Seán O Sullivan is a writer and curator whose work focuses on the politics and preservation of localities. He has curated projects and written critical texts dealing with community, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He holds an MA and a BA in Visual Arts Practices from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is a former chair of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He is Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.

This page: An essay by Seán O Sullivan discussing the possibility of integrating Immanuel Kant’s pure aesthetic judgement into a reading of contemporary art.

On Relationships Between Art and Idealism


Chapter One: The position of art in society can be readdressed by instituting an understanding of idealist theory in popular consciousness.

In the wake of the twentieth century art holds license over form and concept. It may take whatever shape the artist deems necessary in order to articulate what is to be expressed. In this essay I submit that the spectator may gain a fuller understanding of the rationale behind the art object by implementing a systematic body of thought and interpretation. I plan on drawing from elements of idealism to make this argument, specifically a modern-day application of the philosophical lessons of pure aesthetic judgement from the writings of Immanuel Kant, followed by discussion of relevant works in recent cultural memory. My aim therein is to illuminate the potential of idealism, particularly Kant’s pure aesthetic judgement, as a guiding post for a capable understanding of the art object.

In the second chapter I will discuss the communicative difficulties faced by art in contemporary society. Certain qualities of expression are hindered by the societal relationship with art. In its popular understanding exists a struggle towards providing a method of dialogical connectedness within the wider world, one that extends beyond formal understanding to the potential of expressive discourse. Art has the capacity to expand the thinking of a society that is accepting of it. It can form a cultural preamble to the success of human exploration and self-discovery. In contemporary art there is a tendency to pursue trends in style and taste as though they were fundamental to the survival of the relevance and social realisation of art. I will discuss the harm that this rationale causes to the pre-existing egalitarianism of artistic expression and demonstrate the cultural benefits of employing pure aesthetic judgement to assess both the impressive and the unremarkable with the same measure of conscience.

In arguing for an interdependence of two bodies of aesthetic theory it is imperative to discuss in some detail the capacity in which idealism has traditionally acted as an ideological provider to art. This premise will be the focal point of the third chapter. I will examine the mediation in aesthetic theory between formalist objectivity and the role of disinterestedness in aesthetic judgement as suggested by Kant, expanding into the position of the sublime in contemporary discourse and where the use of pure aesthetic judgement as a method of art interpretation qualifies the spectator with a greater implementation of reason. The founding proposition of this essay, which argues for a contemporary recognition of classical thought systems, relies heavily on the subject matter of chapter three, an investigation of the place of idealism in aesthetic theory. This string of arguments allows an exploration of specific instances in which the basic tenets of idealist theory have been used to challenge and expand conventional thinking within art discourse.

In the fourth chapter I will discuss the presence of mediation between idealist theory and artistic expression in specifically relevant works and art practices examining the effects that such an amalgamation of theory could potentially have on art discourse. I will engage in discussion of the role of appropriation in contemporary theory, examining its role as a carrier of ideologies and morals. This chapter is also a study of the social engagement with contemporary art, one that pays particular attention to instances in contemporary society where art has had its highest degree of engagement with the greatest number of people. The final concern in chapter four is in examining the difficulties that expression faces in a society that is increasingly concerned with the place of intellectual property and the hypothetical valuation of ideas. I will assess the occupation of representation as being an essential fluidity of ideas and concepts, one that is naturally occurring in humanity, innate to art discourse and fully essential to cultural proliferation in contemporary society.

Chapter Two: A Dilution of Culture in Popular Consciousness

Standing back to look at the history of art, especially in the last century, it has become evident that artists are inclined to bend to taste as is necessitated by their cultural environment.1 In this essay my aim is to provide the ideological evidence that art can exist and be relevant outside of trends and taste, that it can readdress its position in society by allowing for a greater sense of inclusion in critical theory. In an analytical sense idealism is a qualified system of thought in facilitating an understanding of the purpose of art. The pinnacle of idealism’s conceptual standing is to assert that an objective reality has a definite conceptual intent, and that in understanding the reason in a moral actuality the spectator can fully recognise the purpose of specific truths. In the case of art this ideology is particularly relevant while analysing postmodernist ideas and theories.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the standing of Kant’s theories on judgement and reason was weakened by the advent of postmodernism; proponents of idealism were deemed irrelevant by newer, all-consuming discourses. The tendency towards pure aesthetic judgement in finding a middle ground between such discourses may have been erroneously neglected. It defined of the scope of moral and rational impulses in the development of humanity,2 presumably including in art. In the context of then-contemporary art “Kant was not so far removed from twentieth century insights as has ordinarily been imagined.”3 My position is that no single cultural philosophy exists as a blanket truth; a subject like art is so diverse, so varied in its intent and meaning that its natural truths can never be constant, and are instead appropriate to the time and place of its movements.

