Kant on the Nature of Genius

Kant was an 18th century German philosopher whose work initiated dramatic changes in the fields of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and teleology. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, he held our mental faculty of reason invests the world we experience with structure. In his works on aesthetics and teleology, he argued that it is our faculty of judgment that enables us to have experience of beauty and grasp those experiences as part of an ordered, natural world with purpose.

In the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, genius is the ability to independently arrive at and understand concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person. An essential character of “genius” for Kant is originality, or a talent for producing ideas which can be described as non-imitative. In the Critique of Judgment (1790) Kant defines genius as an artist capable of articulating truths or understanding in an imaginative, and uniquely creative way [1]. The articulation of the truths or understanding involves both a judgment by a viewer and the methodology by which it is created, and that specific criteria for both must be present for the designation of “genius”.  Kant assumes that the cognition involved in judging art is similar to the cognition involved in judging natural beauty.

Thus, while two objects may have aesthetic beauty but the way they are created imparts the object with “soul”.  Kant argues that art can be tasteful (that is, agree with aesthetic judgment) and yet be ‘soulless’ – lacking that certain something that would make it more than just an artificial version of a beautiful natural object.  He further claims that what provides soul in fine art is an aesthetic idea that unlike rational ideas can’t be adequately exhibited sensibly.

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“The power of communicating one’s state of mind, even though only in respect of the cognitive faculties, carries a pleasure with it, as we can easily show from the natural propension of man towards sociability (empirical and psychological). But this is not enough for our design. The pleasure that we feel is, in a judgement of taste, necessarily imputed by us to every one else; as if, when we call a thing beautiful, it is to be regarded as a characteristic of the object which is determined in it according to concepts; though beauty, without a reference to the feeling of the subject, is nothing by itself.” (Kant Section 9, pp 1)

One analogy that has been made is that to make a chair, one must know, in advance what a chair is, and create it with the intention of creating it.  In this respect Kant assumes that the creation of art is an exercise of will.  This is a convenient definition because it allows him to also distinguish art from nature because he assumes there is no prior notion or will behind the activity nature. This leads to a dilemma in whether one can call some forms of modern art a reflection of genius, if those works are created randomly, or allowed to self shape based on the physical properties of matter such as glass or ceramics.

Another dilemma it raises stems from our definition of who has will or intention. For humans it is clear that the intention to express a thought or feeling through the creation of a physical art is an act of will, but do other animals have will is a matter of metaphysics rather than philosophy. According to Kant’s definition it would be difficult to know for sure if art painted by cats [2] or other non-mammals [3] would qualify, since for Kant non humans are part of the natural world and not endowed with will. Yet, as all of us know who own pets, animals have both distinct personalities and wills.

For Kant, art also means something different from science, since it is a skill or practical ability that is more than just an understanding of awareness of something.  He also distinguishes from a labor or craft which has a vested interest or purpose in having the product itself. This also limits who can be a genius since any art that has a function separate from the function of being observed and understood for the idea it expresses, must not be real art, and its creator not a genius but a craftsman. This definition seems anachronistic since in many fine art museum there are displayed fragments of pottery or metalwork that are considered art today yet when they were produced, were produced by craftsman so that they could be used by ordinary people who were not concerned with the deeper meaning of what that plate may have represented.

It would seem that the ability of the craftsman to mix metals or use new firing techniques to achieve a texture or impression of strength not found when traditional materials were used is expressing a form of genius. His idea was to create an object, regardless of its popular usage, that was different from the ones before that, when viewed by the recipient or purchaser gave them the impression that this new object, such as a sword, was better, stronger, more reliable or more facile. Thus according to Kan’s first definition of art, the expression of a concept by exercise of will is fulfilled. It would seem then that the use of the object later has no relevance on whether or not the object is art, and as a consequence no bearing on whether its producer is a genius.

Kant spends much effort to categories arts into mechanical and aesthetic, agreeable and fine art. What it is defines the state of mind of the creator when producing it, and therefore creates the criteria of whether the final product actually reflects the thought or will of the person creating it.  Kant introduces yet another rule to this confusing definition by stating that it should not be obvious (which would be in poor taste) what the intentions actually were.  Thus it would seem that for an art to be truly genius it should convey a message of concept, somewhat unclearly so that no one is 100% sure what the creator’s intentions were.  Thus the less obvious a message (though no message is also bad) the more likely the creator is to be a genius.

According to Kant genius is the talent (natural endowment) that makes it possible to produce art which is an object that has no predefined definite rules or concepts for producing or judging it in a way that satisfies aesthetic judgment that is more than a functional object, or a representation of something natural. To make things art must have elements of originality for it to be a characteristic of genius. This means also that fine art properly is never an imitation of previous art or nature, though it may ‘follow’ or be ‘inspired by’ previous art and nature. To be radically original is difficult, because all human production is in some form an imitation or a trained action through other artistic influences, schools, and culture.

