A Debate Judged by Hume Between Kant, Winckelmann, Fry, and Kimel on Art and Beauty, Part 1

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Some years ago, I dreamed that I was an anthropomorphic lawnmower chugging through rolling hills. I happened to meet Kant and Winckelmann, who were having a picnic and discussing the question, “What is the relationship between art and beauty?”

Kimel: Gentleman, when I heard that Kant and Winckelmann were going to be debating aesthetics and that I was invited here as the honorary judge, I rolled here as quickly as I could, even though I’m a busy appliance and have a lot of weeds to mow. So by all means, have at it, but try to hurry if you can.

Kant: But we didn’t invite you here as the judge. That’s Hume’s job. He’ll be here any moment. Winckelmann is my debate partner tonight. He’ll be the first speaker, and I’ll be the third. Pick a teammate of your own, and let’s begin as quickly as possible, before you wake up. My only request is that you record this dream, if you remember it.

Kimel: Alright, then. I choose Roger Fry, father of modern art criticism. He’ll be the second speaker, and I’ll be the fourth. But what’s the topic?

Kant: Whether all great art aspires to beauty, and if there is a universal standard of taste.

Hume and Fry presently materialized out of thin air. We took our places on opposite sides of the picnic table, and then we began the round. Winckelmann was the first to speak.

Winckelmann: The issue we’re considering is the relationship between art and beauty. Well, I’m confident that there can be no real debate on this question. All great artists aspire to create beauty, and they can accordingly be judged according to universalizing and objective standards concerned with how well they achieve this end. I would go so far as to say that any society which fails to recognize that art is fundamentally in the service of beauty possesses no sense of the superiority of balance, harmony, and proportion over their degenerate opposites immoderation, dissonance, and excess.

Now, during golden ages, technical standards of artistry are high, and authors produce finely tailored works of art marked by the features of balance, harmony, and proportion, which are, as I’ve already mentioned, the very hallmarks of beauty. At other time periods, though, these technical standards fall into precipitous decline. When hideous art is produced, on at least some level, viewers will invariably find themselves repulsed, though they might deceive themselves into calling an abomination a masterpiece, or lie about their true impressions to impress other people.

But when they make such a judgment, they aren’t evaluating the art itself; far from it! Instead, they’re weighing their own ideas associated with the piece—what the artist might have been saying, why he might have been saying it, and how he might have been saying it. These concepts, however, only exist in the imaginations of the viewers. In other words, they are extrinsic to the object itself, which can only be judged for good or ill on its own merits according to the sole criterion of beauty. And by beauty, again, I mean that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to its proportions in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover. Don’t blindly disagree with me just because your own society might produce inferior art—subconsciously, you must realize the horrible ugliness of your era, a world in which the inventor of the photograph dealt a death blow to all standards of technical craftsmanship, and utilitarian concerns rendered every urban cityscape a labyrinth of bombastic rhombuses. You call giant utilitarian boxes “architecture” and gory spectacles of violence “theater.” But history will have its say in the end, and expose the aesthetic standards of your era as degenerate.

Fry: Fuck Winckelmann, that took a long time. Your conclusions are totally misguided. Maybe because you were always subconsciously on the hunt for male beauty, you found in art criticism an outlet that empowered you to wax lyrically about it, discovering the one niche in your society where your desires could be discussed with poetic rapture yet moral impunity—the realm of nude Greek and Roman statuary. God knows that you wrote long and florid descriptions of ancient sculptures, describing them with a kind of scientific accuracy. So they call you the father of art history. But your theory that all artists are blindly groping at beauty, and that some geniuses have better eyesight than others, is preposterous.

In your time, the vast majority of Greek and Roman statues were undated. Trying to impose a chronological framework on the chaotic surviving evidence, you developed the theory that the art you found most beautiful was associated with the periods of the greatest human freedom. And so, the statues which you thought the best (usually exhibiting toned physiques and the balance and proportion associated with athletic male forms) were all said to come from the 5th century BC, the period of ancient democracy at its height. But the problem is, your theory was totally wrong. You arranged the statues completely arbitrarily. The true chronological sequence is often totally different from what you expected. You deified your own subconscious ideas about beauty to the point of claiming them as the foundations for an objective standard, but actually failed to create a universal paradigm useful to critics in all times and places.

Now, let me enlighten you about the true relationship between art and beauty, and teach you not to tussle with real philosophers. Beauty is not something objective–it exists in the eye of the beholder, as every schoolboy knows. What you think beautiful is not necessarily universally appealing to everyone.  There is no consensus when it comes to beauty, only a chorus of impressions. What is universal is the free interplay of ideas that comes about in the imagination when an observer experiences art. Why is a painting by Picasso a masterpiece? Because it has significant form. The arrangement of shapes inspires the mind to reflect on aesthetic ideas, though the piece itself might be disharmonious and turbulent. Beauty has nothing to do with the matter. Before the invention of the photograph, painters were praised for technical proficiency. But now we’re free to embrace art that is not necessarily harmonious or balanced or true to life, including non-western art, to which Greco-Roman naturalism is foreign. The aesthetic ideas the thing inspires are infinitely more important than the object’s beauty. And so I rest my case. My theory of formalism has completely supplanted all of your ideas, and is the final word on the interpretation of art.

At this point, Kant stepped forward…

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