The benefit of allowing a liberalised aesthetic judgement to permeate modern cultural theory is that it allows for art to be an even-handed world. A populist attitude of ‘all ideas welcome’ more closely represents the internal discourses of a creative society. The tendency in critical theory is to try to find what is most correct from a series of rival views. I propose that in art the real challenge is to compromise between our rival truths. Idealism can presume that aspects of culture or ideology do not exist in a binary state of being either right or wrong, but rather that art facilitates an aesthetic discussion that reaches beyond moral absolutes and asks for a subtlety of individual understanding.

The function of this discussion is to study public perception, to ask about the reality that art must face if it is to become newly assertive and dynamic. It is in part a question of its engagement with society, a study of the conditions that have distorted the social grasp of art and propagated the notion of modern art criticism as being a tool that is too often misused.4 As such it takes issue with audience, not just with art. It is necessary to impress reservations about whether trends within critical theory are allowing art to affect people as much as it could. The philosophical schools of scepticism and cynicism are prevalent, even lauded, in contemporary aesthetic theory. However, these theories defeat one of art’s central missions by removing the possibility of creating knowledge and preventing its further gain and circulation. Cynicism takes its own presupposed ideas of simplicity to “a radical extreme”5 by asserting that only it can produce a worthwhile aesthetic. In this, especially, it is clear that an exclusionist method of interpreting art has a tendency to rely on the virtue of taste and, although it is a contributing factor to art’s external determination, it is also an impractical measure of quality.6

The separation of art’s aesthetic tendencies from those of culture at large creates an island of thought that is at odds with the growth and movement of internationalist humanities. It is a situation that allows art to exist in a bubble, a worrying circumstance that can eventually evolve into a dismissal of the relevance and necessity of current art. Historically, this has occurred in situations where art has been artificially popularised. A good example is in Germany during the 1940s, when artists and historians were made to serve as “intellectual shock troops for the regime and provide a key component of the cultural, and even spiritual, underpinning for the Nazi movement.”7

Today the effect of false manipulation on the art world is obviously far less severe than this extreme example, however it still exists to a certain degree. Theoretically an artist who has been made famous through clever advertising may have a greater public appeal than that of a less publicised artist. However this cannot determine the quality of expression of which either artist is capable. Arguably, if the artist who has the convenience of advertising turns out to be less than expected then the reputation of expression as a whole is damaged.

This was put to the test by the crash in critical theory made by Stuckism, a movement made famous for being, in part, a scathing response to the young British artists. In the public imagination, the yBa art was seen as being too highly publicised, routinely expensive and difficult to interpret. British tabloids were exacerbating public discomfort by focusing intently on the controversial 1997 Sensation exhibition. The presence of Stuckism allowed critical theorists to strike out against artists like Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas with the supposed intent of a return to modernism. Arguably there was more effective art being produced outside of Stuckism than inside of it, but the movement is remembered as being essential to the critical discourse of the day. This is in part due to its tendency towards finding ways to assail the art or ideas of those with whom it disagreed such as Tracey Emin and Nicholas Serota,8 in this it had what Liam Gillick called an “aura of activity.”9 This denoted a greater critical fixation on the effects of conflicting trends and tendencies in taste than in the production of art that is of a superior form or quality.

Perhaps, in terms of critical theory, Stuckism is best remembered for a statement in its manifesto; “Artists who don’t paint aren’t artists.”10 This proposition is one of the clearest examples of cynicism in contemporary art, a theory that, in practice, was what Michel Foucault might have called “spectacular in its savagery.”11 Throughout the twentieth century this mode of thought contributed to the often erratic and chameleon-like movement of critical favour amongst popular forms of art, a situation that had a detrimental impact on the marketplace for ideas.

Billy Childish, Joe Crompton, David Lee, Emily Ovenden, Graham Ovenden, Charles Thompson, The Anti Turner Prize Prize, 2000.
Billy Childish, Joe Crompton, David Lee, Emily Ovenden, Graham Ovenden, Charles Thompson, The Anti Turner Prize Prize, 2000.

The example of the Stuckists illustrates the potential that truth may be unknowingly distorted in an epistemological sense, the prior belief or expectation of superior quality can often result in the failure to recognise the delivery of lesser quality. In this respect, there is a worrying impact from the effect of critical reaction on the marginalisation of some art and its magnification of other art. If trends and taste control the output of artists then there cannot be an unrestricted flow of popularised invention. Art in this case must subscribe to common thought processes and familiar ideas.

