Kant and Aesthetic Theory


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 its existence.

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)

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.  “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.

For the first time “art” became a distinctive value in life and was considered 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.  Baumgarten widened the field of aesthetics from art to human conduct, opening possibilities for another philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who would build upon Kantian aesthetics.  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.

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.  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 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?  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.  But art was not amenable to judgment under a system of laws from the state and did not fall within the sphere of morality.  Simply by removing art from the rule of law or morality was to free it from its 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, 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.

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

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

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