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What is Beauty? Art, Morality and the Aesthetic Experience

Posted on 23 March 2017

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith (1866-8, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington). Wikimedia Commons. 

"In this world it is beauty that we apprehend the most clearly, shining through the clearest of our senses."

- Plato, Phaedrus

"Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope."

- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

What exactly is beauty?

In recent years, the legitimacy of the word 'beauty' has come under increased discussion. What do we mean when we describe something as beautiful and why is it important to art history? In this article, I look at the history of the problems encountered when considering the term 'beauty' in order to try and figure out why and how we use it to describe works of art.  

Let's begin with the likely, philosophical source of the word (it's about to get serious folks but stay with me!).

From Plato's Republic to the 2009 televisation of Roger Scruton's Why Beauty Matters, philosophers have debated the nature of the aesthetic experience in terms of its comparative worth to humanity – that is, why do humans enjoy art, music etc. even though these things are not functional or necessary for our immediate survival? It could be argued that the most significant of these aesthetic philosophers was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Here he is ... 

Immanuel Kant - Wikimedia Commons. 

In his Critique of Judgement of 1790 this German philosopher addressed the issues concerning the subjectivity of the aesthetic experience – i.e. whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder or not. His predecessor and so-called 'father of art history,' Johann Joachim Winckelmann, had argued that the aesthetic experience (or beauty) was individually subjective, that is, the observer alone could make a judgment of beauty based on personal taste. However, Kant wanted to investigate the possibility of creating a criterion for the judgment of the 'beautiful' that could be applied to any observer. He wanted to understand why, if beauty meant different things to different people, there were some things – a beautiful painting, a sunset etc. – that everyone generally agreed were beautiful.

A 'beautiful' sunset... (image author's own)

It would seem logical that, in order to do this, one must argue that beauty can be found inherently in the object itself in order to produce universal agreement. But, in Kant's view, objects cannot possibly be inherently beautiful. 'Beauty' is not a property of the object in the same way that an object can be 'big' or 'small', 'red' or 'black' (these qualities can be proven logically). Elizabeth Prettejohn in Beauty and Art (OUP: 2005) elucidates:

"Calling an object beautiful does not even involve knowing what kind of thing the object is […], nor does it depend on whether the object really exists or not […], nor does it simply imply that the object is good, either in that sense of being good for something (that is, useful in any way) or in that of being good in itself, that is morally good."

Yes, you can see a beautiful sunset and listen to beautiful music, but you can also have a beautiful dream, a beautiful game or do a beautiful thing. So, how are we meant to judge these very different things as beautiful? On what is our judgment based? Before Kant, philosophers studying the idea of beauty reduced the phenomenon to a primitive impulse. Even Kant agreed that a judgment of beauty is often based on compulsion and a desire of fulfilment; "either the compulsion of our appetites (hunger, greed, sexual desire and so forth) or the compulsion of our moral principles." So, we might find an attractive person beautiful based on our sexual appetite and the desire to procreate and produce healthy and equally successful offspring. Or we might view a sunset from the perspective of a religious experience and find beauty in its connection to our chosen faith.

But Kant wanted to entirely separate the idea of beauty from the primal and the moral. He did this by considering a different kind of judgment of beauty that transcends moral issues and primitive compulsions:

"Kant would also insist that there is another kind of judgment, one that is … reflective or contemplative. When we make such a judgment we do not expect to gain anything from it […]. Therefore it makes no difference to us whether the object we are judging really exists or not; we can contemplate it just as well in imagination, so long as we do not expect to derive any benefit, for ourselves or others, from it." – Prettejohn, 2005. p.45.

Kant refers to this indifference to an object as disinterest. As Prettejohn explains, this does not mean that we are uninterested in the object (we can still be absorbed by it), but that we do not wish to gain anything practical or morally edifying from it – like food, sex or religious fulfilment. Only objects judged in this detached way can be considered truly beautiful in Kant's terms. Thus, in experiencing the beautiful, we have complete freedom from the limitations of knowledge and conscience. Kant's notion of disinterest is universally subjective but has its faults, as we shall see.

Is this painting beautiful? Claude Monet, Val de Falaise (1885, Werner and Gabrielle Merzbacher Collection). Wikimedia Commons.

