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1, April 1, 2002
Duchamp and Kant: Together At Last
ROBERT J. YANAL WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY DETROIT, MICHIGAN 48202 (USA) “What would have provoked Duchamp to madness or murder … would be the sight of aesthetes mooning over the gleaming surfaces of the porcelain object he had manhandled into exhibition space: ‘How like Kilamanjaro! How like the white radiance of Eternity! How Arctically sublime!’ (Bitter laughter at the Club des artistes.)”1 Marcel Duchamp, of course, is one of Arthur Danto’s artworld heroes, primarily because Duchamp, through his readymades, most famously the porcelain urinal coyly titled Fountain, managed to throw off art’s “bondage to prettiness”. “I owe to Duchamp the thought that from the perspective of art aesthetics is a danger,” Danto acknowledges.2 But if art is to avoid “prettiness,” what should art seek? According to Danto, Duchamp’s work implies “that art already is philosophy in a vivid form, and has now discharged its spiritual mission by revealing the philosophical essence at its heart”.3 The philosophical essence of art is its “aboutness”.4 Sometimes Danto says that artworks have “semantic character”.5 “To see an artwork without knowing it is an artwork is comparable in a way to what one’s experience of print is, before one learns to read; and to see it as an artwork then is like going from the realm of mere things to a realm of meaning”.6 A story that has heroes also has villains, and one of Danto’s is Immanuel Kant, specifically the Kant of the Critique of Judgment. “If we wish to decide whether something is beautiful or not,” Kant tells us at the outset of his book on beauty and art, “we do not use understanding to refer the presentation to the object so as to give rise to cognition; rather we use imagination (perhaps in connection with understanding) to refer the presentation to the subject and his feeling of pleasure or displeasure” (§1).7 The feeling of pleasure that signals the beautiful, however, is to be “disinterested,” by which Kant meant “a delight … independent of all interest” (§2). “When a judgment of beauty is pure, it connects liking or disliking directly with the mere contemplation of the object, irrespective of its use or any purpose” (General Comment on the First Division). Suppose someone asks me whether I consider the palace I see before me beautiful. I might reply that I am not fond of things of that sort, made merely to be gaped at. Or I might reply like that Iroquois sachem who said that he liked nothing better in Paris than the eating-houses. I might even go on, as Rousseau would, to rebuke the vanity of the great who spend the people’s sweat on such superfluous things. I might, finally, quite easily convince myself that, if I were on some uninhabited is1
and could conjure up such a splendid edifice by a mere wish. but it is the design in the first case and the composition in the second that constitute the proper object of a pure judgment of taste” (§14).” by which Kant meant the play of the imagination (our faculty for perception) and the understanding (our faculty for conceptualization) (§9). it is either play of shapes (in space. while it contemplates the shape…” (§16).” a distinction “which Duchamp made central to his enterprise”.’ which Kramer identifies specifically with aesthetic quality but which Duchamp and his followers—and I [Danto] must count myself among them—would identify in some other way”.10 In brief. For example. And when Danto asserts that art need not be aesthetic.” Danto comments. Bullough. but it is not to the point. Danto holds Kant responsible for the widely held view that art had to be. Any object of sense perception—a paperclip. “All forms of objects of the senses … is either shape or play. 2 . Danto thinks the disdain such critics as Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer have shown to Duchamp’s work is traceable to Kant. In any case. mimetic art and dance). All he wants to know is whether my mere presentation of the object is accompanied by a liking. When Danto speaks of aesthetics or beauty he means roughly what Kant meant in the Critique of Judgment. as it were. “It immediately follows.9 However. it seems less the concept of disinterested pleasure and more Kant’s remarks on how judgments of beauty concern “form” or “design” or “composition” or “shape” that might inspire aesthetes to moon over Fountain’s gleaming surfaces. The questioner may grant all this and approve of it. a painting by Cézanne—would deliver aesthetic satisfaction (and hence would ground a judgment of pure beauty) just in case it delivers disinterested pleasure by virtue of its form alone. a parrot. Greenberg—that contrasted and hence “extruded” art from the “topical urgencies in real life”. a tree in full autumn foliage. “that aesthetic considerations are extruded from the realm of function and utility”. Danto thinks that Kant’s aesthetics cripples both art theory and art by failing to distinguish between “aesthetic objects and works of art. for theirs is a criticism that “pivots precisely on the issue of ‘quality in art.8 Kantian disinterested pleasure.” was the foundation for any number of philosophical theories—Schopenhauer.land with no hope of ever again coming among people. or mere play of sensations (in time). if the latter. Specifically it is the “form” (or “design” or “composition” or “shape”) of objects that puts our mental faculties into free play. denounced by Danto as a “tepid gratification” and a “narcoleptic pleasure. namely. no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation. Danto’s objection to Kant’s theory centers on disinterested pleasure. Vivas. Bell. (§2) Disinterested pleasure is brought about by the “free play of the presentational powers. I would not even take that much trouble for it if I already had a sufficiently comfortable hut. by definition. “When we judge free beauty (according to mere form) … our imagination is playing. a gemstone. beautiful or aesthetically pleasing. The charm of colors or of the agreeable tone of an instrument may be added. he means that something whose form is not especially pleasing can still be genuine art—can even be great art.
