Monday, January 08, 2007

Kant's Æsthetics: A Critique of "The Critique of Judgement"; Or, Why Modern Art is So Ugly

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most influential philosophers in the modern era, and his three critiques on pure reason, practical reason, and judgement are part of the foundation of modern ideas about faith, morality, and art. Long influential in the secular western world, Kant's theories blew into the Church through the windows opened during the era of the Second Vatican Council. Kant is perhaps most famous for formulating a precise definition of the Golden Rule, in his "Categorical Imperative'", but his view of God is agnostic to an extreme degree and is nearly synonymous with modern liberal religionism. Likewise, contemporary institutional art worldwide is a direct product of Kant's ideas about æsthetics, which is found in "The Critique of Judgment".

Kant begins:

"If we wish to discern whether anything is beautiful or not, we do not refer the representation of it to the Object by means of understanding with a view to cognition, but by means of the imagination (acting perhaps in conjunction with understanding) we refer the representation to the Subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure."

Kant immediately starts with his theory of beauty. He makes the distinction between the art object itself, and the subject: which here means you, the viewer of the art object. Kant also makes the distinction between cognition (the gaining of knowledge) and imagination (mental visualization). Beauty, or its lack, says Kant, comes from the imagination and is not knowledge.

He continues:

The judgment of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is æsthetic — which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective.

This is modern art theory in a nutshell. Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder, and what is beautiful for me necessarily isn't beautiful for you. And this shows the modern narrowing of reason: æsthetics and logic are kept separated and do not interact.

And then Kant restates his thesis:

Every reference of representations is capable of being objective, even that of sensations (in which case it signifies the real in an empirical representation). The one exception to this is the feeling of pleasure or displeasure. This denotes nothing in the object, but is a feeling which the Subject has of itself and of the manner in which it is affected by the representation.

Kant tells us that everything about art — except beauty or ugliness — is objective. This idea has enormous consequences for art: we are told that we should just keep our mouth shut about beauty, it isn't even open to discussion. Those of us with a classical conception of beauty, who often find modern art ugly, are told that this feeling is irrelevant. And if we keep insisting on beauty, we are sneered at, since we obviously are ignorant of modern art theory. This is why modern art is so ugly. A modern work of art may be universally praised by the art critics even though everyone may find it ugly and repulsive.

Suppose that an artist intentionally makes an ugly artwork, completely out of a spirit of spite and hatred, and places this ugly artwork in a very public place, where it causes universal nausea. Kant's theory of art cannot and will not explain this action, and it completely exonerates the artist from any responsibility of its effect on its viewers.

Practically, this theory removes the discussion of beauty from philosophy; beauty is merely changing opinion, which makes it only interesting to sociologists and marketers and not to art critics. And so, society's conditioners attempt to socially-construct mass opinion of beauty: which film starlet or popular singer has the fashionable look these days? And these opinions of beauty are typically divorced from anything objectively real.

Traditionally, beauty is transcendental, that is, having universal significance and reality, while Kant's theory denies this. Catholic theology tells us that beauty goes all the way up, to God, and that beauty extends throughout Creation.

Like so much of modern philosophy, Kant's theories stop at subjective feelings and don't look beyond them into objective reality. The classical theory of beauty attempts to discover why something looks beautiful. Kant's theory, which is very highly elaborated beyond what I've shown, attempts to have it both ways, but seems to end up with just tastemakers imposing their arbitrary views on everyone else: which is exactly the situation we are experiencing today.

I am willing to agree that emotional response to art has much ambiguity, and some people's taste is very difficult to explain. But if we follow Kant's theory, then art becomes boring and uninteresting, since if we don't pursue beauty, then we most certainly won't get it. Furthermore, Kant says:

If anyone asks me whether I consider that the palace I see before me is beautiful, I may, perhaps, reply that I do not care for things of that sort that are merely made to be gaped at.

Perhaps I am taking Kant's quote out of context, or perhaps it is translated poorly, or maybe I just don't understand what he means; however, it seems to me that Kant doesn't like beauty at all. Could it be possible that this major philosopher, and even perhaps his modern followers, could possibly reject beauty, or have a hatred of it?

Perhaps this theory is part of the reason why so much of modern life is so ugly.

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