Is modern art too complicated for us?

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, art critic Terry Teachout asks: “Are our brains big enough to untangle modern art?”

As examples, Teachout quotes one of thousands of sentences from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake like this one: “It is the circumconversioning of antelithual paganelles by a huggerknut cramwell energuman, or the caecodedition of an absquelitteris puttagonnianne to the herreraism of a cabotinesque exploser?” And he mentions “the splattery tangles and swirls” of Jackson Pollock pieces and quote music theorist Fred Lerdahl, who argues that much modernist music “overwhelms the listener’s processing capacities.”

To which I juxtapose three quotations from Section 23 of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment of 1790. Professor Kant divides art into the merely beautiful and that which is magisterially sublime:

kant-i-75x83“But there are remarkable differences between the two. The beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having boundaries. The sublime, on the other hand, is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it or by the occasion of it boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought.”

Further: The beautiful “directly brings with it a feeling of the furtherance of life.” “But the other [i.e., the sublime] is a pleasure that arises only indirectly, viz. it is produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion—not play, but earnest in the exercise of the imagination. Hence it is incompatible with charm; and as the mind is not merely attracted by the object but is ever being alternately repelled, the satisfaction in the sublime does not so much involve a positive pleasure as admiration or respect, which rather deserves to be called negative pleasure.”

And finally: “But the inner and most important distinction between the sublime and beautiful is, certainly, as follows. … . Natural beauty (which is independent) brings with it a purposiveness in its form by which the object seems to be, as it were preadapted to our judgment, and thus constitutes in itself an object of satisfaction. On the other hand, that which excites in us, without any reasoning about it, but in the mere apprehension of it, the feeling of the sublime may appear, as regards its form, to violate purpose in respect of the judgment, to be unsuited to our presentative faculty, and as it were to do violence to the imagination; and yet it is judged to be only the more sublime.”

So, for Kant, the sublime in art is formless, charmless, checks our vital powers, is repellent and a negative pleasure, violates our attempt to judge its purpose, and does violence to the imagination.

Another datum toward connecting Kant and modern art.

One thought on “Is modern art too complicated for us?

  • May 10, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    I came across your “Aesthetic Commentary:
    Post-Postmodern Art” from the following link: and enjoyed it…

    (1) I am an amateur artist and casual philosophy student. My interest in art comes from watching my father paint as a professional artist for many years.
    His Website:
    My Website:

    (2) I am wondering what you think of Ayn Rand’s “The Romantic Manifesto”? I realize many Philosophers don’t think much of her. Where do you stand on objectivism?

    (3) I am wondering if you would have any interest in collaborating on a website:
    (see the “About” page which explains my motives).

    Dale Eaton

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