Kant, the Artist, and Artistic Freedom

EMMANUEL KANT (1724-1804)

Kant, the Artist, and Artistic Freedom

The modern artist of the nineteenth century faced an aesthetic landscape that was quite different compared to that of the previous century. The definition of “art” in the eighteenth century was that, which was sanctioned by the Church, the State or the aristocracy. The definition of the “artist” in the eighteenth century was a trained technician who produced commissioned objects for these powers. The definition of “subject matter” or “content” in a work of art was that which had been approved of by the client or patron. Within these definitions of “art” and “artist” the cultural producer had a certain freedom of interpretation, but, ultimately, most artists were answerable to those who controlled the sites for art. The power behind the system by which art could be exhibited in France was closely linked to the State itself and the display of art and the kinds of content and the modes of styles allowed to be seen were closely monitored by rigorous juries. The tight control of art is hardly a surprised during the first half of the nineteenth century in France, which was roiled by changing rulers. By the nineteenth century, the artist had lost a great deal of the traditional support system and faced a changing definition of the “artist” as a free and independent “genius.” The idea of a genius is a product of the Enlightenment concept of the individual as a free and independent human being who is allowed freedom of speech and expression as “natural rights.” The role of the artist within Kant’s concept of aesthetics is that of a maker who must create new forms. The artist is now free of any external “commands” from patrons or the audience. His/her only role is that of being a “genius,” who gives free range to the imagination. The result of Kantian philosophy is the elevation of the artist to “creator” and the exaltation of artistic originality. There is a new value to artistic experience as such and a new affirmation of emotional aspects of art. The notion of the expressive function of art is not unrelated to the new definition of “sensibility,” as an ability to feel and to express oneself. In addition, there was a new importance attached to the invention of a fiction about the new Romantic artist, who was now the hero, the god, and the genius. The genius is the one with exceptional intellectual and spiritual endowments, the one who breaks the rules and who creates breakthroughs to new possibilities for subsequent artists.

By the nineteenth century, a time fraught with political peril for the unwary, the artist had lost a great deal of the traditional support system from traditional patrons and was expected to work for a volatile combination of the public on one hand and the government on the other hand. The artist was also torn between the needs of the State to use art to educate the people and to teach them how to behave in a revolutionary era and the changing definition of the “artist” as a free and independent “genius.” The idea of a “genius” is a product of the Enlightenment in that it is a concept of the individual as a free and independent human being, who is allowed freedom of speech and expression as “natural rights” to express oneself creatively. The role of the artist within Kant’s concept of aesthetics, seen in the Critique of Judgment (1790) is that of a maker who must create new forms. The artist is apparently or theoretically now free of any external “commands” from patrons or the audience. His/her only role is that of being a “genius,” a rare individual who gives free range to the imagination. The result of Kantian philosophy is the elevation of the artist to “creator” and the exaltation of artistic originality, at least in the collective minds of the producers themselves. Within the artistic community, there is a new value to artistic experience as such and a new affirmation of emotional aspects of art in the sense that the artist should express his feelings. The notion of the expressive function of art is not unrelated to the new definition of “sensibility,” as an ability to feel and to express oneself. Note that women were usually restricted to self-expression in the literary arts, since they were more or less successfully handicapped in the visual arts. In addition, there was a new importance attached to the invention of a fiction about the new Romantic artist, who was now the hero, the god, and the genius, usually gendered as male. The genius is the one with exceptional intellectual and spiritual endowments, the one who breaks the rules and who creates breakthroughs to new possibilities for subsequent artists. Such freedoms were available only to men during the century and women who “expressed themselves” were considered immoral and immodest and condemned to a social death. Only independent and wealthy privileged women such as George Sand were able to even approach “freedom.”

Genius, according to Emmanuel Kant, is that “natural endowment of mental aptitude which gives rule to art.” Fine art is possible only as a “product of genius,” which produces original art. Originality or the ability to be original sets the genius apart from the need to imitate either other works of art or to recreate the real world itself. The artist is allowed to work from Kant’s indispensable ingredient for “genius,” the imagination. The artist or genius also has no need to respond to communal needs or to the demands of the State. Thus art and beauty ceased to be commonly agreed upon or traditional, but instead became ideas, molded by the exceptional individual, who could freely make or break old notions of appropriateness. The exceptionalism of the courage to “give rule to art” alienates the artist from the rest of society, who, according to later theories of the avant-garde, could no longer understand his products. The modern artist is now no longer an integrated member of society and it is the artist himself (rarely herself) who is the real subject of every work of art. There is a price to pay for such freedom and few arttist in real life were willing to be alienated or unrecognized and were not interested in going hungry for an abstract principle.