Part of the difficulty of modernism and postmodernism is maintaining parity in their interpretation. In this oftentimes the practices of criticism are fully “unable to justify themselves.”12 In critical theory there is no path towards interpretive knowledge in an epistemological sense when considering art since knowledge requires the presence of both facts and belief.13 Clement Greenburg and Michael Fried were subject to repeated criticism when discussing the “illusion of a purely visual or optical space, one addressed to eyesight alone,”14 and whether the flatness of modernist painting could truly be utter flatness. This sustained rate of criticism may have been unwarranted since the interpretation of art is subjective to the discretion of personal experience.15 If theorists are inclined to favour specific movements in art then it is possible to do so without attacking the ideas of others, even if those ideas stand in direct opposition to one’s own. Contemporary art theory need not be destructive.

Since the 1990s there has also been a legal and ethical series of barriers placed around the form that art may take. The presence of international copyright law has stripped the autonomy to create art from anything that already exists. Issues regarding intellectual property have come to the forefront of public discourse, in part because of the rapid growth and adoption of the Internet. In the last decade the position of artists to create art from and about other art, or to adopt a criticism of powerful elements in society, has become increasingly weak.16 Today laws concerning copyright have removed the right of an author, musician, corporation or publisher to control all aspects of a work.17 This has led to a rise in popularity of art forced to exist outside the bounds of what is legal, a situation most widely applied to digital formats and interventions in public space. The effects of this can be seen in the growth of movements such as Illegal Art, a direct effort to facilitate and record art that would otherwise struggle with complex legal issues.18

This ideological transformation has been a cause of major concern for artists. The use of ideas as currency is fairly traditional, however the restrictiveness with which this currency is protected was not nearly as ferocious as it has been in the new century.19 In the past, the use of popular images and ideas was attributed to the nature of satire and to the right of people to document their experiences. The strength of this right has dissolved among a new societal tendency to restrict representation in favour of building cultural commodities,20 a tendency in which the ultimate freedom of expression is no longer of a critical necessity to free society.

This tendency towards commoditisation is most present in recent legal occurrences in Europe and the United States. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the European Union Copyright Directive have had a calculable chilling effect on expression.21 The understanding of a chilling effect is that subsequent to the birth and enumeration of human and civil rights in the last five hundred years there have been, from time to time, laws designed to regulate and partly dissolute existing freedoms. This legal manipulation is most applicable in this discussion to free speech and free expression. Today’s copyright law acts as a stopgap series of protections for industries that have, for many reasons, been forced to radically overhaul their operational standards and distributional models.

In an article written over two decades ago Howard Simons pinpointed the problems inherent to a litigious society destroying its own freedoms in the name of convenience or business. Simons had experienced the harrowing depths of such legal quandaries having been assigned to the editorial board of the Washington Post during its yearlong investigation of the Watergate scandal in 1973. He could not have understood the artistic complications that would eventually arise in an online society, however his legal philosophy reached the pinnacle of contemporary sensibilities in claiming that truth was the absolute defence when confronted with accusations of libel.22 This ethic is similarly applicable to impractical leverages of intellectual property law. There is no rational motivation to create laws that restrict representation even when those laws protect property.

Despite these procedural complications there is a widespread popularisation of democratic platforms in art. The concurrent effect of information technology was to enable open standards and lower barriers in consolidating and disseminating a lot of varied content at once. For all the lack of individuality in the digital world there has been an explosion of participatory response. It is a rational expectation considering that art and ideas are informed by the societal environment, and contain a distinct tendency to operate with the preservation of their own welfare at issue. Art has the potential to exist for its own sake.23

This is especially important in consideration of artists that are, by virtue of environmental circumstances, compelled to pursue their creative practice outside the culture of critical theory. The effects of this were particularly apparent in South Africa during apartheid, writers such as Nadine Gordimer faced a totalitarian restriction of access to the theories and realities of other countries and cultures. The aim of such a political regime had been to suppress dissent and social change within its society, however in doing this over time it had the perhaps unintended consequence of propelling the growth of creative movements and theoretical structures that were internal to the society that the regime was trying to control. Thus it produced a number of artists, writers and thinkers whose experiences led them to hold “conceptions of art that have little in common with western models.”24

In essence this chapter is a study of the weakening position of certain forms of art and thought in contemporary society. A series of environmental circumstances based in public perception and an internal reliance on taste have confounded a rational equality in art. As a school of thought cynicism makes sense in areas outside of art, particularly in the sciences, where the growth of knowledge is dependant on disproving many previous ideas. Art has little need for reliance on such staid logic. It has the capacity to be worthwhile even if it does not subscribe to what is correct in current philosophy. Suppression of equality in aesthetic judgement is typical of the frustrations brought on by a distracted audience. This is being erroneously counteracted by a venal tendency towards popularising exclusive formats and movements. In trying to remove quality from the realm of taste this focus on small ideas and trends may lead to the better nature of judgement going quietly blind.

