Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2007 Winter


Arthur C. Danto

The translator into Hungarian of several of my writings on art theory recently sent me a catalog of the work of a young artist from her country, ̪gnes Eperjesi. The translator - Eszter Babarczy - is a gifted critic in her own right, and I cannot do better than quote from her letter, which explains why she felt I would be especially interested in Eperjesi’s art:

She thought your ideas about transfiguration and the commonplace applied to her work, and she took inspiration from your essays. Hers is a remarkable and long journey from experimental photography to an absolutely unique venture of collecting wrappings of household products, and taking the humble sign language of ordinary household chores, and recreating them as objects of beauty and irony.

The products, like dishwashers and vacuum cleaners – or underwear – were in all likelihood intended for export to countries anywhere in the world, which implies that they will fit into forms of life which must insofar be much the same the world over. So the images must themselves belong to the sign-language of globalism, necessarily universal in that they have to be legible to consumers who cannot be counted on to have a common language. The signs show what the consumers needs to know about the products they have purchased - which side of a pair of underpants is front and which side is back, for example. They are pictograms or even isotypes – an acronym for “International System of Typographic Picture Education” – signs of a kind initially invented in 1936 by the Logical Positivist, Otto Neurath, who may have been influenced by Wittgenstein’s so-called “picture theory” of language. Neurath anticipated globalism in saying “The visual method becomes the basis for a common cultural life and a common cultural relationship.” Just consider their international use in giving traffic directions to drivers who may or may not be able to read the language of the country in which they are traveling, or in guiding us through foreign airports. Isotypes are among the rare practical and positive contributions made by modern philosophy to the common life of humankind. When these pictograms are recycled – or transfigured – into works of art, their implied universality is elevated to a portrait of the society in which the products are to be used.

I would not altogether follow Babarczy in calling Eperjesi’s works beautiful, and in truth I am somewhat at a loss to describe them aesthetically. But I can appreciate that in transfiguring the isotype into an art work, an interesting reversal of Walter Benjamin’s famous distinction has taken place: the art of mechanical reproduction has acquired, through transfiguration, an aura, and in virtue of that the images may acquire an aesthetic interest they heretofore lacked. At least, as art, we look at them as critics, and notice their aesthetic qualities, such as they are. Just knowing that an object is intended as a piece of fine art may trigger the sense that it must be beautiful. Or better, we use this standard term of aesthetic commendation in connection with them that we would hardly use in characterizing the pictograms on which they are based. The term “beautiful” may simply be a compliment paid to art as art, without really being descriptive of the art at all.

The goal of trans-cultural communication may mean that features that imply ethnic differences will be erased – the persons are depicted neither as white or black or red or yellow – leaving figures that are abstractly human, which in a way look quite “modern.” But is “looks modern” an aesthetic characterization or a stylistic one? Modernist design strove for a kind of simplification through its distaste for ornament, and this led to stylization in modernist pictography. This does not explain why the isotypical pictograms are stylized as they are, which comes, rather, from globalist imperatives – so “looks modern” is facon de parler. But in any case, the pictogram has undergone some sort of aesthetic transformation in the course of its artistic transfiguration, however we finally describe it. Eperjesi’s aesthetic enhancement of workaday images is as distinctive as Andy Warhol’s transformations of Polaroids into portraits.

As to Eszter Bararcszy's description of the work as “ironic,” that is true – but it is due more to Eperjesi’s titles – or perhaps they are captions – than to the images themselves: the covers of The New Yorker Magazine have titles, the cartoons have captions. Either way, the titles/captions express thoughts that the images alone do not. Eperjesi has often selected her images with the intention of using them to convey how women in contemporary Hungary regard themselves, and how they think about the housework for which the product designated by the image is intended to be used – usually by women as a matter of course. One of her images shows a man, a woman, and a child on bicycles. It is difficult to determine what product it stands for, though I would guess that it belongs to what we might think of as the secret life of women. The image could show a woman living a full active life, thanks to the product in question. Whatever its rhetorical aim, Eperjesi captions it this way: “My new boyfriend gets along fine with my daughter. I hope it is not just a show for now.” (Fig.1) This is interesting because the woman is evidently a single mother, looking for a new relationship. The irony derives from the implication that while women in contemporary society have been greatly liberated, they remain in a disadvantageous position in relationship to men, as much so in Hungary as in America or Western Europe. They are the ones left to do the housework, and to hope that men are not just out to exploit them sexually.