is what draws so sharp a line between traditional aesthetics and the philosophy of art. Noël Carroll has a brief but convincing account of how Kant’s theory of beauty came to be appropriated into theories of art. and he demonstrated that if they were art but not beautiful. beauty indeed could form no defining attribute of art. “A lovely form has been revealed.11 It’s rather than beauty on Danto’s view is not essential for art—a point demonstrated by Duchamp. indeed the practice of art. in which the former said.14 Basically Carroll finds an equivocation on the concept of disinterestedness.13 I want to urge that it is more Kant’s successors then Kant himself who applied his theory of free beauty to works of art. even great works of art. they urged. like Walter Arensberg. there a man has clearly made an aesthetic contribution”. … Even members of Duchamp’s immediate circle. it bears repeating that Kant is defining pure or free beauty—not art—as that which arouses disinterested pleasure as the mental faculties play with “intuitions” of 3 . “When I discovered readymades.12 Duchamp himself took umbrage at the suggestion that he was presenting beautiful form. “I threw the bottle rack and the urinal in their faces as a challenge. Kant used it to specify the state of mind an observer should put himself in to render a pure judgment of beauty: the observer should not judge whether an object is beautiful based on whether it meets such practical concerns as private or social utility. sunsets—things to which persons of any degree of aesthetic sensitivity might spontaneously respond”. need not play any part in our practical concerns. for example Clive Bell or Clement Greenberg. The recognition of that. birds. Now crucially for Danto. and they are beautiful in ways in which certain natural objects would be counted as beautiful—gemstones. However. I thought to discourage aesthetics. and form alone has little practical consequence except to deliver aesthetic satisfaction. (Compare: The statement. It is undeniable that certain aspects of The Critique of Judgment are the groundwork for the Schopenhauer-to-Greenberg line of art theory according to which an artwork is minimally and essentially an object with an aesthetically pleasing form. which have material counterparts that are beautiful. and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty”. art is form and form alone.” need be poetically eloquent to impart information. thought Duchamp was drawing attention to the white gleaming beauty of the urinal.) This is why Duchamp is so important in Danto’s history of art: The ready-made objects were seized upon by Duchamp precisely because of their aesthetic nondescriptness. … There is an argument recorded between Arensberg and the artist George Bellows in 1917. one might say. For twentieth-century formalists.” Danto quotes him as having written. today. an artwork is minimally and essentially an object with semantic character—“aboutness”—and a work of art need not be beautiful or have some other aesthetic merit to have semantic character. freed from its functional purpose. Post-Kantians applied the concept of disinterestedness to works of art which. “The cat is on the mat. “There are doubtless works of art.It’s not that Danto thinks art isn’t beautiful.
the material it employs for this. he begins a theory of fine art that does not urge us to think of artworks as merely instances of beautiful design. The artist animates the minds of his audience by his “ability to exhibit aesthetic ideas”. this is certainly a Kant more congenial to Duchamp than the villain of Danto’s story. i. and if we agree with Kant’s analysis of free beauty.” sometimes the sub-class of artworks that “represent nothing” such as “fantasias in music” (§16). is “a pleasure of reflection rather than one of enjoyment arising from mere sensation” (§44). The purpose of the agreeable arts (e. i. What makes an idea aesthetic is its indeterminate nature and the way it “animates the soul”. “Spirit [Geist] in an aesthetic sense is the animating principle in the mind. An aesthetic idea must be expressed by something material. and that material something must have some form or other—it may even have a beautiful form—but its form is simply the medium for communication. Kant may have been wrong in thinking that every work of art expresses aesthetic ideas. The purpose of the fine arts is “that the pleasure should accompany presentations that are ways of cognizing”. the humming-bird. The artist. the foliage on borders or on wallpaper.” and the artifacts he mentions are sometimes borderline instances of works of art.e.. “designs à la grecque. is thereby able to “animate” the minds of those who view. just as Danto may be wrong in thinking that every work of art has semantic character. or read his artwork.g. At §43. But what this principle uses to animate [or quicken] the soul. imparts to them a play which is such that it sustains itself on its own and even strengthens the powers for such play” (§49). on the other hand. Clearly the sense of “aesthetic” Kant is using here in the theory of fine art does not necessarily depend on pleasing form or design. can be adequate. no [determinate] concept. And we may then decide that Duchamp has failed to make art or has made bad art—or we may misguidedly moon over Fountain’s gleaming surfaces. The examples Kant mentions tend more to be “free natural beauties” such as “flowers” and “birds (the parrot. a table setting) is “that the pleasure should accompany presentations that are mere sensations”.form or shape. An aesthetic idea is “a presentation of the imagination which prompts much thought... The fine arts “must necessarily be considered arts of genius. The proper consideration for whether something is art is not whether its form is beautiful but whether it expresses aesthetic ideas. It is true that if we start with the premise that all works of art are intended to be free beauties. The pleasure engendered by fine art. but to which no determinate thought whatsoever.15 Nevertheless. 4 . the bird of paradise) and a lot of crustaceans in the sea. by dint of spirit (and other talents).e. having created an artwork. and its aesthetic delightfulness (or aesthetic insipidness) is neither here nor there as far as communication is concerned. so that no language can express it completely and allow us to grasp it” (§49).” and one of the “powers of the mind which constitute genius” is “spirit”. Up to §43 of the Critique of Judgement Kant is writing about the beautiful and the sublime. then we will think of works of art as objects designed to deliver disinterested pleasure on the basis of form alone. hear. is what imparts to the mental powers a purposive momentum. But there is reason to think Kant didn’t agree with the starting-point. “Fine art … is a way of presenting” possible or actual objects that has as its purpose “social communication”.
