Home » Aesthetics » Kant’s Account of Beauty: An Assessment

Kant’s Account of Beauty: An Assessment

Alexander Gatherer
Cardiff University

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Kant’s first two ‘Critiques,’ The Critique of Pure Reason (1981) and The Critique of Practical Reason (1988) helped secure his place as the cornerstone of modern Western philosophy. However, the two did face a serious issue. The former looks into the debate of epistemology, and gives birth to his renowned theory of the phenomenal world (that which appears to us) and the normative one (that which actually is), and he appears to us to believe the world to be causally determined. His second Critique, on the other hand, looks at ethics, and gives rise to his ideas of categorical imperatives and the Kingdom of Ends (how people should be treated as intrinsically valuable rather than as means to an individual end). It seems complex to bridge the gap between causal determinism and a firm ethical standpoint, for how can ethics be relevant in a causally determined world? It is this which Kant seeks to answer in The Critique of Judgement (1990), and what ultimately leads him to his discussion of art and the concept of beauty. It is in this discussion that he comes to the notion that ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.’ In this essay I shall examine the meaning of the quote, as well as its relevance to bridging the gap between Kant’s scientific ideas and his ethical ideals. I will then go on to evaluate the quote’s adequacy as an account of beauty, concluding that while it is a robust concept of beauty and art, the questions that follow from it render it, at best incomplete.

Kant discusses how we tend to look at the world teleological way. When we look at something, such as a hammer, we look at how it is designed to fulfil a particular end, and judge it based on how efficient its design is. However, this is not always the situation when we consider items we deem to be beautiful. When, for example we look at a flower, whilst scientists may regard it from the point of view of its purpose of attracting insects and consequent pollination, many will simply appreciate its design simply because of the design itself, which we deem to be ‘beautiful’. The same can be said of a well-constructed painting. When the lines and colours are put together in a pleasing way we deem the painting ‘beautiful,’ even though we cannot pinpoint exactly why the painting is beautiful or why it has the value we place upon it. This leads Kant to suppose that art is ‘purposefulness without a purpose.’ It seems that we judge the art in a teleological way (based on its design), such as the science discussed in The Critique of Pure Reason, but not in a way that requires it to achieve any ends, which harks back to the Kingdom of Ends discussed in The Critique of Practical Reason, where Kant states we should respect other human beings for their intrinsic value, and ends within themselves, rather than means. We can therefore see how this conception of art can help bridge the gap between Kant’s first two critiques.

It is the notion of purposefulness without a purpose which stirs Kant to claim ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.’ So, as discussed above, Kant is claiming that art should be respected for its intrinsic value, and has no purpose other than to be art. He is resolute in distinguishing art from craft, for when one crafts something for a specific purpose, one instantly judges it on its ability to serve that purpose, rather than its own beauty, and therefore, he believes, it cannot be classified as art. He is also eager to distinguish art from entertainment, claiming that the latter is merely agreeable, with the former providing pleasure simply from viewing it.

Several interesting questions arise from this concept of art. Many items, it could be claimed without too much controversy, could be viewed as both beautiful as well as practical, such as ornate china plates. One particularly interesting example is that of propaganda: art with the specific purpose of conveying political ideals and coercing others into adopting similar values. Such a specific purpose clearly implies that Kant would consider propaganda paintings, film etc. to be craft, rather than art. This perhaps seems peculiar, as many would be tempted to argue that paintings that show artistic skill are art. Indeed, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, has been frequently cited by critics as one of the best films of all time, due to its innovative lighting and cinematography. Aside from propaganda, we can look at the paintings of Thomas Jones, which varied from the ‘mainstream’ landscapes that were painted to be commercial, and the paintings of more unusual scenes, such as those focusing on unremarkable brick buildings (‘Building in Naples’). Surely Kant would only deem the latter of these art, for they were painted just for the sake of being painted, whereas the former were painted for the purpose of profit, thus could not be considered to be art?