Kant’s approach to art emphasizes our interest in it rather than the artwork in itself. The artwork is beautiful insofar as it instigates an intellectual activity termed reflective judgment. For Kant, the viewing of art rouses us to an intellectual involvement with the world in which the very sense of order by which the whole world can be articulated as a whole and be kept in balance is brought to light.  Reflective judgment does not determine whether something exists or not. It also does not determine what specific qualities a particular object might actually possess. Such judgments are cognitive and belong to the field of science. Reflective judgment judges whether something is beautiful. Beauty is never experienced as a determinate thing. We do not experience beauty directly, although it is always implicated in our experiences of the world. Beauty is a feeling induced by our sense of an ordering, a valuing, at work in the world that lies beyond any explicit demonstration.  The ability of the artist to generate such thought in the observer is thus deemed genius.

There is a dilemma with this point of view, since what generates such thoughts for an individual is that individual’s experience. So one is left to wonder is the genius in the artist who created an object that could elicit that experience, or is it in the observer who is open to allowing that experience to occur in themselves? Thus if I look at a painting such as American Cubist Stuart Davis (1894-1964), Report from Rockport, 1940, and feel no understanding or connection, is it my lack of genius or his? If I feel a negative response is that a sufficient criteria of genius?

Kant indirectly makes the artificial requirement that for something to reflect genius, it must be liked by the observer, not disliked. This is evident in his effort to define taste as involving the judgment that a thing is beautiful. Taste is a subjective judgment in which an object is referred by our imagination to our subjective selves, to the feeling of pleasure or displeasure that the object arouses in us. The representation of the object rather than the object itself is what is at issue in this judgment–not the building itself but its manner of being formed would be the matter of an aesthetic judgment. Though perception is always colored by experience, and is necessarily subjective, it is commonly taken that that which is not aesthetically satisfying in some fashion cannot be art. However, “good” art is not always or even regularly aesthetically appealing to a majority of viewers.

In other words, an artist’s prime motivation need not be the pursuit of the aesthetic. Also, art often depicts terrible images made for social, moral, or thought-provoking reasons. For example, Francisco Goya’s painting depicting the Spanish shootings of 3rd of May 1808, is a graphic depiction of a firing squad executing several pleading civilians. Yet at the same time, the horrific imagery demonstrates Goya’s keen artistic ability in composition and execution and his fitting social and political outrage.

Kant defines several aspects that lead to the formation of an individual’s taste. The first is quality which is supposed to be an objective evaluation of the object being considered. This means that a science of art appreciation has to be developed to define good from bad art in a way that is agreeable to everyone since it follows some pre-set rules, as w ell as generating a psychologically positive impact.

“… when [a man] puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Thus he says that the thing is beautiful; and it is not as if he counts on others agreeing with him in his judgment of liking owing to his having found them in such agreement on a number of occasions, but he demands this agreement of them. He blames them if they judge differently, and denies them taste, which he still requires of them as something they ought to have; and to this extent it is not open to men to say: Every one has his own taste. This would be equivalent to saying that there is no such thing as taste, i.e. no aesthetic judgment capable of making a rightful claim upon the assent of all men.” (Kant, p. 52; see also pp. 136-139.)

Another aspect of taste is quantity of positive appreciation (which means many people have to agree).  This judgment cannot, however, be proven. We can only ask others to look again with more attention to some aspects in hopes that can be induced to see something that eluded them in the first place. Thus genius of the artist grows with the contemplation of the observers, again indicating that it is as much attributable to the viewer as it is to the producer. A third criteria of taste is the purposeness of an object, or that it should have a reason for being there, greater than just the artists desired to memorialize the object.  Finally the last aspect of taste is the feeling of satisfaction in the object by the observer.

To summarize, according to Kant, art encourages an intuitive understanding, was created with the intention of evoking such an understanding or an attempt at such an understanding in the audience, has no other purpose or function, may communicate on many different levels of appreciation, leads to many different interpretations, or reflections, demonstrates a high level of ability or fluency, and creates an appealing or aesthetically satisfying structures or forms upon an original set of unrelated, passive constituents.  This definition leads to a vagueness and subjectivity to art appreciation that varies from person to person, and an uncertainty who is most responsible the artist or the observer.

Despite the attempt to attribute genius to the creator of the artistic object, all the definitions suggested to help the observed form a value judgment externally define what is artistic, or beautiful. Thus it would seem that for an artist to be truly appreciated and considered, he has to conform to the opinions of non artists, and tailor his work to stimulate their positive responses within the rule network they created.  This is undoubtedly responsible for statements like “ he was ahead of his time” and why truly innovative artists are seldom appreciated during their lifetime.

 [1] Critique of Judgment. Trans., James Creed Meredith. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988)

[2] Why Cats Paint: A Theory of Feline Aesthetics Heather Busch, Burton Silver, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley CA, 1994.

[3] Museum of Non-Primate Art. http://www.monpa.com

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