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Disinterest and Aesthetics.


This is Part 1 of 2.

Part 2 is here.

        1. National Gallery of Victoria Triennial. 2020

THE MILK OF Dreams is a book by Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. It is taken as the theme for this year’s Venice Biennale, the 59th, to be held from April to November 2022. The curator, Cecilia Alemani, takes Carrington’s portrayal of imaginary creatures in a terrifying dreamscape as an allegory of our time; for the individual, ‘intolerable pressure’, for mankind, ‘the survival of the species’. There are also ‘doubts that pervade the sciences and the arts.’ She suggests an artistic response.

Many contemporary artists are imagining a posthuman condition that challenges the modern Western vision of the human being – and especially the presumed universal ideal of white, male “Man of Reason” – as fixed center of the universe and measure of all things. In its place, artists propose new alliances between species, and worlds inhabited by porous, hybrid, manifold beings that are not unlike Carrington’s extraordinary creatures.1

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click ‘full screen’ option. ‘Esc’ returns you here.

According to Cecilia Alemani, these ‘profound mutations’ will ‘remap subjectivities, hierarchies and anatomies.’

Many artists envision the end of anthropocentrism, celebrating a new communion with the non-human, with the animal world, and with the Earth…

This has several implications. Anthropologically, ‘new kinships’; epistemologically, ‘localised forms of knowledge’; in politics, the reinforcement of identity; with feminism, ‘the ‘re-enchantment of the world’. And art, itself, is seen as a utilitarian enterprise to further these aims. The Biennale is to celebrate art’s ‘capacity to create alternative cosmologies and new conditions of existence’. In this way, art emancipates us from fear.

The 2020 Triennial, at The National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, was a sympathetic companion of the Biennale, and similar projects all over the world. Following Venice, it was an international showcase of modern art. The selections made by the Curators in Melbourne, however, were not invitations to exhibit in a series of national pavilions. Many of the works, some by emerging artists, were purchased or commissioned by the Gallery for its own collection, other works were loaned. This was an affordable strategy, supported by 1.23 million visitors at the earlier 2017 Triennial. As ‘one of the most attended exhibitions in the world’, benefactors, sponsors and governments happily bank rolled the exhibition. As the Curators looked at the works for the 2020 Triennial, an agreement was reached on four themes that systemised the assemblage. It presented a theory of modern art consistent with the angst, and the utilitarian point, of art presented at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Tony Elwood, the Director of the NGV, describes it in these terms:

  • First, art is Illumination. Here, light is conceived as a metaphor for emotions, ideas and spirituality.
  • Second, art is Reflection. Multiple perspectives are gleaned on identity and the human condition.
  • Third, art is Conservation. This points to the connection between human activity and ecological decline.
  • Fourth, art is Speculation.

In some respect a prolegomenon to Carrington’s case against anthropocentrism, art is an ‘investigation into the future where natural, synthetic and technological worlds are interwoven.’2 Two works, taken from each of the four themes, illustrate these conceptions.

Jim Shaw. Capital Viscera Appliances mural. 2011.

SHAW, WHO LIVES and works in Los Angeles, avoided the Vietnam draft by attending the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). As a fellow traveler of the protest movement, he regards politics and art as one. Capital is conceived as a political cartoon, in the tradition of Hogarth and Blake, but also the work of Bosch and Bruegel and their response to religious turmoil.

It was during the build-up to the Gulf War that I started thinking about…how political cartoons on a vast scale … made sense in a way that they didn’t on a small scale3

Shaw’s work is the size of a theatrical backdrop. A fine rendering of the Capital Building is the background to a surrealist portrayal of, what Shaw describes as, an ‘H-bomb of meat’. He goes on: ‘The mushroom cloud was the biggest omnipresent threat of my youth.’ By heating foam till it dripped with tendrils, this sculpture became the model for the image. Then a montage of 1950’s and 1960’s appliances — vacuum cleaners, kitchen and laundry equipment, all images that recall Pop Art — are pasted over the surface. As Tony Oursler — a contemporary at CalArts — remarks

Consumerism is something that’s been forgotten in terms of popular culture…but is at the core of so many problems.

For Shaw, art is the illumination of an American malaise. Oursler continues. TV …sucked people away into a commercial hypnotic space. That leads us to the high-tech camera technology that was used to document nuclear explosions, which became a form of Cold War horror pornography.

Alicja Kwade. WeltenLinie. 2020.

WELTENLINIE IS AN evolving project, displayed around the world, including Venice. The Melbourne installation by Kwade, a Polish artist who lives in Berlin, is the latest. It is an interactive sculpture where visitors can walk through a series of interconnected rectangular ‘rooms’, delineated by thin black tubes. Some of the spaces might end with a mirror. Within each space, Kwade places an object. This might be a fossilised tree trunk, a wooden tree trunk or a printed 3D form. A natural rock or replica in polished copper. The mirrors make

…reflective copies of other elements. And all together these elements create a circle; I call it an evolutionary circle. It starts… (in a 2017 version)…with a fossilised tree trunk, which turns into a real tree — a wooden tree — into another tree, into a stone, into another stone, and in the end into a chair.4

As the viewer walks through these spaces, created by the frames and mirrors, there is no beginning or end. Kwade explains it this way. There is no ‘start or end of an object, of matter, of yourself, of your point of view’. One object appears to transform into another. This is conceptual art, and by this Kwade attempts to illuminate philosophical questions of ontology and epistemology.

… my work is actually about…researching and asking ‘what is reality? Who is sane? Who is agreeing on that? Who is saying that a chair is not a tree, or a tree is not already including a chair.

