Kant and modern art

The poet John Enright has a post entitled “Kant and Abstract Art,” in which he takes up the claim Rand made in The Romantic Manifesto that “the father of modern art is Immanuel Kant (see his Critique of Judgment).” Rand does not elaborate, and Enright notes that some people scoff at the claim.

rand_50x66Rand’s claim is a strong one, in part because it makes intellectual-causal connection across centuries. How does one establish a fatherly connection between an uptight eighteenth-century philosopher and a sprawling twentieth-century movement? And in part Rand’s claim is hard to wrap one’s mind around because Kant’s philosophy is known to be turgid, arid, and highly rationalistic while modern art is known to be wild, weird, and wacky. How on earth could the Prussian lead to Pollock?

Is Rand right, and if so what is the connection?

I’ve been working on and off toward an essay on the topic of Kant’s influence on modern and postmodern art. Huge topic, so let me here give only some preliminary scholarly props to Enright’s post in the form of a few quotations from recent thinkers.

What have scholars after Rand said about the connection between Kant and modern art?

kant_50x64In a scholarly collection of essays on Kant’s philosophy, Eva Shaper writes that Kant is “the father of modern aesthetics” (“Taste, Sublimity, and Genius: the Aesthetics of Nature and Art,” in Paul Guyer, ed.,The Cambridge Companion to Kant, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 368).

Harold Osborne, longtime editor of the scholarly British Journal of Aesthetics, writes of “Kant, who is rightly regarded as the founder of modern aesthetics” (Aesthetics and Art Theory: An Historical Introduction, E. P. Dutton, 1970, p. 153). And further Osborne claims of Kant’s analysis: “This theory is the most important anticipation of the modern aesthetic outlook in any philosopher before the twentieth century” (p.191).

Without the first part of Critique of Judgment, writes philosopher Roger Scruton, “aesthetics would not exist in its modern form” (Kant, Oxford University Press, 1982, p. 79).

Philosopher Arthur Danto agrees with influential modernist art critic Clement Greenburg on the centrality of Kant’s work to the modernist project:
‘“The essence of Modernism,” [Clement Greenberg in “Modernist Painting” (1960)] wrote, “lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Interestingly, Greenberg took as his model of modernist thought the philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Because he was the first to criticize the means itself of criticism, I conceive of Kant as the first real Modernist.” […] I suppose the corresponding view of painting would have been not to represent the appearances of things so much as answering the question of how painting was possible”’ (After the End of Art, Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 7).

Kant scholars Ted Cohen and Paul Guyer note that in the Critique of Judgment Kant “is entrenching the assumption of the subjective character of aesthetic judgment so strongly that by our own time it has become virtually an (unargued) commonplace” (Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics, University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 11).

And more sweepingly, Professor Denis Dutton, philosopher and author of The Art Instinct, writes that Kant’s Critique of Judgment is “the greatest work of philosophical aesthetics ever written” (Dutton’s website).

Enright notes that scholar Roger Kimball makes a point of connecting Kant and modernist art in an essay on Schiller.

So from Kant’s Critique to Christo — an interesting fill-in-the-blanks intellectual-history project awaits.

More on Kant and Modern Art.
Wendy Steiner on Kant and modernism in art.

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