modernity in the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. The old grounds for judging “art” as worthy of being “art” began to deteriorate. In more stable time, “art” had been that which the Church ordered, what the King demanded, or what the patron wanted, or what the Academy dictated. Thus “art”and its definition was based upon elements external to “art,”such as desire and interest. The ordering of art had worked for centuries but, in Kant’s time, that authoritarian class was in the process of being wiped out where the definite of “art” was formed–France. It was time to establish an epistemology for “art,” and in doing so, Kant was joining a small number of philosophers who were writing the new discourse called “aesthetics,” or the definition of art.

One of the pioneer philosophers to contribute to the new discourse on aesthetics, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762) who coined the word “aesthetics,” which he drew from the Greek term, aisthanomai or perception, the conditions of sensuous perception, which was the same as the Latin word, sentio. Baurgarten realized that he was venturing into a new area of philosophy, that which engaged the senses in a fashion that was both physical and emotional (not based in reason) when the human engaged with art or reacted to nature. The results of such encounters were subjective, judgments that could not be grounded in the objective. As Baumgarten said, “Things known are to be known by the superior faculty as the object of logic; things perceived [are to be known by the inferior faculty, as the object] of the science of perception, or aesthetic.” Aesthetica (1750/1758) was written in Latin which perhaps accounts for the slow acceptance of the new word. In 1835 in Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, Georg Hegel succinctly defined aesthetics and placed it firmly within philosophy: “..the real name of our science is the philosophy of art and more specically the philosophy of fine art..” By the end of the nineteenth century, aesthetics had entered into the common parlance, mainly because the ground for judging art, an oxymoron, had become more and more necessary over the century. Notice that with Kant and Hegel, the idea of aesthetics or a philosophy of art was limited to “fine art.” According to Lars-Olof Åhlberg, “..it is with D’Alembert’s introduction, the Discours préliminaire, to the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751) that..the modern system of the arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, music) is set forth in its inal form.”

Thus Kant’s aesthetic philosophy became the right philosophy for the right time—his aesthetic ideas restored the order and purpose of art, ironically by injecting art with the disorder of originality and stripping it of all purpose but its own. Kantian aesthetics developed out of a sense of crisis in the arts, which were unanchored without traditional purpose or patronage, bereft of subject matter and content, once dictated, and validated by Church and State. Already, the artists in France had discovered the vagaries of the middle class public, the new audience to which they were subjected in public salons. Equally depressing was the rise of yet another new enemy, the art critic who freely gave his (unlearned) influential opinion of the endeavors of the artists. How should art be judged? Who had the right to judge? The jurors? The teachers? The artists? The critics? The patrons? or the public? The goal of Kant was to put judgment on a universal basis and, because art fell neatly into the realm of subjectivity, he used art as his model in his discussion of aesthetics for the role of judgment and how the human mind could reach universal judgments from a disinterested perspective. There is a disjuncture between perception and a resulting sensation and noesis or knowledge and the Enlightenment had pushed out the subjective and the impact of emotions or psychology upon human thinking. It is important to note that this dichotomy which Kant would attempt to solve in his last Critique was of less interest to his nineteenth century leaders than his new definitions of artist and art.

The Critique of Judgment was published in Prussia in 1790 and it established aesthetics as a new branch of philosophy. Kant based his third and final volume of his philosophical trio upon certain assumptions that we do not believe today but which, for him, were accepted as “true” to the point of blindness. For Kant, something called “art” existed and the grounds of art was beauty. Understanding art required judgment and the judgment, like those of reason and science, had to be, of necessity, universal. We as humans, possess the capacity to judge (Urteilskraft) and this power allows us to make individual judgments (Urteile). In many ways, one feels that Kant was compelled to take up the slippery area of judgment. In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he established the grounds of a priori reason within the architectonic structures of the human mind; in the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant was able to define morality as that which exists simply as a value in itself, independent of and indifferent to any reward. One does good because it is good, now because one will receive approval for being moral. In both cases, judgment haunted the Critiques like an uninvited guest, refusing to leave and demanding to be dealt with. A judgment was defined by its subjective state and by its dire need to be placed on an objective basis–because we “judge” all the time. We judge science as being true or not, based upon empirical testing; we judge certain kinds of behavior as good, based upon the outcome. But how does one judge art and beauty? Kant was particularly concerned about the role of taste in judgment, that is, individual likes and dislikes—interests and desires, which had to be purged for any judgment to be valid.