Jeff Koons. Venus. 2016-20.

FOLLOWING MARCEL DUCHAMP’S urinal (Fountain, 1917.) and the notion of ‘readymades’, Jeff Koons started working in New York with porcelain in the mid-1970s. According to Koons, the nineteen-percent shrinkage – this happens when clay is heated in an oven and cured – is a ‘sexual tension’ that is evident in his work.  Venus is part of Koon’s Porcelain series; a two-and-a-half metre, mirror-polished, sculpture based on a 1770 figurine by Wilhelm Meyer. Part of the cannon of Western art, Venus is also, in a sense, readymade. The Roman goddess Venus, as with the Greek god Aphrodite, symbolised love and beauty, but also desire, sex and power. She was adopted by the Romans as a deity in battle and a symbol of their power. Koons adopts all these traits.

The many iterations of Venus…represent all that is positive and beautiful in life…the ability to procreate and at the same time be able to develop an awareness and function within a social, communal area. When looking at the form of Venus, biology and mythology come together.5

Koons’ treatment, in the high-mirrored surface of stainless steel, is reflective. It has the ‘ability to intoxicate and disorientate the viewer with its surface, and at the same time affirm the viewers presence.’ This makes the viewing personal, a subjective experience.

When you look at this work and you move around it you realise that everything is dependent upon you; the experience is a personal one…the excitement and joy of understanding one’s own potential.

Diamond Stingily. In the middle but in the corner of 176th place. 2019.

STINGILY’S INSTALLATION COMPRISES around 800 sporting trophies, sitting in rows, on nineteen sections of shelving. As an artist and poet, it is an allegory of her personal experience of racism and ‘classism’ in Chicago and New York.

I think that is why I chose trophies…I feel there is more emphasis on the Black body to be good at some type of labour. I think trophies, they’re always doing some type of position, like in the middle of doing something.6

The inscriptions, on the plaque of each trophy, are composed by herself, her brother, her grandmother, friends. As she remarks, ‘Black peoples have a way of speaking that’s very poetic.’ Because of the ‘patriarchal white supremacy umbrella that we live under’, the complexity and fullness of these Black lives, and ‘complex family dynamics’, is lost. ‘My work is a poem’ to reflect this.

Kengo Kuma & Associates and Geoff Nees. Botanical pavilion. 2020.

THE JAPANESE ARCHITECT, Kengo Kuma, collaborated with Melbourne artist Geoff Nees to construct the Botanical pavilion. As a work of art, it is described in terms of the sacred principles of Shinto shrines. That is to say, temporary in nature, construction only with wood, ritualistically collected from sacred trees, joined by mortise and tenon, no coatings of paint, stains or varnish, the incorporation of the concepts uchi  (inside) and soto   (outside), and of quiet contemplation. As this pavilion was also constructed from valued timber pruned from the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. – historically a meeting place of Indigenous then European settlers. – the NGV presents this work as a piece of art, understood as conservation. Zena Cumpston is a Baakandji women and a researcher on aboriginal notions of biodiversity. This is her explanation.

There is a symmetry between the use of sacred timbers in Shinto architecture and the Melbourne pavilion. Because the gardens are a botanical collection from around the world, the salvaging of native species was limited to She-oak, Stringybark and Banksia. Geoff Nees’ creative employment, however, is in stark contrast to the European appreciation of Aboriginal plant use. This was no more than ‘bush tucker’, a banality based on ‘ignorance and bastardry’. Aboriginal ecological knowledge, however, is a

…systems of land and cultural management that sustained hundreds of different nations of people in Australia for the longest time imaginable…(How it) can be reduced to narrativesmostly underpinned by wattle-seed scone recipes beggars’ belief.

First Peoples perspectives do not recognize Johny-come-lately infantile systems of botany or disembodied rules. We do not name in Latin, we do not order and favour using empirical systems that deny the interconnectedness and cultural belonging of these living materials and forcefully eradicate many hundreds of generations of knowledge and scientific practice.

Had Cumpston had been a Kantian, she might have summed up this perspective as empirical understanding, forged over millennia, underpinned by the certitude of a priori reason.

Both Aboriginal people and the Botanical pavilion use the tree to tell stories. Trees are signposts, they ‘convey rules of access to Country’. They are used for weapons, shelter and ceremonies. Like the pavilion, Aboriginal architecture uses ‘systems of interlocking components’ for structure. The She-oak is notable in this respect. It is also used for implements such as digging tools, spear throwers, boomerangs and clubs. Its resin is a bonding agent.

The geometry of the scales of the Botanical pavilion,

which make this structure waterproof, are extremely reminiscent of the geometric interlocking placement of, for example, the barks and leaves used to make the roofs of many varied Aboriginal architectural structures.7

David Bielander. Pick your nose: Pinocchio’s reality. 2020. 

IN THE ADVENTURES of Pinocchio, an Italian children’s novel written by Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio’s nose grows every time he tells a lie. David Bielander, a Swiss jewellery artist from Munich, takes this tale as a contemporary political metaphor. There is an analogue between the lying of Pinocchio and the denial of ‘climate change, species extinction, misogyny, systematic social inequality, racial prejudice and child sexual abuse.’8 Bielander’s work is seven hand carved timber neckpieces, caricatures of an elongated nose. Six are made from Australian native timbers, the seventh from a Catholic confessional. Bielander explains:

The fact it is jewellery work makes it even more subversive than if it were simply a sculptural piece, because when worn in public…it is activated…I’m also exploring the idea of cognitive dissonance…in a sense, we all hide behind many different faces.