The irony goes well beyond the power of isotypes. The three figures could, after all, just represent a family. Interestingly, most of the women are in western clothing, which has become fairly isotypical: I imagine that the isotype on the door of women’s’ toilets, shown with a short flaring skirt, would be recognized in airports everywhere in the world, even by women who wear burkhas In any case, the titles/captions have to be translated, as the artist has done, from Hungarian into the language of the country in which they are to be shown – English, for example, in the catalog I saw. English itself is not, for all it ubiquity, isotypical. Even if it were universally used, as Latin once was, there would be a distinction between pictures and words, which means that while isotypes may validate the Picture Theory of Language, they do so in ways having nothing to do with natural languages as spoken or written. The semantics of sentences in a natural language differ from the semantic of a sentence used pictorially, as in a quotation. But even quotations have to be translated.

Tempting as it is to dwell on the artistic semantics of Eperjesi’s pictures, my immediate purpose in using her work has to do with its extreme contemporaneity, and to the way it illustrates the pluralistic structure that has increasingly come to define the production of contemporary art, especially since the 1960s when artists first began to explore the possibility of using vernacular imagery. I have already touched upon the question of their indeterminate aesthetic qualities, but I want ultimately to discuss this with reference to the problems that artistic pluralism has raised for aesthetic theory, and especially for Kantian aesthetic theory, which more or less dominated discussion until the decade when pluralism became a driving force in art. I understand “Kantian” to mean the view that artistic excellence is one with aesthetic excellence, which is understood to be a matter of pleasure and value distinct from the pleasure of sensual gratification, and internally connected with an ideal of disinterested contemplation. It concerns what the classical aestheticians designated “taste,” and the main features of the theory are laid out in the section of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment titled “The Analytic of Taste,” which served as the great empowering text for aesthetic theory in modern times, especially, at least in America, in the critical thought and practice of Clement Greenberg.

Kant’s initial interest was in natural beauty, which it was easy enough to relate to the visual arts, understood – the decorative arts apart, which were appraised in terms of “free beauty” - either as accurate representations of natural beauty, or else as beautified representations of natural objects that in reality fell short of beauty. For what would be the point of making picture of aesthetically repellent or deficient motifs? Greenberg had no such interest, as far as I can tell, and his chief focus was on abstract painting, which could be treated in terms of “free” beauty. This had the advantage for him that he could treat even representationalist art as if abstract, and hence subject to formalist analysis. That is to say, he appreciated painting in terms of what we might call the aesthetics of medium, since painterly excellence is determined by what pertains to properties essential to that medium, namely, in Greenberg’s view, relationships between flat forms, irrespective of what the forms may signify. Aesthetic value is what these forms convey to visual perception, in which all concepts are put out of play. Kant himself spoke of the pleasure taken in an object independently of any concept. For Greenberg the critic’s eye alone mattered, with whatever historical knowledge he may possess put for the time in brackets. The task of the artist was to eliminate from painting whatever did not address the critic’s eye. The aim was the production of pure beauty for contemplative delectation.

