On Beauty and Taste: A Refutation of Kant’s Aesthetics

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Is there a fundamental relationship between art and beauty, and is there a universal standard of good critical taste in art? After some reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to both questions must be yes. But neither Winckelmann nor Fry have satisfactorily supplied the standard to which I’m referring, and while my position speciously seems to evoke Kant’s concepts of “pure taste” and “free beauty,” my model in fact necessitates the very abrogation of these categories. I realize that I am tussling with giants here—the greatest art critics of all time, and one of the greatest philosophers. I also understand that attempts to do what I’m doing here have historically been associated with the application of rigidly judgmental regulations meant to limit what constituted “good art.” These stipulations were more often than not associated with hegemonic discourse that neglected and underrated the profundity of non-traditional arts, to say nothing of masterpieces from diverse cultural traditions. I am interested in accomplishing nothing of the sort here.

Instead, I want to examine the way that autonomous subjects experience beauty, exploring why they seem to derive pleasure from the mere contemplation of proportions, which is not obvious by any means. With so much done, in a future essay I’ll go on to investigate what the implications of my model suggest about whether or not the ability to recognize beauty is the fundamental feature of effective art criticism, and whether this suggests that there are certain universally applicable standards of good taste in art as I understand it. But the first thing to do is to define “beauty” and “taste” in terms that are useful to the discussion at hand, and this task will form an appropriate preamble to my forthcoming diatribe on the contemporary state of popular criticism.

We’ve heard that “beauty is that which inspires strong positive sentiment of its own accord thanks to an object’s proportions[1] in themselves rather than any appeal to rationality; beauty acts as a sort of unmoved mover.” This definition provides us with an interesting starting point. But perhaps we can be more precise. Beauty is a good in itself because the sensual experience of the proportions associated with beauty necessarily results in strong positive sentiment. But how can this pleasure derived from the sensual experience of proportions in themselves be described? And why should an object’s mere form inspire such stirrings in the first place? What constitutes “beauty” in the simplest terms? Is it some magnificent objective property that miraculously graces certain objects but not others? Or is it an imaginary phenomenon in the mind of a subject that only exists when it is perceived?

As I understand it, a subject experiences beauty as a kind of deeply satisfying imaginary symmetry between their unconscious preexisting idea of the good (shaped partly by biology, partly by past memories, and partly by internalized cultural discourse) and their conscious perception of the immediate object in question; the more closely that the object’s features conform to preconceptions[2] of the good, the more congruous the association between unconscious exemplary expectations and conscious perception becomes, and the more beautiful the object consequently appears to the viewer. It strikes me that if this schematization is useful, beauty can be philosophically understood as a kind of pleasing tripartite association between an object, our conscious perception of it, and our unconscious preconceptions about the standards that make it “good.”

It’s worth dwelling on this model for a moment. It suggests that the pleasure associated with beauty is essentially a sense of deep satisfaction connected to the recognition and contemplation of associations related to the good; in other words, a beautiful object reminds us of our preexisting standards of the good, and we derive pleasure from the recognition of their actualization in nature. In fact, our pleasure subsequently seems to validate and confirm the original standards. After all, the contemplation of their flourishing embodiment in the form of the object under observation has just made us happy as if by magic, and the ability to inspire such spontaneous pleasure is the sole criterion of beauty. The true source of our pleasure, however, is hidden in our unconscious reasons for our personal taste. In our blindness to them, we ascribe the “beauty” to the object itself, and do not realize that it exists only as a relationship in our own minds between the object, our conscious perception of it, and our unconscious associations involving what it reminds us of.