The Timbers are significant because his partner is an Australian, and Australia’s colonial history was one of displacement. Bielander is attempting to conserve what has been lost. He continues.

These are only pieces of wood, but being carved in the form of a human body part they come to represent race, again indicating the construction of the concept, with all the hypocrisy and brutality that ensue.

According to Curator, Simone LeAmon, Bielander’s neckpieces seek to collectively signify the lies of Western-dominated histories, which repudiate Indigenous knowledge, law and custodianship of ancestral lands…Bielander is deeply respectful of the knowledge systems of First Nations peoples…

Adam Nathaniel Furman and Sibling Architecture. Boudoir Babylon. 2020.

SIBLING ARCHITECTURE IS a London practice, with an office in Melbourne. Boudoir Babylon, designed by the principle, Adam Nathaniel Furman, is a new interior for the NGV Gallery Kitchen. The installation is an example of ‘queer aesthetic’, which he has described in a 2020 article for The Architectural Review. Hannah McCann, from the school of Cultural Studies, at the University of Melbourne, points out ‘queer’ is an ‘umbrella identificatory term within LGBT+ activism’9 . The Queer Nation manifesto was a clarion call against ‘straights’ and homophobia. Sexual identity was not biological, but socially constructed. ‘Queer Theory’ points to the fluidity of sexuality. McCann elaborates:

What is created in…attempts to corral queer and enforce a queer/straight dichotomy are new margins — bisexuality, pansexuality, asexuality, gender fluidity, non-binary identity, genderqueer and other non- normative lives.

The dichotomy between ‘normal’ and ‘strange’, just as ‘straightness’ and ‘queerness’, is rejected. Queer activism does not now strive to ‘make homosexuality seem ‘normal’, but rather to make the normal seem strange’, or seem as it might be expressed, queer. ‘Queering’ something, to adopt ‘Queer I’, is to ‘see queerly’; to see ‘the queer possibilities in one’s own life, identity and possible future fluidity’. In many respects Queer Theory is a rerun of Labelling Theory, popular in the Sociology of Deviance in the 1960’s.

This is the theoretical underpinning to Furman’s aesthetic. As a piece of speculation, it is asking us to see the Gallery Kitchen queerly. What was a ‘straight’ dining space is transformed into the ‘fantastical’. The dichotomies between private and public, day and night are replaced by a space that is at once a boudoir, a salon, a club. As Furman describes it, the ‘public moves through and inhabits the space, they are participant in this queer world rather than simply spectators.

The installation also evokes a sense of alternative kinship and safety, through its ‘family’ of screens that both divide and connect patrons. Various ‘glory holes’ throughout Boudoir Babylon also rupture any neat division between dinners safely spaced apart.

…the bright colours and extravagant design…encourage visual proliferation via social media selfies. Here we find ourselves at the center of the queer assemblage, assimilated into queerness.

Liam Young. Planet City. 2020.

THIS PIECE IS a fifteen-minute film by an Australian director working in Los Angeles (the video above is a clip). It is described as ‘speculative architecture’, based on ‘urban futurism’ and ‘critical design’. Planet City is an imaginary future where the world population of 7 billion people are rehoused into one immense city in the Amazon — where water supply is not a problem! — and the rest of Earth is left in wilderness. The Curator, Ewan McEoin, outlines the pathology of today. It is a ‘miasmatic crisis’:

…racism, biodiversity, inequality, habitat loss, settler-colonialism, water insecurity, capitalism, environmental injustice, patriarchy, the housing crisis, nutrient pollution, ocean acidification…10

The speculation presented by Liam Young is a ‘strategic retreat’ to ‘Planet City’. The ‘treat’, in the word ‘retreat’, after all means ‘heal’. It takes up Edward Glaeser’s point, outlined in Triumph of the City, that ‘for the sake of the planet, cities must be the future.’  McEoin continues,

Centuries of forced displacement of indigenous peoples (will) inform every idea of managed retreat…Indigenous peoples have been coping with and adapting to loss and damage for centuries…they have also had to adapt to forced migration, massive deforestation and degradation of plant and animal life.

It is no accident the Amazon was selected for Planet City, for it affirms a ‘coming indigenous future’. Here, ‘Indigenous-led land restoration projects’ based on ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ could thrive.  And, in any case, ecological regeneration would take its course. Nature would

…rid itself of what urbanity has wrought…sidewalks would be uprooted within five years, buildings burned within two decades, colonising trees would replace pioneer weeds within two centuries, streets would revert to rivers.

Planet City would replace the ‘architectural paradigm’ of ‘energy intensive carbon forms’ that typify the modern city. It is not clear, however, whether the images of Planet City presented here are a utopia or a dystopia. It is certainly not a colourful sunlit village cascading down to the Mediterranean. It is nighttime in the forest, and the lights are on.

2. Immanuel Kant on Disinterest.

Art is a social activity, of psychological significance, and this is the context in which artistic creation of the object arises. Art is embedded in politics and morality…

BIENNIALS AND TRIENNIALS of modern art have a united front in their interpretation of art. It is the most dominant view – either simply assumed or argued for – today. The common feature is an instrumentalist or utilitarian conception of art, where the relations of the object take precedence over the qualities. It is an unsurprising choice, because art is a social activity, of psychological significance, and this is the context in which artistic creation of the object arises. Art is embedded in politics and morality, with prescriptions and proscriptions. It is presented as a utility, as a means, to all manner of ends. There will be a particular agenda. It might be racism, colonialism, sexuality, class, religion, philosophy, or catastrophes of one sort or another. It is a hand maiden to any of these. Art is in the service of human interests.