The impact of Greenberg’s modernist aesthetics upon so-called “art professionals” in the United States was inestimable. What is astonishing is how pluralism should have emerged at all when the Greenberg-inspired professionals had all the power and authority in the art world, at least so far as contemporary visual art was concerned. But for reasons that demand an historical explanation I am unable to furnish, the Kant-Greenberg aesthetic began to give way in the late 1950s, and became untenable just when Greenberg published his most considered statement in his 1960 essay, “Modernist Painting.” The underground imperative, implied by Robert Rauschenberg in 1961, in the catalog for the exhibition “Sixteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art, was to erase the boundary between art and life. (Kant would have spoken instead of erasing the boundary between art and reality so far as both were beautiful.) In Rauschenberg’s artistic practice, that meant disregarding the imperatives of medium altogether, giving himself license to make art out of anything – socks, bed-clothes, Coke bottles, automobile tires, stuffed animals – “whatever.” Purity of medium had become obsolete almost the moment it was declared.

Aesthetics was not rendered irrelevant when Modernism ended in the sixties, but the kind of aesthetic quality presupposed by the Kant-Greenberg conception almost certainly disappeared, making room for what one may think of as a pluralism of aesthetic modalities. There is, for instance, a rauschenbergian aesthetic that is almost the opposite of the kind of aesthetic excellence Kant and Greenberg took for granted. It is the aesthetics of grunge and mess, as exemplified in Rauschenberg’s Bed, where he slathered paint over the bedclothes and quilt in which the work materially consists. He applied paint, as it was used by Abstract Expressionist painters, to an object of domestic use in connection with which cleanliness and neatness are ordinarily mandated – as in hospitals, army barracks, or bedrooms as maintained by what Matisse once described as “country aunts.” Grunge is the aesthetic of disorder, flaunted by rebellious adolescents, and there is little question that a taste for it can be developed and even exploited, by marketing torn blue-jeans, tacky tee-shirts, and athletic jerseys to young people concerned to identify themselves through a style of affected slovenliness.

Kant’s main ambition was to combat what one might call a pluralism of taste, by which I mean the common and somewhat cynical view that beauty is in the mind of the beholder and that differences in taste are relative to differences in beholders’ minds. Kant rightly undertook to show that beauty is and ought to be univocal, the same for all. This was a kind of aesthetic colonialism – the view that so-called primitive societies were simply aesthetically retrograde in their taste – which was the theoretical underpinning for the supremacist views of Western taste in what came to be Victorian Anthropology. Greenberg was convinced that his critical practice was validated by Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, which he often proclaimed the greatest book ever written on art. In truth, the direction of validation might equally have gone in the opposite direction: the remarkable success of Greenberg’s critical judgments could be taken to have conferred a measure of validity on Kant’s otherwise exceedingly abstract formulations, which derived a surprising confirmation from a body of painting hardly thinkable in his own century.

Two of Kant’s claims give particular support to Greenberg’s practice, which came to typify aesthetic attitudes that prevailed in the New York School. First, there was Kant’s argument that judgments of beauty are nonconceptual, and secondly that they are universally valid, that is, they are in no sense merely personal. Greenberg rarely spoke of beauty. His interest was in what he termed “quality” in art, which meant that his views could not easily be extended to the aesthetics of nature, which would of course have been of central interest to Kant. In 1961 he wrote that “quality in art can be neither ascertained nor proved by logic or discourse. Experience alone rules in this area–and the experience, so to speak, of experience.” Greenberg’s view here is essentially Hume’s: that quality is what qualified critics agree is good.

Greenberg cherished Kant for explaining how it was possible to be right or wrong in questions of aesthetic merit. He did not think one had to know anything of the kind that art history concerns itself with, in order to be right or wrong about art. Indeed, he believed that modernism had opened up the possibility of appreciating “all sorts of exotic art that we didn’t 100 years ago, whether ancient Egyptian, Persian, Far Eastern, barbaric or primitive.” What makes art good has nothing to do with historical circumstance. He once boasted that though he knew little about African art, he would almost unfailingly be able to pick out the two or three best pieces in a group. They need not be best by the criteria by which Africans themselves judged such matters, but probably that was because they were driven by beliefs that had little to do with aesthetic qualities as he himself understood them. There was little to say, in front of a piece of good art, beyond the admirative Wow. But that in no sense meant that one was merely venting feelings, as Greenberg’s Positivist contemporaries in philosophy would have said, having come to the view that aesthetic discourse is non-cognitive. That it was, on the other hand, non-conceptual is underwritten by Greenberg’s way of closing his eyes and opening them only when the work to be judged was in front of him. What immediately flooded the eyes, as if a blinding flash, before the mind had time to bring anything to bear by way of external associations, was what aesthetic experience rested upon.

