Kant and Conniff:
Should We Analyze Inherent Beauty as Aristocrats or Neanderthals?
The standards by which we (humans) have historically judged art tend to be quite subjective. Arthur Danto pointed out that many classical art theorists merely developed their particular philosophies as “disguised endorsements of the kind of art the philosophers approved of (Freeland 57)”, meaning that historical art theories are actually reflections of the philosophers’ own tastes, and do not actually reveal much about the art pieces they are applied to. There are two art theories, however, which seem to go against the traditional norm and attempt to assess art objectively based on intrinsic qualities of the art itself.
The first of these is the theory of evolutionary aesthetics, developed by a variety of philosophers and outlined by Conniff in his article “The Natural History of Art” (for clarity, it is referred to as ‘Conniff’s theory’ in this paper, although the ideas in evolutionary aesthetics are really derived from a variety of theorists). This theory points out that “ beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder (94)”, but rather, humans all react to art based in instinctual responses to motifs seen in nature. For example, a landscape scene which portrays a suitable habitat is instinctively favorable, whereas a pattern that resembles an animal print will trigger interest. This seems like a much more objective approach to assessing art. If we all have the same evolutionary history, then we should all instinctively respond to stimulating qualities in art in the same way.
Similarly, the art theory proposed by Emmanual Kant also focuses on the intrinsic qualities of art that do not change from viewer to viewer. By Kant’s standards, beauty is not a subjective quality to be debated, it is a property – arrived at by consensus of the intelligencia. Freeland paraphrases his theory that “we respond to the object’s rightness of design, which satisfied our imagination and intellect, even though we are not evaluating the object’s purpose (14)”. Kant puts emphasis on the natural beauty inherent in an object’s form, and also asserts that we cannot judge art based upon any consequences we may associate with the subject matter. In essence, the form of an artistic object demonstrates ‘purposiveness without a purpose’.
Both theorists point out that we judge art based on its intrinsic qualities. They disagree, however, in how we judge art based upon perceived consequences. Kant proposes that we judge art based on the subject matter’s lack of a practical purpose, whereas Conniff argues that it is the potential purpose of the subject which most greatly influences how we appreciate art.
The two art theories are most clearly contrasted when applied to images of flowers, in particular, Georgia O’Keefe’s painting White Rose with Larkspur. Conniff cites Orians and Heerwagen’s study that humans prefer images of flowers to be “big and asymmetrical, traits that indicate greater nectar content (Conniff 98)”. In this case, the viewers are unconsciously considering the possible benefits they may reap from the flowers they are viewing. Instinctively, we think objects are beautiful when we think they may be vital to our survival and ability to reproduce. The large and voluptuous rose in O’Keefe’s painting seems instinctually appetizing and thus beautiful. Kant, however, uses the example of a rose as an object we see as beautiful because it has a certain purposiveness – being beautiful – without any other purpose that may benefit us in some way. According to Kant, “a beautiful rose pleases us, but not because we necessarily want to eat it or even pick it for a flower arrangement (Freeland 11).” The rose in O’Keefe’s painting should register in our minds as beautiful simply because of the harmony of its form. He emphasizes that if we consider possible benefits, we are not adequately judging art.
Fig.1: Georgia O’Keefe. White Rose with Larkspur. Oil on Canvas.
Kant and Conniff’s theories are most obviously applicable to images of nature and landscapes, however, they can also give us insight into other forms of art. Kant certainly did not see and probably was not even aware of the stone statues on Easter Island, however, his theories can still be extrapolated to these giant monoliths. Averaging 36 feet high, each statue is a majestic figure exemplifying how an object with remarkably little fine detail can convey a powerful impression. Most interestingly, historians can only speculate what function they served for the Easter Island community. Now, after the demise of their creators, the statues just “stare hypnotically out to sea in an eternal vigil whose purpose we may never fully understand (Getlein 472)”. We can only stand in awe at their monumental presence. These statues perfectly demonstrate Kant’s all-important quality of ‘purposiveness without a purpose’, and their bold forms inherently possess beauty and majesty.
Conniff’s theory also applies to the statues of Easter Island. The sheer size and form that would be valued by Kant also may produce substantial alarm in our subconscious minds according to Conniff. Especially when the statues are grouped together like surreal armies, our attention is captured. A group on Ahu Naunau, in particular, has also been restored with their original white eyes – further eliciting a sensory response. The massive size and the bright eyes are both nature motifs that we are evolutionarily predisposed to recognize as possible threats. Richard Coss, an evolutionary aesthetics theorist, claims that when art has the ability to attract our attention through our instincts, it stimulates and keeps our interest for an extended period of time. Once we subconsciously recognize that we are not actually in danger, our initial alarm transitions into interest and intrigue (Conniff 101).
Fig. 2: Easter Island. Stone Statues.
Overall, the most marked difference between these two art theories is that one relies heavily on our instinctual perception of consequences, while the other asks us to ignore those consequences completely. Conniff points out that we respond to and judge art in a primitive way, whereas Kant emphasizes that we cannot judge art with regard to any benefit we may receive from it – very removed from primitive instincts. Therefore, Kant’s theory of assessing the quality of art is only accurate if used by people who are most removed from their natural roots, and thus, it is not as objective and universal as Conniff’s theory. Conniff’s theory of evolutionary aesthetics yields consistent assessments of art from all classes of people, even cavemen.
Conniff. “The Natural History of Art.” Discover. Nov. 1999: 94-101.
Freeland, Cynthia. But is it art? New York: Oxford UP. 2001.
Getlein, Mark. Living with Art. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2002.