The Beauty of Distance in Kant’s aesthetics

I was lucky enough to have recently visited the 17th Biennale of Sydney with this year’s theme THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age. One aspect of the theme is the intention to consider the distance between Australia and other major countries in a positive light by comparing it with the notion of distance that has been held central to the experience of beauty in traditional aesthetic theory. This is exemplified by the notion of disinterestedness in Kant’s theory of the beautiful described in The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).

Finnish film and photography artist Salla Tykkä explores the relationship between the colour white and beauty in two films presented at the biennale: Victoria which shows the life cycle of a giant water lily and Airs Above the Ground which records the training of magnificent Lipizzaner stallions. Her investigation is inspired by the aesthetic theory of Victorian artist John Ruskin.

A number of other ostensibly beautiful works pull in the viewer while, on closer inspection, they are critiquing some aspect of society. The opulence of excessive wealth was highlighted in a beautiful work by AES+F entitled The Feast of Trimalchio (2009) (my personal favourite). While the artwork was critical of the outlandish indulgence of Russian oligarchs the experience of being immersed in a circular room surrounded by the nine massive projection screens was quite impressive. Another series of works bordering on the beautiful and the disturbing are Angela Su’s hybrid insect/animal drawings which have for their background the poetry of John Donne. From a distance these drawings look beautiful but on closer inspection the hybrid anatomical forms turn out to be quite disturbing. (Some earlier similar works can be viewed here.)

In traditional aesthetics the appropriate distancing required for the aesthetic attitude within which the experience of the beautiful was often referred to as “disinterestedness.” This phrase originally arose in the eighteenth-century ethical theory of Lord Shaftesbury in opposition to the desire to attain an egoistic good, i.e. in contrast to self-interested motivation (See Jerome Stolnitz JAAC, 1961 for more information on the development of aesthetic disinterestedness). In Kant’s aesthetic theory disinterestedness is the lack of any interest in the existence of the object. Kant claims that it is only by contemplating the form of the object (i.e. the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole) that we can experience the pleasure of the objectively beautiful. On Kant’s account it would make no difference to the objective beauty of the Lipizzaner stallion (pictured above) whether it was white in colour or fluorescent green. He argues that we cannot have a truly universal judgment of beauty if we take into considerations sensory perceptions which may vary from individual to individual. Any desire for the object as being a good instance of a certain kind of thing or of being pleasing to the senses is irrelevant in a purely objective judgment of the beautiful.

While art may present concepts and ideas in a way that seems distanced from everyday activities it is not apparent that we neglect thought of the kind of thing that is being represented (if something is being represented) in the work. When we include an understanding of what kind of thing an object is in our judgment Kant classifies this as a judgment of adherent beauty (as opposed to “free” beauty). As soon as we concern ourselves with sensory matters we are interested in the existence of the object and so Kant claims we are no longer regarding the object in a disinterested way. The concept of disinterestedness on Kant’s theory requires the observer to divorce their perception of the object both from considering the kind of thing that it is and also from the concerns of everyday life. There has been recent debate about whether free beauty could be applicable to non-representational art and also whether Kant values free beauty over adherent beauty. For further information on this controversy see the related article below.

Related articles:
Kant’s Aesthetics: Overview and Recent Literature
By Christian Helmut Wenzel , National Taiwan University
(Vol. 4, May 2009)
Philosophy Compass

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