In The Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant argues that self-interest is not relevant to making aesthetic judgments; whatever one experiences indifferently is aesthetic. Pleasantness appeals to the senses. The green color of a meadow is a sensation; the pleasurable aspect of the color is a subjective impression. To think of something as good, one must understand the object. To find beauty in something, one needs only the senses. Beyond beauty, the good must have purpose. Only after satisfied interest can one distinguish the person of taste from the person lacking taste. The object of disinterested liking is beautiful. The validation of beauty comes from consensus. In terms of validation, beauty resembles truth.
Taste—noting something as salty, tart, or sweet, for example—is private and individually different. The experience of beauty or taste can be generalized, however, by consensus. Thus, beauty seems part of things. Judgments of taste report emotional states, and beauty connects to the sensations of the experiencing subject. Titillation and emotion are not part of beauty. Kant distinguishes free beauty and dependent beauty: Free beauty does not need conceptualization; dependent beauty requires purpose. Examples of free beauty are colorful birds, colorful fish, colorful wall coverings, or music without theme or lyrics. With these forms of art, one needs no purpose, only taste. Human beings or beasts of burden have purpose. Their beauty relies on one’s judging contingent purposes. Beauty can also be a form of a purposive object if a viewer perceives beauty without awareness of purpose. Though the parts of a flower have purpose, the viewer ignorant of botany sees beauty only. Every inflexible routine is contrary to taste and provides boredom. Natural beauty always outweighs artificial routine.
Next, Kant focuses on the sublime. The beautiful and the sublime please directly, but the sublime attracts and repulses: That it, the beauty of the sublime attracts, and its forcefulness repulses. The sublime—an erupting volcano, for example—exhibits this duality. What is called sublime is that which is great, and such greatness is comparative, not absolute. Consensus validates judgments about greatness.
The truly sublime makes all else seem small. What one sees in a telescope or a microscope is sublime. That is, the sublime transcends measures of sense. Kant uses the example of the pyramids, which one must view from a particular distance to experience their sublimity. If one is too close, the view turns mathematical; if one is too far, the view is unclear. With the right distance, the view is sublime. The noumenon (the thing in itself) is immeasurably vast; it is unimaginable and thus sublime. Aesthetically, numbers become irrelevant or must change. Even war, when orderly and limited by rights of noncombatants, has aspects of the sublime. A thunderstorm is sublime until one understands its nature. The terrors of nature—massive mountains, huge deserts, fathomless gorges, raging streams—are sublime if one contemplates them from a position of safety. Being immersed in these sublime events or places inspires terror.
An object of one’s pleasure is an object for comfort, an object of beauty, an object of the sublime, or an object of goodness (iucundum, pulchrum, sublime, honestum). Acts inspired by emotion are weak. Novels, tearjerkers, or platitudinous morality plays weaken heart and spirit and distract from moral duties. Beauty is not morality, for outstanding artists may be quite common, arrogant, stubborn, and full of other flaws. Colors have associations with one’s moods: White is innocence, and red through violet may be sublime, courageous, giving, friendly, modest, steadfast, or tender. The song of birds is joyous and appreciative of life. All these characteristics are best in nature; imitations are not interesting.
Acting outside rules, genius has originality. Although original nonsense remains nonsense, genius channels nature through hidden sources that science cannot reproduce. Thus, for example, one can learn to become Sir Isaac Newton; one can never learn to be Homer because Homer is a natural force. To judge beauty, one needs taste; to produce beautiful objects, one needs genius. Some artistic works come from genius without taste; others exhibit taste without genius. A genius brings forth institutions of learning for good minds, who learn the rules of what genius has developed. A student going beyond imitation to channeling nature can surpass a master.
Kant divides the arts into the arts of speech, imaging, and sense impressions. Arts of speech are oratorical and poetical arts. Arts of imaging are sense-authentic arts such as architecture or sculpting, or they are sense-deceptive arts such as painting or landscaping. Arts of sense impressions appeal either to hearing (music) or to...
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