The Laws of Nature

Friday, March 15, 2013

Beauty and Disinterestedness

Me at the Gaugin Museum in Tahiti
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 3:   Beauty and Disinterestedness

Last time, Freeland left us with this cliffhanger:  Kant’s way of recognizing this [e.g. our ability to see beauty in an object] was to say that something beautiful has ‘purposiveness without a purpose.’”

In this third section of Chapter 1, she explains. We tend to assign “beauty” to an object that elicits pleasure within us rather than because of its functionality. And, we think that everyone should agree with our assessment. This is Kant’s “purposiveness.” He felt that the purpose of something was distinctly different from the pleasurable sensations it illicits, and that in order to appreciate beauty we must be disinterested in the purpose of the object.

For instance, according to Kant, my judgment of beauty in – let’s say – an apple would be contaminated if I ate the apple. I would need to limit my appreciation to viewing and maybe touching and smelling to derive pleasure, but not to the use of the apple which would be consumption.

Freeland uses a couple more examples to explain this point:

If a viewer responds to Botticelli’s “Venus” with an erotic desire, as if she is a pinup, he is actually not appreciating her for her beauty. And if someone enjoys looking at a Gauguin painting of Tahiti while fantasizing about going on vacation there, then they no longer have an aesthetic relation to its beauty.

Kant also believed that making beautiful art requires human genius: the special ability to manipulate materials so that they create harmony of faculties causing viewers to respond with distanced enjoyment.”

So, beauty is appreciated when we’re detached from (disinterested in) the purpose of an object and feel only an emotional response that satisfies our imagination and intellect.

I understand Kant’s viewpoint but don’t completely agree. I think that all the senses (including the taste of something) help us to define beauty, and that the functionality of something can be beautiful. In mathematics and science we often talk of “elegant solutions.” They are beautiful. Buckminster Fuller once said:  When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

What are your thoughts?
In the next section of Chapter 1, Freeland discusses Kant’s legacy. How did his philosophy affect society’s view of art and what artist’s produce?

8 comments:

Joyfulartist said...

I agree with you. I have been served food that was presented beautifully, truly a work of art, but I did eat it after admiring it's arrangement on the plate. That beautiful meal is still exists as a memory.

Celeste Bergin said...

I don't know what to think! However, I like the photo of you and I'm a big Buckminster Fuller fan...so whatever he says, is ok by me.

Katharine A. Cartwright said...

Hi Ladies, thanks so much for commenting. Both of you embue your work with beauty and meaning, so it to me that this is an important part of your art. I'm a big fan of your works (both of you) !

Margaret Ryall said...


My guilty topic... I am very attracted to objects I find beautiful and I seek to represent them in my work. Because I find odd things beautiful, e.g., peeling layers of wallpaper, rusting objects etc. I guess I appreciate beauty when I'm detached from (disinterested in) the purpose of the object and feel an emotional response to the visual aspects of it.

Dan Kent said...

It's a very interesting idea that purpose negates beauty. I don't agree though. I am fascinated not only with art, but also with graphic design, the difference between them being that graphic design has a purpose. Graphic design can certainly be beautiful, though purposeful. Architectural design can be appreciated both for beauty and simultaneously for function as well. I am also very interested in industrial design. I am fascinated with the shape of a paper clip - I find it quite beautiful, though useful as well. No, Kent disagrees with Kant. And so it goes..

Katharine A. Cartwright said...

Hi Margaret - thanks for your comment. Yes! I think your work perfectly reflects Kant's position. You find beauty in the most interesting places!

Hi Dan - I agree with Kent who disagrees with Kant!! Thanks for your comment.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Nice post. Your blog is always nice mind exercise. I particularly related to this discussion topic as I have been searching for more depth of beauty in my own work. For some time I have been interested in what started out as the look and quality of paint at the surface of my oil paintings. I wanted not only the image and design to be beautiful but I wanted the closer inspection of the surface to be luscious and beautiful and interesting as well. It's like studying color; the more you learn the more there is to know. I found that beauty is not only in surface paint quality but I also wanted depth of color and mystery to be found just under the surface. Which lead me toward more mixed mediums and away from my original traditional watercolor which admittedly does have it's own beauty of water and color flow patterns.
I'm not sure that I agree with the premise of Kant. I think if someone looked at one of my paintings and said they wanted to lick it because it was so delicious looking.... I would be pleased. When something is so beautiful that my senses start getting intertwined I'm good with that. :-)

Katharine A. Cartwright said...

Hi Tonya - Funny! I guess I'd let them lick my painting, too, as long as it isn't a watercolor :-)