Arlyne Moi

Towards a Justifiable Conception of ‘the Autonomous Artwork’ in Today’s Artworld

Thesis for a "Hovedfag" in Philosophy at the University of Bergen - Spring 2005.

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The goal of this chapter is to give an account of the central aspects of Kant’s understanding of an autonomous field of art, which have functioned as the “building blocks”—the main ideas—from which Kant’s initial interpreters and many subsequent thinkers have conceived of ‘the autonomous artwork’. My goal here is not to take issue with Kant’s judgment of taste.[29]

It is first worthwhile recalling that the notion of an autonomous field for art arose in response to the universalised instrumentalist view, recorded as far back as Plato, that artworks are for teaching moral precepts. For this reasons it was (and again is thought to be) appropriate to evaluate art from moral and epistemological perspectives.[30] Consequently, the artwork is under the jurisdiction of the philosopher, the state, the clergy, or the intelligentsia—those who have “true knowledge”. But there is also another universalised view—that all artworks are moral. Norman Rosenthal, Royal Academy Exhibition Secretary for the exhibition Sensation, 1997, exemplarily espoused this view. When protesters physically attacked Marcus Harvey’s monumental portrait Myra (1997),[31] Rosenthal claimed: “There is no such thing as art that is immoral. All art is moral in my opinion.”[32] If this is correct, we must assume that only good moral ends result from artworks. Kant’s CJ§1-60 can be understood as primarily focused on assailing views such as those of Plato, Petersen (see footnote 30) and Rosenthal.

It is possible to argue that Kant created the autonomous field of aesthetics by word and division. It is as if he said ‘Let there be taste’ and there was taste, and he divided aesthetic judgments from agreeable and good judgments, the autonomous field of Modern art from the moral and epistemological domains of applied art:

Let us call what must always remain merely subjective and cannot possibly be the presentation of an object by its other customary name: feeling. The green colour of meadows belongs to objective sensation, the perception of an object of sense, but the colour’s agreeableness belongs to subjective sensation, to feeling, through which no object is presented. But through which the object is regarded as an object of our liking, which is not a cognition of it. (CJ§3)

Indeed, the judgment can be called aesthetic precisely because the basis determining it is not a concept but the feeling (of the inner sense) of that accordance in the play of the mental powers insofar as it can only be sensed. (CJ§15, 229)

But Kant could not create out of nothing, so in CJ§1-60, he consolidates ideas about philosophical aesthetics from other thinkers such as Shaftsbury, Burke, Addison, Hutcheson, Hume, Rousseau, Diderot, Moritz, Baumgerten and Lessing, to name a few.[33] The primary insight gleaned from CJ§1-60 has to do with the constructive role of the subject in constituting her aesthetic experience, how subjective processes determine the artwork.[34] The peculiar taste is a feeling within the judge, giving no cognition of the object itself. Kant takes great pains to distinguish taste by contrasting it with two other kinds of judgments: first of what is agreeable and secondly, of judgments made via the concept of good. What follows is how the four moments[35]—(1) quality of disinterest, (3) relation of formal purposiveness (in contrast to final purpose), (2 and 4) modality and quantity: subjective yet universal communicability without a determinate concept on the part of all disinterested judges—involved in making the judgment of beauty (taste), are distinguished from agreeable and moral judgments, for it is via these “moments”, together with the artist-genius and the aesthetic idea, that the autonomous (independent) domain for artworks was established in the artworld’s consciousness.

The four moments, the artist genius and the aesthetic idea

1. The quality of beauty is that of a liking that is disinterested pleasure. To be disinterested means that the judge cares minimally or not at all about the object existing for her. The judge must have all relevant needs fulfilled: “Only when their need has been satisfied can we tell who in a multitude of people has taste.” (CJ§5, 210) For example, if the object is something that could be sat upon, the judge must already own all the chairs she desires, and be so chipper that she does not need to sit down when judging. By contrast, if the judge is desirous, her likings are agreeable. If her desire is satisfied (gratified) through some sensation, she may not even be making a judgment, for that would be mere sensation. The liking for the agreeable entails that the existence of the object directly affects her state of being in the world and gratifies by satisfying her desire.