Greenberg’s “home-made aesthetics” was validated through his actual success in identifying artistic merit, particularly in championing Jackson Pollock, at a time when there was still resistance on the part of many critics to abstract art as such. This would have included conservative art critics on the major New York newspapers—John Canaday at the New York Times, and Emily Genauer at the New York Herald-Tribune. “They lack the right to pronounce on abstract art, because they have not taken the trouble to amass sufficient experience of it. Without experience enough to be able to tell the good from the bad in abstract art, no one has the right to be heard on this subject.” But it also included European critics such as David Sylvester, who came round to agreeing with Greenberg on Pollock’s preeminence (“What could I have been using for eyes?”) Greenberg was the “high-brow New York intellectual” referred to in the 1949 Life magazine article that made Pollock famous. The massive endorsement of his assessment of Pollock had about it the quality of a scientific proof. It gave him immense authority as well as great power in the art world.

Where Greenberg and, more excusably, Kant went wrong was in their failure to recognize that there is a nearly boundless set of aesthetic qualities, something that came to be recognized when philosophers of language touched on the vocabulary of aesthetics at about the same time that Greenberg dominated critical discourse in America. I have in mind particularly an obiter dictum of J.L. Austin’s: “How much it is to be wished [that] we could forget for a while about the beautiful and get down instead to the dainty and the dumpy.” Austin stated this in describing his philosophical practice, in his important 1956 paper, “A Plea for Excuses,” as linguistic phenomenology. Essentially this meant working out the rules that govern linguistic practice – “What we say when,” to use the slogan of Ordinary Language philosophy – and some interesting discoveries were made by analysists like Frank Sibley, who attempted to prove that aesthetic predicates were not “rule-governed.” It would have been interesting to find out if this was the criterion for aesthetic predicates as a class – for “beautiful,” “dainty,” “dumpy,” “grungy” for starters, and if not what criteria if any there are.

Linguistic phenomenology did not survive Austin’s death in 1960 – the year Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” was published. But aesthetics took a back seat in the ensuing decade to the philosophy of art, beginning, I am obliged to say, with my 1964 paper, “The Art World,” which was inspired by Pop and to a lesser degree by Minimalism. With the work of Richard Wollheim, and especially of George Dickie, the central issue became the definition of art, and that has more or less been the project for the analytical philosophy of art ever since. What was interesting was how minor a role aesthetics played in that collective investigation – almost as minor as the role aesthetic qualities played in advanced artistic production and criticism in the increasingly globalized art world, in the United States and England, but also in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Japan and finally everywhere that art was made, down to the present moment. The artists that mattered philosophically were preeminently Duchamp and Warhol, Eva Hesse, the Minimalists, and the Conceptualists, in whose work aesthetics was of negligible significance. And since the definition of art had to deal with the ready-mades and the Brillo Boxes, in which aesthetic qualities were marginal at best, there was a question whether aesthetics had anything really to do with art at all. And this was a revolutionary shift, given that from the outset it had seemed self-evident that aesthetic pleasure was what art was all about.

I was fairly bearish about the importance of aesthetics for art. In my main work in the philosophy of art, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, I emerged with what I thought of as two necessary conditions for a philosophical definition of art – that art is about something and hence possesses meaning; and that an art work embodies its meaning, which is what art criticism addresses. I condensed this by calling works of art embodied meanings. In my latest book, The Abuse of Beauty, I more or less acknowledged Austin’s discovery that aesthetics is wider than had been traditionally recognized, and asked if there were not a third necessary condition, namely that to be a work of art, something has to have some aesthetic quality – if not beauty, then, say, grunge. If not grunge, then something else. And I ended the book skeptical that art need have any aesthetic quality at all. I did, however, make a distinction worth emphasizing, between internal and external beauty, and, by generalization, between internal and external α, when α stands for any aesthetic predicate that may apply.