This passionate political stance embodies a particular theory of aesthetics. Art is understood through an examination of these abstract relations. This is different to theories of disinterest that have been advanced in the past. Two such theories of disinterest are examined here. The Transcendentalism of Immanuel Kant and the Realism of Matthew Arnold. Both strive for objectivity, though along different paths, and both stand in opposition to the more popular stance of today. In the history of philosophy, the first fully worked out theory of a disinterested aesthetic is worked out by Kant. For Kant, art is an imaginative representation of an object. It is known as a work of art, when an aesthetic judgment is made based on disinterested contemplation.

IN THE CRITIQUE of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant outlines his ‘Copernican Revolution’ for philosophy. When the logical priority of epistemology over ontology is admitted, so Kant argues, a host of antinomies that have plagued philosophy, and arrested its development since its inception, are resolved. In The Critique of Judgement, published in 1790 and nine years later, Kant extends this analysis to aesthetics.

In his Introduction, Kant recaps some of the principles put forward in The Critique of Pure Reason.  There is a clear distinction between empirical phenomena, he says, or the ‘realm’ of the ‘sensible’, and the transcendental, the ‘thing-in-itself, or the realm of the ‘super-sensible’. Although neither realm can ‘interfere with the other’, judgement is a ‘middle term’ between the two, between empirical Understanding and a priori Reason. Kant’s solution to the problem of induction rests on this distinction. To provide certainty in the deduction of universal laws of nature, there is a transcendental judgement – an a priori – which incorporate the principles of ‘unity’ and ‘finality’, the universal conditions which enable things to become ‘Objects of our cognition’. It is only through this a priori condition that we can know things objectively.

The ‘unity of the manifold’ is the unity of all that is empirical. The division of nature into genera and species makes possible the formulation of laws of nature. It gives coherence to these particulars under a universal condition. Kant’s principle of the ‘finality of nature’ – ‘in the multiplicity of it’s empirical laws’ – is a second transcendental principle of judgement. Through the notion of an ‘end’, Kant describes the ‘finality’ of an Object as form. The Objects’ finality of form, in other words, is not a means for something else. With aesthetic judgement, it is also not teleological, as such a theory would relate to the material of the empirical not the finality understood as form. The following are the steps in Kant’s argument for this a priori.

  1. We think of nature as ‘an endless multiplicity of empirical laws.’11
  2. The ‘unity of nature’, and our experience of this unity, is contingent.
  3. Hence this unity of nature, and our experience of this unity, is not a priori, but part of this empirical multiplicity.
  4. The a priori refers to a transcendental judgement about this unity. The unity of nature ‘must be necessarily presupposed and assumed’, otherwise ‘nature would be incapable of being an object of experience at all’. ‘Were it not for this presupposition, we should have no order of nature in accordance with empirical laws, and, consequently, no guiding-thread for an experience’ and ‘for an investigation of them.’
  5. Similarly, the principal of finality, is not an empirical concept of nature, ‘since it attributes nothing at all’ to the objects of nature.
  6. It is a ‘unique mode’ by which ‘we must proceed in our reflection upon nature with a view to getting a thoroughly interconnected whole of experience’
  7. The notion of ‘finality’ joins ‘unity’ as a necessary transcendental principle of our experience and cognition of nature.

In The Critique of Judgement, Kant draws a clear distinction between aesthetic judgement and teleological judgement. Aesthetic judgement is subjective. With no reference to the object, it is ‘the faculty of estimating formal finality…by the feeling of pleasure or displeasure’. Teleological judgement is objective. It is ‘the faculty of estimating the real finality…of nature by understanding and reason.’12 Because an aesthetic judgement is purely subjective, ‘I cognise nothing in the object of the representation’, and the aesthetic representation of finality is ‘immediately coupled with the feeling of pleasure’.13

As with his work on Pure Reason, the parameters of aesthetics are also circumscribed by the four Categories. These are reconfigured and employed by the subject as ‘the faculty of estimating the beautiful’. Our judgement of taste has four ‘moments’ which correspond to each of the categories, and beauty is understood in these terms.

FIRST, THE QUALITY of beauty is disinterest. A judgement of taste is not cognitive, it denotes nothing about the object, as this would be an empirical investigation. It is simply a feeling of the subject; one of pleasure or displeasure. It is a judgement of complete ‘indifference’. It is pure disinterest. Kant calls this disinterest a ‘free delight’, and contrasts it with a delight which is agreeable, because it ‘gratifies’, or good, because it is ‘esteemed’. These delights are predicated on interests. The beautiful, on the other hand, simply pleases. From this first moment, Kant derives his definition of beauty.

Taste is the faculty of estimating an object or a mode of representation by means of delight or aversion apart from any interest. The object of such delight is called beautiful.14

Second, the Quantity of beauty is universal. The delight in beauty is ‘valid for all men’. It is ‘universally communicable’. If the delight was simply agreeable or good, it would be predicated on an interest that not everyone would share. There could be no ‘subjective universality’, which is the hallmark of beauty, and hence there could be no objectivity.

Third, the Relation of beauty is finality. When the relation of finality is present, an object is characterised as beautiful. We recognise finality as an a priori reflection. As Kant further suggests,

we may at least observe a finality of form, and trace it in objects — though by reflection only — without resting it on an  end…15

It is important to note this reflection is not a part of cognition. It cannot be cognised, a posteriori, because this would be an empirical process, and finality of form does not presuppose anything empirical. It is for this reason finality cannot be understood as an ‘end’. It is not a causal concept, or teleological. It is a purely transcendental notion. Kant’s elucidation, not altogether clear, starts with a reminder of the quality and quantity of beauty.