Although Kant was concerned with beauty in art and with the operation of the (judging) mind when faced with the sublime, it is taste which must be tamed by critique. The issue is neatly summarized in the two necessary words: subjective and universal–taste is subjective but judgment has to be universal. It is one thing to be stirred by the awesome beauty of nature or being moved by nature’s more modest offerings, it is another operation to judge an objective made by a human being. When judging fine art, one operates with “taste” which is a response to beauty. Later, Marcel Duchamp will criticize mainstream art directly on this basis, that “taste” is a subjective and sensuous and physical reaction to a object that is stimulating to the retina. In order to forestall such a superficial reaction, Kant searched for the ends or the purpose of the object as well as the result of the work of the artist, which were, of course, intertwined. If the artist and the art were cause and effect, then the artist was manifested through the art. But what should the end of art be? Or to ask the question in another fashion, how could art be rescued from the blandishments of the client or from the personal feelings of the spectator? For Kant, purpose and intention (Absicht) seem to be co-extensive, meaning that he was obligated to investigate the artist as well as the grounds for art. If the artist was at the beck and call of a patron, then the intention of art was not art’s intention, begging the question, how could it be properly called “art” in the universal sense? The problem is clear–the purpose of art will be conditioned by the telos or end–the will of the patron, and that cannot stand.

If judgment is teleological, and it is, for Kant, then the beginning must rest within the artist and it is here that Kant began to solve his problem of purpose: the artist was a “genius,” a new concept which separated the “artist” from a maker or a copyist or from someone dutifully following orders. Obviously, the modern artist cannot live within an academy or and art school or be ruled by a jury. The modern artist is the creator who plays with forms in order to create new forms; the modern artist is an inventor, an innovator. These new concepts will be discussed in the next posts.

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Podcast 13 Romanticism: Ingres, Part Two

INGRES, THE NUDES, AND CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION

Part Two

By the middle of his artistic life, Ingres had reached the pinnacle of his career as the ruler of the Academy in France. Although the artist claimed to uphold the principles of classical art, his approach to the favorite subject of the day—the female nude—was idiosyncratic to say the least. After the Salon of 1824, Ingres made classical content less important to his oeuvre and his artistic content was divided between escapist fantasies and the fashions of the day. Ingres represented the French taste for the exotic in his dreams of the Orient, while at the same time reflecting the new imperialism in the Middle East. Closer to home, the fashion-obsessed painter scrupulously crafted the conspicuous consumption of High Capitalism in mid-century France. The master of Academic art and the ruler of the Academy, Ingres was also one of the great portrait artists of the nineteenth century. It is through is paintings of the rich and powerful that we can glimpse the beginning of the era of “conspicuous consumption.”

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

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Thank you.
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Kant and Reason

KANT AND CRITICAL REASON

The eighteenth century British philosopher, David Hume, suggested that we believe that there is a connection between cause and effect. For example. fire causes flame and results in an effect of smoke. Were it not for this belief system, we would be surprised every time we lit a match, saw fire, and witnessed the fire burn an object. Kant replaced Hume’s charge that cause and effect were mere metaphysical constructs with the idea of the a priori: mental structures possessed by human beings that allowed people to logically order empirical experiences in a rational fashion. We understand that “smoke” means “fire” not because one observes the effect of a lit match upon a dry leaf, but because one carries a preconceived concept of cause and effect in the mind a priori or before the fact. Thus Kant replaced Descartes’s blind faith that God would not delude him with human reason and the powers of rational thinking and removed God from the philosophical equation. In his critique of Western philosophy, Kant realized that much of the writings of his predecessors had rested upon this ultimate appeal to God–metaphysics–placing philosophy in the precarious position of having its efficacy based solely upon a belief in God.

The preconceived concept or preexisting idea is the a priori, or a structure in the mind that organizes the perceptions of experiences into an order that allows us to make sense of the world. The procedure of critique is nothing less than a Copernican Revolution, a call to reason rather than to faith, a demand for self-knowledge rather than for dogma, an ability to deduce according to the laws of logic, rather than upon the grounds of experience alone. As discussed in the preceding post, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781) was concerned with epistemology, establishing the grounds of knowledge, and with refuting untenable metaphysics. God does not give us the world that we see and experience. We understand and organize the world through reason. Knowledge is a cooperative affair—the mind organizes sense data actively and imposes reality upon the world, this inversion is Kant’s Copernican Revolution: the mind precedes the data it perceives. We, as humans, blinded by our necessary and a priori cognitive operations, can never hope to “see” “reality” or the “thing-in-itself.” We construct reality with our minds, which are organized at the most basic and abstract level to structure the most basic experiences, our perceptions of time and space.

There are two kinds of judgment: a priori and a posteriori. The a priori judgment is pure and transcendent and self-evident. The judgment is absolutely valid and strictly necessary. This judgment is independent of experience and is expressed in a statement in which the subject is defined by its predicate: ”The rose is a flower,” which is an analytic statement. For Kant, the real problem for philosophy is a posteriori statements that were synthetic, that is, statements in which the predicate is not contained in the subject. Cause and effect would come under the concept of a synthetic statement: there was no necessary connection between cause and effect. Kant had to make an argument for cause and effect being a synthetic a priori judgment, that is a judgment that is absolute and necessary without being self-evident. Kant argued that the mind imposes patterns and that the patterns themselves are necessary for judgment. Because the patterns are necessary, they are also transcendental. This Aesthetic is immediate and non-discursive and sensuous, but it can be ordered and constructed by the mind. For example, the mind has an intuition, immediate and sensuous, an apprehension of space that is sensuous or aesthetic.