The derivation of continued pleasure in an object’s fulfillment of unconscious aesthetic standards thus becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—we consider certain features to be beautiful because they meet our preconceptions about what should make us happy, and their very congruity with our preconceptions when actualized in nature is enough to actually make us so. This is why beauty is an inexhaustible and endless source of pleasure in itself. The sense of free play in the mind as we dwell upon the pleasing relationship between the sum and its parts and all of the positive associations that it calls to mind produces a sense of fun and excitement. The object appears uncannily familiar to us because its constituent building blocks and the relationship between them call to mind the fulfillment of what we already yearned to see.[3]

Now, since every subject has access to a divergent store of memories and interprets and reacts to cultural discourse in radically different ways, a truly impartial or disinterested critical appraisal of beauty seems impossible to me, and here I must begin my quarrel with Kant. To make a Kantian judgment of “pure taste” is to be completely indifferent to all preconception, bias, and cultural discourse. Kant believed that such a judgment would be universally valid for all subjects. Yet if what I have said so far is correct, preconception, bias, and cultural discourse are in fact the very determinants of that which we find to be “good” in the first place, and consequently, what we consider to be beautiful. I could uncharitably compare Kantian “pure taste” to the experience of beauty from the perspective of a child, with access to few memories and little understanding of culture or history. The Kantian youth was never taught to be a sensitive judge of beauty. Their opinion is based on whims and first impressions, and they often render that which is gratifying to the sensual desires of the moment synonymous with that which is transcendentally beautiful. Indeed, as an adult, the child’s ultimate judgment of beauty will be partly informed by these infantile whims and first impressions along with a nexus of memories associated with individualized pleasures and pains engrained deep in the unconscious, structuring aesthetic taste. But the adult’s opinions will be moderated by the wisdom born of the old Confucian triad of experience, reflection, and imitation. Unfortunately for the Kantian model of a universalizing judgment of pure taste, however, this wisdom necessarily makes the child less disinterested and impartial, because prejudices and expectations are the attendant consequences of its acquisition.

To be fair, Kant distinguishes between free beauty and contingent beauty; the former can supposedly be understood through “pure taste,” and the latter is dependent upon cultural discourse and preconceptions that stand apart from the mere pleasure that the sensual experience of an object brings us in itself. It seems to me, however, that any subjective claim of beauty is necessarily contingent, insofar as the delight that we experience when we perceive an object is, as I have said before, derived from the recognition of an imaginary symmetry between our perception of an object and individualized standards of goodness grounded in highly personal memories and reactions to biological factors and/or cultural discourse brewing in our unconscious.

To explore whether or not this is the case, let’s look to some examples of objects that might be categorized as Kantian “free beauties” accessible to judgments of pure taste alone, examining how they might problematize or challenge the formula that I’ve just suggested. There are three potential categories of “free beauties” which might be thought to be universally appealing to all subjects capable of taste according to widely held human intuitions about beauty: geometric beauty, certain elegances associated with biological fertility, and the experience of the infinite, or sublime.[4] We will find that even in these special cases, drawn mostly from the world of nature, my descriptive model of beauty and taste will hold water.

I am indebted to Elizabeth Prettejohn’s book Art and Beauty for the idea that “free beauty” accessible to “pure taste” can perhaps most usefully be understood as the loveliness of geometric form in itself. There is a particular kind of beauty associated with simple shapes that might seem to be universally compelling to any subject capable of forming an aesthetic judgment. Human intuition seems to tell us that there is something transcendentally awesome about the grandeur of a perfect snowflake. Indeed, humans find the loveliness of fractals in general to be so intuitive that an aesthetic judgment of a snowflake as a beautiful object is completely uncontroversial in any earthly society. And the human imagination is stretched to the absolute limit by the idea of someone being able to find a pristine snowflake ugly; perhaps a terrible curmudgeon could call it banal, but never ugly. By its very nature, it exhibits a sense of delicate balance between rhetorical categories that are polar opposites to each other, paradoxically reconciling them in a single elegant unbroken shape. Fractals in general can be understood as visual representations of pattern on the brink of chaos. They exhibit impossibly delicate symmetries reinterpreted in infinite creative swirls. The mere contemplation of the complexity and evanescence of something like a snowflake inspires effervescence. We delight in its crystalline delicacy. Its very existence inspires wonder. The object is also completely uncontroversial; an appreciation for the elegance of its shapes threatens no discourse on power, and so discourse in general spares the snowflake from charges of ugliness. Even if the symbol of the Nazis were a snowflake, the shape itself wouldn’t be inherently offensive. It would still be beautiful in itself, though context could of course render it hideous by association.