So, how does this apply to art? Where Winckelmann had instigated rules for the judgment of the beautiful in art, Kant's theories dissolved them. Where hierarchies had been distinguished between 'types' of painting (still life, history, landscape etc.), Kant disrupted them:

"A conspicuous aspect of the history of modern art since Kant has been the rejection of traditional hierarchies of pictorial types. After Kant's Critique of Judgment there are no limits or strictures on what kind of thing the beautiful object might be, or what properties it might display." (Prettejohn, 2005, p.45).

Hierarchies suggest comparison, and the notion of disinterested beauty Kant promotes does not allow for comparison. But how does the beautiful art object fit into Kant's theories? Can we consider the art object as a free beauty, that is, can we detach ourselves from any moral message displayed within the artwork and the emotions it may stir within us? Kant appears to backtrack here, admitting that with most objects we might wish to call beautiful it is almost impossible to view them from a disinterested perspective. Take this famous sculpture of Michelangelo's David for example, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful works of art in existence:

Michelangelo, David (1501-4, Galleria d'Accademia, Florence). Wikimedia Commons.

Look at it for a moment. Do you find it beautiful? Why? Why not? Let's try and think of it in terms of Kant's notion of disinterest. Do you like it for the moral message within (that determined yet slightly nervous look in the furrowed brow that precedes the victory of an underdog)? If so, then you aren't thinking in terms of Kantian disinterest, sorry! How about those ripped abs?! Nope, don't be swayed by any primitive pleasure you get from your ogling, that's just not Kantian. What may be Kantian is the pleasure gained from seeing the harmony of forms or the interplay of colouration. As you can see, Kantian beauty is hard to pin down and it is very difficult to apply it to works of art – we cannot easily look at the David without thinking of the story behind it or the fact that we are looking at a representation of a fellow human being. Very tricky stuff to get your head around indeed!

Are we losing something fundamental from considering art objects in terms of Kantian notions of beauty? Is his disinterested view of the art object valid for defining the beautiful work of art or should we always consider the moral aspect of an art object when judging its beauty? Thinking of the David, one might say "Yes, of course." But not all moral elements of a work of art are 'good.' We can find things beautiful that are morally dubious.

Pyramids at Giza, Egypt. Wikimedia Commons.

For example, people flock to see the Pyramids at Giza every day and, as one of the 7 Wonders of the World, they are universally considered to be beautiful … even though they were likely built by hundreds of slaves (though recent research has suggested that it was not, in fact, slaves who built the Pyramids).

Similarly, is Robert Capa's image of the Falling Soldier (1936) beautiful even though it depicts a man falling to his death after being shot. Many would agree that, as a photographic work of art, it is a beautiful piece.

It seems to me that neglecting the moral issues of the two examples above takes something away from our complete understanding of the work, even if it makes finding them beautiful a more comfortable prospect. The problem is that the Kantian idea of beauty detracts from fundamental emotions and a sense of morality in favour of a purely pleasure-based experience. Tolstoy remarked in 1896 that:

"Pleasure-based theories like Kant's led him to dismiss beauty as central to art. Just as one may forget, as one eats with pleasure, that the real value of food is bodily nutrition and not the enjoyment one derives, so one may be misled into thinking that the value of art is pleasure and not, as it were, the nutrition of the soul of an individual and of a community."

According to Tolstoy, the hedonistic aspect of Kantian beauty is not worth as much as the pleasure derived from the understanding of the moral issues that lie within a work of art. There are many who share his view.

But what do you think? Is Kant's view of beauty too hedonistic? Should there always be a moral message in a work of art? Luckily for us, those crazy Victorians experimented with Kant's notion of detached beauty in an artistic movement known as 'Aestheticism.'

Victorian Aestheticism

Aestheticism was a movement of the late-nineteenth century in Britain. Its main practitioners (or Aesthetes) and supporters included the writer, Oscar Wilde, and painters James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These artists, amongst many others, worked under the notion of l'art pour l'art, or 'art for art's sake.' This meant that their paintings had no obvious didactic meaning, no moral message, but were just beautiful for their own sake with nothing more than a superficial aesthetic experience. 

Whistler was particularly renowned for his l'art pour l'art attitude to painting.

Here he is... 

William Merritt Chase, James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1885, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Wikimedia Commons. 

He was an American artist who based himself in England and his works show a complete aversion to the didacticism of his Pre-Raphaelite predecessors. By all accounts, Whistler was a strong personality who dominated the art scene at the time (you get that feeling from his portrait above don't you?!).