This intuition must be, must exist, a priori to account for our knowledge of objects. Thus Space is an a priori representation that underlies all outer intuitions and validates all claims of geometry, which is a science of space. “Space” is the way the mind organizes experience. “Space does not represent any property of things in themselves; it is, therefore, solely from the human standpoint…” and is inner and outer. Time, like space, is another “pure form of intuition” and is the temporal ordering of experience into before and after and simultaneous. But time is only “inner space” and is part of a spatiotemporal ordering of contents: a synthetic ordering due to the active mind’s cognition of physical objects. This is what Kant called transcendental logic, the “putting together” (synthetic) of perceptions. This synthetic operation makes experiences of objects possible.

In a typically Enlightenment fashion, Kant conceptually “built” an architectonic structure that would contain philosophy within a model. Based upon reason, knowledge comes from thinking, which comes from judging. All effective knowledge is the result of experiences of concrete sense data ordered by conceptual thinking. According to Kant, “…thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind…” Kant was the first philosopher to distinguish between precepts and concepts, after the Cartesian duality of mind and body had proved to be untenable. Kant then set out to establish categories of judgments, based upon Aristotelian logic. Each form of judgment is an a priori conceptual category and the categories correspond to types of judgments. Kant calls his arrangements the metaphysical deduction of the categories: each judgment presupposes one or another twelve synthetical (putting things together) categories or operations (such as cause and effect). There are three sets of four, the headings of quantity, quality, relation, and modality. Relation as a concept, for example, makes it possible for us to understand that every effect experienced has a cause, that cause and effect are “related.” As discussed in a previous post, cause and effect or relation exist a priori.

Andrew Stephenson’s Diagram of the Critique of Pure Reason

The categories are transcendental because they are rules. These “rules” are not empirically observable but are necessary, because they make synthesis possible. In other words, successive messages of data must be organized or held together into an experience or a unity of consciousness, which is the unity of self. Experience is a combination of the self that experiences objects as a result of a priori acts of synthesis. The human experience of objects consists of unified representations, producing objects of representation. All knowledge demands a concept and the form of the concept must be universal and must serve as a rule. Self and object are reciprocal. Kant asked, “What conditions make experiences possible?” and stated that experience is a combination of a priori concepts and empirical concepts. The necessary conditions for “experience” is the object—sense experiences, put together into unity—and self—a collection of desires, memories, expectations, feelings, attitudes that unifies the data. The self is also an object. The putting together is a transcendental synthesis: objects-for-a-self. The object is a synthesis of data of outer sense/space and the self is the synthesis of inner sense/space. But how do we apprehend and organize? The key is the human imagination. The imagination is the active component for judgment–we perceive and then we organize and then we conclude and act, based upon the powers of the imaginative faculties. The imagination gathers the diversity of information and presents it or displays it so that it matches a concept. The concept is that which has been abstracted or has become abstract like a category. The concept is made possible by a corresponding a priori intuition and we can now reach an a priori synthetic judgment by combining a concept, the abstract with an intuition or the particulars from which the concept was abstracted.

Thus, for Kant, empiricism is rehabilitated, cause and effect becomes a rule, and the function of concepts is to order the manifold of sense into meaningful and stable patterns. The organization principle must be time: the effect follows the cause in time. The key to knowledge is order and rule that makes experience possible. Order, in other words, must be presupposed (a priori) to make experience possible. The world as experienced reflects patterns or categories. Two important categories are substance and causality for human experience would not be human experience without an order that is indifferent. We never experience these substances or the necessary connections; we experience only succession (synthesis). Kant attributed our understanding of objects to a priori concepts through which our minds order experience with a notion of permanence and regular sequence. His conclusions are an advance on the fallback position of Descartes that is that God “implanted” helpful innate ideas that give us reality.

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Kant and the Critique of Philosophy

CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON (1789)

