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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