February 22, 2021

ROGER KIMBALL: Why Art Is Not ‘What You Can Get Away With.’

There is something peculiarly disengaged about aesthetic pleasure itself.

When it comes to our moral and sensory life, we are constantly reminded that we are creatures of lack: we are hungry and wish to eat, we see the good and know that we fall short.

But when we judge something to be beautiful, Kant says, the pleasure we take in that judgment is ideally an “entirely disinterested satisfaction.”

(It is worth recalling the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested,” words that are often mistakenly conflated. We can be very interested in cultivating disinterested satisfaction.)

The great oddity about aesthetic judgment is that it provides satisfaction without the penalty exacted by desire. This accounts both for its power and for its limitation.

The power comes from the feeling of wholeness and integrity that a disinterested satisfaction involves. Pleasure without desire is pleasure unburdened by lack.

The limitation comes from the fact that, unburdened by lack, aesthetic pleasure is also unmoored from reality.

Precisely because it is disinterested, there is something deeply subjective about aesthetic pleasure. It can even be said that what we enjoy in aesthetic pleasure is not an object but our state of mind. Kant spoke in this context of “the free play of the imagination and the understanding”—it is “free” because it is unconstrained by interest or desire.

It is a curious fact that in his reflections on the nature of aesthetic judgment Kant is only incidentally interested in art. The examples of “pure beauty” he provides are notoriously trivial: sea shells, wall paper, musical fantasies, architectural ornamentation.

But Kant was not attempting to provide lessons in art appreciation. He was attempting to explain the mechanics of taste. It is not surprising that the “Critique of Judgment” became an important theoretical document for those interested in abstract art: on Kant’s view, the purest beauty was also the most formal.

In his 2002 review of C.P. Snow’s 1959 book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific RevolutionOrrin Judd of the Brothers Judd blog wrote:

As Snow notes, as late as say the 1850s, any reasonably well-educated, well-read, inquisitive man could speak knowledgeably about both science and the arts.  Man knew little enough that it was still possible for one to know nearly everything that was known and to have been exposed to all the religion, art, history–culture in general–that mattered.  But then with the pure science revolution of which Snow spoke–in biology and chemistry, but most of all in physics–suddenly a great deal of specialized training and education was necessary before one could be knowledgeable in each field.  Like priests of some ancient cult, scientists were separated out from the mass of men, elevated above them by their access to secret knowledge.  Even more annoying was the fact that even though they had moved beyond what the rest of us could readily understand, they could still listen to Bach or read Shakespeare and discuss it intelligently.  The reaction of their peers in the arts, or those who had been their peers, was to make their own fields of expertise as obscure as possible.  If Picasso couldn’t understand particle physics, he sure as hell wasn’t going to paint anything comprehensible, and if Joyce couldn’t pick up a scientific journal and read it, then no one was going to be able to read his books either.  And so grew the two cultures, the one real, the other manufactured, but both with elaborate and often counterintuitive theories, requiring years of study.

And thus we we end up with formulation of Tom Wolfe’s 1975 book, The Painted Word, where modern art exists almost solely to justify the theory behind it, and as Wolfe wrote, “In short: frankly, these days, without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting.”

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