Kant’s Copernican Revolution

This concept of critique was central to Enlightenment philosophy, coming from the Greek word “krinein”, meaning to “separate” or to “discern”, which is the origin of the word “crisis.” Whereas the Greeks took the concept of critique and applied it to texts, Emmanuel Kant (1724-1824) used “critique” to re-conceptualize Western philosophy at a time of crisis. The Enlightenment had been caught between the demystification or disenchantment of a once sacred world and the secularizing of a thoroughly modern and material world, based upon scientific analysis. For the Enlightenment philosophers, “critique” and “reason” were indivisible, and Kant began a search for the conditions, which governed reasoned criticism. A form of analysis and deduction, critique, a concept central to Kantian thought, is an internal analysis of a concept in its own terms. A critique, by definition, cannot be conducted from the outside, looking in; an exercise, which would be more precisely called “criticism.” A proper critique, in contrast, must always examine given concepts from the interior and not impose ideas, alien to the argument, from the outside. The examination or interrogation of an idea–a critique–is rational and based upon the process of logical deduction. The result is the creation of an architectonic structure, an argument that is “built” systematically. Contemporary audiences are probably more familiar with the use of “critique” by the American art critic, Clement Greenberg who “interrogated” or critiqued painting, seeking its intrinsic qualities. Through a logical analysis of what was “irreducible” to painting, that which was absolutely necessary to painting, Greenberg deduced that for painting to be pure it must be purged of alien or outside elements. Painting, stripped of extrinsic elements, could be revealed in its basic structure, or definition, as a flat surface covered with pigment arranged in a design. As the nineteenth century progressed, the question shifted from how to use critique to question the nature of art to a new investigation into which art is worthy of critique. A critique of philosophy is nothing less than a search for the fundamentals of how humans create knowledge.

Immanuel Kant

Living a quiet and retiring life of a college professor in Königsberg, Kant was, by his own account, awakened from his academic “slumber” by a challenge to Reason from an unexpected quarter. An English philosopher, the ultimate empiricist, David Hume, who in his Treatise of Human Reason and Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1738) pointed out that reason, like religion, is only another instrument for establishing relations among ideas, based upon experience. Reason, as an independent mental entity, therefore, can tell us nothing about the world. To prove his point, Hume began with an account of the behavior or billiard balls. In privileging particular events consisting of the operations of cause and effect–a billiard game–Hume observed that, given the myriad outcomes, “Why then should we give the preference to one, which is no more consistent or conceivable than the rest? All our reasonings a priori will never be able to show us any foundation for this preference. In a word, then, even effect is a distinct event from its cause.” There is no evidence that the “order” of reason is necessary and this order and “pattern” actually has no rationale in nature, which is only an object upon which we have imposed our needs. “Cause and effect” were a belief system that we lived by but could not prove. If reason is only a concept and not an intrinsic quality of human thinking, if cause and effect are unexamined assumptions then we are back to metaphysics. As Hume wrote, not foreseeing that he would challenge Kant: “Hence we may discover the reason why no philosopher, who is relational and modest, has ever pretended to assign the ultimate cause of any natural operation, or to show distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe.”

As Roy Strong in The Creation of the Modern World. The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (2000) expressed it,

The concept of causation was doubtless the basis of all knowledge, but causality was not itself a demonstrable fact. Experience showed the succession of events, but did not reveal any necessity in that succession—it was habit, which created the expectation that one event would invariably follow another. Custom was not knowledge, however, and did not strictly justify projections from the past to the future, from the known to the unknown. Causality was thus not a principle definitively derived from the order of things but a mental postulate.

Hume’s arguments were immediately recognized by Kant as a destructive attack on reason. When Hume attacked the concept of cause and effect by pointing out that “cause and effect” were only a concept, not a reality, the Enlightenment was effectively over. Rational thinking alone could not make it so. As a believer in the powers of reason, Kant realized that he had to restore reason to its rightful place. To refute Hume, he had to create a system for reason that was universal, useful for experience, but not, as with Hume, bound by and to experience. Kant shifted the grounds of the argument away from the empirical to cognition, the actual judgmental structures of the human mind–that which makes reason possible. What were the epistemological grounds for reason? First, reason cannot be part of idealism–an unprovable belief system. We can use reason–logic–to reach irrational and unreasonable conclusions, but Kant proposed limits to reason. We should limit ourself to that which we can know and simply eliminate that which we cannot know. For example, we can use our imagination to create a God out of our ability to reason, but this is an illegitimate mode of thinking. Reason should be deployed within the limits of the empirical real world and is the mainspring of scientific thought. Hume’s emphasis of the actions of the billiard balls as a series of multiple instances of cause and effect–I strike the ball with a cue stick and it rolls–is limited to a particular instance. For Kant, reason had to be universal, in other words, reason must always function and the cause of this universality or transcendence could not be unprovable “idealism.” In order to explain his “critique” of reason, Kant turned to science. Interestingly, he did not discuss Galileo, who scientific conclusions were based on observations or experiences. Galileo’s findings were rejected by the Church, not because he did not see what he saw through his telescope but because his discoveries contradicted Church doctrines. Kant, however, was interested in a scientific analysis of what could not be seen but in what had to be deduced.