Chapter Three: The Service of Idealism to Art

In order to properly understand the place of idealism in art it is of consequence that focus is provided toward points where the two bodies of thought intercede. The founding of idealism can be traced to before the birth of Plato. Thus it is considerably younger than art, whose origins are found directly subsequent to the birth of humanity. The importance of idealism to art is best described as a theoretical grounding for the presence of concept alongside or over form.25 This is implied in contemporary terms by the harmony between form and concept in the art object as suggested by Immanuel Kant’s pure aesthetic judgement.26

Disinterestedness as a manner of thought has its place as the “chief logical characteristic”27 of Kant’s pure aesthetic judgement.28 The present-day understanding of the term imagines it as an act of being entirely inattentive, however its philosophical meaning signifies a specific kind of engagement. The purpose of disinterestedness is to separate the rational understanding of an object from the enjoyment derived from its existence. This is particularly useful to art as a figure of pure aesthetic judgement. By most measures art requires appreciation of the notion of purpose over presence, or as Kant would have it, “the meaning which I can give to this representation, and not on any factor which makes me dependent on the real existence of the object.”29 This is a description of the innate ability in the spectator to interpret not only an objective reality, but to also study the ideological purpose of an object.

Kant’s particular attentiveness to the disparity between conceptual understanding of representation and the realisation of a formal reality carries particular weight within the borders of art theory. In a certain sense the critical understanding of art submits to disinterestedness whether it wants to or not. In the interpretation of contemporary art it is generally incumbent on the viewer to judge the physical reality of the art object as an aside to its conceptual message. Kant’s description of fine art is that it is “a product of human intentionality, which must be guided by a concept, but which aims at producing a free play of the imagination and understanding, and which cannot therefore be determined by any concept.”30 This view is, in many respects, aligned with the commonly held views of the eighteenth century, it is not yet fully aware of the future implications of abstract or object-less art,31 however Kant’s realisation of the place of free imagination in interpretation stands as a vital precursor to the eventual artistic success of concept over form.32

It is important to draw distinctions between the philosophical reality of pure aesthetic judgement and the perception of disinterestedness as being an apathetic and uninvolved attitude with little bearing on the reality of the art object. These positions are evident in the writing of Clive Bell and Richard Shusterman among others.33 Bell had described the premise of conceptual aesthetics taking precedence over formal aesthetics as being indicative of a mind that had “no faculty for distinguishing between a work of art and a handsaw.”34 It is of course possible to oppose this statement by supposing that in the presence of a striking concept there was no reason to distinguish between one person’s art and another person’s handsaw. Indeed, three years after this comparison was made it was rejected in principle by the advent of a urinal as art.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 work ‘Fountain’, collided with the sensibilities of the art world and can be credited with jumpstarting the popular progression towards contemporary postmodernist theory. Duchamp’s piece at the very least provided a counterpoint to the formalist arguments of theorists such as Bell, and as a subject of interpretation allowed for the adaptation of pure aesthetic judgement into postmodernist concerns. It was a new and yet concrete example of what Kant called “a representation of the imagination belonging to its presentation” that gives aesthetically “unbounded expansion to the concept itself.”35 Thus in reinforcing the pre-existing theories of aesthetic judgement as being concurrent with the rise of the avant-garde in the twentieth century it is necessary to defer from attitudes prescribing a solely objective art similar to Clive Bell’s restrictive “significant form”36 as being the only path to realisation of the truest art. In addressing the contemporary role of idealism in aesthetic theory it is appropriate to broach the subject of the sublime and discuss how it has applied to art and to aesthetic judgement.

Since its inception in the writings of Cassius Longinus37 the sublime has had at least an empirical relationship to art by way of aesthetic theory. This relationship has not seen the kind of theoretical fluctuation as is apparent in contemporary realisation of other qualities of aesthetic judgement. However what has progressed over time has been the way in which the application of the sublime has been dynamic to the movements and growth of art.38 Idealism as a structure of thought is inclined to favour the ability of an object to purely fulfil an embodiment of philosophical criteria. Certainly Georg Hegel considered art as having the potential to be sublime,39 and cited many works of Islamic art as being so due to their intricacy and their attempts to describe an experience that, due to Islamic law, they were forbidden from representing.40 Kant too, endorsed art’s potential for capturing the sublime, by prescribing that the criteria necessary in fulfilling the sublime was entirely a measure of greatness. Arguably under these terms art has the potential to be called great, Kant gave an example of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City as a structure that perfectly displayed the sublime.41

In the context of aesthetics, idealism is concerned with the presence of moral thought and quality when it is attached to form. Kant exemplified as much in his description of the “final end”42 as being a concept that causes the actuality of the object.43 Specifically in its application to art this infers that once the art object contains a conceptual intent its potential ability to defy an expectation of purpose increases exponentially. It similarly means that in order to consider the entire scope of the art object an understanding of the interaction between a physical form and a conceptual analogy is prerequisite. This interplay is a self-evident function of contemporary representation. It operates to supply a rational examination of the meaning of an objective reality.