Yet the matter is not so simple. It immediately strikes me that if an intelligent robot incapable of aesthetic judgment but eager to understand the concept of “ free beauty” were to read my last paragraph, they might charge that I did nothing but describe an object like a snowflake in language that was itself “beautiful,” asserting its relationship to “the good” but trying to prove my point only by using elaborate words and analogies to describe the object in question, adding no new information about it. Regardless of how strong a writer I am, I employed sophisticated vocabulary, rhetorical devices like parallel structure and alliteration, and anthropomorphic terminology: verbs like “exhibit,” “reinterpret” and “create” and nouns like “delicacy” and “elegance.” If my readers were convinced by my description that the snowflake is transcendentally beautiful, it was only because they found my prose to be “beautiful.”

What about the snowflake wouldn’t the robots understand that seems so intuitive to humans? I would suggest that the fractal pattern reminds humans of the very structure of their unconscious associations between concepts and memories by way of visual analogy. To use a simpler shape than a fractal as an example, a subject might find an abstract painting of triangle without a base to be beautiful because the three points of the figure can stand by symbolic analogy for three ideas, with the lack of the base representing the lack of a connection between two of the concepts—perhaps someone might think of her husband and her best friend from grammar school, two people who both loved her, but have no relationship to each other. The shape might also remind the observer of a sharp surface like the tip of a dagger, which might call to mind stories of romance or adventure, depending on one’s mood. You see the point. The geometric object’s beauty comes from the way that we humanize it by investing its qualities with symbolic overtones that are interesting to humans because they speak to our memories and experiences. But if this is true, then only subjects capable of reasoning by symbolic analogy are capable of finding a snowflake to be beautiful. Other animals care nothing for its symbolic overtones. For them, it is at best striking, or visually arresting. However, though the ant finds no snowflake to be beautiful, it does in fact experience beauty in other contexts in the form of the elegances of its mating games. In the same way, the ant lives in a society governed by rules, but would never be able to understand the concept of abstract justice. Humans are different from other animals because we were able to transfer our delight in the byzantine intricacies of our own mating games (the original biological locus of our idea of “beauty,” as we will see, below) to a delight in abstract representations of geometrical complexity in general by means of analogy. The word “elegant” can be used to describe a snowflake, but the terminology tellingly evokes concepts associated with sex and reproduction.

Thus, the contemplation of the snowflake only reveals beauty because the sight of the object leads to a free play in the mind as we personify its features and play about with psychosexual analogies inspired by its constituent parts. Our preexisting standards are nevertheless still structured by biology, our memories, and cultural discourse. Biology provides a tendency to associate the qualities of being intricate and symmetrical with healthfulness in the mating game. Memories associated with the close observation of shimmering, delicate, and harmless objects are likely to be positive or innocuous. And cultural discourse proverbially enshrines the idea that a snowflake is something beautiful; to be insensitive to its intricacies is to declare oneself barbarous and close-minded. But in fact, the pristine snowflake is no more inherently beautiful to all subjects than a filthy hailstone is. Consider that when it comes to mere form, any object can inspire a wealth of potential symbolic analogies, from a crack in the sidewalk to the Mona Lisa. What makes an object “beautiful” is our anchoring of those series of analogies in a sense that the object we are looking at is making us spontaneously happy, drawing us to continue looking at it. Something about it inspires us to linger and imagine. Beauty can be found in some measure in all things by a sensitive viewer, particularly when an object is viewed in close detail. Under a microscope, divorced of contaminating context, all things are beautiful. But only to a viewer capable of reasoning by sophisticated symbolic analogy, and one preprogrammed with standards of the good whose fulfillment results in a feeling of pleasure.[5]

