Kant on Aesthetic Ideas and Beauty

Readers of Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) have understandably been stumped trying to decipher Kant’s views on the relation between beauty and art.1 At §43 Kant ends his discussion of “free natural” beauties such as flowers and birds of paradise and begins to formulate a theory of fine art, according to which fine art has as its purpose the expression of “aesthetic ideas.” This theory of fine art, perhaps because it is saddled with examples of second-rate art (including a poem by “the great king” Frederick) and is sketchier than the theory of beauty, has not been given the attention accorded the four “moments”. However, Kant’s theory of fine art is not as “unsophisticated” and “unenlightening” as one commentator thinks.2 It is rough and unfinished, but even so, it lays claim to being, along with Aristotle’s account of the “philosophical” implications of literature, one of the great pre-Hegelian statements on the capacity of art to express ideas. At least, the fact that the Critique of Judgment contains such a theory should stand as a warning to those who blame Kant for “neutering” the capacity of art to have any practical effect by reducing art to a contrivance for producing an enemic “disinterested” pleasure.3 On the contrary: Kant himself may in fact have thought his theory of fine art the capstone of his aesthetics. For at §51 he writes, “We may in general call beauty (whether natural or artistic) the expression of aesthetic ideas.” And here is where the puzzle begins, for it is not at all clear how or why beauty should even apply to the expression of aesthetic ideas — let alone apply in a way such that “we may in general call beauty … the expression of aesthetic ideas.”
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