Now this relation, present when an object is characterised as beautiful, is coupled with the feeling of pleasure. This pleasure is by judgment of taste pronounced valid for everyone…We are thus left with the subjective finality in the representation of an object, exclusive of any end …as that which is alone capable of constituting the delight which…we estimate as universally communicable…(my emphasis)

The relation of beauty means ‘the judgment of taste rests on a priori  grounds.’ Just as with the notion of freedom, this is a ‘super-sensible’ attribute of the Subject. It is a contemplative disinterest. This contemplation involves

preserving a continuance of the state of the representation itself and the active engagement of the cognitive powers without ulterior aim. We dwell on the contemplation of the beautiful because this contemplation strengthens and reproduces itself.16

Repeating his earlier contentions, Kant goes on to point out this pure judgment of taste is independent of emotion. Only by this separation can objectivity be secured. This is because

Every interest vitiates the judgment of taste and robs it of its impartiality…Hence judgements so influenced can…lay no claim at all to a universal delight…Taste that requires an added element of charm and emotion for its delight…has not yet emerged from barbarism.17

Fourth, the Modality of beauty is a necessary delight. It is an a priori  ‘that everyone will feel’. It is a ‘common sense’, as distinct from a common understanding. It is ‘universally communicated’; and therein lies its necessity. So, to the question, ‘how do we experience beauty?’, Kant answers: ‘It is an exemplary ought.

…everyone ought to give the object in question his approval and follow suit in describing it as beautiful. The ought in aesthetic judgement…is still only pronounced conditionally. We are still suitors for agreement from every one else, because we are fortified with a ground common to all.18

Kant now recaps the steps in his argument.

  1. Art is an imaginative representation of an object.
  2. The power of representation involves both the empirical (in cognition) and the transcendental (in judgement).
  3. Because there is a correspondence between our representations and the object, these powers are ‘universally communicated’ as objective knowledge, and not, as the sceptic might suggest, a ‘conglomerate’ of merely subjective impressions.
  4. A common a priori sense is, in Kant’s words, ‘…the necessary condition of universal communicability of our knowledge, which is presupposed in every logic and every principle of knowledge that is not one of scepticism.’19
  5. Disinterested judgements on an object’s beauty do not rest on an empirical investigation of concepts, ‘but only on our feelings’. These feelings are not ‘private’, but have a ‘public sense’. It contends, not that ‘everyone will fall in with our judgement’, but rather they ought. In this, judgements of taste have an ‘exemplary validity’. They are a ‘regulative principle ‘of pure reason not a ‘constitutive principle’ of understanding.

KANT CONCLUDES HIS discussion on the four moments of beauty with some general remarks on the importance of a ‘free play of imagination’ in judgements of taste. Although the concept of taste can be understood empirically, as a representation of the object through reproduction, there is also an indeterminate side to imagination, unrestrained and with an ‘incentive …to indulge in poetic fiction.’ Mere empirical understanding might look at determinate objects, such as circles, squares or cubes. Here taste might favour a circle over a ‘scrawled irregular outline’, an equilateral triangle over the lop-sided and ‘deformed’. But Kant rejects this as misconstrued. Pure Reason has a role to play in aesthetic judgement. Here the freedom of imagination challenges such ‘stiff regularity’ or symmetry, something ‘we get heartily tired of’

On the other hand, anything that gives the imagination scope for unstudied and final play is always fresh to us. We do not grow to hate the very sight of it.20

This free play, or charm, of imagination, is illustrated ‘when we watch the changing shapes of a fire or of a rippling brook.’ Examples, not of beauty, but of a charm that does not think in terms of symmetry.

This transcendental account of disinterest is Kant’s method to secure objectivity in aesthetic judgements. There is an empirical alternative, and Matthew Arnold is one who suggests something quite different.

3. Matthew Arnold on Disinterest.

AS A CRITIC, Matthew Arnold understood both English and European culture. His full-time employment, as one of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, also took him on fact finding missions to the Continent. As a poet, he remarked in a letter to his mother,

It might be fairly urged that I have less poetic sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigor and abundance than Browning; yet, because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them…I am likely enough to have my turn…21

As a public intellectual, his fame had a wider reach than his father, Dr. Thomas Arnold of Rugby. For ten years he held the Chair of Poetry at Oxford. And, four years before his death, an exhaustive lecture tour of the United States of America drew huge crowds. Up to 2500 people attended his addresses, in halls throughout the major cities of the East Coast, extending to the American Midwest — Chicago, Detroit — and to the South — St. Louis, New Orleans. He even reached Toronto, in Canada. Perfecting his technique on the run, he learnt to project his voice, unaided, in large gatherings, lecturing on topics such as ‘Emerson’, ‘Numbers’, ‘Literature and Science’. These were widely reported in the press, some with amusing portrayals.

A Detroit newspaper compared me, as I stooped now and then to look at my manuscript on a music stool, to ‘an elderly bird pecking at grapes on a trellis’

A Chicago evening paper reported: He had harsh features, supercilious manners, parts his hair down the middle, wears a single eye-glass and ill-fitting cloths.22

It was hard work, but remuneration was about a thousand pounds. This was the same as his annual salary, though recently it had been supplemented by a further two hundred and fifth pounds, for services to poetry. Although he thought of himself, in his own words, a ‘Philistine’, his milieux was the ‘Barbarians’. Lady de Rothschild, and the house guests at ‘Aston Clinton’, were followers of his work. In Europe, he dined with Royalty; in America, the local aristocracy, such as the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts and a suite of generals from the Civil War, twenty years earlier: Sherman, Grant and Lee. As he remarked, even the Commodore of Newport ‘put his launch at my disposal’.


