NYU Seminar

A Lecture Delivered at New York University, by Pat Lipsky

February 9, 1984

We are here tonight to talk about Aesthetics. I am going to briefly discuss the works of Kant, Croce and Clement Greenberg as they relate to Art and Aesthetic Experience: In 1790 Kant wrote his Critique of Judgment. This came after his earlier works on logic and reason. In his Critique Kant presented his notions about aesthetic judgments and the sublime. His system is based on common sense and universality. He believes that all men ought to experience the same thing when looking at something beautiful. That they often don’t has to do with their level of development. Kant says that in judgments of beauty we presuppose that our feeling is not a private one: Because our minds are similar given objects will trigger off the same responses in all of us. “We can assume in everyman,” he writes, “those subjective conditions on judgment which we find in ourselves.” These aesthetic judgments correspond to those of perception and cannot be converted into judgments of experience. “Experience is different from aesthetics for we judge forms without the aid of concepts but rather by the commingling of intuition and understanding.”

Kant is very specific about the term Beautiful. He does not mean pretty or attractive or decorative. Beauty is absolute and when we use the term we assume others will agree with us. His philosophy is based on this socialness of mankind for as he writes, “the beautiful interests only in society.” Therefore beauty is absolute, there is no more or less beautiful. The pretty deals with agreeableness, the beautiful with aesthetics which Kant calls, “the judgment of taste; and taste with “the faculty of estimating an object or mode of representation by means of a delight or aversion apart from self interest.” If aesthetic experience is tinged with the slightest self interest it is not valuable. He uses the example of a man who owns a building and is gazing at it: If he calls it beautiful we are suspicious since he owns it. If I who have no interest whatever in the building call it beautiful that is a judgment of taste.

Kant believes that with the agreeable everyone does have his own taste, but not so with the beautiful. “Many things may possess charm and agreeableness but when we put a thing on a pedestal and call it beautiful we demand the same delight from others.” (Even if no one agrees, they ought to.) Judgments of taste have this ought, which judgments of the agreeable conspicuously lack. There are no principles or recipes we can point to in terms of the beautiful, no formula. Each thing must be judged separately and independently. Unlike sensual pleasure beauty can only be experienced by human beings. This is not the pleasure of enjoyment but of mere reflection. Human beings who are both rational and irrational (therefore human), are the only creatures who can contemplate it.

Kant spends a lot of time differentiating the beautiful from everything else, isolating it. The good has to do with reason, the pleasant with possession because we always want more. Only the beautiful has to do with what Kant calls the “freeplay of imagination and understanding” which occurs when we look at something beautiful. Or as Kant poetically put it, “Only where the imagination in its freedom awakens the understanding and is put by it into regular play, without the aid of concepts does the representation communicate itself not as a thought, but as an internal feeling of a purposive state of mind.” (Italics mine.) This free play of imagination and understanding is so satisfying that we seek it again and again. But not satisfying in the way of pleasure which always involves self interest, satisfying because it causes this feeling of exaltation.

In this situation imagination is not at the service of the understanding as it is in both logical thinking and cognition. Here understanding is at the mercy of imagination. This free play of the faculties forms the background for the claim of universal validity of judgments of taste. This is based on the supposed similarity of the way our minds function. “When we take pleasure in an object, independently of its concept, we judge that this pleasure attaches to the representation of the object in every other subject.” We all experience the same things based on the a priori constitution of the mind itself.

This concept of universal validity is often disputed. Many people don’t believe that we will experience this free play of imagination and understanding before the beautiful object. Of course this cannot be proved. The problem has to do with believing in an a priori set of standards vis a vis human perception. This is also the problem for Transcendental Philosophy in general, which is defined in the dictionary as “of or relating to the a priori and necessary condition of human experience as determined by the constitution of the mind itself.” This is the same a priori principle that Kant held as the basis for judgments of reason and common sense. Skeptical philosophy offers the opposite view. It holds that we are all different and that what is true for one of us is not true for another. In the skeptical view, “no fact or truth can be established on philosophical grounds.” (Kant held that stating that everyone has his own taste is tantamount to stating that there is no taste at all.)

