Philosophy is littered with questions that are easily stated, but difficult to answer.
What is—well, you choose: 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 profitable. Any answer that’s accurate also is 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’s 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.
Caring 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.
Among other things, art is big business, and big business means big money, an inarguable argument that we take something seriously.
But why? Art satisfies no practical need; it isn’t 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 isn’t our only criterion of value. We care about many things that aren’t 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.
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” wasn’t coined (and the discipline it names wasn’t born) until the middle of the 18th 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 a balm for the spirit, but it’s not a religious balm. Exactly what sort of balm is it?
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 “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.
It’s 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 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 also is 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 isn’t 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’s 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: seashells, wallpaper, musical fantasies, architectural ornamentation.
But Kant wasn’t attempting to provide lessons in art appreciation. He was attempting to explain the mechanics of taste. It isn’t 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’s nonetheless not subjective in the same way that sensory pleasure is subjective. You like your steak well done, I like mine rare: that’s 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 isn’t the object but the state of mind it occasions. Nevertheless, Kant says, we “woo” 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?”
But if he raises some doubts about the idea that “art is what you can get away with,” our time pondering his thoughts won’t have been wasted.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.