For a Kantian Critique of Modernism

Joachim Pissarro with David Carrier
Studio School, New York
Jan 28, 2009

Why is Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment still, strangely enough, relevant to our present day daunting art world?

A. The aesthetic judgment is entirely subjective

In the history of the theory of beauty (aesthetics) from the antiquity to the classical/post-Renaissance era, the idea of beauty was always based on ideals of harmony, and pure laws of proportion and balance, that were supposed to reflect the divine and infinitely great power of creation. In a word, beauty (and its secrets) were sought in the object being created (the work of art) that had to be flawless.

Kant completely turns around this whole equation: it is our claim that, by doing so, in 1791, he set us up with challenges the scale of which we have barely begun to fathom.

Simply put, Kant shifted the central focus of the aesthetic judgment from the object of the judgment (the work of art/or nature) to its subject : the viewer. What Kant explains (shockingly) is that the judgment of beauty has nothing to do with the object it characterizes, but with the subject that utters this judgment. In other words, the words ‘beautiful’ or ‘sublime’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘historically consequent with the history of western art since the renaissance’ (Greenberg) are not intrinsic attributes of the aesthetic objects they describe; these notions are ALL situated in the head of the subject/author who utters them.

This is NOT to say that these attributes (beautiful, ugly, consequent) have no value; this is only to say that they have NO objective value. Their value is entirely subjective.

B. Consequence of the above: no theoretical system, nor proof, can validate, or guarantee the aesthetic merits (or lack of) of any particular work of art.

Not only does Kant explain that the particularity of the aesthetic judgment (which it shares with the moral judgment) is that it is entirely derived from the subjectivity of the author of each judgment, but, he also explains that these judgments (unlike a scientific judgment, or a mathematical judgment) can bear no concepts, rules, codes, etc. He gives an example of himself (knowing that he had notoriously bad taste in poetry) loving a particular poem. He says, that no matter what all the great experts of poetry of the period, no matter how much opposition he might counter, there is simply no proof system that could invalidate his love for a 3rd rate piece of poetry that he happened to love and find beautiful. Likewise, it would be impossible to use any logical, and irrefutable truth system to prove to someone who hates van Gogh, or Pollock, that they are wrong.

In brief, the aesthetic jt., according to Kant, is utterly subjective (it does not tell us anything about the object it characterizes); it cannot be validated (or invalidated) by any rules, concepts, theoretical systems – NB: this does not mean that theorizing about art is impossible, or should be forbidden. Kant would have no problem with this whatsoever. But theorizing about art is exactly parallel to practicing theology: theology does not prove the existence of god, no more than art theory proves or disproves the aesthetic merits of a particular object.

Technically, Kant explains that the aesthetic judgment occurs by sheer chance: it can no more be planned, or anticipated than falling in love. He explains that an aesthetic judgment occurs when two of our faculties that usually have nothing to do with each other fall in agreement with each other: the faculty of understanding and the faculty of imagination.

This situation by which an agreement occurs between understanding and imagination takes place by pure chance. Again, there is no way one can determine an aesthetic judgment. One can no longer determine it, than force it. Aesthetic judgments happen freely.

C. The other side of the coin: the Antinomy of Taste

Radical as it was, this idea that the judgment of taste as purely subjective, and entirely free, and unregulated by any rules or concepts, would only have been original for a few years. Very soon, this caught on the imaginations of the Romantics (many were friends, or frienemies of Kant). And this idea of the ultimately individual subjective essence of the jt. of taste permeated generations of thinkers.

What is rigorously unique about Kant’s system of understanding of the jt. of taste is that he does not abandon the jt. of taste to its anarchistic destiny: he explains that, despite the fact it cannot be coerced, it cannot be proven, it is not an objective reflection of the work of art it designates, the aesthetic judgment is also one by which one seeks (one “demands”) the assent of all the ones around us.

In other words, despite its radically and unsurpassable subjective nature, the aesthetic jt. requires something like universal approval: if I find a work of art beautiful, and I love it, I want everyone to agree with me – despite the fact that no proofs can support my claim.