One of the most significant realisations gained through the progress of art in the twentieth century is that the cultural benefits of a restrictive art are fully outweighed by those of a theoretically inclusive art. Many of the discourses within postmodernism such as feminism, French new-wave film and post-graffiti have proposed variations on this central ethic. In modernism it is present in the avant-garde. Theorists such as Renato Polliogi linked the growth of art in the twentieth century to the importance of its avant-garde ideals and morals.44 Those ideals spur a process of conceptual and critical engagement that allows for the production of art that is diverse in both form and ideal. That scope is one of the most indispensable qualities of critical understanding in contemporary art.

George Antheil, Fernand Léger, Ballet Mécanique, 1924. (A 2005 Performance).
George Antheil, Fernand Léger, Ballet Mécanique, 1924. (A 2005 Performance).

The boundaries of judgement and reason can stipulate that art is not only a product of expression but that it may also be an interpretation of an objective reality. This rationale allows art to progress its self-understanding in the midst of new variances in contemporary theory, an understanding that became particularly apparent in the wake of the twentieth century. The Futurists used mechanised sound as a new medium for art, George Antheil and Fernand Léger’s 1924 ‘Ballet Mécanique’ was a sound-orientated work that was presented as an element of an early video art piece. It incorporated propellers, sirens, drums, electric bells and two live pianists accompanying sixteen player pianos. In 1924 the public-at-large was unaccustomed to the potential of sound to be understood as art. Within the French avant-garde Léger was one of the first to understand the capability of cinema to be considered within the oeuvre of fine art.45 The ‘Ballet Mécanique’ was a product of new aesthetic tendencies and thus required an entirely new method of art interpretation.

It is in this venture that pure aesthetic judgement has its place in art. The growth of new discourses and new aesthetic tendencies as a cultural ecosystem is self-generating.46 The most judicious standard for assimilating newly significant forms and concepts is through interpretation within already existing systems of thought. Prior to the early twentieth century the tendencies toward recognising sound or film as art were predominantly contained in the understanding of critical theorists,47 their appeal to the spectator was created by their existence as a new format. The place of pure aesthetic judgement as one in a series of existing ethics in the audience can be demonstrated by the eventual acceptance of art such as Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ or Antheil and Léger’s ‘Ballet Mécanique’.

The full understanding of new art has typically taken years to disseminate into social memory, within the consciousness of critical theory there is a tendency to treat changes in art firstly as noise, then as new. The presence of pure aesthetic judgement as a standard method of art’s assessment allows the spectator to access the dual realms of objective form and conceptual intent. “A formal theory is a system of thought and argument that predicts and explains,”48 the presence of formal theory is essential to the complete understanding of art, both old and new, and imperative in its appreciation beyond taste, beyond trends, and beyond the sphere of noise.

Chapter Four: A More Perfect Representation

Postmodernism has long approached a crucial juncture, as modernism did, in which it is compelled to rapidly adapt to changing ideas or suffer committal to history. In the twenty-first century an accelerating creation of fresh discourses in art has brought forth a new wave of innovation. The breadth of these new discourses is not fully defined by critical reaction, or so reliant on taste as once might have been the case. Globalised communication has shrunk the art world and given greater relativity of exposure to many genres and practices. Pure aesthetic judgement can serve as a philosophical blueprint for this ever-evolving art discourse. Its function is to engage understanding of the changing nature of representation, to base the interpretive facility of the spectator on disinterested judgement, and to identify the aesthetic as not only a formal intervention but also the existence of concept.

In the context of a renewed focus on ideals in art tipping the balance from authenticity and towards the communication of concepts pure aesthetic judgement is quite vital, and appropriation is a step in this direction. Conceptually prescient art is an unfamiliar visitor in public space, in a representational sense it lacks the ubiquity of advertising or architecture. The intent of advertising is to suggest ideas outright, while subtly imposing values of both brand awareness and consumer-culture respectively. Appropriation is “one of the preferred methods of the art experience, and is based on the notion of aesthetic or cultural complicity.”49 It ties itself to idealism by speaking directly to the probability of objects containing moral consequence that will be apparent to the individual.

In terms of trying to make art newly fierce appropriation has the effect of propagating the unexpected, it places the unknown into space usually reserved for predetermined form. Post-graffiti is the most straightforward example of appropriation in a contemporary context, its aesthetic intent is to reassert a sense of value to space that has become banal due to its overuse. Of course it could be easily argued that many of its iterations are far less accomplished then the architecture it sought to invade, however the intention of art in a postmodernist context has less to do with originality as it does with communication. In a fairly predictable turn marketing companies intending to make their advertising newly relevant have appropriated its aesthetic, seeking out its capacity to assert ideals in a viral way. This does not constitute a disservice to either art or the spirit of post-graffiti, at least not in the context of how appropriation operates. Ongoing repossession is simply how appropriation works; its mere existence is a constantly revolving challenge between several communicative ideologies.