IN HIS INTRODUCTION to the 1906 Everyman edition of Essays, Literary and Critical, by Matthew Arnold, G. K. Chesterton suggests the disinterested approach — to seeing things clearly — is to ‘get yourself out of the way’. Imagine oneself as a window.

It can be a coloured window, if you will; but the more thickly you lay on the colours the less of a window it will be. The two things to be done with a window are to wash it and then forget it. So the truly pious have always said the two things to do

personally are to cleanse and to forget oneself.23

Chesterton suggests the Englishman’s window onto the world — in a word, his soul — has become ‘opaque with its own purple’.

The Englishman has painted his own image on the pane so gorgeously that it was practically a dead panel; it had no opening on the world without.

The article, ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’, from the National Review, November 1864, heads this Everyman collection of 1906. In this, it follows his Essays in Criticism of 1865. Before the publication of Culture and Anarchy, in 1868-9, it was Arnold’s most important statement on the nature of objective critique. It inspired Anthony Trollope to establish The Fortnightly Review. And it followed from a remark Arnold makes in ‘On Translating Homer’: Criticism, he contends, in all the departments of ‘theology, philosophy, history, art, science’, was ‘to see the object as in itself it really is.’24 There are three main claims in the essay: First, criticism and creativity are reciprocally related. Second, creativity is circumscribed by the underlining importance given to criticism in a particular epoch. Third, the hallmark of criticism is the disinterested standpoint.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN philosophy and the creativity of literary genius is that the former is concerned with analysis and discovery, whilst the later with synthesis. In other words, the presentation of these ideas in an attractive and beautiful way. Importantly, this creativity must be imbedded in a nest of ideas.

This is why great creative epochs in literature are so rare; this is why there is so much that is unsatisfactory in the productions of many men of real genius; because, for the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment…25

Arnold’s criticism of the Romantic poets — Byron, Shelley, even Wordsworth — is their lack of a critical base. For

…the creation of a modern poet, to be worth much, implies a great critical effort behind it; else it would be a comparatively poor, barren, and short-loved affair. This is why Byron’s poetry had so little endurance in it, and Goethe’s so much…26

By contrast, Shakespeare, who ‘was no deep reader’, had the fortune of living in the England of Elizabeth; redolent in ideas and criticism, material ‘truly ready’ for his creative ‘hand’. Arnold then goes onto to argue that ‘real criticism’, is a

…disinterested love of a free play of the mind on all subjects, for its own sake…it obeys an instinct prompting it to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever.27

When Arnold turns his gaze to contemporary England, he finds real criticism, the disinterested standpoint, lacking. In politics and culture, utilitarianism abounds. Political parties have ‘practical ends to serve’; the reviews, the quarterlies and the newspapers are not organs of criticism, for the very reason that

The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate ideas reposes, and must repose, the general practice of the world.28

The satirical characterisation of the middle class as ‘Philistines’ — more fully developed in Culture and Anarchyis thereby introduced. Here ‘inadequate ideas’ of the ‘practical man’ — ‘let us call it the ‘liberal party’ — find home. The critic, by contrast, adopts the ‘Indian virtue’ of detachment. He is apt for fine distinctions, within a ‘free speculative treatment of things’. One day the benefits of such speculations may be felt. But in the meantime, to avoid the inevitability of compromise, the critic must ‘keep out of the region of immediate practice in the political, social, [and] humanitarian sphere.’ The critic’s role is to provide a disinterested judgment; a clear window on the world; cleansed of the thick layers of colour that practical interests paint.


THOMAS WILSON WAS the Church of England Bishop of Sodor and Man for a remarkable fifty-eight years, ending with his death in 1755. Long before, in 1682, he had entered Trinity College, Dublin, and was a contemporary of Jonathan Swift. Although the phrase ‘sweetness and light’ comes from Swift, Wilson adopts it in his Maxims, and Arnold, who much admired Wilson, popularises it as a leitmotiv for the intertwined notions of beauty and criticism.

Immediately after retirement from his ten-year tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University — he had taken the Chair at thirty five years of age and held it between 1857 and 1867 — Arnold published a series of articles in Cornhill Magazine. These became the basis of Culture and Anarchy: an Essay in Political and Social Criticism, published in 1869. Arnold starts by challenging the pejorative use of the concept, ‘culture’. In politics, it speaks of ‘small fault-finding’, ‘selfish ease’, ‘indecision in action’. ‘The man of culture is in politics one of the poorest mortals alive.’ Contrast this with political acumen. This

requires common sense, sympathy, trust, resolution, and enthusiasm, qualities which your man of culture has carefully rooted up, lest they damage the delicacy of his critical olfactories. 29

For Arnold, there is a more attractive and compelling ideal behind culture. To be cultured, first of all, is to be curious. The ‘study of perfection’ follows. This centres on the role of criticism, which he now develops with Swift’s metaphor of ‘sweetness and light’. Sweetness is beauty, light is to see things as they really are. It requires curiosity. The love of perfection follows as a social motive of not simply thinking but of doing; of applying theory with practice. The prescriptions of Bishop Wilson are indicative: ‘to make reason and the will of God prevail’. Arnold stresses the word ‘prevail’ in this motto. This is where ‘the moral, social, and beneficial character of culture become manifest’.30

Theory and practice are the two ‘forces’ that ‘move’ our world. Arnold calls them Hellenism and Hebraism, after ‘the two races of men who have supplied the most signal and splendid manifestations.’ Though working in tandem, because of a compatible teleology, they are seldom in balance. Arnold calls this ‘the perfection of salvation’ or, following Bishop Wilson, the ‘reason and the will of God’. The

governing idea of Hellenism is spontaneity of consciousness; that of Hebraism, strictness of conscience.31

The ‘right acting’ of Hebraism concerns conduct and obedience; the ‘right thinking’ of Hellenism, the disinterested appraisal of things as they really are. As a Greek scholar, it is not surprising Arnold marshals Hellenism, not Hebraism, in his opposition to the various contemporary English social movements of Utilitarianism and Liberalism, Capitalism and Puritanism.