DBP_-_250_Jahre_Immanuel_Kant_-_90_Pfennig_-_1974

West German Stamp commemorating the 250 Anniversary of Kant’s date of birth

In his Critique of Pure Reason (1789), Kant discussed what he called “The Copernican Revolution” in which critique was shifted from an external focus on dogmas to a focus on the inner workings of understanding. The scientist, Nicolas Copernicus, questioned the assumption, which was the received wisdom, that the sun revolved around the earth. One could see this “truth” with one’s own eyes: the sun rises in the morning and then journeys around the earth, bringing the afternoon and then the evening, and finally night. There was no discernable reason to disbelieve what seemed plain to all who saw the sun rise and set and rise again in relation to the earth. The very reasonable conclusion, reached by the actions of reason itself, was based on empirical experience. In 1530, in De Revolutionibus, Copernicus revolutionized scientific (and philosophical) thinking by putting forward the revolutionary hypothesis that the earth revolved around the sun. This extraordinary theory, inverting general knowledge, was based upon pure abstract reasoning or deductive thinking, based upon a hypothesis that was tested and provided proof of accuracy. The mathematics of planetary movements made sense only if one threw out the belief that the sun revolved around the earth and substituted another theory that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. Seeing may be believing, but any belief has to be tested and proven. Scientific reasoning is based upon theory: one formulates a hypothesis that functions as a theory that is never proved and is always provisional. Any theory will stand until it is disproved.

As for Copernicus, his new theory was far too dangerous to publicize—he would be under instant interdiction from religious authorities, and he was the kind of person who sought perfection and could never release his theory. Although in the time of Kant, two centuries later, De Revolutionibus was still on the list of books forbidden by the Catholic Church, the ideas of Copernicus were not only accepted but were “proved.” The “revolution” in thinking about the sun and the earth was the disregard of Copernicus of empirical evidence, which suggested that the sun revolved around the earth, and his faith in a hypothesis was based upon reasoned considerations. Like Copernicus, Kant proposed that raw observation of raw experience was insufficient as an explanation of the world and argued that the human mind was capable of ordering perception through a priori conceptions. The rejection of the notion of the passive receptive mind was Kant’s version of the Copernican Revolution: the mind ordered the world, not vice versa. In other words, it was the mind that understood the principle of cause and effect, a priori, and without this cognitive ability, experience in and of itself would never come to the conclusion that each effect had a cause. For example, if one puts a flaming match to a piece of paper, the cause, the paper will burst in to flame, the effect. It is understood that cause and effect is at work, and the judgment could not take place without the a priori in place. Without the cognitive ability to conceive of cause and effect, each time a flaming match touched paper, you would be surprised and shocked, unable to comprehend the relationship between the lit match and the burning paper. Empirical experience, in other words, would never be enough to order experience into what we call knowledge. This discussion continues in the next post.

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The Definition of the Avant-Garde

FINDING THE AVANT-GARDE

Theory of the Avant-Garde

In his book, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984), Peter Bürger stressed the historical basis of the avant-garde. The rise of the avant-garde was directly linked to the rise of the middle class and its allegiance to capitalism and commodification. The main role of the avant-garde is the critique of the middle class by detaching it self from it. Bourgeois totalizing institutions, such as the institutions that are the “art world” must also be critiqued and defied. The kind of critique Bürger discussed was a Marxist style critique, which, because it was delivered from a detached perspective, was far more radical than conventional criticism. The Marxist approach was, of course Kantian in origin in its stance of disinterest, but Marxist in its focus on bourgeois practices. The founding generation of the avant-garde in France are undoubtedly unknown and only the successful artists, such as Gustave Flaubert, left a mark on history. Even those who were successful lived within their own times, more of less aware of their avant-garde endeavors but unable to speak to future generations. In the absence of direct testimony, writers of the avant-garde one hundred years later were theorists.

There seemed to be two levels of avant-garde reactions in the artistic communities in the nineteenth century, that of rebellion against the prevailing order, whether the establishment or the the public, or reaction against the sudden surge of modern capitalism which turned making art into merely another way of making a living. According to these theories, such as those of Bürger, the avant-garde artist took a separatist stance, neither part of the bourgeoisie from whence he came nor part of the establishment he so desperately longs to recognize him. Most theories do not stress the fact that we would not even have a concept of the avant-garde if certain artists had not “crossed over” into the realm of the establishment where they were finally “seen.” Most avant-garde artists were avant-garde because they were unknown, not because they wanted to be ignored and scorned. But according to the theories of the avant-garde, the radicality of the avant-garde position rests upon its freedom from having to “take sides” or obligation to maintain a position. For Bürger, the freedom to detach from an ideology is also the freedom to find an entirely unexpected stance, meaning that the artist is engaged in a critical analysis of society. The avant-garde critique of the capitalist mode of production and its impact upon cultural producers, artists, has many consequences.

First, the avant-garde artist is always alienated from the audience, outside the mainstream of traditional art and scornful of the middle class and its utilitarian preferences. The bourgeoisie saw little use for pure art in the service of the intellect or beauty or aesthetics, and understood only that art could be useful to reinforce their own social and political power, a lesson learned from the once powerful church and state. The middle class audience was unsympathetic with art, except as entertainment, and uninterested in avant-garde which lay outside what was familiar, traditional and recognizable. Thus, the artist, who felt constrained by bourgeois restrictions and by the low level of middle class taste, took on a defiant, rebellious stance, upholding the right of the artist to express him/herself artistically. Delighting in shocking the art public, the avant-garde artist was, according to romantic legend, confrontational, refusing to meet the expectations of the middle class audience. Instead of striving for acceptance, the avant-garde artist remains outside and alienated in order to critique middle class values, which placed money above love, status above mercy, work above play, and matter over mind.