Kant also contrasts beauty’s quality of disinterest with that quality involved in judgments via the concept of the good. Here the judge always knows the object’s purpose (CJ§4). Consequently, the judge cannot be indifferent but is compelled, by reason, first to care about the thing’s existence, second, to be interested in it, and third, to look ahead to the consequences of the object’s use. This also differentiates the good from the agreeable liking, for if one knows that the object will gratify, but that in the end, it is detrimental (e.g., financial ruin, addiction, cancer), then while it may be agreeable, it will not be good. On the other hand, if the liking results in some respectable, endorsable end, then it can be both agreeable and good. Hence beauty’s quality is distinguished twofold; disinterest renders a peculiar sort of pleasure stemming from the mere contemplation of objects,[36] caring neither for how it may provide sensual satisfaction nor for what the consequence of the objects’ use could be.

3. The third moment of Taste’s judgment of beauty is its relation of non-purposiveness, that is, that the object is judged to be purposive in form but to have no final purpose. This can be viewed in light of Aristotle’s final cause, which logically entailed that the telos of an object, what it is for, is the cause of the effect (the object), because—why should a person ever even start making an object if they were not going to use it for something specific? For Aristotle, the object (effect) can only be explained and understood with regard to its purpose (cause), “on a will that would have arranged them according to a certain rule.” (CJ§10, 220) Kant maintains, however, that this does not apply for the judgment of beauty. Beauty’s judge looks at objects as though they were for something, yet that something is indeterminable. Just as objects in nature seem purposefully designed, we nevertheless cannot establish their definitive purpose. Is copper finally for making coins or the tree finally for shelter? No, they must merely be judged purposive in their form, for if they were deemed according to use, we could not judge disinterestedly (CJ§11, 221). Objects judged beautiful have no use other than for indeterminate reflection, mere contemplation. Is there a “knife” that divides the aesthetic domain from epistemological, moral and agreeable judgments? It is the imagination, when it is loosed from determinate concepts, which always force it to conform to a law. Freed from law, the imagination spontaneously produces whatever it wills. The power of imagination becomes a law unto itself (CJ§22, 241). Nevertheless, the play of the faculties is purposive since it exercises the cognitive faculties in general. Strictly speaking then, for Kant, purpose without a purpose does not mean that the object is totally without purpose or useless:[37] In CJ§44: 306, Kant states that beautiful art should “advance the culture of mental powers in the interest of social communication”. Thus the work is purposive for aculturation. This is ‘without purpose’ in the sense that it does not say anything specific about our direct goal-oriented relations to phenomena in the everyday world, but with the free play of the imagination and understanding, independent of all pragmatic purposes, the work is able to organize a myriad of sense-impressions or perceptions into aesthetic ideas, such that maximal activity of thought is engendered. The artwork strengthens and develops the ability to have knowledge and be moral, yet without producing knowledge. As such, the artwork is indispensable for acculturating free, rational and autonomous (independent) political beings. Beauty is the sensible manifestation of morality, says Kant (CJ§59-60), therefore art indirectly serves justice, for justice is only achieved through reflection, being aware of one’s own autonomous aesthetic faculty of taste.

The relational moment of beauty’s judgment is divided from the agreeable judgment because the latter is impure, corrupted with charm or emotion. (Kant calls ‘pure’ a “simple kind of sensation, it is uniformity undisturbed and uninterrupted by alien sensation” (CJ§14, 225). Design is what is essential, “dry liking”.) Beauty’s judgment stops short—at purposive form—by subtracting colours, smell or touch. “Not what glorifies us in sensation but merely what we like because of its form.” (CJ§14, 225) Consider three judgments of a flower: beauty’s judge reflects on the elliptical shapes at the one end of a thin cylindrical form; the agreeable judge gushes over the delightful scent, the velvety feel of its lush ruby petals; the good judge determines that such should be given to Mother.