Kant views the artist as a person who simply wishes to create beauty which will cause aesthetic experience in his fellow human beings. He calls the artist, “he who aspires to make the beautiful.” This involves a “productive capacity.” To have taste alone will never insure that the artist can create beauty. “For judging of beautiful objects taste is necessary, for production of such objects genius is necessary.” Genius he defines as “a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given.” The genius does not know how she brought about her product and she cannot do it again at will. It has to do with originality for which no rule can be learned. This, obviously, is the opposite of imitation. Kant writes, “We can learn all that Newton has set forth in his immortal work, but we can not learn to write spirited poetry,” He uses spirit and genius interchangeably. One can have good taste but without this spirit cannot create beautiful art. It is the animating principle of the mind” which is necessary for this.

The “aesthetic idea” cannot be put into words, in the same way that its counterpoint the rational idea cannot be intuited. In making art the aesthetic imagination bypasses language. This is what separates it from the other modes such as logic. The art work presents a concept but its concept is indeterminate in the same way that the “knowing” of aesthetic appreciation is a knowing, but again of nothing specific. Kant does not trust the imagination alone however, which he considers merely “sensuous.” Coupled with the understanding it is kept in check. This imagination to which he refers is a powerful agent for creating as it were a “second nature” out of the material supplied it by actual nature. He states that the imagination affords us entertainment when experience proves too commonplace. Like the Greeks, Kant believes that the artist can improve on nature aesthetically as it is given.

To briefly summarize: Kant believes in the a priori constitution of the mind itself. He calls aesthetics the judgment of taste, and taste the faculty of estimating the object or mode of representation by means of a delight or aversion apart from any interest. To allow for the slightest interest implies prejudice. The objects of delight he calls beautiful. He allows that with the agreeable everyone has his own taste, not so with the beautiful. When we say the flower smells good this is a question of senses and relates to mere pleasure. “When we say the flower is beautiful that is tantamount to repeating its own proper claim to the delight of everyone.” Universality and necessity are the marks of Kant’s aesthetic. It is a necessary feature of judgments of taste as it is not for the merely pleasing. He is wary of charm and emotion and does not include them as prerequisites of beauty which he believes implies agreement. “Therefore he who judges with taste (if only he does not go astray in the act of consciousness and mistake matter for form or charm for beauty) may impute to everyone… his satisfaction in the object and may assume his feeling to be universally communicable and that without the meditation of concepts.” In order to create beautiful art “imagination, understanding, spirit and taste” are requisite.

Benedetto Croce wrote his Guide to Aesthetics in 1902. In many ways he followed the work of Kant but unlike Kant he is an out and out romantic. (Of course romanticism was part of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after Kant.) For example he calls art, “a yearning kept within the bounds of a representation.” One of his goals in writing on aesthetics was to give it the role in human values he thought it deserved. In his own times he had seen the devaluation of the intuitive in favor of science and math. He felt this one-sidedness was harmful and created an imbalance. Human beings were capable of both intuition and logic and needed the opportunity to exercise both. Croce tells us that to see is to feel and by extension to create is to feel. The term most repeated in Croce is “intuition” which he uses interchangeably with feeling. The dictionary defines intuition as “Direct of immediate insight. The immediate apprehension of an object by the mind without the intervention of any reasoning process…” Croce believed that it is only by intuition that the artist can create anything of value. In fact, Croce defines art as, “Intuition which has been given form.

The form is the “formal” or finished art work, the feelings which the artist has organized. The artist takes the intuitions that we all, “suffer and sweat,” and makes art out of them. Croce believes that without intuition there is only empty form.

Intuition substitutes here for Kant’s “geist” or spirit. Croce agrees with Kant that imagination alone is not enough. It must be concretized by appropriate form to become beautiful. He calls the beautiful “successful expression” and the ugly “multiplicity.” Ugliness occurs when the artist is unresolved and fighting within herself. The ugly has many degrees and displays fragmentation, but the beautiful is only one, whole and organic.

Croce considers the artist a spiritual person because when she is creating she is performing a sacred function. Croce compares her at these times to a monk. Whether or not she is moral at other times is of little relevance for by doing her art she is moral. However, this is not what motivates the artist. According to Croce, “by forming her feelings the artist has a chance to understand them.”

