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Disinterest and Aesthetics II.


This is Part 2 of 2.

Part 1 is here.

4. Disinterest and Modern Art.

THE VENICE BIENNALE and the Melbourne Triennial are predicated on the same conception of art. The Biennale considers a ‘post human’ nightmare and suggests a new communion that might awake us from conventional thinking and it’s old ‘antinomies’. The Triennial shares a similar diagnosis, and prescribes an emancipatory interest underpinning art. These are ‘knowledge constitutive interests’, in Jurgen Habermas’ sense, and tread a well-worn path of Critical Theory and its challenge to objectivity. The last thing this world view of modern art strives for is disinterest or detachment.

In the Triennial, this overarching theme is explored through the portrayal of interests. In Jim Shaw’s Capital Viscera Appliance mural, there is the interest of political protest against consumerism and the H bomb. Alicia Kwade WeltenLinie is a subjectivist challenge to objectivity. This is also crafted in Jeff Koon’s Venus. Diamond Stingily has an interest in ‘Black Lives’, and the politics of race and class. This is displayed, In the middle but in the corner of 176 place. Kengo Kuma’s and Geoff Nees’s work, Botanical Pavillon, is based — putting to one side an aesthetic of Shinto religion — on Indigenous cultural understanding and the application, as it were, of their a priori reason. David Bielander’s Pick your nose, is truth telling on a suite of social and ecological problems. These include pedophilia, species extinction and climate change. Liam Young also tackles this malaise in Planet City, with the idea that the cause of our dystopia, the city, might also be a utopian solution. Adam Nathaniel Furman and Sibling Architecture construct Boudoir Babylon, an interior design based on the eye of the queer. As a piece of sexual politics, such labels as ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ are rejected, and an invitation is extended, even to the homophobic, to adopt a queer perspective in architecture. If there is any sense, now, to these terms, this is the ‘Everyman’, and ‘Women’s’, world of ‘gender fluidity’.

Immanuel Kant and Mathew Arnold stand against this reading of art, though their lexicon is quite different. The position they dispute – it goes back to Plato – is the conflation of truth, morality and art. In answering the question, ‘What is the use of art?’, G.W.F. Hegel outlines one answer this way.

…art has to serve as a means for moral ends, and to conduct to the moral end of the world, as such, by instruction and moral improvement, and thereby has its substantive aim, not itself, but in something else.1

NOTE: The images discussed on this page may be see in enlarged views on this page — part 1 of this essay. In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. 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.

In other words, art only has value as an instrument to purse outside ends. Kant rejects this. It rests on the contention that the pursuit of an interest, conceived as an end, involves passion — in the case of some modern art, political, sexual, Indigenous emancipation – and is a delight which is not dispassionate. Such utilitarian interests are an impediment to aesthetic judgement because they ‘rob’ them of ‘impartiality’. The third moment in the judgement of taste crystallises Kant’s objection. Aesthetic judgements entail the relation of finality. They are never a means to some other end. This merely confuses the relation of utility with the relation of finality. A consequence of this is that we are never able to make a judgement about art as art. It is conflated to a judgement, for example, about Indigenous history, ecology, sexuality, philosophy or politics. The upshot, an objective theory of aesthetics is lost.

Art is unable to deal with the complex problems of philosophy because of limitations in the sensuous form. This is the nub of modern, conceptual, art.

IN RESPONSE TO Kant, Hegel makes an argument on the limitation, indeed the inadequacy, of art as a reflection on these interests. It is not one based on disinterest because, in his view, art, religion and philosophy have traditionally gone hand in hand in the exploration of truth and morality. With art, this enterprise reached its zenith in Greek culture. Since then, the pictorial imagery of religion has displaced the sensual form of art, just as the conceptual form of philosophy has replaced the religious. Today, there is a philosophy of art, but there can never be an ‘art of philosophy’. Art is unable to deal with the complex problems of philosophy because of limitations in the sensuous form. This is the nub of modern, conceptual, art. The content becomes too complex for sensory expression, with art degenerating into second-rate philosophy. As such, this philosophy can only be uncovered from the artists statement or the curators’ discussions, not from the work itself. Zena Cumpston’s discussion of Kengo Kuma and Geoff Nees’ Botanical Pavillon, appeals to Indigenous epistemology. It involves a theory of ecology that is more than local understanding, and it is worked out over Millennia. This suggestion also appears to involve a sort of sacred a priori, something over and beyond, in the curators words, a ‘Johnny-come-lately’ science and an ‘infantile system of botany’. Similar epistemological assumptions are made by curator Simone LeAmon’s in her discussion of David Bielander’s, Pick your nose: Pinocchio’s reality.

Where art, truth and morality are conjoined, there is, according to Hegel, an inverse relation between the study of aesthetics and the practice of art. ‘The beautiful days of Greek art, and the golden time of the Middle Ages are gone’, ‘therefore our present…condition is not favourable to art’.

As regard the artist himself… the reflection which finds utterance all round him, and the universal habit of having an opinion and passing judgement about art infect him, and mislead him into putting more abstract thought into his work…2

So art has become a ‘thing of the past’. And ‘herein it has further lost for us its genuine truth and life’.

With a different notion of objectivity, Kant’s legacy in the study of aesthetics is mixed. In the social sciences, principally through the methodological writings of Max Weber3  — and other Neo-Kantians, such as Theodore Adorno, and Critical Theory — there has been a return to subjectivism. This rests on Weber’s concept of the Weltanschauung, and a relativistic world view, his method of understanding, called verstehen, and his acceptance of Kant’s distinction between the heteronomy of facts and the autonomy of values. For Weber, sociology is concerned with the analysis of cultural values, and this involves more than causal understanding. Without the luxury of Kant’s, a priori reason, and the transcendental, he is left with a subjective empiricism. Such uncritical subjectivism is alluded to in the curator’s discussion of Jeff Koons’ Venus and Alicia Kwade’s artists statement on WeltenLinie.