So much for geometric beauty. Now, let’s consider the elegances associated with biological fertility more closely. Human intuition suggests that there is something inherently beautiful about a thriving rose in full bloom. Its vivid scent and colors were shaped by evolution to attract animals to spread its seed. So too the magnificent plumage of a peacock, or the intricate courtship songs of several different species of insects. Could Kantian “free beauty” be associated with an identity as a thriving member of a class exhibiting healthfulness rather than sickliness? To put it another way, that which is “flourishing” can be defined as the most likely of its class to reproduce in beauty. So if we recognize a flourishing state, do we inherently recognize the transcendentally beautiful? The strongest affirmative argument might be presented in the following way: All flourishing members of a class are necessarily beautiful, because the concept of “flourishing” necessarily involves the concept of the “good,” and if something is comprehended to be flourishing on the basis of its proportions alone, then the “good” must be evoked in the subject’s mind automatically, and the object is thus necessarily beautiful according to the Kimelian definition.

But the argument does not hold water. In the first place, we should remember that truth and beauty are distinct categories: they can both be conceptualized as inherently “good” in themselves, but the truth is not necessarily universally beautiful. We must not mistake the comprehension of the truth (such as the recognition of the fact that something is flourishing and exhibiting traits associated with being healthy) with a universalizing aesthetic judgment of beauty. We can take intellectual pleasure in our awareness of the truth, which is a good in itself, without reveling in the proportions of the object that we are scrutinizing. An appreciation of beauty is something deeper than mere understanding—we not only recognize the truth about an object, but associate that truth with pre-programmed ideas about what is good for us individually on the basis of taste. The elegances of a flourishing cockroach might be beautiful to other cockroaches but are not inherently so to human subjects, even if they recognize that the beast is flourishing according to the aesthetic standards of other monsters. Moreover, that which constitutes a flourishing state is very much shaped by context. A white coat might make it difficult for a certain species of rabbit to stand out in the mating game, but when climate change brings about colder winters, their brightly colored rivals will appear no different, but no longer be flourishing.

However, even if the elegances of the mating game do not redeem “free beauty” and “pure taste,” they are still of great importance to my conceptual model of aesthetic judgment. The first and murkiest experience of beauty must have come into existence among animals who preferred sensory displays in their mates that were associated with healthfulness (symmetrical features, a powerful voice, etc.) to sensory displays that were associated with sickliness and weakness (the original form of “ugliness”). Tellingly, we did not evolve in such a way that we automatically associate all sources of pain with the ugly. Fire is inherently harmful, and so is looking at the sun, but neither the sun nor a flame are at all ugly to human perception, though they are both dangerous. At the same time, the most lethal plants can be vividly colored; the wing of the butterfly, one of the great masterpieces of nature, evolved to advertise toxicity. The brilliant colors did not delight other animals; they only startled them. The upshot of all of this is clear. Animals did not evolve to find the dangerous to be ugly, or the striking to be beautiful. We evolved to find the sickly and that which leads to contamination through direct contact to be ugly. And we evolved to find those proportions and characteristics associated with the attributes of flourishing and healthy members of our own kind to be beautiful.

Thus, it seems to me that only the evolution of mating rituals distinguishing between the healthy and the weak provided animals with the possibility of experiencing beauty, though preferences for different kinds of foods might have been an earlier antecedent of aesthetic taste. Before these rituals came into existence and were abstracted by intelligent analogy to other dramatic and elaborate displays in nature, no animal could possibly find the wing of a butterfly to be beautiful, except for another butterfly. At best, it was visually striking. That which is striking often constitutes beauty, but is not necessarily synonymous with it. To the fly, a corpse dies in beauty—the aroma is intoxicating, and the greens and blues and purples of the rotting flesh teem with new life in the form of maggots. But to us, the condition of a corpse essentially delineates ugliness.