2&4. Kant’s second moment, quantity, and his fourth moment of modality, are difficult to distinguish from each other, therefore I treat them more or less together. The beautiful judgment’s quantity is universal. It is divided from the universality of epistemology and morality because it is based upon a feeling, not a concept. It is also divided from agreeable judgment, which reside solely in the singular subjects’ feeling (no point arguing about which ice cream tastes best—it is a singular subjective matter). The judgment of beauty could not occur without the singular subject’s sensations, but it is not grounded there because mental powers transpose into reflection the aesthetic phenomenon. So the aesthetic judgment is a judgment of reflection, not of external sensation, but of an inner sensation where the cognitive powers of understanding and imagination are activated (CJ§9, 217; §15, 229; §20, 238). But how is it a universal feeling? Kant’s fourth moment of modality—sensus communis, is an inner sensibility common to everyone. This means that when a subject’s cognitive powers of imagination and understanding partake freely in reflective play, they harmonize with each other, in relation to the object being judged, and there should arise the exact same inner sensation of pleasure, which ought to be common for all who judge the same phenomenon disinterestedly. Not that everyone will agree, but that each subject has the right to assume and demand that everyone should agree, because if everyone’s “dial” is tuned disinterestedly, then everyone’s mental powers are adjusted in the same way vis a vis the same aesthetic phenomena. “The subjective conditions for judging we presuppose in all people, since they are required for cognition in general, therefore we may a priori assume that a presentation’s harmony is valid for all persons.” (CJ§38, 290) Hence this is a judgment the individual subject makes alone,[38] but she makes it in agreement with everyone else who judges disinterestedly. This, claims Kant, is universal communicability. It has no logical force grounded in determinate concepts leading to distinct ends, such that, if we know what the object is for, then we logically must all agree. In contrast to moral judgments, the notion of subjective yet universal communicability without a determinate concept is a transcendental idea; it cannot be proved, but it is regulative, the condition of possibility for making intra-subjective universally valid aesthetic judgments and for distinguishing the aesthetic sphere of value from the agreeable singular-subjective-sensatory domain on the one hand, and the universal field of moral judgments through a determinate concept on the other.

Going beyond the “four moments” of taste, Kant’s story tells of an artist endowed by Nature with peculiar abilities for making art. This artist is a genius because she has done nothing to achieve the abilities herself. It is as if Nature provides the rule used by the artist to create a cultural product.[39] But it is not an external rule; it is law-like without being law, for there are no consciously devised principles or written norms the genius follows. Importantly, Kant’s genius is not under the influence of a daimon or some muse whispering instructions in the artist’s subconscious ear. More precisely, genius consists of the mental powers of imagination and understanding, and these are combined in a peculiar way: The imagination is free, i.e., not subservient to the understanding. It supplies a wealth of undeveloped material to the understanding, which the latter cannot regard as conceptual; it allows the artist to discover aesthetic ideas: “By aesthetic idea I mean a presentation of the imagination which prompts much thought, but to which no determinate thought whatsoever, i.e. no determinate concept can be adequate, so that no language can express it completely and allow us to grasp it.”(CJ§49) The genius devises ways of expressing the idea and communicating it to a judge, who produces a feeling of beauty (harmony of the mental powers). Kant’s genius has a natural ability to express, and make universally communicable the ineffable idea, yet without constraint by rules of conventional communication. Since her understanding is subjective, it results in no determinate cognition. For this reason, genius cannot be learned through science or diligent practice.

As mentioned, the artist-genius uses the aesthetic idea to make the work of art. An aesthetic idea is a presentation of the imagination conjoined with such a multiplicity of “partial presentations” (figures made by the artist) that no expression standing for a determinate concept can be found for it. It allows much ineffable thought; no matter how much language we expend in trying to be precise about what this idea entails, we will never be able to fully account for it. Aesthetic ideas strive for something that lies beyond the bounds of experience and therefore no determinate linguistic expression can accommodate them. Kant’s examples of such are heaven, the creation, death, envy, all the vices and love. These prompt the imagination to spread over a multitude of kindred presentations that arouse more thought than can be expressed in words. They quicken the mind by opening up for it a view into an immense realm.[40]

So what are the building blocks of autonomy?

In CJ§1-60, Kant instigates a conceptual deluge of presumed freedom/autonomy for the artist, the receiver and the institution, and all this autonomy comes to bear upon the artwork. The artist is perceived as autonomous in the sense that she is a (1) genius (nature gives the rule) using (2) aesthetic ideas to make “partial presentations”, which open up more scope for reflection then determinate concepts can wholly make sense of. Because the aesthetic ideas are not determinate concepts, no knowledge occurs. Thus the artwork is autonomous in the sense of being (3) independent from truth. It is also autonomous in the sense of being (3) law-like without following any law because no formula or convention is followed in producing it. In other words, the way in which an original production makes sense cannot have been known before the production is achieved (unlike the directions for baking a cake) (§32). Hence a prime aspect of the autonomous artwork is (4) originality. The artwork is also autonomous in the sense of being (5) independent from the domain of morality because it is independent of final cause; it is merely (6) formally purposive, i.e., it has the form of being finally purposive but lacks an external telos. Kant calls this (7) purposive, yet without determinate purpose: He treats artworks as if they are agents with their own purposes, in the same way as he thought persons to be (8). The receiver’s attitude is also a condition for the artwork’s autonomy: An (9) attitude of disinterest focuses on (10) formal features, design, dry liking. From this mode of attention, the work finds (11) completion in itself. Kant seems to contradict himself however, given that he also says the aesthetic judgment is (12) purposive for the receiver’s self-reflection: The receiver becomes aware of her powers of imagination, understanding and reason, and how these faculties harmoniously work together. The field of non-teleological reflective reception is thus established, where there can only be indirect interest or secondary purposiveness, e.g., for the sake of reflection. (13) This field is marginal in relation to the rest of society because of the non-interest in using the artwork as a tool for anything beyond reflection. Finally, there are Kant’s quantitative and modal moments (which are difficult to distinguish from each other): (14) subjective yet universal communicability without a determinate concept (although often transgressed through the inordinate amount of theory produced to prop up the notion) entails that (15) each judge makes the judgment alone; individual judges cannot discuss or argue about art but nevertheless must all agree. Sensus communis is the common sentiment we supposedly all share. It is a transcendental idea—it cannot be proved—yet Kant deems it necessary (it is a regulative idea) in order to postulate universal agreement obtaining without a determinate concept. Nevertheless, it is unclear why the transcendental regulative idea of sensus communis is needed if it is the case that everyone’s mental faculties are tuned alike.