Beck Hansen, Odelay, 1996.
Beck Hansen, Odelay, 1996.

Not surprisingly appropriation has had difficulty in gaining a foothold in artistic consciousness, in part due to legal issues pertaining to intellectual property. Beck Hansen, a California based multi-instrumentalist, has built a culturally significant body of work based almost entirely on appropriating and revising already existing form, most successfully with his 1996 release ‘Odelay’. His method amounts to using sound-collage as a way of creating pop music. He is hardly alone in his approach towards working with sound, however what does distinguish his practice from others are the pains that several major corporations have taken to accommodate his, and only his, practice. This is due almost entirely to the range of his audience, and the profit available therein.

Appropriation does not symbolise an alternation between newer and better ideas. It simply signifies that there is fluidity in human concepts, and that in order to learn people must be allowed to audit and edit. This is true of the appropriation of either space or the art object. The originality of a work of art does not signify authenticity; if one were to attempt to intervene in a piece such as Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, as has been attempted on more than one occasion, such an action does not necessarily diminish a pre-existing understanding of the object. It simply shows that objects, space and ideas are constantly susceptible to reinterpretation. Art is fundamentally an exercise in emotional and intellectual expression, and indeed Kant thought of the object as being, in essence, a free activity of the will.50

The theoretical conditions of pure aesthetic judgement allow new art to proliferate in ways that encourage social engagement. Shepard Fairey had gained certain notoriety in the United States when he created a movement whose purpose was to incessantly post stickers featuring the staring face of professional wrestler Andre the Giant and emblazoned with the word ‘Obey’. The stated intention of this was to force the viewer to consider the implications of how advertising is interpreted and disseminated. This was achieved by creating an advertisement that did not attempt to sell anything, but instead visually recollected a sort of Orwellian nightmare, and tried to enliven public debate on the affect of consumerism on society and a tendency in capitalism to “co-opt and make a commodity of dissent.”51

Shepard Fairey, Obey, 1990.
Shepard Fairey, Obey, 1990.

Fully aware that public space tends to be a battleground of competing ideals, Fairey has less of a tendency to plainly state his moral ethics than artists such as Barbara Kruger. “Rather than subject people to sloganeering, he wants them to have their own epiphanies”52 He certainly gained a following in the wake of this effort, albeit without reversing the conventional understanding of thought. The theoretical tendencies of disinterestedness are inferred by the early steps in his practice, which implies that the object exists not only in its physical reality, but also in its moral significance.

Fairey perhaps received greater acclaim for his later work; his inclination toward being socio-politically communicative led him to produce screen prints in support of then-Senator Barack Obama, who considered his work an authentic amalgamation of post-graffiti and direct political advertising. His prints became some of the most widely seen and recognised artworks in the United States within the space of twenty-two months. Reminiscent of his earlier work, they featured an intrepid seeming portrait with the word ‘Hope’ emblazoned underneath. It could be recognised as being his most successful work, having had a significant impact on the public perception of both an individual and a set of ideals. Fairey was able to achieve this while subtly suggesting Soviet-era iconography in his prints, a sort of premeditated and iconoclast internal critique of the cult of personality that he was trying to build. This was a significant invocation of the power of the art object. The idealist notion of ascribing power to an object engages with the ability of an aesthetic reality to convey an ideology. The significance of growth in Fairey’s aesthetic is in his conscious knowledge of the consequences inherent to appropriating space. In this he is invoking the fiercest characteristic of postmodernism, its self-awareness and its ability to display art’s most disparate and antagonistic characteristics.53

Shepard Fairey, Barack Obama, 2008.
Shepard Fairey, Barack Obama, 2008.

Thought, in a formal sense, is an innate capacity to recognise and respect connected ideas. The existence of this reality shreds the potency of taste in art as though it were marginal to a far-reaching logical standard. In truth, any predefined way of interpreting art is difficult to assess on its own terms. This is part of the reason that idealism carries such weight in a contemporary artistic context; in two millennia its theoretical understanding of aesthetics has been intensively scrutinised and has survived relatively intact. Disinterestedness acts as a rational thought system when applied to human understanding, it allows for aesthetic communication to reach beyond personal experience and gives the spectator a balanced path towards interpreting the artist’s intent. This challenge is always subjective to the logic of the spectator, and can be displaced by individual taste. However taste is only a small component of thought, and it is an irrational economic to carry the growth of a discourse that has as much volume as contemporary postmodernism. At the worst of times it can be a restrictive and exclusionary ethic to apply to expression. The full measure of art’s discourse with both humanity and with history leaves a stirring impression that its best impact may be on a macro level.