Here is what I meant by internal beauty. The beauty of an artwork is internal when it contributes to the work’s meaning. I offered several examples of this from contemporary art, including Robert Motherwell’s Elegy for the Spanish Republic and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. In a subsequent essay I thought a very successful example was the use that Jacques Louis David made of beauty in painting the body of Marat as beautiful in Marat Assassin̩, which looks like a descent from the Cross. The beauty of Marat was like the beauty of Jesus, and the meaning of the painting was that Jesus/Marat died for the viewer, who must acknowledge the meaning of this sacrifice by following their imperatives. If the beauty is not internal in a work of art it is, strictly speaking, meaningless, which means that it is, in Kant’s terms, “free beauty” and mere decoration. In brief, my effort was to break away from the Kant-Greenberg aesthetic of form, and instead develop an aesthetics of meaning. It is at this point that one might recognize that the internal/external distinction applies throughout the vast domain of aesthetic qualities to which Austin and the Ordinary Language aestheticians drew attention in the early 1950. Let us consider grunge once more. In certain artists – Dieter Roth is a good example – grunge had just the meaning that the work was deliberately anti-aesthetic, meaning anti-beautiful. When Roth first saw the 1962 exhibition of Jean Tinguely in Basel, it was a conversion experience for him. “Everything was so rusty and broken and made so much noise,” he said afterward. “I was impressed half to death. It was simply a completely different world from my Constructivism, it was something like a paradise that I’d lost.” In a sense, Roth’s quest from that moment on was the recreation of a lost infantile paradise, made up of detritus, noises, and noxious smells. He moved from a Kantian to an anti-Kantian aesthetic. As did Duchamp when he applied as his criterion for the ready-mades that they have the zero degree of aesthetic interest – meaning: they caused neither pleasure nor pain to the eye. They were non-aesthetic from the narrow perspective of “the analytic of taste” – but they were entirely aesthetic from the widened perspective that was to open up in the 1960s, when aesthetic blandness became an aesthetic quality, internal to the meaning of the ready-mades, and itself a matter of taste, the way grunge had been for Dieter Roth.

There is, one might say, an aesthetic of ready-made images, of the kind out of which ̪gnes Eperjesi makes her art. It is not easy to describe this aesthetic, but it is easy enough to recognize, and it is probably due to the contingencies of design, itself due to the requirement of making the images easy to read and to understand everywhere in the world. There is, to take a kindred form, an easily recognized aesthetic in the coarsely drawn images of the simple advertisements that Andy Warhol used in his first exhibition in April 1961, in the store-windows of Bonwit Teller’s women’s store on 57th Street They were the kind of advertisements that were printed on pulp paper in cheap publication, advertising cures for acne, baldness, shyness, and like vexations of the loveless. (Fig.2. Andy Warhol. Before and After.) It is the aesthetics of “cheap black-and-white ads,” explained by the need to make salient the blemishes that would cause viewers to buy the product advertised. But that aesthetic gets to be internal to the works Warhol made of them, as the aesthetics of package images gets to be internal to the work ̪gnes Eperjesi based on them. Both bodies of work show their origins and draw meaning from it – though this is not the whole meaning of either artist’s work.

The upshot of this excursion is that the answer to the question of whether aesthetics survives into the era of pluralism is yes and no. It is No if we are thinking of the Kant-Greenberg aesthetic of taste and disinterested contemplation. It is Yes if we are thinking of the way in which different aesthetic qualities, many of them antithetical to taste as construed by Kant and Greenberg, are internal to the meaning of works of art construed as embodied meanings. In brief, the age of pluralism has opened our eyes to the plurality of aesthetic qualities, far far wider than traditional aesthetics was able to countenance. I would say, moreover, that each of these aesthetic qualities is as objective as Kant supposed beauty was. Aesthetics is in the mind of the beholder, but only in the way in which sense qualities are in the mind of the beholder, just as Hume argued they are. “Beauty in things exists in the mind,” he wrote, but this in no sense distinguishes from anything else, inasmuch as “tastes and colours, and all other sensible qualities, lie not in bodies but in it from any sensory qualities:

The case is the same with beauty and deformity, virtue and vice. This doctrine, however takes off no more from the reality of the latter qualities than from that of the former…Though colours were allowed to lie only in the eye, would dyers or painters ever be less regarded or esteemed? There is a sufficient uniformity in the senses and feelings of mankind to make all these qualities the objects of art and reasoning, and to have the greatest influence on life and manners.

Having taken the matter to this point, however, I must make some amends to Kant, whose view on works of art takes a very different direction in a later section of the Third Critique – the brilliant section 49 “Of the Faculties of the Mind that Constitute Genius,” where he introduces his concept of aesthetical ideas. The Kant of section 49 is not the Kant of Kantian aesthetics, which is based almost entirely on the “Analytic of Taste.” I owe it to Kant – and to myself – to show how close my views are to his in this section of his book, the mere existence of which shows how Kant was registering the deep changes in Enlightenment culture that the age of Romanticism was developing from within. He certainly realized that taste alone was not the entire story when it comes to art: “We say of certain products of which we expect that they should at least in part appear as beautiful art, they are without spirit, although we find noting to blame in them on the score of taste.” By spirit, he means “the animating principle of the mind.” And this principle, he goes on to say, “is no other than the faculty of presenting aesthetical ideas.” It is characteristic of Kant that he will seek a kind of faculty in order to account for a difference, when the difference, one might say, is really ontological. An “aesthetical idea” is really, as it turns out, an idea that has been given sensory embodiment – he uses “aesthetic” in the way it was used by Baumgarten, where it generally refers to what is given to sense. What is stunning is that he has stumbled onto something that is both given to sense and intellectual – where we grasp a meaning through the senses, rather than a color or a taste or a sound.

Kant gives as an example one of Frederick the Great’s French poems, which we are likely to pass over, thinking that Kant is writing here as a sort of courtier, flattering the monarch, when in fact the poem, whatever its actual merits, does something that poetry often does – mean one thing by saying another. The king speaks in the poem of “finishing ones life and dying without regret” through the image of a beautiful summer day ending peacefully. This is a quite commonplace use of poetry, and has nothing to do with genius, as Kant seems to feel it has. “The aesthetical idea” is merely one meaning given through another, as in irony or in metaphor. We realize that the poet, in this case Kant’s sovereign, is talking about the course of a day as a way of talking about the course of a life. It is a beautiful thought, which need have nothing to do with the beauty of the words. The poetic example comes just after two examples from the visual arts: Jupiter is represented as an eagle grasping lightning in its claws, and Juno as a peacock (actually as a male peacock, with glorious tail feathers.). The power of Jupiter is made vivid through the fact that lightning is not something than can ordinarily be grasped – that a being capable of holding lightning must have extraordinary power. The image tells us more than “Jupiter is all powerful” alone tells. Presenting the idea of power aesthetically, that is, via an image, “gives occasion to the imagination to spread itself over a number of kindred representations that arouse more thought than can be expressed in a concept determined by words.”

It is in regard to the expression of “aesthetical ideas” that Kant speaks of “spirit,” and of “the imagination as free from the guidance of rules and yet as purposive in reference to the presentment of the given concept.” This was much in the air in the 1790s, when he published his Third Critique. In 1792, for example, Francisco Goya composed a set of proposals for reforming the Royal Academy of San Fernando, of which he was at the time assistant director. His fundamental principle must have seemed entirely contrary to the concept of an academy, namely that there are no rules in painting: No hay reglas en la pintura. It follows in particular from this that that we cannot base the practice of painting on the canon of Greek sculpture, or on any set of paradigms. His text ended with a plea to allow the “genius” of the students to “develop in full freedom, without suppressing it, and to use means for turning them away from the tendency that shows them the way to this or that style of painting.” Historically, Goya’s text marks a shift from the Neo-classicism that defined his early work to the Romanticism of his mature work, but it also expresses a deep truth about art. Strictly speaking it involves a deep originality, and is not something that can be taught.