To repeat much of Croce’s Guide touches on the role of intuition in the creative process. He states, “intuition is such because it expresses an intense feeling and can only arise when intense feeling is its source and basis.” Or, to put it another way, “Art is emotion objectified, universalized, raised to a state where it becomes the object of lucid disinterestedness.” Like Kant he holds as basic the ultimate disinterestedness of art. Intuition through being embodied in art becomes depersonalized.

Croce’s writing on the creative process is similar to T.S. Eliot’s “Objective Correlative, the artistic and literary technique of representing or evoking a particular emotion by means of symbols that objectify that emotion and are associated with it.” (dictionary) Croce believed that “ In art this becomes a unifying principle which every artist requires if he is to impose form or shape on the chaos of one’s initial experience—for it is not the emotions themselves but that they be well displayed.”

A key to this idea is that the viewer does not respond emotionally, in the ways of ordinary life to the feeling of the art. Earlier Kant had said, “That taste is still barbaric which needs an added element of charm and emotion in order that there be satisfaction and still more so if it adopts these as a measure of its approval.” In the Twentieth Century Formalist Philosopher, Harold Osborne, in his “Aesthetic and Art Theory” wrote, “If we respond to a work of art the way we respond to a revivalist meeting to that extent we are not responding to it as art.” Kant, Croce, and Osborne are in agreement that there is a specific attitude for viewing art – art qua art. Clearly for both the artist and the viewer it is necessary to separate art from life as it is lived. We go to art for the very things life is short on.

Croce was against criticism that looked to the psychology of the artist instead of the work itself. In this he anticipated our obsessive times which consider everything but the art. He disapproved of critics who want psychology, “something more” from art. All the trivia about artists, all the gossip, all the delving into family backgrounds. And then very little about what has been created! Croce also played down the importance of the critic. He wrote that no critic could make someone into an artist who wasn’t, or ruin someone who was.

Like Kant, Croce called taste, “the activity that judges art.” However his idea of what happens when we judge art is different from Kant’s. He called judging “reproductive.” “To judge Dante we must raise ourselves to his level. In that moment of contemplation and judgment our spirit is one with the poet, and we and he are one.” Perhaps he goes too far here, and this becomes art as apotheosis?

The third thinker in my lecture tonight is Clement Greenberg—still gloriously with us. His work derives from both Kant and Croce. The term Formalism has become synonymous with his name and in the art world has sometimes even been used pejoratively to imply “elitism” which is actually a distortion of what Greenberg stands for which is quality. In Formalism the art object is a thing in itself with a life of its own. Flaubert is the first to espouse this back in 1851 when he began Madame Bovary. Writing to Baudelaire a few years later in 1857, Flaubert complimented the poet, “What I like most of all about your book (Fleur de Mal) is that art comes first.” (Both books, incidentally, were subjected to trials in Paris for indecency.) Later, talking about the cubist revolution Picasso said something similar, “In the fight between art and nature, art won.” It’s ironic that these ideas, going back one hundred and fifty years are still questioned in some circles, like Darwin.

Greenberg’s most popular book is Art and Culture. His subsequent writings are essays and reviews that have been published in art magazines and quarterlies. One group started as “seminars” which he gave the working title, “Homemade Aesthetics.” In an interview with Greenberg, James Faure Walker summed up the essays this way, “In these recent essays on aesthetics…you try to locate what is specifically aesthetic about decisions and judgments made in art, taking the problem in Kantian terms, differentiating aesthetic judgments from moral or intellectual choice…” In their discussion Greenberg then goes on to mention the aesthetics of Kant and Croce, “the only philosophers I’d learned anything from in the line of aesthetics.”

Greenberg agrees with Kant’s attitude of disinterestedness in art. (Nothing in your life will change if you have an aesthetic experience, it appeals primarily to your humanity.) He calls aesthetic judging, “Passive, before you’ve even had time to decide whether you like something or not you’ve already made up your mind.” Along the same lines, the social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “The unconscious mind can form likes and dislikes before the conscious mind even knows what it is responding to.” And that judging is part of aesthetic experience. But it is not, “sitting in judgment.” It is not weighed, it is felt; spontaneous, involuntary, and intuited, (similar to Marcel Proust’s concept of “involuntary memory”). According to Greenberg in this judging we are not responding to emotions as some people believe. The pleasure or lack of it that we feel in looking at an artwork, he believes has to do with its quality. In art what succeeds is the quality, it is that which moves us.