D. Kant’s legacy and the modernist enterprise

Kant’s aesthetic endeavor is so huge, so monumental, so complex (we are barely scratching the surface of his fascinating understanding of the aesthetic judgment) that no one, in the history of ideas, from the enlightenment until today, has remained indifferent to Kant. From Hegel to Marx, from Nietzsche to Heidegger, from Freud to Lyotard, from Adorno to Hannah Arendt, all these major figures – and many others – have had to deal with Kant.

One of the most surprising expressions of homage to Kant’s enterprise comes from Clement Greenberg: the champion of modernism (whose 100th anniversary is being celebrated in 2009). Greenberg (not known for his lack of forceful evaluative criteria, nor for his shyness in expressing his value judgments) once declared that “Kant was the first real modernist”.

What did Greenberg find in Kant that could have led to such a powerful endorsement? Well, Kant, before publishing the Critique of the Power of Judgment, had published two previous Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason, and the Critique of Practical Reason (i.e., of the moral judgment).

The 3 Critiques essentially answer 3 types of questions (inherent in the history of mankind):

1. how can I know anything? (how do I form a scientific judgment, objective, and universally valid);
2. how can I build a moral judgment that has the force of a categorical imperative?
3. how do I form a judgment about the beauty of an object, knowing that this type of judgment can be based on no rules, nor any concepts, or prescriptive systems?

What really interested Greenberg was the fact that in his first Critique, Kant set up to use the tools of reason in order to critique the rational enterprise. This sounds contradictory, but, in essence, Kant is the first philosopher in the history of Western thinking to establish rationally the limits of the rational enterprise. (hence his continued success recently with people such as Lyotard, for instance)

Greenberg uses the Kantian example to say: here is a perfect model of what we should do for the history of Western painting. Western painting should be using its own tools and methods in order to self-critically address its own flaws and turn to its own destiny. And for Greenberg, the destiny of painting is to realize that painting is all about 2 things : application of pigments on a flat surface.

It is true that Kant severely warned against the abuse of the powers of reason by saying that by wanting to transform the ideas of reason into realities, one would fall dangerously under the fallacy of the illusionary powers of reason.

By analogy, Greenberg warned against the illusionary games inherent to the history of painting when painting – pre-and post-renaissance – essentially mimicked the practice of another form of art (sculpture) and created illusionary effects (rendering 3-dimensional effects, through perspective, chiaroscuro, or modulating effects) whereas this kind of exercises were radically against the essence of painting (laying flat its pictorial medium on a flat support). The history of Western painting has consisted, according to Greenberg, in a several century-long history of a lie : he calls it a “concealment”, by which painters refused to accept to see what their intrinsic métier consisted in, and they tried to usurp the tricks of another practice (sculpture).

So, Greenberg sees in Kant someone who, in philosophy, uses philosophical reasoning to arraign the excessive claims of reason and applies this model to the history of painting.

E. The Limitations of Greenberg’s Understanding of Kant

There are two problems with Greenberg’s utilization of Kant. One: he seeks his principal model (which sounds very alluring, and promising) from Kant’s 1st Critique (in which Kant deals with the construction of universally valid objective judgments) and applies this model to a type of judgments that is, as we saw, inherently subjective, and can in no way be based on rules, concepts, or theoretical programs.

Two: The Greenbergian enterprise leads to a mega-historical reconstruction of the beginnings and ends of the evolution of Western paintings. In other words, the Greenbergian system cannot be understood if one leaves out the fact that beginning and end, are like minus and plus, that History (with a big H) follows an intrinsic logic, that leads the vision of history to vast over-simplifications, and humongous omissions – simply because they do not fit within the overall theoretical/historicist frame that orders the History according to a certain scheme.

On this : see JP’s critique of the historicist model.

Also : Karl Popper, On the Poverty of Historicism.

F. Why a return to Kant can produce fresh and surprising results in our approach to today’s vastly challenging art world ?

Not only Greenberg introduces an historicist model within his ‘self-critical’ model – something that Kant would have thought inconceivable; but, in effect, this historicist model itself leads to a new form of dogmatism.