Two final points: First, Kant’s account is under-girded by the container metaphor, which assumes that there are some things that are rightfully internal to the field of art, and other things that are external to it. As we shall see, this has wide ramifications. Secondly, in light of CJ§1-60, examining claims about the artwork’s autonomy cannot be understood as an inquiry independent from how it is created by the artist, how it is experienced by the judge (and we could add—how it is situated within the art institution). Kant would not inquire into the artwork as a distinct, independently existing thing in itself. It is for this reason that chapter 4 starts out by examining the artwork’s autonomy in relation to the artist and the receiver.


[29] Criticizing Kant’s judgment of taste has been done thousands of times, and of course, I do criticize it too, but more indirectly, via the views presented in chapters 4, 5 and 6. While a few pertinent problems will be mentioned in this chapters footnotes, my respect for Kant’s judgment of taste is immense.

[30] See for example Plato’s Republic X, Aristotle’s Poetics. The same view is strikingly re-expressed this year, in 2005, by Vibeke Petersen, curator at the National Museet, Oslo, in connection with the re-mounting of the museum’s “basis exhibition”. Petersen said in a lecture given in Bergen, 8 April 2005: “At the National Museum in Oslo, our job is to discipline people, teach them how to behave.”

[31] Myra Hendly, serial sex-murderer involving several children, during the 1960’s. The portrait is a collage of hundreds of child’s handprints, also resembling Princess Diana. For picture:

[32] Norman Rosenthal interview by Nigel Reynolds, Arts Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, Wednesday, September 17, 1997, p. 4. For Rosenthal, in asserting that art is moral, he has to have something non-moral, in order for the distinction of what is moral to be possible. His non-moral category is ‘pornography’, which cannot, by definition, coincide with artworks. Norman Rosenthal discusses the censorship of Myra and other works at:

[33] For a general overview of Kant’s precursors, see Beardsley, 1966. Ch. 7-8.

[34] I said introductorily that it is not my intention to criticize Kant’s judgment of taste. Nevertheless, it may be worth holding in mind that there are lots of problems with it, and here is one: Kant’s explication of the subjective process that determines the work is circular: Aesthetic pleasure is engendered by the beautiful object, but simultaneously this aesthetic pleasure defines the object as beautiful.

[35] I present these in the order 1, 3, 2 and 4.

[36] As Archibald Addison put it, the pleasures of the imagination do not lead the mind to sink into sensual delight.

[37] Purposiveness without a purpose is free play of the mental faculties. An analogy can clarify this: It is like starting a car engine on a cold morning: the gears are in neutral, the pistons, manifolds, spark plugs fire, the fan belt rotates, various components move back and forth, but the engine is not in gear (there’s no determinate concept) so it cannot fulfil its final cause, to move. The engine likes this idling mode because it is prepared and conditioned for performing well. Analogous to the car engine idling in order to enhance or condition performance, the powers of reason are exercised for cognitive function. Thus the aesthetic judgment is purposive, but indirectly so.

[38][38] Problematic for many of Kant’s readers is his assumption that the subject’s inner, reflective, transcendental self can be unaffected by its social and historical context.

[39] Although endowed by nature, the genius still needs academic training, for Kant is keen on avoiding “original nonsense” (§46).

[40] Aesthetic ideas can easily lead into a discussion on Kant’s sublime; this will be addressed in ch. 5, on Derrida.