Avant-garde art, in challenging middle class pragmatism also challenged middle class power. Often this art directly or indirectly exposed middle class hypocrisy. Gustave Courbet routinely catered to the bourgeois male’s desire for soft-core pornography and Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas depicted the thriving sex trade of mid nineteenth century Paris fueled by the insatiable urban male with some disposable income. Sunny and beautiful on the surface, many Impressionist paintings actually depicted well-known meeting places of scandalous encounters between prostitutes and their clients. Although today the meaning of these paintings may be lost on today’s viewers, the audience of the day was fully aware that the subjects of these artists were less than respectable. Starting with the proto-Romanticism of Jean-Antoine Gros and Théodore Géricault, the reality of current events were used to confront the public with the unpalatable truth, as shown by Gustave Courbet, or simply with ordinary every day life, as displayed by the Impressionists.

The activity of critique–critique of the system–places the avant-garde artist outside of conventional ways of thinking. But this artist is also in front of the crowd in finding new modes of expressing the unexpressed and the unrealized and thus is making the future of art. Or so we are told. The first separation between the art and that public within the art world can be seen during the Romantic period when certain artists began to represent current events. This shift to reality, as seen in the frozen corpses at the bottom of Napoléon on the Battlefield of Eylau (1807), was an important one. Previously, the Neoclassical approach was an allegorical one, making statements about the present by using past events or using ancient examples to teach lessons for the present. The split between the ancients and the moderns is not simply a stylistic one, from the linear to the painterly, but most significantly, from the past to the present. The avant-garde artists refused to look back to a past that was increasingly irrelevant and insisted upon recording the present. Eugène Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) was perceived, not so much as a heroic rendering of a major event in recent French history, but as a political statement valorizing rebellious uprisings. Delacroix himself, like his avant-garde friends, George Sand and Frédéric François Chopin, was inherently conservative and terrified of the revolution he captured. Compared to Neoclassicism, which displaced politics to the past, Romanticism and Realism, were political in that these movements simply in presenting the present. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the avant-garde had become political and dangerous to the established powers.

In the twentieth century, avant-garde artists were totally separated from the mainstream art world. The art world in France and England had become splintered into factions: the very conservative, the conservative or official art, the conservative avant-garde, and the radical avant-garde. For example, the Salon des Indépendants was conservative compared to the Salon d’automne. Avant-garde artists were completely isolated from mainstream art audiences and these artists followed the lead of the Impressionists and relied more and more upon sympathetic art dealers and understanding collectors for survival. The audience for the avant-garde artists was very small, often consisting of art critics, who were crucial in writing the first accounts of indecipherable art, and each other, an audience of producers. Well into the twentieth century it was the mainstream conservative academic artists were the famous and the well-known and the successful among most of the public in France. Only in the twentieth century, after the Great War did the pre-war avant-garde become accepted and their art become admired.

Jules Alexandre Grun. Friday at the French Artists’ Salon (1911)

The so-called “difficult” art, from Impressionism to Cubism, was made by an artist, who was outside of official art and beyond public approval. Avant-garde art tended to engender yet another generation of art, even more difficult and even more isolated, in reaction to the previous movement. For example, Manet was part of the academic system and strove all his life to be celebrated in the Salons, but his follower Claude Monet opted to take an independent path and exhibit in private capitalist exhibitions outside of the Salon, while was his colleague, Paul Cézanne, lived the second part of his artistic life exiled in Aix but was studied by the Cubists, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso and Braque were not typical of the avant-garde artists of the twentieth century. Working alone and unrecognized, they were supported by their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and they did not exhibit in public salons. Living in dire poverty, these two artists, like other avant-garde artists, were totally dedicated to their vision and to their belief in their art, a condition made possible by the support of their dealer. Art historians depicted these artists as “heroes,” struggling to maintain personal and artistic integrity in the face of a life without honor and success, understood only by those educated few. That said, it is difficult to maintain the anti-capitalist stance of the theorists of the avant-garde, given the clearly capitalist underpinnings of the avant-garde and its aspirations–to get a dealer and to find patrons and to sell their art. As shall be seen, at the time, the heroes of Cubism were not Picasso and Braque but the Salon Cubists who bravely exposed their innovative work in public salons. The judgment that Braque and Picasso were “leaders” was historical and anachronistic, not in keeping with the actual conditions of the time.