Aesthetical ideas have nothing much to do with the aesthetics of taste, and they are what is missing entirely from Greenberg’s agenda, who seldom spoke of meaning in his discussions of quality in art. In a sense, aesthetics, which has application to natural and physical beauty has little to do with art, which in Goya’s time was imitated in the academies in copying plaster casts of what were felt to be paradigms of classical beauty. There is very little of that in his masterpiece, Los Caprichos. However one characterizes them, these are hardly celebrations of ideal beauty. “Caprice” embodies the idea of spirit, but I draw attention to Goya’s advertisement for this work, published in the Diario de Madrid, where he claimed for “la pintura” a right to criticize human error and vice, “although [such] criticism is usually taken to be exclusively the province of literature.” If “no hay reglas en la pintura,” there is no rule against using painting for purposes of “holding a mirror up” to “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society.” Greenberg would have rejected this as having nothing essential to do with plastic art at all. “Literary” was a term of critical dismissal in Greenberg’s vocabulary, and in Formalist vocabulary generally.

My own view is that the relationship of aesthetics to art was always external and contingent. The advent of pluralism has changed nothing in this respect. But the theory of art as embodied meanings – or the “aesthetical presentation of ideas” – makes it clear how aesthetic qualities can contribute to the meaning of the work that possesses them. This I am certain is what Hegel intuited when he declared, at the beginning of his lectures on aesthetics, why artistic beauty is “superior” to natural beauty. It is because natural beauty is meaningless – not, incidentally, something Kant could have accepted since he for him natural beauty is a symbol of morality, and gives us the sense that the world is not indifferent to our hopes. Beauty, for him, has a kind of theodical meaning, as the philosopher Fred Rush has recently claimed in his writings. Painting natural beauty, as in the immense canvases of the Hudson River School was an effort capture this kind of meaning. But its presence in those works is internal to their beauty as art. One can accept that without for a moment believing that nature itself is God’s message in medium of mountains and might waterfalls.

The 1961 works of Andy Warhol I spoke of convey aesthetical ideas – though they have only as aesthetic qualities what belongs to cheap advertisements through their cheapness. They convey the small vexations of the flesh, and the promise that for a mere few dollars our complexion will be clear, our hair grow luxuriant, and that love and happiness will finally come our way. What ̪gnes Eperjesi discovered in the throw-away packaging in which consumer products are wrapped are portraits of the society in which those products are used. They are ready-made portraits or better, assisted readymades, as her melancholy wit makes clear. Beneath a picture of what looks like a bride in her veil – which may in fact be the negative of a photograph of an image of a woman with a handkerchief – she writes: “Once in a while something gets into my eyes. Then I can let go of my feelings.” (Fig.3) An innocent, even bland image of a woman with a hanky is turned into a psychological representation of stifled feelings and a comment on repression for the sake of appearance.

*I am grateful to Diarmuid Costello for having drawn my attention to Kant’s concept of aesthetical ideas as conveying a philosophy of art quite different from the rather shallow one implied by the "aesthetics of taste." I don't believe he thought that they have something of the same logic as my own view of art works as embodied meanings. Kant was annoyed when critics claimed that some of his ideas had been anticipated by earlier writers when, as he said, no one had the wit to see them before they appeared in his writings. I certainly did not have the wit to see Kant as having anticipated ideas of my mine, but no one can begrudge having Kant as a predecessor. My own feeling is that aesthetical ideas dropped out of aesthetic theory until they emerged in the guise of embodied meanings in a very different artworld than Kant could have imagined. If I am right, aesthetics really wandered in the wildness until the anti-aesthetic bias of contemporary art set it on course once again.

Back to Articles