Kant and the Problem of Disinterestedness


According to Kant, fine art follows two paradoxes: it “is a way of presenting that is purposive on its own and that furthers, even though without a purpose, the culture of our mental powers to [facilitate] social communication”(Kant 173) and “it must have the look of nature even though we are conscious of it as art”(Kant 174). In other words, Kant believes that fine art is intentionally produced, yet remains purposive without a purpose, and is fabricated, essentially unnatural, yet must appear natural to its viewers.

Kant’s definition of fine art is based heavily upon his previous deductions of how beauty is judged in the natural world. He believes that true judgments of beauty share four characteristics: they are disinterested, universal, necessary, and purposive without a purpose (Burnham). Since Kant draws a distinction between rational and aesthetic judgments, he argues that aesthetic judgments are not based on concepts, or things that can be known, but on intuitions or sensations. Therefore, a true judgment of beauty is disinterested; it is not based on any known concept, simply a sensation of unconstrained, completely detached pleasure. Along these same lines, a beautiful object is purposive, containing the property or quality of purposefulness, without actually having a concrete purpose. As Freeland summarizes, Kant believes that “we respond to the object’s rightness of design, which satisfies our imagination and intellect, even though we are not evaluating the object’s purpose”(14).

For example, Kant would say that our pleasure in viewing “Starry Night”, by Vincent Van Gogh, is derived from the harmony and “free play” of our intuition and understanding that is triggered by the purposiveness of its forms. There is something aesthetically pleasing about the arrangement of shapes and blend of colors that causes us pleasure without directly applying to a concrete or known concept that we may have for how churches should look, or how the stars should be arranged in the sky. According to Kant, we do not like “Starry Night” because it contains our favorite color of blue, or reminds us of the safety and warmth of our hometown. These, he would argue, are matters of taste and “agreeableness” rather than judgment and true beauty, and only serve to pollute the disinterestedness that should accompany our appreciation of the aesthetic.

Kant’s call for disinterestedness in the appreciation of beauty is perhaps the most irrational part of his theory. Is it humanly possible to be completely intuitive, to experience something through sensation alone without applying past experiences or previous knowledge? Can an observer of “Starry Night” look at the swirls of blue, yellow, and black without attaching the sensation of movement in the night sky, imitated by the painting, to previous sensations and experiences of looking up at the stars? Is the judgment of art and beauty really free from social, political, and cultural factors? Other philosophers and thinkers like Nietzsche and Freud would argue that art is related to individual will; Marx would contend that all art, as cultural production, is political in some sense, and Expressionists, like Van Gogh, would disagree with disinterestedness by affirming that art is understood in terms of affective response (Burnham).

As a work of fine art, Kant would say that Van Gogh has succeeded in fulfilling the first paradox of purposefully creating something that has no purpose, or conceptualizing a non-concept in his painting of “Starry Night”. Abstract ideas of peace and tranquility are given form, although they are neither clearly nor conceptually defined. Van Gogh would be considered to possess “genius” or the “innate mental predisposition (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art”(174), because of his ability to capture an aesthetic concept and bring it as close as possible to a concrete form. Kant would argue that Van Gogh was guided by some visceral force to purposefully create “Starry Night” without committing it to a clear conceptual purpose.

“Starry Night” illustrates the second paradox of appearing natural despite the fact that it was obviously produced, because the painting is pleasing without bringing attention to the intentionality of its creation. In this second paradox, Kant is explaining the aversion that we feel toward art that seems forced or contrived. We appreciate fine art, he would argue, because it is so skillfully crafted that we initially conceive of it as if it were something that simply was. We can later appreciate the technique and style that the artist has used to create the work, but as an object of aesthetic pleasure, its beauty is best judged by its form, and not how that form was achieved.

Kant’s theory of fine art and beauty focuses exclusively on those works that cause pleasure and internal harmony or the “free play” of the mental faculties. His definition of art is seen as limited by the standards of today’s art scene, which includes works that are neither beautiful nor pleasing. However, regardless of Kant’s shortsightedness in excluding things such as personal interest from the evaluation of art, he succeeds in providing an in-depth analysis of the reasons why some works evoke our appreciation and spark our imagination while others do not. His ideas of purposiveness without a purpose and appearing natural although being produced help to explain why some works of art seem to please without communicating a specific message or conveying a direct idea. Although many works of art are clearly intended to convey a social or political message, like “Guernica” by Picasso, others, like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” are simply pleasing to behold. Kant’s contribution to the field of aesthetic criticism is significant, regardless of the inability of his theory to encompass everything that we now define as “art”. As Freeland mentions, “Kant’s view of beauty had ramifications well into the twentieth century, as critics emphasized the aesthetic in urging audiences to appreciate new and challenging artists like Cezanne, Picasso, and Pollock”(15), and his focus on significant form continues to shape the way we view and justify art.

Works Cited
Freeland, Cynthia. But is it art?. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett
Publishing, 1987.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Douglas Burnham. 2005. Staffordshire University.
8 Oct. 2005 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/k/kantaest.htm#H2>.


by Tera Ray

Expected Graduation Date: May 2006

Major: English Education

Hometown: Spokane, WA

Kant’s ideas on beauty and disinterestedness in art first captured my interest when they were discussed by Freeland in the chapter Blood and beauty, so I decided to take the opportunity to explore them further in this essay. I checked-out Kant’s Critique of Judgment from the library, and I was very impressed by the logical structure of his theory. However, I thought that many of his ideas were necessarily limited by this structure, and I used this essay to show both the strengths and weaknesses of applying disinterestedness and “purposiveness without a purpose” to fine art.

Starry Night by Van Gogh

Guernica by Picasso