Greenberg bemoans the fact that many people are not honest when registering their responses to art. They are afraid to say they are bored or don’t like something that has been touted to them. And it’s this lack of clarity in registering responses that leads to confusion in art. When one first starts looking at art, honesty is the first prerequisite. He believes that in the last twenty or so years the viewing public has relaxed its attitude towards art, and that this is in part responsible for the lack of taste we see at the moment. From the early renaissance up to the eighteenth century art was made for a small circle of trained and cultivated viewers. Now it is created for everyone. And this democratization has caused the lowering of standards, and confusion as to what is good and bad.

According to Greenberg in the judgments of art constitute aesthetic experience the answer is very rarely black and white, a flat yes or no. Usually judgments fall into what is called the gray area, “more than,” “somewhat.” What we look to art for is “exalted moments” which have no practical value, and are, to state again, disinterested.

Greenberg calls the supreme works of art, “those which induce an unequal exaltation of cognitiveness. To the extent that aesthetic experience satisfies consciousness revels in the sense of itself.” This is the feeling of knowing, that Kant wrote about too, a knowing that goes beyond specific concepts and is non-verbal.

Greenberg believes that aesthetic experience involves the satisfaction of expectations and that great art does not simply satisfy them, but always “surprises” and resolves them. In fact one of the expectations that we have for art is that it have this “element of surprise.” Without it, art looks old. It’s this very “element of surprise” that catches us unawares and delights us. However if the surprise is too great it will be too much for our expectations, and will break the connection with art of the past.

He has stated many times that the successful artist must have mastered the art of the generation preceding hers/his. Which involves understanding the surprises that were built into that art. And then, most important, Greenberg goes on to distinguish real surprise from shock value. He credits Marcel Duchamp whom he calls a cultural figure rather that an artist, back in 1913 with capitalizing on shock value which has lead to anti-art; dada, pop art and post-modernism. In Duchamp’s oeuvre the surprise is not built into the art, the surprise is the art.

The difference between shock value and real surprise is that in the former once you “get it,” it’s over—as opposed to built into the experience of looking; as say the dripped and flung paint is in a Pollock. The second time you see Duchamp’s urinal it is no longer surprising, or for that matter interesting. It’s just a dirtyish yellow object that was once in a men’s bathroom.

Following Kant, Greenberg mentions aesthetic experience in nature. There too we have moments of art. He calls these individual experiences “unformed,”— “raw art.” The fact that they are not formed (put down on paper or painted) does not take away from their value for us as art. He states, “Anything and everything can be appreciated aesthetically which means passively,” received, experienced. Greenberg claims that no one actually knows what goes on when she/he is creating, but he tries to imagine anyway. “The artist receives judgment-decisions-inspiration if you like—from his medium and his works.” At the end of this process, “the artist, writer, composer, invites the beholder to accept the judgment-decisions he has accepted for himself. He counts on the beholders taste as he counts on his own. In effect he asks others to arrive with himself at the final stage when he, the artist resigned himself, as it were, saying yes to everything the finished canvas conveys.”

Like Croce, Greenberg believes that the interpreters of art do a disservice by taking the emphasis away from aesthetic experience and putting it onto personality. “The interest and excitement of art qau art fades and becomes something else when the talk turns to what’s read off from art and read into it—to what’s interpreted out of and into it.” And yet so much art criticism and viewing goes in that direction with interpreters ignoring art as “rock bottom experience.” Instead they follow a cult of personality, filling us in on the artist’s, race, religion, habits, anything but experiencing a work of art as “feeling.” Feeling or intuition, saying yes, or no, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” Anything not to have a direct confrontation with art.

To sum up; when we like a picture we are saying “yes” to all the artists decisions. Like Kant, Greenberg sees art making as combining taste and inspiration which leads to quality in art or the lack of it. In fact Kant went so far as to say that if one thing had to be sacrificed it would be genius rather than taste. “Abundance and originality of ideas are less necessary to beauty than the accordance of the imagination in its freedom with the conformity of law to its understanding.” Greenberg adds that in the best art, what we are responding to are the “density of the decisions on the part of the artist,” which leads to quality.