From the heroic romantic perspective, suddenly, the artist is no longer the artisan working at the beck and call of an autocratic patron, suddenly the artist is no longer the illustrator of the message of the patron, suddenly the artist is no longer and interior decorator. The artist has been recreated as a “genius,” who is required to play. “Play” becomes a major concept within Kantian aesthetics. Play, in art, performs the same role as technology in the Industrial Revolution in that playing produces constant “progress” or change in art. Like technology, art responds to itself and evolves according to its own rules. Progress was part of an Enlightenment creed and became allied to the belief system that history had a goal–teleology. By the mid-twentieth century, art critics and art historians have incorporated the implied notion of teleology—art progresses and evolves towards a goal. Kant’s ideas–implied in his writings–were reinterpreted for another century, a century that developed the concept of evolution and continued to believe in the optimism of the Enlightenment. A true child of Romanticism, the Kantian artist is a rule-breaker, not the rational rule follower of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment ended with the French Revolution, a product of political reason but the end of the faith in rationalism. The sight of mob rule, the experience of government by rabble-rousers, and the blood-soaked Terror was the end of Enlightenment optimism and faith in human nature. But the ideals of the Enlightenment—freedom and individuality—lived on long after the culture’s disillusionment over the failure of reason. If humans could not be rational, as was hoped, then they must be constrained by laws. France became an empire under an Emperor, trading equality, and fraternity for order. The artist becomes the one truly liberated member of nineteenth-century society, detached and free, like a homeless person—ultimately dangerous in an increasingly regulated society.

Aesthetics was split between rule and play. The Critique of Judgment (1790) set in motion an idea of the autonomy of a work of art, an idea that spread beyond philosophy and permeated the artistic community. For artists, Kantian concepts gave them a new reason to make art; for critics, Kantian concepts gave a new way to talk about art. One half of the Critique, that which concerns itself with rules, becomes linked to the Academy, especially in France and England. Following the rules meant following the dictates of ancient art and copying the antique masters. The other half of aesthetics—play—belonged to the independent artist and survived into the Romantic Era and, indeed, characterized the period. Play, like technology, is coupled with progress and evolution, because play leads to innovation and change which results in “progress” for art. The new concept of play and invention was linked to the free play of the artistic imagination, putting the artist in a position of dominance over the demands of the academy. If art was to “progress,” rules would have to be broken by the artist. But for the artist to break the rules, s/he must have artistic freedom. Artistic freedom was not a new idea, for artists had always struggled against the demands of troublesome clients (Michelangelo’s assertion of autonomy over Pope Julius II comes to mind). However, Kantian aesthetic philosophy constructed a set of concepts that articulated the ideas that would form Romantic thinking: genius and artistic freedom. The idea of artistic change, led to multiple art movements and “isms” throughout the nineteenth century and into the next, the Twentieth, until the challenge of Postmodernism.

Much of what is thought of loosely as “Kantian aesthetics” was developed later by those who learned from Kant, argued with him or those who furthered and extended his text and explored his subtexts. One of the most important of these post-Kant philosophers was Friedrich Schiller who famously remarked, “Art is the daughter of freedom.” Schiller’s

Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetical Education of Man, were literally a series of letters written in 1793 to the Danish Prince, Friedrich Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenborg. According to William F. Wertz, some of these letters burned in a fire a year later but Schiller rewrote and published them in a journal he founded. Schiller was writing at a time that seemed only a few years away from Kant’s writing, yet despite the swiftness of the distribution of Kant’s ideas, the entire world had changed since 1790. The French Revolution, once seen as the uplifting expression of freedom had collapsed into mob rule and a bloodthirsty terror. Schiller, then would critique Kant for espousing freedom while at the same time making it a distinctly apolitical quality. Schiller’s mission, therefore, would be to reposition Kant’s suggestions back into the real world.

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