Art is an entirely human creation, unlike many fields of study it is not subject to a burden of proof set by exterior facts; its primary function is to advance human self-understanding and it is this intellectual autonomy that allows for a constantly revised understanding of its scope and structure. This puts it at odds with many academic endeavours, in part because it is empowered by cultural influences. Idealism applies deftly to self-generating discourses since its purpose is to nurture consideration of moral awareness. Art is the epitome of such a discourse; it contains near-limitless capacity for drawing on the moral sensibilities of a humanity that is self-aware.

Similar to the spirit of philosophy, art is better recognised as a group effort. While its production requires a measure of reflection and self-understanding its place as a cultural force is fundamental to the well being of society, as a collective intellectual entity it does not lend itself easily to isolationism. The same is true of many cultural bodies of thought sourced in human invention such as literature, language, and mathematics. However all of these pursuits only provide a path towards conveying either an internal or external reality, and are compelled to depend on reality as a guide. Thus outside influences are requisite sources for expression, as are revision and reinterpretation of already existing ideas.

The sum total of what should be consistently present in art is a diversification of its various truths and a viable series of approaches towards unifying cultural thinking and aesthetics. It is pre-eminently obvious that art, by way of humanity, is always subject to vacillating ideals. However this should not hinder an ability to bridge the divide between philosophies and realities. Revision and reinterpretation are paths to this conciliatory representation, in perfecting the aesthetic and refining art’s ideals they may well be the most significant cultural force in preserving the essence of expressive ideas from slipping into the ether.


This essay submits that in adapting to a classical idealism art can reinvest an understanding of conceptual aesthetics in society at large. The notion of a cultural sensibility is fundamental to this line of thinking, its use is intended to evoke the human potential to explore and probe itself. Employing pure aesthetic judgement as a model of thought in such an effort serves to demonstrate that there are interpretative processes available to the spectator that can reveal and explain the intent of the art object. As the discourses of contemporary art have grown throughout history there has always existed a struggle between the conceptual and aesthetic realities of art and its popular understanding. In part this is due to the subjectivity of how objective form is interpreted and realised. As often as not the power ascribed to the art object comes from the spectator having a less-than-complete understanding of its conceptual intent. In view of this the ability of the audience to employ pure aesthetic judgement in developing a rational understanding of art can be effectively applied to contemporary aesthetic discourses.

In the context of how idealist theory may operate within the art world it is necessary to consider the imperfection of both artist and audience as being contributory factors to the effectiveness of art. Presenting pure aesthetic judgement as leading a path towards objective and conceptual learning requires a certain degree of patience from the audience, however not all elements of human character may apply equally to each individual person. Kant refers to people as being ‘finite rational beings’ repeatedly in his writing.54 This acknowledgement of the limitation of humanity is inherently relative to the position of idealism in aesthetic discourse. The imperfection of humanity feeds art; even in trying to access the greater qualities of moral intent people, including both artist and audience, have the capacity to act from feelings of self-interest.55

It is in the recognition of this fact that pure aesthetic judgement reveals its most supportive component, its capacity for using a rational methodology to build fledgling understanding into full comprehension. A capacity that is most apparent in the principles of moral awareness and rational logic that idealism is based in. The moral awareness of humanity in the context of art today is arguably as conducive towards understanding aesthetics as it has been since the birth of idealism. The principle ethic and intellectual value of art has always made itself necessary to humanity, and it is this value that relates so specifically to Kantian ideology. Idealism tries to view intimate realities within the context of the larger world and all of its actions, in doing so it provides itself with a mandate for human development that has been reflected in art over the last century. Thus it can be of particular use in answering the theoretical preposition of what it is specifically that the moral values of a given work of art are, and more generally of what the moral values of art-at-large are now, and will be in the new century. Supposing that art is a subject capable of self-assessment it is possible to reach the understanding that, in a theoretical sense at least, pure aesthetic judgement can be a beacon for the intent of culture.

Pure aesthetic judgement survives by the condition that its benefactors are engaging irrational realities through rational methodologies. The ability to apply particular measures of consideration to the tendencies of an unpredictable humanity is a faculty of rational self-control that is endemic of scientific methods of analysis, albeit absent the burden-of-proof. As such, the rationale of a contemporary application of pure aesthetic judgement heavily incorporates elements of humanism; a system of thought that prescribes the utmost importance to human activity and postulates that humanity contains the capacity to fulfil its highest potential if so desired. In this ethic is provided a link to the theoretical relationship between idealism and art. Both are laid in a foundation of thought that is entirely human in its origin, and in principle both have the power to represent and explain human actuality.