There is a final category to consider: the sublime. The lone wolf howls at the moon and feels the wind against its snout as it peers over a valley, hungering for something indescribable. Objects or images called sublime are diverse, but often have this unifying element in common: they involve the juxtaposition of grand opposing categories, such as the very large with the very small. The sublime is the feeling of a man staring out over the ocean on a snowy cliff as he contemplates his microscopic place in a mysterious universe. Perhaps the vista ennobles him because it reminds him that he is a part of something grander than himself. But lovely as the image might be to human intuitions, the idea that the grandeur of such scenes should necessarily be synonymous with Kant’s “free beauty” is not at all compelling. There exists inherent conceptual tension when the finite meets the infinite, it is true. But to put it more bluntly and less romantically, small animals feel a sense of awe and intimidation in the presence of things that are larger than they are. That which we call the sublime seems to me to be nothing more than this same feeling masquerading under a more highfalutin moniker. The vista overlooking the misty ocean is associated with the concepts of the infinite and the large, but not necessarily with the good. The lone wolf might well have looked over the valley and felt a sense of deep repugnance rooted in its loneliness being trapped alone and without his pack in a terrifying dark void; dens and closed spaces are more comforting than punishing dramatic mountaintops.

I imagine that humans only found the visual experience of the sublime to be beautiful around the same time that we first found fire to be beautiful. Rather than cowering from the flame, we looked into its shimmering movements and took delight in them because our ability to reason by analogy had grown to be so powerful that we could read the best things about our own world into the moving inferno—in the flame’s flickering, we could perceive the elegant movements of a writhing, flamboyant dance that we could not join, but could at least control so that we could gaze at it at our leisure. It brought us warmth and light. And when it washed over our food, it made it more delicious. It added beauty to our lives thanks to its proportions in themselves. It became worthwhile to care for it and nurture it at the hearth, like a child. The bestial values of physical attractiveness and the pleasurable satiation of hungers had been transferred onto nature by means of analogy. For the first time, fire, that embodiment of danger, was in fact perceived as a beautiful object to be tamed and nurtured. And human nature would never be the same again. The will to conquer the sublime in the same way that we capture mates and control our children (and for the same psychosexual reasons) became foundational to the progress of the species. Fire was the first pet, the first slave, and the first tool of civilization. The ability to find it beautiful by analogy to the human experience transformed the human experience.

***

[1] By “proportions,” I mean relationships between wholes and their constituent parts—whether spatial, thematic, etc.

[2] The constellation of these preconceptions brewing in the unconscious constitute individual taste.

[3] It is a fascinating philosophical question, whether the most dramatic alien landscape in outer space can be described as beautiful even if it is never beheld. Regardless of whether the vista would contain features that humans would unanimously find beautiful, it seems to me that beauty only exists when it is perceived, and that all things are potentially beautiful depending on the viewer’s perspective and proximity. The fact remains, though, that a beautiful object provides pleasure principally because it reminds us of what brought us pleasure in the past, or because cultural discourse tells us that certain standards should be held valuable, or because our genes have programmed us to find certain features automatically attractive.

[4] Kant himself does not mention these examples, but they are the closest things that I can imagine to objects that might speciously seem to be universally beautiful to all subjects.

[5] An intelligent robot might find the snowflake interesting because it inspires visual and conceptual analogies. But it only finds it beautiful when it is preprogrammed with aesthetic standards whose fulfillment is synonymous with the “good,” leading it to preference the object over others. Otherwise any abstract shape could have served just as well to inspire analogies. There is nothing special about the snowflake, except the intuition that delicate ordered existence in the face of the enormous indifference of the universe is something precious and inherently beautiful. This is an important intuition, and the origin of much good in history. But according to this standard, all things that exist are beautiful, and the snow flake is no better. A robot would find a diamond no more inherently beautiful than a pebble.

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