BooksWeekend

Is It Beautiful, or Is It Art?

We philosophers love to argue, and so when I say that Thierry de Duve offers a lot to argue with, I mean that as sincere high praise.

Aesthetics at Large by Thierry de Duve

There is a vast philosophical literature on Immanuel Kant. And many art writers, very often following the lead of Clement Greenberg, appeal to his Critique of Judgment (1790). The philosophers are concerned with reconstructing his argument and relating it to his philosophical system, while the art writers seek to apply his claims. But because the philosophers generally know little about visual art, and the writers about art are often philosophically ignorant, these discussions have remained oddly dissatisfying.

Thierry de Duve aims to bridge this gap. Convinced, as he states in the first chapter “Overture: Why Kant Got It Right” of his study, Aesthetics at Large. Volume One. Art, Ethics, Politics (University of Chicago, 2018) that “Kant Got It Right,” his goal is to demonstrate that Kantian aesthetics provide the royal road to understanding the practice of art writing.

Kant, who never traveled, knew little about contemporary art in his day. And he certainly never could have imagined the modern art world and its institutions. Kant lived under the old regime, though in old age he was enthusiastic, from a distance, about the French Revolution. And so it’s surprising for de Duve to claim that “he got it right.”

Like Kant, de Duve often is not easy to read. But in context, this is a minor problem. The crucial Kantian point, which he got right, as de Duve notes, is that aesthetic judgments are neither objective nor entirely subjective. “I admire this painting.”: I make that judgment knowing that you may well not agree. I like pasta, you prefer rice: Those judgments are subjective. “This painting is ten feet square”: That assessment is objective. And yet, if I am an art critic, my goal is to persuade you to agree with me, knowing well that I may fail entirely.

You may well know more than me about attributions, iconography, or the social history of a work of art. Fair enough – but that doesn’t give me any reason to prefer your aesthetic judgments. As de Duve rightly notes, this Kantian analysis is a letter-perfect account of the work-a-day practice of a critic.

Naturally, I hope that my judgments will be accepted by you, but in practice (as I well know) often that doesn’t happen. Here, then, we get to an important political point. I respect your judgments and expect that you, in turn, will respect mine. When it comes to aesthetic judgments, no one is privileged. You may be wiser, older, or younger, but that doesn’t give me reason to set aside my claims, and accept yours. Nor for you to believe mine. The practice of art criticism relies upon mutual respect.

In this way, Kantian aesthetics is radically democratic. Under the old regime, the art world was ruled in a top-down fashion. Under Kantian modernism, the system was egalitarian – or at least that was the ideal. As we all know, the practice turned out to be rather different.

De Duve’s exposition of this key point is flawless. There are, however, two points where he fails, in my judgment, to understand the implications of Kant’s analysis. Correctly noting that Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment is superior to Hegel’s historicist account, he then continues to argue that we need to update Kant.

Rather than making the Kantian judgment, “Is this beautiful?” we rather should say, “Is this art?” And then we are prepared to deal with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. I understand the desire to update Kant, but fear that this would-be modernization loses the key force of his argument.

What, de Duve asks, would Kant say about the readymades?  In my opinion, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to answer that question, at least posed in that form, because the whole history of modernism comes before Duchamp. (De Duve has, I know, devoted an entire earlier book to this question. And so more discussion is really needed to resolve the issue.)

Amplifying Kant’s concerns with art and politics, de Duve offers a Kantian view of the contemporary art museum. Noting “the true cultural vulnerability of present-day museums, threatened by corporate takeover on the one hand and by the demise of their old humanistic legitimation on the other” (64), he worries about the effect of “Norman Rockwell blockbusters.”

Certainly he is right to note that often the museum traditions are under siege and so I agree that we should look critically at these institutions , but reject the claim that Kantian aesthetics offers any particular prescription for their exhibitions. If, as we have seen recently, exhibitions of fashion were very popular at the Met, who are we Kantian philosophers to say that this public judgment is mistaken? What superior knowledge do we claim to possess? But here we get into large problems with the nature of the public sphere, which also demand further discussion.

We philosophers love to argue, and so when I say that de Duve offers a lot to argue with, I mean that as sincere high praise. I can hardly avoid mentioning that Joachim Pissarro and I have just published a book, Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of AestheticsWild Art Explained, which offers a very different Kantian aesthetics. And since it would be impossible here to stage a confrontation with de Duve’s analysis, I leave that task to readers.

Kant is a difficult philosopher. For more than two centuries commentators have been arguing productively about how to understand his claims. And that, in my opinion, is a good thing because it demonstrates the importance of his arguments. Here, in focusing on two points of disagreement with de Duve, it’s essential not to lose sight of the much more important shared belief.

Like him, I do think that Kantian aesthetics provides the best way to understand contemporary visual art. That, need I say, is a controversial claim, and one that he defends with great persuasive force. For this reason, I look forward to rereading this pregnantly suggestive book and the three additional volumes that we are promised. Out of public disputation, Kant argued, we may arrive at the truth. Like him let us be optimists!

Aesthetics at Large. Volume One. Art, Ethics, Politics (2018) by Thierry de Duve is published by the University of Chicago Press and is available on Amazon and other online retailers.

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