Kant attempts to circumvent this issue by bringing in the matter of ‘dependent beauty.’ This is distinguished from the kind of free beauty already considered, that with which the object has no easily identified, specific purpose, whereas dependent beauty ‘presuppose(s) such a concept [of what an object should be] and, with it, an answering perfection of the object.’ So under this conception, perhaps the propaganda as listed above could be considered to have dependent beauty, even if it lacks the free beauty that Kant holds in higher esteem. However I still consider this problematic. Kant fails to give us a defined rule as to what can or can’t have dependent beauty (for example, could an intricately carved hammer be considered art, even if its carving were designed for practicality?). Furthermore, Kant’s assertion that flowers have free beauty is confusing, as we have already seen that these do indeed have a specific purpose in nature, the colour and scent attract insects, and therefore beauty and purpose are inextricably related. Kant explains this by saying that only botanists would be interested in or observant of such a purpose. However, this, in my opinion, doesn’t align with Kant’s overall concept of beauty, in which he claims ‘that which, apart from a concept, pleases universally’. If beauty is universal, then why do most see the free beauty in a flower whereas a botanist would only be capable of admiring its dependent beauty, bound as it is by its need to be efficient at fulfilling the task it was designed for?  These notions call into question the adequacy of Kant’s account of beauty.

Closely related to Kant’s conception of purposefulness without purpose is his proposal that art must be ‘disinterested’ that is when examining art, we expect no additional desire or benefit from it other than that of the natural pleasure art provides. For example, one may look at a painting of a forest and think of how much money the various woods or land could make. Clearly, this is not a disinterested standpoint, and to see the art’s beauty, one must instead look at the painting in a ‘merely contemplative’ fashion. This notion, too, conjures several issues, as pointed out by Cooper. He refers to Bell’s concern that to have the kind of ‘pure aesthetic experience’ that Kant seems to reason as proper, we must examine a piece of artwork as though ‘it were not representative of anything’, as well as having ‘no concern for content and meaning’, as it can easily be argued that such values contradict the kind of disinterest that Kant is asking of us, even if our interest is only that of viewing a sensible landscape. This is quite clearly an issue with many paintings and novels, both of which generally strive to resemble reality in some way. Under Kant’s conception, it seems that such artwork cannot be considered beautiful, at least by the majority. Similarly, Cooper claims that, according to Kant’s conception, ‘art should not aim to be expressive of emotion.’ Again, this would require that the audience have a certain interest in the painting, or that the artist is seeking to convey such an emotion, both of which deviate from Kant’s conception of disinterest, a problem with many modern works of art which quite clearly convey and evoke emotions for many people.

It is possible to imagine certain arguments that Kant may have put across in response to these criticisms, such as, Cooper imagines, stating that ‘the feeling of the sublime – itself an aesthetic one – is an ‘outflow of vital powers’ and may be ‘regarded as emotion’. While I find this argument weak to being with (for it seems that much art raises specifically identifiable emotions in people, which don’t appear to be confused with the ‘outflow of vital powers’), Kant’s desired disinterest and ‘indifference to its objects’ actual existence’ is perhaps the more pressing flaw. This is because, while examining a cathedral, for example, one may admire its masterly crafted architecture, its inner peacefulness, or its age-old stone. Clearly, were one to find out that this is in fact a cardboard replica, the admiration for such things, and their perceived beauty, would vanish. It therefore seems that Kant’s idea of disinterestedness when examining art is, at best, incomplete, and must be adjusted if we are to continue to consider his conception of art.

Cooper suggests, and I believe somewhat effectively, that rather than ‘disinterestedly’, a more effective  way to consider art and its beauty would be through examining ‘an object ‘for its own sake.’ This would seemingly fall in line with Kant’s idea that we shouldn’t look for  material benefits from a piece of art, or what practical use we can gain from it, while at the same time permitting us to still consider representation and emotion as plausible, and arguably crucial, components of various works of art. I don’t believe this to be a complete explanation of how we should view art, for it still remains questionable as to where my interest in the object ‘for its own sake’ becomes a kind of interest that Kant would disapprove of such as in the case of propaganda – surely we can appreciate the art for its own sake while simultaneously appreciating its effectiveness in conveying certain political ideals. However, it does demonstrate how Kant’s theory can be edited to perhaps make a more robust conception of beauty.

To conclude, Kant’s conception that ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object’ conjures an interesting take on the value of art, and how it should be evaluated. Perhaps in times, when one could argue there was less pressure for art to be commercially successful or fulfil a given purpose such as in the case of propaganda, this would be an effective way to evaluate an objects beauty. However, in modern times, when art is so varied and with so many different purposes and forms, it seems as though we cannot conclusively claim that only objects with purposefulness without a purpose are the only beautiful things, and I believe that this is what causes Kant’s conception of beauty to be inadequate.

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