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Art: Reaching for the Sublime

Peter Benson replies to Colin Radford’s ‘Art: The Demotion Derby’.

In ‘Art: The Demolition Derby’ (Philosophy Now Issue 17) Colin Radford gave a brief account of the history of art, concluding that it had been, in recent centuries, “downhill most of the way; a long descent into artistic chaos”. This, he believes, is due to our progressive abandonment of the Greek ideal of beauty. This ideal had three components: the beauty of the object represented; the beauty of the accuracy of the representation; and the beauty of the painting or sculpture itself. The first component was abandoned when painters began to be fascinated by accurate depictions of ugly people. The second component was abandoned when art became increasingly abstract, and was no longer a representation of anything. The third component has been abandoned by a large proportion of contemporary art, whose intellectual and visceral fascination is clearly not constrained by any desire that the art should look beautiful and attractive.

These ideals of Greek art were expressed not only by the artists themselves, but also by philosophers such as Aristotle. Indeed, many works of Greek art no longer survive, and we know about them only from written descriptions. Aristotle and others tell us what the Greeks found beautiful. But Radford doesn’t refer to any more recent philosophers of art. He therefore gives the impression that, as long ago as ancient Greece, philosophers had explained to artists what they ought to be doing, but that in subsequent centuries the artists had gone their own sweet way, and got it all wrong. For an article in a philosophy magazine, this lets philosophers off the hook rather too easily. It is important to realise the considerable extent to which philosophers themselves have been partly responsible for these changes in the aims of art. For good or ill, they must take some share of responsibility for the development of modern art.

Colin Radford wonders “When did the trouble start?” He decides that art began to go seriously wrong at the end of the 18th Century, in the paintings of Turner. It was also in the 18th Century (mainly in Germany) that philosophers began to devote a considerable amount of thought to the nature of art. Indeed, the word ‘aesthetics’ (meaning theorising about art and beauty) was first used sometime around 1750, by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten. In the following years, a fever of interest in philosophising about art spread throughout Europe. Out of all these numerous writings, however, the single most influential book was the one by the single most influential philosopher of the period: Immanuel Kant.

In some ways, it is surprising that Kant should have thought so deeply about art, as there seems to be no evidence that he personally had any great interest in paintings or sculptures. In fact his book, The Critique of Judgement (1790), contains hardly any references to actual works of art. He conducts his discussion at a very abstract level, avoiding pinning it down with numerous examples as his contemporaries were prone to do. Yet it is this very fact which has helped to make his book so influential, and keeps its influence alive today. Much of what he says can easily be found applicable to works of modern art which Kant could not possibly have imagined. These works are certainly not what he had in mind, but his ideas have helped to make such modern art possible.

Turner probably hadn’t read Kant. But many of his contemporaries in the artistic and literary life of England (including the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge) were familiar with German philosophy. Kant’s ideas had become a major influence on the Romantic Movement in art and literature, even though his own dry and academic personality was about as far removed from Byronic extravagance as one could imagine.

Turner would have encountered fashionable ideas about art, including the belief that artists should strive to represent nature at its most sublime. Many 18th Century writers (including Edmund Burke in England) had attempted to define what the word ‘sublime’ meant. But the most philosophically sophisticated of all these attempts was Kant’s The Critique of Judgement. Like Burke, Kant made a clear distinction between what was beautiful and what was sublime. Art, he believed, should be concerned with both (but not with both at the same time). A small flower is beautiful; but a storm at sea is sublime.

Turner, of course, devoted more energy to painting storms at sea than he did to painting flowers. Even the human figures, in Turner’s later paintings, are rarely more than a few small dabs of paint, to give a sense of scale to a huge mountain glacier or a turbulent seascape. So Colin Radford is quite right to say that, at the end of the 18th Century, artists started to turn away from depicting beautiful objects on a human scale, and began to reach towards the unfathomable vastness of sublime visions. Kant might almost have been setting out the subject matter for Turner and other painters to follow when he wrote of: “Thunderclouds piled up in the vault of heaven, born along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force.”

Kant can help us to understand what these artists, and those who came later, were trying to achieve. They were not seeking to produce beautiful effects, they were reaching towards something completely different: sublimity. Among more modern artists, Rothko and the other American abstract expressionists belong to this same tradition. Radford admits that Rothko’s paintings “inspire interest, enjoyment and awe…. but at the same time I must admit that I’m unable to give a rationale or justification for my response.” Such a rationale certainly can’t be found in Aristotle, but it can be found in Kant, even though Kant could never have seen any paintings remotely resembling the huge abstract canvasses of Rothko.

We experience the sublime, Kant explains, when confronted by something we cannot fully grasp or understand, but which prompts us to strive towards such understanding. When this happens “the mind feels itself set in motion”, and this restless motion, like that of the sea, never reaching a final conclusion, is strangely pleasurable. So the incomprehensibility of modern art is part of its pleasure. When we begin to feel we understand some aspects of the artist’s intentions, this prompts us to try to understand more, but the strangeness and complexity of the work constantly eludes us.

Marcel Duchamp published several volumes of notes explaining the intricate symbolism of his complex work The Large Glass, on which he worked for several years. Even when one has read all these explanations, the full meaning of the construction remains baffling. But by then it should be clear that it is not just a random assortment of lines and shapes. It seems to have a meaning or purpose, but we can’t quite grasp what that purpose might be. This is exactly the state of mind which Kant believed we experience as aesthetic pleasure.

Kant concluded that the true artist should have the qualities, not merely of a skilled craftsman, but of genius. And genius he defined as “a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given…. consequently, originality must be its primary property.” Every artist, therefore, must produce something completely new, rather than following a model from the past. There is “a complete opposition between genius and the spirit of imitation.”

This is the imperative requirement that modern art has enthusiastically embraced. Many people may think it has completely exhausted itself in the process. Haven’t we, by now, seen every possible novelty, every possible redefinition of what art could be? Hasn’t everything already been done? Are we not condemned simply to repeat selected features from the smorgasbord of past artistic styles? Any such repetition, however, will now be ironic, critical, and thoughtful. The idea that no novelty is possible is, paradoxically, the very latest novelty: one of the inspirations for contemporary postmodern art.

Artistic production continues to thrive. More and more galleries of new and radical art are opening. Nor is this interest confined to a coterie of experts. Anyone who has joined the crowds who pour into the Tate Gallery each year to see the exhibits contending for the Turner prize knows how popular contemporary art is with a large public. They may find some of the works baffling, but, as Immanuel Kant had explained 200 years ago, bafflement can be a form of pleasure.

© Peter Benson 1997

Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, translated by J.C. Meredith, Oxford University Press, 1952

Peter Benson studied philosophy at Cambridge and now works at Swiss Cottage Public Library in London (a library with a specialised philosophy section).

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