If Karl Marx’s first volume of Das Kapital, published in 1867, was, indeed, to be found in The Athenaeum Club Library, it was not well-thumbed by Arnold. Nor was he attracted to the philosophical systems of Bentham or Comte. Tongue-in-cheek, he declares:  ‘we, who having no coherent philosophy, must not let ourselves philosophise, [but]

keep close to the level ground of common fact, the only safe ground for understanding without scientific equipment.’32

With these preparatory remarks, Arnold presents a satirical class analysis of English society that dovetails with Marx. The working class, middle class and aristocracy are called the Populous, the Philistines and the Barbarians. Departing from Marx, the classification is what Max Weber, writing thirty-five years later, would call Ideal Types. No one necessarily fits perfectly into each class. They are not exclusive categories, and a certain number of individuals will be ‘aliens’, led not by their class interests, but

by a general humane spirit, by a love of human perfection; and that number is capable of being diminished or augmented.33

Disinterest is not at home within any of the Types, yet its latency can be fostered and encouraged. Although Arnold includes himself amongst the Philistines, they generally

…do not purse sweetness and light, but …prefer… that sort of machinery of business, chapels, tea-meetings, and addresses from Mr. Murphy, which makes up the dismal and illiberal life on which I have often touched.

The Barbarians, on the other hand, are …lured off from following light by those mighty and eternal seducers of our race which weave for this class their most irresistible charms – by worldly splendour, security, power, and pleasure. …not so much doing what is perverse as what is too natural.34

Summarising the interests of each Ideal Type, Arnold continues:

The graver self of the Barbarian likes honours and consideration; his more relaxed self, field-sports and pleasure. The graver self of one kind of Philistine likes fanaticism, business, and money-making; his more relaxed self, comfort and tea-meetings. Of another kind of Philistine, the graver self likes rattening;35 the relaxed self, deputations or hearing Mr Odger speak. The sterner self of the Populace likes brawling, hustling, and smashing; the lighter self, beer.36

ARNOLD’S MAIN CONCERN is to consider a variety of political groups, and their ideas, that skated across each of these classes. More often than not, his criticism is from the standpoint of Hellenism, rather than Hebraism, though the prescriptive practices of Puritanism and Nonconformist Churches face his barbs. In particular, the Puritan’s misconception of St. Paul and his notion of the human spirit, of grace, faith, and righteousness. According to Arnold, nine times out of ten, the Paulean meaning of resurrection is ‘a rising to a new life before the physical death of the body, and not after it’. Arnold’s consideration of the controversial issues of human rights and free trade, illustrate his approach to culture.

In the nineteenth century, the Whigs were succeeded by the Liberal party and had taken up the baton against the Tories. At that time, Jeremy Bentham’s individualism had been developed by his Godson, J S Mill. His work, On Liberty, was published in 1859. Arnold does not consider this work, and simply refers to ‘faithful Benthamites’, and himself, with slight irony, as a ‘transcendentalist’.37 Mill, however, was an erstwhile member of parliament, a contemporary of Arnold, and the Utilitarian theory of individual rights, adopted by the Liberals, provided grist for Arnold’s mill.

‘Liberal practitioners’, and their Utilitarian notions, are criticised by Arnold on the grounds they make a ‘fetish’ of the freedom from religious, and other institutional constraints, replacing these with individual rights. One problem arises when the Populous, emboldened by the Liberals, join the Barbarians and the Philistines in doing what it likes. This is the newfound

… Englishman’s right to do what he likes; his right to march where he likes, meet where he likes, enter where he likes, hoot as he likes, threaten as he likes, smash as he likes.38

The result is anarchy. Culture, on the other hand, is the freedom to39

becoming something rather than in having something, in an inward condition of the mind and spirit, not in an outward set of circumstances,40

By abandoning oneself to a consciousness of Hellenism — ‘letting our consciousness play freely and simply upon the facts’ — Arnold suggests we ‘have no rights at all, only duties’.

namely, human rights. For example, in the past, primogeniture was a rational feudal response to land management. It denied children an equal inheritance. Contemporaneously, the Real Estate Intestacy Bill aimed to reverse this. An equal share of property is now suggested as a natural right of all children. Arnold conceives this an ‘unsound mechanical maxim’, a ‘formal and petrified’ ‘process of abstract reasoning’. Abandoning oneself to a consciousness of Hellenism — ‘letting our consciousness play freely and simply upon the facts’ — suggests we ‘have no rights at all, only duties’. In this case, the duty of welfare to all our children. Depending on the historical circumstance, this welfare may not entail an equal share. A sounder footing to challenge the Barbarians ‘present practices, to which all their habits and interest incline them’, is not a contrary Bill of Rights, but to show that ‘wealth, power and consideration’ are ‘in themselves trying and dangerous things’. And within this, ‘above all when inherited and not earned.’ As Bishop Wilson reminds us: ‘Riches are almost always abused without a very extraordinary grace.’41

