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Published February 14, 2024

Explorations in Art Theory Part 2: We Can or We Kant?

By Taliesin Thomas

Taliesin Thomas, Ph.D. is an artist-philosopher, lecturer, writer, and arts professional based in Troy, NY. Since 2007, Thomas is the founding director of AW Asia and Art Issue Editions, two private art collections that serve as the basis for collaborations and curatorial projects with major museums, institutions, and artists worldwide. She is also the director of the Artist Initiative and Critical Forum Program at The Arts Center of the Capital Region. Thomas has published with Hyperallergic, Yale University Press, Chronogram, Dirt, ARTPULSE, Journal of Daoist Studies, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, JCCA: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and ArtAsiaPacific magazine.

In my previous segment, we considered Plato as a foundational thinker of art. Indeed, the canonical figures of art history are like mountains to which we return time and again, and Plato represents an alp among them. We also identified Plato’s contentious consideration of art and artists: first, he condemned the self-referential and impractical character of art. Second, he banished artists and poets from the ideal city, citing them as liars who incite passion and emotion. We admire Plato, but we do not agree with his dismissive attitude toward art!

Let us reorient our motivation in this dialogue: we are exploring the fanciful realm of aesthetics, the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of beauty and artistic taste. We honor that these are exceedingly fickle topics since notions of beauty and taste are entirely personal and predicated on numerous personal alignments and cultural influences. We also recognize that these are select voices within art theory, and for as potent as they are, they represent debatable opinions, not omniscient definitions.

With notions of beauty and aesthetic taste as our focus, we now turn to the preeminent art theorist Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). Kant makes it abundantly clear that the judgment of taste: “is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is aesthetic—which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective” (Critique of Judgment, 1790). No truer words have been spoken about art.


Nevertheless, our continued investigation of art theory brings forth a compelling narrative that is ultimately grounded in human experience, despite the high-flown aspects of theory that ask us to consider that which is beyond the physical. Recall it was Plato who first discussed the so-called ‘truth of metaphysics’ as being above the physical world, as ideal and eternal. This concept has infused Western consciousness in ways that are both subvert and overt.

The dubious nature of Plato’s ideas about art, however, reverberates centuries later in the work of Kant, dubbed the father of modern aesthetics. You may not know his name, but indeed all Western art since Kant has contended with his theories. Kant was a German philosopher and key thinker of the Western European Enlightenment, a period of intellectual flourishing during the 17th and 18th centuries. Kant’s greatest theoretical move was to emancipate philosophy from theology, and he did so by re-situating ‘being’ (or God) not as some transcendent deity but rather as man’s/woman’s own imagination. This represents an enormous contribution to the whole of modern thought! Before Kant, ‘being’ (or God) was the center of the universe and the human mind was like the planet which revolved around it—Kant reversed that model.

Kant’s theories about aesthetics also yielded the ‘formalist’ tradition, and thus he remains an influential yet controversial figure. Formalism in art is the critical position that a work of art is defined by its pure form, not by its content or relationship to the world around it. Please allow me to express why I consider Kant—as a formalist—to be controversial with respect to his ideas about art. The man lived his entire life in the small German town of Königsberg, he never went beyond his familiar terrain, and yet he wrote about art and aesthetics in such a grand manner as to encompass a breadth of understanding about art that he did not actually experience. Not to discredit the power of ‘imagination’ as a fundamental aspect of his theoretical world-building, indeed Kant identified imagination (Einbildungskraft) as the essential aspect of understanding art altogether.


Let us celebrate that Kantian theory represents a transformational change in how we consider aesthetics: he repositioned the intellectual power of manwoman into the middle of the conversation. Before Kant, God the divine was the paramount reference point, hence this change of position favoring humanity is a revolutionary moment in the history of art theory. Kant also synthesized rationalism (understanding and reason) with empiricism (experience and sensation) and cited imagination as the unknown root of these two stems of human cognition. As such, he is considered the ‘liberator of imagination’ and imagination, as we know, is the mother of all art. We can thank Kant for identifying imagination as the primary and indispensable origin of all human knowledge. In short, Kant proposed ‘imaginative power’ as the divine flame that can transform the material world.

Putting aside Kant’s marvelous crusade for the power of imagination in art, however, we must question his ideas about ‘form’ as his theoretical baseline. Why so? Because Kant’s whole philosophy is grounded in ‘form’ (that which is unchanging), this is akin to Plato’s consideration of the ‘ideal’ (again, that which is unchanging). Kant, in fact, reconfigures Plato—and recall that we do not agree with Plato’s contentious attitude about art. Thus, over time Kant’s ideas developed into the ‘formalist critique’ that underlies the development of Western art, and the notion of ‘pure form’ endures as a paramount definition of beauty in art. Kant’s consideration of beauty arises from a fixed ‘pattern’ or ‘finality’ in an object. Hence, the so-called ‘breaking of beauty’ in art reveals a dynamic response to formalism in that visual violations invert our relationship to reality and reveal the damaged characteristics of our shared human folly. The “sex picture” series of dolls and mannequins by Cindy Sherman comes to mind as a stunning example of this and they do so through their grotesque expression. The mannequin’s original purpose and the finality of their appearance becomes twisted and exploited, thereby rebuking Kant’s ideas. As such, the frightening appearances found within Sherman’s photos and numerous other examples of art explode our standards for harmony, order, and ethical conduct—and that is why they are so vital.

Most areas of aesthetic theory were read in Kantian terms until the arrival of ‘post-structuralism’ in the 1970s. Poststructuralism is a philosophical movement that rejects the notion of interpreting media (or any aspect of culture) within pre-established, socially constructed structures. This represents an opposition to ‘structuralism’ and the notion that culture can be understood by structures predicated on language. Nevertheless, from the full menu of art theory Kant is a hearty main course and an uncontested pillar of thought regarding how art theory has developed over the last 200 plus years. The mighty Kant—and Plato before him—can be understood as a lens: put on a pair of Kantian glasses and view the world through his mind, but question what you are seeing. Kant is a classic and classics are inexhaustible, however, life is always reminding us that there are no ‘fixed’ truths in the Platonic and Kantian sense and outbursts of human creativity are the ‘purest’ forms of inspiration. Imagination: yes! Fixed and ideal unchanging forms: impossible. Reason must, therefore, also include madness and parallels to reason. In the next segment, we further explore the paradoxical flipsides buried within art theory as seen through the eyes of Hegel, another controvertible yet mystical German art-theorist.

This is the second in a series of four essays exploring art theory. Stay tuned for the next installment this spring!

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