The emergence of the avant-garde artists and the theory of “art-for-art’s sake” coincided with the early decades of the nineteenth century. If the avant-garde was a French notion then the idea of making “art-for-art’s sake” was German. Due to historical and economic forces, the avant-garde and philosophical theories of aesthetics were dependent upon one another: through the idea of “art-for-art’s sake,” artists, now estranged from the art audience, had a philosophical reason for separation. The avant-garde artist, usually of a young generation that had not yet made its mark, did not want to or could not continue to make already established art. The public did not approve of either the style or the content of avant-garde art, and in order to defend and explain this new art, the art critics who supported the avant-garde artists often put forward an appeal for a formalist reading. When Emile Zola demanded that Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) be understood in terms of its stylistic innovation, the writer was also insisting that the viewer look away from the often scandalous and socially critical subject matter of a high class prostitute and take note of the way in which the artist handled the formal elements. Looking at art from a formal and/or disinterested perspective required a new kind of “eye.” The purpose of avant-garde art was, by necessity an aesthetic one. But as Pierre Bourdieu explained in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996),

Although it appears to itself like a gift of nature, the eye of the nineteenth-century art-lover is the product of history…the pure gaze capable of apprehending the work of art as it demands to be apprehended (in itself and for itself, as form and not as function) is inseparable from the appearance of producers motivated by a pure artistic intention, itself indissociable from the emergence of an autonomous artistic field capable of posing and imposing its own goals in the face of external demands and it is also inseparable from the corresponding appearance of a population of ‘amateurs’ or ‘connoisseurs’ capable of applying to the works thus produced the ‘pure’ gaze which they call for.

Although, as Bourdieu contends, the avant-garde was created as much by material forces as by aesthetic ideals, the avant-garde would have been impossible without the theory of “art-for-art’s sake.”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
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Podcast Episode12: French Romanticism: Ingres, Part One

THE MODERNISM OF INGRES

Part One

Often assumed to be the bastion of conservatism in French art, Ingres was actually an astute observer of his own time and was, therefore, thoroughly modern. Like Gros and Girodet, Ingres had to find his own way past both his teacher, Jacques-Louis David and Neo-Classicism and into the new movement, Romanticism. Like many artists of his generation, Ingres had to navigate the transition from one style to another. Although he was trained stylistically as a Neoclassical artist, Ingres was part of the early Romanticism of late Neoclassicism. This first part of a two part podcast deals with the early career of an artist so original and so reviled he spend nearly two decades in Rome, only to return triumphantly to Paris as the champion of all things Academic.

Also listen to: “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part One” and “The French Romantics: Gros and Girodet, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Ingres, Part Two” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part One” and “French Romanticism, Delacroix, Part Two”

Also read: “French Romanticism: The Historical Context” and “The French Academy: Painting” and “French Romanticism: Subject Matter and the Artist” and “French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde”

 

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

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French Romanticism and the Avant-Garde

THE ORIGINS OF THE AVANT-GARDE

Art and the Avant-Garde

The term “avant-garde” is a military one, borrowed from the French phrase, denoting the advance body of the army. This small group of soldiers goes out in advance of the main group to scout the territory beyond with the aim of reporting back as to the conditions awaiting the other soldiers. In American parlance, these soldiers are called “F.O’s” or forward observers, and they account for the highest casualty rate, for they are always on the line and out in front. The artists that are historically considered the avant-garde were also “out in front of” the main body of more conservative artists and the recalcitrant public, putting their careers and their lives on the line in order to find new ways of making art. As Renato Poggioli in The Theory of the Avant-Garde put it,

…the avant-garde…functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle, conquer, and adventure on its own…

The avant-garde as a conscious and deliberate artistic activity was mainly a mid to late Nineteenth Century phenomenon, probably pioneered by the Impressionists who intentionally refused to placate public taste and who deliberately exhibited work outside of the expected channels of the large and popular public Salon exhibitions. According to Pierre Bourdieu in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1996), the avant-garde was a sociological situation, born of rising middle class aspirations and the inability of the culture to satisfy talented people and their ambitions. The Academy controlled entrée to school art school training and had the power to grant access to the Salon. Although the intention of the academically minded juries may have been to maintain the high level of quality in art, the effect was to restrict economic opportunity, forcing artists outside of the system. As Bourdieu said,

…bohemia…grows numerically and as its prestige (or mirages) attracts destitute young people, often of provincial and working-class origin, who around 1848 dominate the ‘second bohemia.’ In contrast to the romantic dandy of the ‘golden bohemia’ of the rue de Doyené, the bohemia of Murger, Chapmpfleury or Duranty constitutes a veritable intellectual reserve army, directly subject to the laws of the market and often obliged to live off a second skill…in order to live an art that cannot make a living.

