Kant’s view on art

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Art is, at best, an open concept, but Danto’s (2013) view maintains that it should be a closed one. Ultimately, something renders art universal in how it makes the public feel.

For Kant, art possesses free beauty. Had abstract painting existed in his time, it would have been easily added to this category. Clement Greenberg (1999) agreed with this approach and showed little interest in natural beauty, but believed that one would not need to know the history of an artwork to know it was good, and that “those who know what is good are certain to agree with one another” (Danto, 2013: 117).

Kant’s second theory introduced the concept of spirit, a concept that is widely different than taste or aesthetics. When he spoke of spirit, he spoke about the creative power of the artist. Therefore, a painting can be beautiful, as far as taste is concerned, but lacking spirit (Danto, 2013). This ties well with German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s distinction between natural and artistic beauty: “Artistic beauty is “born of the spirit and born again””(Geulen, 2006: 17). This conception of art pushes it away from the idea of it being a purely aesthetic object. It is important to note that spirit was connected to cognitive abilities in Kant’s theory, and this in turn, connects Kant to contemporary art better than any other period.

Eventually, Enlightenment values began to give way to Romanticism, and we still saw Francisco Goya argue the same view on art as Kant. Goya wrote that there are no rules in art: No hay reglas in la pintura. This is what might explain our attraction to less intricate work, as opposed to a highly finished piece of work: it is the spirit in art, that elusive presence of genius, that is truly important. At that time, people were beginning to appreciate that something more was being promised by art than that it be in good taste only (Danto, 2013). It was something that could transform viewers, opening them up to a whole new system of ideas – very much like fashion has over the years – but there were no more rules to achieve and control art, and it just did not necessarily have to be tasteful any more, but had a lot more to do with judgement. Indeed, judging a piece of work, more often than not, means giving it rank in relation to other works and most importantly considering its originality (Barrett, 1994), but it can also be purely personal and biased.

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Kant speaks of spirit as the animating principle of mind, which is “the faculty of presenting aesthetic ideas” (Danto, 2013: 123), or that an idea is experienced to and through the senses. This contradicts the theory that ideas are grasped by the mind alone, and that knowledge is achieved by turning away from the senses. This suggests that art is cognitive, as it presents us with ideas through the use of sensory dispositions and conveyed to the mind of the viewer. As an example of the use of the senses in fashion shows, one could remember the flower walls at Raf Simons’ first Dior Collection of Autumn/Winter  2012/2013. Made of fresh flowers, the show-stopping set of a million flowers was incredibly fragrant and held an important meaning of paying homage to Dior’s Flower Woman. Not only did the set convey meaning, but it also engaged the viewer’s sense of smell through flowers, hearing through music, and sight through beautiful pieces of clothing.

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Today, art can be made of anything, put together with anything, in the service of presenting any ideas whatsoever. This puts a lot of pressure on viewers to interpret and grasp the way the spirit of the artist works, but also makes experiencing art incredibly personal.

Defining what art is can be very tricky. If we question whether Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup painting is art or not, then we would have to ask if Hussein Chalayan’s conceptual pieces can be considered clothing. Performance and installations are also immensely valued by designers, and are used as a way to convey their views and worlds through their shows, as a way to transcend the body and look at the overall context or inspiration.

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This is particularly important to present ideas and pressure the viewer to interpret the spirit of the artist, as for example the legendary Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 1999 show, when model Shalom Sharlow was dramatically spray-painted by robots, showcasing the clothing and its powerful message (Lyssens, 2012).

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