A metaphor. is neither determinate nor logically implied. just as a description of a cry of anguish does not activate the same responses as the cry of anguish itself”. Art. the gap has to be filled in. communicates metaphorically—art has the structure of a metaphor—and he draws a lesson from Aristotle’s Rhetoric to explain how metaphors communicate. power. in accounting for metaphorical communication Danto would not have to backpedal away from two of the main consequences of Aristotle’s account of the enthymeme.19 Philosophers like everyone else take their inspiration from what moves them. the mode of communication is not straightforwardly denotation. is a metaphor of dignity. which is that the (unexpressed) conclusion is both determinate and logically implied by the (expressed) premises. “All men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man” logically implies the determinate (and let’s assume. authority. and what is communicated is not a straightforward proposition. Danto thinks. I’ve used the term “signify. though if Danto had repaired to Kant’s third Critique rather than to Aristotle’s Rhetoric he would have found a more congenial partner. “if the structure of artworks is. or rather the meaning of a metaphor. then no paraphrase or summary of an artwork can engage the participatory mind in at all the ways that it can. and explains the process of understanding a metaphor as that of “finding a middle term t so that if a is metaphorically b.18 Additionally. and political utterness”. there must be some t such that a is to t what t is to b… The important observation here…has less to do with whether Aristotle has successfully found the logical form of the metaphor than with the fact that he has pragmatically identified something crucial: the middle term has to be found. “Therefore. all men are Socrates”).There is a strong similarity between how Kant and Danto tell us works of art communicate. a rhetorical device that invites the listener to “draw his own conclusions”. grandeur. In particular. “Socrates is mortal” (though I can’t resist mentioning Woody Allen’s joke. the lightning in Jupiter’s eagle’s claws to signify that god’s awesome power. so garbed. the mind moved to action”. “the sculptor is not just representing Napoleon in an antiquated get-up … Rather the sculptor is anxious to get the viewer to take toward the subject—Napoleon—the attitudes appropriate to the more exalted roman emperors—Caesar or Augustus… That figure. The listener participates in a process “rather than just being encoded with information as a tabula rasa. and no critical account of the internal metaphor of the work can substitute for the work inasmuch as a description of a metaphor simply does not have the power of the metaphor it describes. as Danto himself holds. Explicitness is the enemy of this sort of seductive cooptation the enthymematic forms ideally exemplify”. A metaphor. In both cases.” though for both Kant and Danto. (I might mention that on this point there is substantial agreement from contemporary philoso5 . “When Napoleon is represented as a Roman emperor. for Danto. which is a syllogism with a missing conclusion.17 Danto thinks that the metaphor is a kind of enthymeme. has “something of the dynamism” of the enthymeme. something is taken to signify something else—Napoleon to signify power and political utterness.” Danto writes. or is very close to the structure of metaphors. unexpressed) conclusion.16 One of Kant’s examples is rather close: “Jupiter’s eagle with the lightning in its claws is an attribute of the mighty king of heaven” (§49).