Free Trade, and repeal of The Corn Law, are examples of industrial policy adopted by the Liberals.  According to Arnold, amongst the Philistines are

…the spurious Hebraism of our free trading Liberal friends — mechanically worshipping their fetish of the production of wealth and of the increase of manufactures and populations, and looking neither right nor left so long as this increase goes on…42

Blinded by this fetish, the Liberals ignore the plight of paupers in East London. Miserable

…children eaten up with disease, half-sized, half-fed, half-clothed, neglected by their parents, without home, without hope…43

Abolishing the tax on imported corn — in other words, fostering free-trade — might not lead to a lowering of food prices for the poor, but to a multiplication of their number as a free flow of local industry pays for this foreign corn. The great cities, the great railroads, the growth in population and factories might pay for ‘the untaxing of the poor man’s bread’. But has

…this view of national happiness, been used not so much to make the existing poor man’s bread cheaper or more abundant, but rather to create more poor mean to eat it; so that we cannot precisely say that we have fewer poor men than we had before free trade…44

The replacement of social progress with industrial progress is no more of a triumph than ‘what is sometimes called, vulgarly, outrunning the constable’.

Arnold’s empirical account of culture suggests a series of questions in aesthetics. Is there a synthesis between ‘sweetness and light’ in modern art? Are the movements of Hellenism and Hebraism operating in tandem? And, following Chesterton’s metaphor, has modern art’s thick layers of colour made its window onto the world opaque?  For Arnold’s advice on detachment — on disinterest — is, in Chesterton’s words, to ‘cleanse and forget oneself’.

DR TRONN OVEREND is the author of Social Idealism and the Problem of Objectivity (Queensland University Press, 1983) and numerous articles on social theory and the philosophy of the social sciences. His essay “An Objective Theory of Modernist Aesthetics” appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 2018; his essay “The Beginning and the End of Art…in Tasmania” followed in 2019. An annotated archive of his Fortnightly work is here. The second part of this essay will follow shortly.

  1. Statement by Cecilia Alemani. Curator of the 59th International Art Exhibition. La Biennale di Venezia. 2021. All quotes from this statement.
  2. Tony Elwood. Book 1. NGV Triennial 2020:21.
  3. Tony Oursler and Jim Shaw. In from the cold. Book 2. NGV Triennial 2020:188-199.
  4. Alicja Kwade. An unfolding. Book 2. NGV Triennial 2020:78-87; my elaboration.
  5. Jeff Koons. Venus. Book 3. NGV Triennial 2020:94-99.
  6. Diamond Stingily. Book 3. NGV Triennial 2020:34-41.
  7. Zena Cumpston. Every tree has a story to tell: Botanical pavilion by Kengo Kuma & Associates and Geoff Nees. Book 4. NGV Triennial. 2020: 58-67.
  8. Simone LeAmon. Those with long noses. Book 4. NGV Triennial. 2020:228-236.
  9. Hannah McCann. Queer I: seeing queerly. Book 5.  NGV Triennial 2020:138-153.
  10. Ewan McEoin. Liam Young: Planet City. NGV Triennial. 2020:28- 33.
  11. Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Judgement. Translated by James Creed Meredith. Oxford at the Clarendon Press. 1986. See p. 23- 26.
  12. Ibid, 34.
  13. Ibid, 30.
  14. Ibid, 50.
  15. For this and further quotes, Ibid, 62-63.
  16. Ibid, 64.
  17. Ibid, 64-65.
  18. Ibid, 82.
  19. Ibid, 84.
  20. Ibid, 88-89.
  21. The Letters of Matthew Arnold. 1848 – 1888. Collected and Arranged by George W. E. Russell. Vol.1 and 2. Macmillan and Co., London 1895. Vol 2, p. 9.
  22. Ibid, 254.
  23. Matthew Arnold. Essays, Literary and Critical. Everyman’s Library. J M Dent & Sons Ltd London. 1906: ix. A collection of articles published many in Cornhill Magazine and National Review in 1863 and 1864. Included at the end of this edition is an exchange with Cardinal Newman. It starts with ‘On Translating Homer’, a Public Lecture, given by Arnold as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 1860. ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’, can also be found in The Fortnightly Review here.
  24. Arnold. 1906:1.
  25. Ibid, 3-4.
  26. Ibid, 4.
  27. Ibid, 10-11.
  28. Ibid, 16.
  29. Matthew Arnold. Culture and Anarchy in Arnold on Education. Penguin Education. England. 1973:164.
  30. Ibid, 168.
  31. Ibid, 221.
  32. Ibid, 241-242.
  33. Ibid, 206.
  34. Ibid, 202.
  35. The sabotaging of tools and machinery in an industrial dispute.
  36. Ibid, 206.
  37. See Preface to Essays in Criticism, 3rd Edition. Macmillan. 1875:xi . The ‘faithful Benthamite’ had not quite won the argument, and with Bentham’s Auto-icon siting at an entrance to University College London, Arnold continues the satire, by suggesting that ‘a pious pilgrimage… obtain from Mr Bentham’s executors a sacred bone of his great, dissected master.’ xiii.
  38. Ibid, 187.
  39. For these two types of freedom- freedom from and freedom to – see Eric Fromm, The Fear of Freedom. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1960.
  40. Ibid, 169.
  41. Ibid, 248-249, 260.
  42. Ibid, 260.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid, 255.

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