The avant-garde grew out of a group of creative people who gravitated to Paris and lived in low-income quarters, suffering from neglect and poverty. Outside the mainstream and lacking the outlets that would have perhaps earned them a living, these artists and writers could only gather together and form an ideology of failure. They had failed, they consoled themselves, because they were so “advanced” that the unenlightened public misunderstood them. Simply put, their art was too good, too “avant.” Success was inverted into an indictment of failure and failure was transformed into a badge of honor. It is doubtful that these defiant members of the avant-garde were particularly talented or gifted, for there were member of La Boheme who were quite successful, such as George Sand and Eugène Delacroix. But the formula was high-minded and allowed those who never made a breakthrough an honorable cover for their failure. The avant-garde artist, then, was a mythic creature who was not appreciated or understood by the masses, one who chose to live and work in obscurity and poverty, believing that one day his/her art would be recognized by an educated art audience either in the near present or in some unforeseeable future.

Savvy and strategic Bohemian artists fueled the myth of the avant-garde by shocking the a public that was very easy to shock. The rallying cry of the avant-garde was, “Épater le bourgeoisie!” but the idea was to gain attention, not to repel collectors. Avant-garde artists needed to make a living and used the unexpected as a strategy to shock and awe the crowd. By mid-century the term was an old one. In Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (1987) the writer Matei Calinescu, traced the idea of the avant-garde in France back to radical revolutionary politics:

..it is safe to say that the actual career of the term avant-garde was started in the after man of the French Revoluion, when it acquired undisputed political over ones. I am referring to L’Avant-garde de l’armée des Pyrenées orientals, a journal that appeared in 1794 and whose watchword–engraved on the blade of an emblematic sword–was “La liberté ou la mort.” This journal was committed to the defense of Jacobin ideas and was intended to reach, beyond military circles, a broader audience of “patriots.” We can therefore take the 1700s as a starting point for the subsequent career of the concept of the avant-garde in radical political thought..it is, therefore, not by chance that the romantic use of avant-garde in a literary-artistic context was directly derived from the language of revolutionary politics.

Calinescu asserted that the modern us of an old military term was linked by 1825 to the arts by socialist philosopher, Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), in his book De l’organization sociale (1825) in which the writer designated the artist as the standard bearer for the future. His follower, Olinde Rodrigues stated, “It is we, the artists, that will serve as your avant-garde, the power of the arts is indeed he most immediate and the fastest.” Without the church and state and their once limitless funds, without the taste and sophistication of the aristocrats, the artists were faced with the middle class as their main audience. This was an audience that wanted to be entertained and were treated by the artists to large paintings that were precursors to modern day movies—-the grand machines or huge paintings that enthralled them with exciting stories.

The new audience was composed of the masses, high and low, average people, undereducated, unsophisticated, but not uninterested in art. The kind of art they wanted was that which was easily accessible, easy to understand, entertaining and attractive to look at; something like today’s television programs, that reflected themselves and their interests. For many artists, this new middle class audience was no problem. For other artists, the bourgeoisie was an opportunity. Although the art viewers were trained to admire the large history paintings, the serious minded displays of ancient virtues and obscure myths were not necessarily what the public actually wanted to see.

4

Eugène Delacroix. Death of Sardanapalus (Salon of 1827-8)

It was easy to please the public and it was easy to displease the public. However, beguiling the allure of the avant-garde, being a leader, the risks were many and the rewards were few. It can be assumed, based upon Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the sociology of early nineteenth century Paris, that most of the most avant-garde artists, whether visual or literary or musical, lived and and died as unknown failures. Until the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of the avant-garde artists or the artists called “avant-garde” by art historians, played the game inside the system and were products of the academic system. Being avant-garde involved a delicate balance between “performing” shock and making one’s mark and then becoming ensconced within the system. Eugène Delacroix was the best known example of such an artist. His spectacular, spiraling out of control bloody and violent, Death of Sardanapalus, was shown in the Salon of 1827-8 in aesthetic comparison to classically structured rational classical Apotheosis of Homer by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres debuting in the same salon.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Apotheosis of Homer (1827)

The contrast instantly placed the artists in opposing camps where they remained, in the public’s eyes for the rest of their lives. Delacroix parlayed this and other radical paintings–radical in content, Massacre at Chios (Salon of 1824) or radical in style, The Sea at Dieppe (1852)–into a perfectly respectable official career doing murals for the Bourdon ruling family in the 1830s. Norman Bryson’s excellent analysis of these ceiling murals in the Library of the Chamber of the Deputies in the Palais Bourbon in “Desire in the Bourbon Library” a chapter in Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix (1984) revealed that the artist combined Romanticism and Classicism in style and content in a cycle of mythology worthy the best of history painting. Until the end of the Second Empire, artists found success only by positioning themselves within the establishment, if only to fight against it, like Irgres and Delacroix. But as the century progressed, social and political issues became increasingly pressing, forcing the artistic gaze away from the present and towards eroticism and exoticism and the problems of contemporary times. For the avant-garde artist, the historical past was past. “Il faut être de son temps,” (“It is necessary of be of one’s time.”) the artist Honoré Daumier exclaimed. A growing number of artists sought new ways to make art, which would reflect the new modern way of life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you. [email protected]