Kant’s remarks suggest that he found a deep similarity. Now it is hard to see how a natural beauty—a seashell. say—can express aesthetic ideas. To be sure Kant himself occasionally—but only very occa- 6 . based on form alone). Kant has. though a pleasure that often hinges on the contemplation of the very things that Danto calls “topical urgencies in real life”. its pleasures are the pleasures of reflection not sensation. between the grasping of aesthetic ideas and the perception of beautiful form. But Kant is more than just a proto-Danto. of pleasure. In §49 Kant tells us that when we “arrange” our thoughts “in the aesthetic mode” then they can have a unity signaled by a feeling. which seems manifestly false. a feeling. but. “We may in general call beauty (whether natural or artistic) the expression of aesthetic ideas”. Kant nowhere acknowledges that something could (a) count as a genuine work of fine art and (b) fail to be beautiful in design or form. the most we can get out of an “idea” in nature is that nature seems to have a purpose though we cannot tell what purpose. This. I think. “immense” and “indeterminate” (§49). as Kant himself might put it. though in the case of semantic-less but beautiful things. not that every beautiful thing expresses aesthetic ideas. and much of what we are caused to notice is not propositional in character”. we take Kant to have said something a bit weaker. as Kant would put it. Not a complete bridge. brings us back to pleasure. Even if we look at the neglected teleological second half of the Critique of Judgment. not metaphor). though Kant’s initial statement on the matter is confused. a prolegomena to an aesthetics of communication. such as flowers. the only thing we feel is a sense of disinterested pleasure (a liking.phers. the latter that ties Kant’s theory of aesthetic ideas with his theory of pure beauty: both stimulate the mind to some sort of play which delivers pleasure based on the harmony of the mental faculties. we experience pleasure from the discovery and play of aesthetic ideas (what Stanley Cavell has called “a burgeoning of meaning”22). Suppose. the very sort of harmony that presages a judgement of beauty. Max Black wrote. while in the case of a work of art. we might assume. and I rather doubt that he even considered the possibility of such a thing. It is. though. which he did not fully spell out. At §51 he writes. I shall argue. Fine art is a way of cognizing the world. Aesthetic ideas can be found beautiful because coming to discover them mimics the same mental processes as judging natural beauty. but rather that the expression of aesthetic ideas is (or can be found to be) beautiful.20 Donald Davidson states that “there is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention. of course.21) Kant comes very close to Danto’s account of how art communicates (though he speaks in terms of aesthetic ideas. it “animates” the mind of its hearers by its expression of aesthetic ideas which “prompt much thought” but which cannot be expressed “determinately” since no linguistic formulation seems adequate. a bridge between the aesthetics of form and aesthetic ideas. perhaps. The meaning of a work of art is in words of Kant. “There is an inescapable indeterminacy in the notion of a given metaphorical statement”. At §51 he suggests that the grasping of aesthetic ideas involves “reflection” with the possibility of the “harmony” of sensibility and understanding.
In sum. 9 Danto. In fact. After the End of Art 84. whether he was aware of it or not. Danto. implies that (a) and (b) can both be true together. 3 4 5 6 7 Danto. 1966) 313-14. and even asserts at one point that beautiful design is necessary for art: “In painting. 10 11 12 13 Danto. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art 11. After the End of Art 84. His theory. Danto. After the End of Art 84. Duchamp has not effected quite so radical a departure from Kantian aesthetic theorizing as Danto thinks. though Kant himself did not realize it. Danto. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace 105. Critique of Judgement (1790).sionally—endorsed the application of his theory of beauty to works of art. trans. The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art 16. Danto. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace 124 Immanuel Kant. 1981) 94. 1962. Danto. but merely what we like because of its form” (§14). 1 Arthur Danto. However.” in Hans Richter. Prussia. 1790—but not forced on him by his theory. indeed in all the visual arts … design is what is essential. this is more a passing thought. acted out Kant’s thoughts on fine art in a very pure fashion. 85. Section references are given in the text. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace 52. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace 68. 1986)13. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 7 . Duchamp’s remark is referenced as “Letter to Hans Richter. reflective of Kant’s inability to see beyond his art-historical position—Köningsberg. 1997) 82. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. in design the basis for any involvement of taste is not what gratifies us in sensation. Dada: Art and Anti-Art (London: Thames and Hudson. 1987). Danto. The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (New York: Columbia University Press. 8 Arthur Danto. in sculpture. Duchamp. 2 Arthur Danto.
Danto and His Critics (Oxford.14 Noel Carroll.. 22 Stanley Cavell. MA: Blackwell. 1978) 44. ed. “A Tale of Two Artworlds. 15 For counterexamples to Danto’s “aboutness” theory of art see George Dickie. A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press. and History. He states that Kant did not have a theory of art. 1993). Danto.” both in Mark Rollins. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace 167. Expression. ed. Danto. Carroll is wrong on one point. “More About Metaphor. 1998) 89-109. 8 . The Transfiguration of the Commonplace 170. “Essence. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace 171. Danto.. “What Metaphors Mean. Max Black. however. Donald Davidson. 16 17 18 19 20 21 Danto.” in Sheldon Sacks. Cambridge. On Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. UK. Must We Mean What We Say? (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.” Dialectica 31 (1977) 438.” and Noël Carroll. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace 173. 1969) 79.
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