From Joe Biden to Our Hope for Finding a Common Humanity in Art

May 25, 2020 Updated: May 26, 2020


Philosophy is littered with questions that are easily stated but difficult to answer.

Joe Biden presented us with one just this week. Is it possible to be Black and vote for Donald Trump instead of Joe? Not according to this bumbling aspirant to the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump,” he said to the talk show host who goes by the sobriquet “Charlemagne tha God,” “then you ain’t black.” I hope you appreciated that down home “ain’t.”

I suppose the former vice-president’s assertion is a species of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. It looked to me like Charlemagne instantly appreciated the speciousness of the comment, and I am pretty sure that Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas, Candace Owens, and Kanye West would as well.

That said, Joe’s embarrassing comment does have the virtue of giving us a much-needed vacation from the CCP virus and “Obamagate: the Michael Flynn Files,” two long-running entertainments that have exhausted the public’s, or at least my, patience.

It’s an interesting question: who counts as Black. Toni Morrison said that Bill Clinton was the “first Black President.” What do you suppose she meant? Rachel Dolezal, a former head of the NAACP, presented herself as Black but then, in 2015, her undark secret was exposed: she had been white along.

But haven’t we been told by all and sundry that “race” (like “gender”) is not a biological fact but merely a “social construction”? It turns out that the answer to that question, as with so many questions, is “cui bono”? for whose benefit?

Anyway, philosophy is full of such imponderables. Justice Potter Stewart’s storied evasion about pornography—“I know it when I see it”—may be psychologically and even morally impressive, but we all know it lacks that definitional rigor that we know and like. Maybe Snickers is the Snack that Satisfies. Stewart’s rule of thumb fails the Snickers test.

What Is Art?

How is it with the other big words from the philosophical lexicon—What is justice? What is knowledge? What is virtue? What is love?

Many such questions are probably unanswerable or at least unanswerable in any way that is satisfying. Any answer that is accurate is also likely to be so general as to be vacuous.

That certainly seems to be the case with another popular “What is …?” question, namely “What is art?”

It might once have been possible to answer this question with a fair degree of accuracy.

These days, however, Andy Warhol seems to have preempted definition with his remark that “Art is what you can get away with.” Certainly, his own career was a testimony to the force of that sentiment.

In other words, these days the question “What is art?” marks a place on the intellectual map that used to be emblazoned with the legend “Here be monsters.”

One day, perhaps this piece of our cultural landscape will again be brought under the rule of civilization. But for the time being, when confronted with the question “What is art?” it is the better part of prudence to adopt the Cole Porter defense: “Anything goes.”

So let’s bracket the question “What is art?” That still leaves us with a number of puzzles.

Why Care About Art?

For example, why do we care so much about art?

That we care is graven in the stones of our museums, theaters, and concert halls, embossed on the pages of novels and volumes of poetry, enshrined in the deference—financial, social, spiritual—that the institutions of art command in our society.

But why? Art satisfies no practical need; it is not useful in the sense in which a law court or a hospital, a farm or a machinist’s shop is useful.

And yet we invest art and the institutions that represent it with enormous privilege and prestige. Why? Why is something apparently useless accorded such honor?

One reason, of course, is that utility is not our only criterion of value. We care about many things that are not in any normal sense useful.

Indeed for many of the things we care about most the whole question of use seems peculiarly out of place, a kind of existential category mistake.

What Recommends Art?

But we still can ask: what is it about art, about aesthetic experience, that recommends itself so powerfully to our regard?

A lot of ink has been spilled trying to answer that question.

The word “aesthetics” was not coined (and the discipline it names was not born) until the middle of the eighteenth-century, but a fascination with beauty is perennial.

From Plato on down, philosophers and artists—and philosopher-artists—have eulogized beauty as providing intimations of spiritual wholeness and lost unity.

One problem with this tendency to invest art with unanchored religious sentiment is that it makes it difficult to keep art’s native satisfactions in focus.

The difficulty is compounded because aesthetic delight involves a feeling of wholeness that is easy to mistake for religious exaltation. Art does offer balm for the spirit, but it is not a religious balm. Exactly what sort of balm is it?

‘Critique of Judgment’

A good place to begin to try to answer this question is with some observations made by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

“Tantalizing” is not a word most people associate with the work of Kant. But the first half of his book the “Critique of Judgment,” which deals with the nature of aesthetic judgment, is full of tantalizing observations.

Kant saw that the appeal of aesthetic experience was strikingly different from the appeal of sensory pleasure, on the one hand, and the satisfaction we take in the good, moral or practical, on the other.

For one thing, with both sensory pleasure and the good, our satisfaction is inextricably bound up with interest, which is to say with the existence of whatever it is that is causing the pleasure.

When we are hungry, a virtual dinner will not do: we want the meat and potatoes. Those of who these past several months have had to confine our social intercourse to Zoom meetings will know what he means.

It is the same with the good: a virtual morality is not moral.

But things are different with aesthetic pleasure. There is something peculiarly disengaged about aesthetic pleasure.

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: what we enjoy 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.

There is, however, another side to Kant’s discussion of beauty. This has to do with the moral dimension of aesthetic judgment.

If the pleasure we take in the beautiful is subjective, Kant argued, it is nonetheless not subjective in the same way that sensory pleasure is subjective. You like your steak well-done, I like mine rare: that is a mere subjective preference.

But when it comes to the beautiful, Kant observes, we expect broad agreement. And this is because we have faith that the operation of taste—that free play of the imagination and understanding—provides a common ground of judgment.

We cannot prove that a given object is beautiful because the point at issue is not the object but the state of mind it occasions. Nevertheless, Kant says, we “woo” (“wirbt,” in German) the agreement of everyone else, “because we have for it a ground that is common to all.”

Which is to say that judgments about the beautiful are in one sense subjective, but in another sense they exhibit our common humanity.

The feeling of freedom and wholeness that aesthetic experience imparts is thus not merely private but reminds us of our vocation as moral beings.

In this context, Kant famously spoke of beauty as being “the symbol of morality” because in aesthetic pleasure “the mind is made conscious of a certain ennoblement and elevation.” Thus it is that although taste is “the faculty of judging an object … by an entirely disinterested satisfaction” it is also “at bottom a faculty for judging the sensible illustration of moral ideas.”

It would be paltering with the truth to say that Kant’s discussion in the “Critique of Judgment” is crystal clear. But it is certainly suggestive. Kant may take us no nearer to answering the question “What is art?” than Joe Biden or Potter Steart do with respect to their questions. But if he raises some doubts about the idea that “art is what you can get away with” our time pondering his thoughts will not have been wasted.

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of the The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.