In chapter two there is outlined a series of circumstances that have led to a lessening place for culture in the realm of human learning. Not least of these is the speed at which global culture is expanding, not only in its influence but also in its form and method. Art suffers because of this; its place in society is secure as a spectrum of thought separately living from the day-to-day happenings of the world. However what is not secure is the constancy of its impact on society, and by virtue of that, its impact on people. In this new century there is little to slow the perception of art as a pursuit of humanity that is impossible to appreciate in its entirety, by its nature it is endlessly fragmented.

This cultural society is witness to a downgrading of the inherent worth that is placed in representation, an event evident in the privatisation of expression and of human tendencies, even in the private ownership of sections of the human gene pool. These changing attitudes are affecting an annihilation of the recognised value of human discoveries that exist for universal benefit. Art is dependent on a society that consistently maintains ethics encouraging openness towards knowledge. Without such ethics the subsistence of general attitudes that lead to learning as a manner of living can only dissipate. Arguably, in light of this, our cultural society is one that is inclined to look the other way as this dilution occurs.

Chapter three highlights the appropriateness of applying Kant’s ideologies to art in terms of the model for cohabitation of both form and concept within the scope of how aesthetic quality is rationalised in idealism. It is necessary to mediate the thought processes that idealism suggests when considering discourses such as modernism or postmodernism as being subject to pure aesthetic judgement. This is due largely to the fact that in the age where idealism gained cultural traction object-less art simply did not exist, thus there were no theoretical allowances for it built into classical thought systems. In no small way this spirit of unexpectedness is a primary reason for the success and continued function of those discourses. Chapter three discusses the processes by which traditional understanding and new occurrences have come to understand one another.

As a system of thought idealism has shown itself as being quite capable of amplifying and adapting to the many facets of culture that it is applied to. It highlights the importance of coercing people towards the ability to recognise the basic nature of expression. Within the discourses of contemporary theory it is critical that art be recognised as a system of communication that exchanges the capacity for expression through language for expression through perception.56 The form of communication inherent in art is self-evident to the spectator; idealism does not rely on the naivety that is often stereotypically associated with it. Kant ascribes the ability to judge beauty to ‘sensus communis’, a human means to convert the experience of the senses into a representation.57 This is an association with the essential human commonality that is invoked in this thesis to explain how the popular acceptance of art can be rationalised using a universal method of understanding.

In terms of creating a functional argument this essay is required to ideologically compromise between a classical study of Kantian idealism and the modern reality of human social structures, and to similarly mediate between methods of art interpretation that conflict with one another. It is this effort that forms the basis of chapter four. The art object is subject to constant public scrutiny as both a form of expression and as a battery of theories and concepts. It is the notion of value being applied to such concepts that causes external pressure on art as a whole. Chapter four comments on such difficulties, highlighting in particular the fluidity of ideas that the art world has always benefitted from and been subject to, and discussing a series of approaches that have aided the vital ethic of art practice, contribution to the quality of what that representation stands for.

Further to this it is an exploration of the macroeconomics of cultural thought. Rationalising thought as an economic evaluates where it is most appropriate to direct philosophical study. This applies primarily to culture at large rather than the individual interest. In the context of this chapter four expands on discussion of the cultural imperatives in recent history that have had a chilling effect on expression specifically remarking on the place of appropriation in a newly litigious society. It points to artists who have made use of some of the tenets of idealism detailed here to advance the scope of their art practice.

The template of idealism and of art that this essay argues for is designed to be practically applicable. There is a qualified precedent where systems of thought have, in the past, had a significant impact in such a way. Kant’s model of idealism is intended to be realist and pragmatic in its scope.58 His awareness of the flaws in human character led to the production of his views on the nature of judgement. Ironically it is his pragmatism that has allowed idealism to gain such a foothold in aesthetic theory. Within art there is a need for constant learning to drive the rate of invention and comment that should be produced by an intellectually healthy society. Art suffers when presented with the tendency to scorn the presence of knowledge as being disturbing to a general state of practical knowing that is void of theory. Kant dismissed such notions, comparing them to an artilleryman that criticises the accuracy of ballistics theory while avoiding consideration of air resistance theory.59

It is this very impasse that pure aesthetic judgement can act so convincingly in counterbalancing. Throughout its evolution the place of aesthetics in art has encountered the hardest struggle in the necessity of mediating an individual perception between morality and reality. In light of this difficulty it is imperative to rely on an ideology where the principal condition of morality harmonises with the external factors of reality. This condition is freedom, and the ideology it uses is pure aesthetic judgement.60 The circumstance of art’s impact beyond its practitioners is the responsibility of the audience to resolve and act upon. The crucial distinction therein is whether humanity is cognisant of the impression that art continues to have on everyday life, both as a socio-cultural standpoint and an expressive human faculty. The pinnacle of intellectual freedom is available as a product of shared understanding, and that is what pure aesthetic judgement offers to art, a natural language of perception and the promise of an external reality that will motivate, rather than obstruct, freedom.