In fact, this propensity to dogmatism is shared by almost all the systems that were part of, or that followed or attempted to reform modernism. By dogmatism, I mean a system of beliefs in truth values that excludes all other truth values than the ones it defends, and that refuses to check itself according to the truth values of other competing systems. In other words, it is simply impossible to dialogue with a dogmatic if you do not share his/her value system.
What all these systems (or sub-systems) share is :

– an enduring belief in a calendar-like evolution-based essence of the succession of events of artistic events; or, the underpinning belief that a fundamental sense, derived from an inner, hidden logic, can be drawn out of art works; a perfect example of this kind of enterprise took the shape of a yearly theoretical/visual calendar, organized like the post-office calendar: from January to December, from 1900 until 1999 (Art Since 1900)
– not all art works, of course, produce the same amount of sense; not all art works respond to the same call of history: those that do not respond to the voices of history fall by the wayside. These works of art simply do not count. They can be considered as what Hegel called “the dust of history”

G. A Kantian perspective for a new alternative

If we look at Greenberg’s system of truth through Kant’s theoretical model, we immediately notice a glaring opposition: Kant established that it is impossible to substantiate or defend an aesthetic judgment through a logical, or theoretical proposition. (Again, there is no need, obviously, to demonstrate that Kant was not exactly afraid, nor was he dismissive of theoretical efforts! – but he simply found that these could not establish the foundation of an aesthetic judgment).

Greenberg did exactly the opposite: his entire career consisted in establishing the irrefutable, necessary logic that made his value system absolutely indisputable. And, in effect, it must be conceded that he largely won his bets.


Largely because the institutional public (schools, museums, art market) need such answers. Criteria of decidability of what is “good art” vs. what is “bad art” (Greenberg’s quote) are indispensable to schools, museums, and auction houses.

Greenberg introduced a fundamentally needed dose of clarity within a world (the world of art production) that is inherently unclear.

Greenberg’s followers have tended to take stock on his promises : to continue to make things clearer, by introducing hermeneutic tools that, indeed, produce clarity but at a great price: the exclusion of millions, or rather billions of works of art.

Most often, a useful model of explanatory, and discriminatory decision has been the Adornian model. (David: I wrote a long email on this a few weeks ago.)

Now, the truly daunting perspective that Carrier and Pissarro want to be sketching (for one cannot do more than merely sketching it) begins with this question:

What happened if we looked behind the mirror of modernism? What happened if we took act of the fact that institutional art (the critical mass of works of art collected in museums, taught in art schools, and art history depts., and sold at auction) only represents an epidermical fragment of the vast mass of works that inherently claim to have an artistic value (whatever this value is, for now, we shall call it “non-institutional value)?

What happens if we suddenly face up this fact? Institutional art (the art collected by museums, taught in schools, and bought at auction) is the simple, arithmetical result of having excluded billions of objects that all share to hold a certain claim to some aesthetic/artistic value. Do we totally ignore this claim? “Dust of History”-kind of answers… And, what if as a theoretical challenge to ourselves, we wake up one morning and we decide to look around ourselves for every and any slightest object that carries an artistic claim? In the street, in the bathroom of a bar, on the subway, in an elevator, etc. We will notice that we find, not dozens, but hundreds of objects (that carry a certain artistic intention) which we have been neatly trained to ignore, to pass by: “this is not art”… Hence, of course, the very useful discriminatory tool of kitsch – recuperated in the past 20 years at least by some productions of contemporary art that produce objects that look like kitsch… but what about these other objects (the models) of kitsch that simply never make it inside the institutional space?

If we do take Kant’s statement (that the value or importance of a work of art) cannot be demonstrated by an argument, nor by any teleological system of beliefs (Modernism/October, etc), then we find ourselves facing up to literally billions (rather than a few hundreds of thousands) of art objects that are glaringly ignored, unattended, unnoticed, discriminated, excluded – although it should also be said that many of these objects find parallel, marginal (non art worldly, non institutional) forms of recognition. [Plenty of examples, and visuals to be discussed here]

Now, how do we approach this new challenge? Is the question that C&P here will propose to look at with some of the following visual examples….