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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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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