James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871, Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps his most famous painting (featured in the Mr. Bean movie of 1997!) is known affectionately as Whistler's Mother (1871, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) though this is not the title it was given originally.

Whistler liked to detach his paintings from any idea of subject matter to focus on purely aesthetic traits, giving them a Kantian edge. He did this partly through his titles for the works. The portrait of his Mother is titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, highlighting the harmony of the colours and composition rather than the figure herself. Indeed, many of his painting titles are preceded by words such as 'arrangement,' 'nocturne' or 'harmony' that reflect the emphasis on aesthetics in their relation to music. This seems like a very Kantian thing to do - to take the focus away from any human figure or moral message to instead emphasise formal or aesthetic harmonies of line and colour. 

Whistler did this again and again. This girl leaning against a mantelpiece became a Symphony in White:

Whistler, Symphony in White No. 2 (1864, Tate Britain, London). Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps his most infamous work was Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1872-7, Detroit Institute of Arts):

Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1872-7, Detroit Institute of Arts). Wikimedia Commons. 

Whistler's Nocturne shows a scene along the Thames in London. But it is also a harmonic gathering of colours and forms, giving it an almost abstract quality in an effort to remove focus from the subject and emphasise colour and form in the true l'art pour l'art spirit. 

Whistler's L'art pour l'art attitude gets him into trouble...

If there was one man in all of England who opposed the idea of l'art pour l'art and the removal of morality from painting it was the critic, John Ruskin. Ruskin's devoutly Protestant background saw him supporting the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for their emphasis on religious, moral messages. He was a social reformer and art critic and had no time for the seemingly decadent and hedonistic spirit of the Aesthetes. In 1877, after Whistler's Nocturne had been exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, Ruskin wrote a scathing review:

"For Mr. Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay [founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

Ruskin felt that Whistler's painting represented nothing but decadence and arrogance. Whistler was furious and took Ruskin to court. He hoped to sue the critic for £1000 and although he won the argument, he was not awarded the sum and went bankrupt soon after due to the extortionate legal costs. During the case, Whistler was cross-examined by Ruskin's lawyer, John Holker and found himself having to defend his painting:

Holker: "What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?"

Whistler: "It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens."

Holker: "Not a view of Cremorne?"

Whistler: "If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne...."

Holker: "Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?"

Whistler: "Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it..."

Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"

Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

Whistler's argument was not strong enough to secure him the money. His supporters were not willing to risk their own artistic careers to challenge a well-loved and established art critic such as Ruskin and the whole ordeal led to Whistler auctioning off his paintings, private collections and even his house.

Looking at Whistler's Nocturne many might relate to Ruskin's reaction to it – the arrogance he saw in 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face' is often spoken about in relation to contemporary art in our own time. How many times have you stood in front of an abstract work of art and wondered what on earth it was, or that you could have made that, or that the artist was arrogant to assume that leaving a load of blood-stained underwear strewn around a messy bed could pass as art? Perhaps a new-found knowledge of Kantian beauty and disinterest might change your mind? Whistler was, perhaps, one of the first practitioners of abstract art that became so popular in the following century – stripping the subject of all recognisable form to leave an essence, or an aesthetic experience, on the surface of the canvas. A very Kantian prospect indeed! 

I hope you have enjoyed reading this little investigation into beauty in art. We've seen how Kant and the Aesthetes tried to form an idea of beauty that was outside of primal instinct and morality but instead existed in a realm of pure, free disinterest. But do you think it can be applied to any work of art? 

Thanks for reading!

Dr. Charlotte Drew

Bibliography

Carritt, E .F. (ed.). Philosophies of Beauty: From Socrates to Robert Bridges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931).

Eaton, Marcia M. 'Kantian and Contextual Beauty' in Brand, Peg Zeglin, Beauty Matters, (Indiana University Press, 2000).

Gaskell, Ivan. 'Beauty' in Robert S. and Shiff, Richard (eds.) Critical Terms for Art History 2nd Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 267-80.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Judgement. Translated by Bernard, J. H. (Dover Publications Inc., 2005).

Levine, George, (ed.). Aesthetics and Ideology (Rutgers University Press, 1994).

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. Beauty and Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Preziosi, Donald (ed.). The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

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