Kant’s argument for the transcendental rests on his belief that his epistemology resolves the antinomies, and that the empiricist must also make a priori assumptions if the unity of nature is to be established. It might be noted, Karl Popper agrees. Where he disagrees, is Kant’s contention that  these assumptions are necessarily true. Either way, for both Kant and Popper, the only other unsatisfactory alternative is scepticism. In his writings on aesthetics, Roger Scruton tries to answer this scepticism by proposing a form of objectivity that is consistent, he believes, with English empiricism. In the tradition of linguistic analysis, beginning in the early twentieth century and seen, for example, in G E Moore’s Principia Ethica, Scruton turns to ‘the language of morals’ for a solution.

Beauty is…as firmly rooted in the scheme of things as goodness. It speaks to us, as virtue speaks to us, of human fulfilment not of things we want, but of things we ought to want…4

Scruton’s starting point is Kant’s notion of modality, as a fourth moment of judgement. Kant’s ‘exemplary ought’, something that is ‘universally communicated’ in an aesthetic judgement, is redrafted as an evaluative speech act, to be distinguished from the descriptive. Aesthetic judgements are normative. They are not deductive empirical descriptions with truth conditions. It is the universality of these judgements that suggests an ‘internal relation’, within the mind, between the aesthetic and the moral.

We admire works of art, as we admire men, for their intelligence, wisdom, sincerity, depth of feeling, compassion and realism. It would be odd to acknowledge this, and yet to deny that there is a relation between moral and aesthetic judgement.5

In Scruton, immediacy and a universal validity, are taken from Kant. His Hegelian conclusion, ‘ethics and aesthetics are one’, is not. In this way, he hoped to avoid Moore’s intuitionism whilst also side-stepping the ‘naturalistic fallacy’.

THE ROLE OF imagination is also found in Kant, but in addressing this Scruton turns to Sartre and Wittgenstein on perception and imagination to describe ‘imaginative attention’. This comes from an ‘aesthetic interest’, which is not the same as Kant’s aesthetic judgement explicated as disinterest. It is also distinct from realism, where a work of art is understood in terms of the objects imaginative character. Rather, Scruton concentrates on the subject, and attempts ‘to analyse the aesthetic experience itself’, ‘informed by the values of the observer’ and the ‘inescapable features of moral life’. Facilitated by imagination, the subject fictionalizes the object. In literature this is achieved through metaphor.

The deployment of figures of speech and the existence of the ‘fictional gap’ are inevitable consequences of the ‘abrogation of reference…’6

In this way, imagination can be understood not only as a quality – what is in the work – but also as a relation – the intentions of the artist and the viewer.

Arnold’s notion of the critic is central to this framework, comparable to Scruton’s conception of criticism…

A basis for a realist alternative to Kant’s transcendentalism is found in Matthew Arnold. Because he does not, in his own words, ‘philosophise’, this is only a framework. And parts of this framework can happily incorporate some of Kant’s insights: the imaginative character of art, the ‘free delight’ of art, the disinterest, and art as an end in itself. This view is clearly distinguished from interests that are agreeable or good, in Scruton’s case, or a utilitarian means to something quite different. Arnold’s notion of the critic is central to this framework, comparable to Scruton’s conception of criticism, where culture and tradition provide a historical context for comparison with the ‘best that has been thought and said’. According to Scruton, Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgements is, by contrast, ‘abstract’ and ‘sterile’. He fails to show how ‘moral judgment grows from aesthetic interest’.7

Today, just as in Matthew Arnold’s time, the critic’s role — “the function of criticism at the present time” — is limited. Few will have an ‘ardent zeal’ to see things as they really are; very ‘inadequate ideas’ will prevail. If Arnold’s class analysis were rewritten for today, a utilitarian outlook would remain, and only the social agenda, the underlying interests, would change. Today the arts are an important industry, and, as Ernst Gombrich has pointed out, very similar to the fashion industry. There are fads, and the plasticity of taste, there are opinion leaders, snobbery and competition. Art and fashion both share the “logic of vanity fair”. Far from the critic’s notion of disinterest, most often an aesthetic judgement of the form, “I like it”, amounts to no more than: “ I believe that is the kind of thing my group accepts as good. Since I like my group, I like it, too.” As with Scruton, Gombrich goes on to suggest a relation in the mind between art and morality.

…the situation in aesthetics is not dissimilar to the one in ethics, in both they become internalised in the voice of conscience or what psychoanalysts call the superego.8

Behind the questions: “may I do this?” and “may I like this?” are a nest of prescriptions and proscriptions.

As opposed to morals, however, strongly held beliefs in art can easily change. Consistent with fashion, fads come and go. In the not-too-distant past, aesthetic criticism was not based on the interests of emancipation. It was about the work of art itself, except the ‘scholarship’, the accompanying curatorial ‘explanations’, were impenetrable. Today, it is ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions, bigger galleries, huge crowds. Perhaps, by necessity, curatorial commentaries have become intelligible. And pockets of sweetness and light can still survive. It will not be the dominant narrative, but there is still the disinterest of a Gombrich. There is still a case to be made against the synonymy of fashion and art. Today, Arnold’s critic might point to a lack of balance between what was always the tandem of Hellenism and Hebraism. Biennales and Triennials are now little more than Hebraism, the ‘strictness of conscience’, of ‘right thinking’ on politics, sexuality, Indigenous affairs and other social issues. This is the passion of curatorial statements. The rage against the ‘Johnny-come-lately’, the ‘infantile’, is unmistakable. There is little risk of not hearing the political drum. But what of Hellenism? How does this criticism stand up as a piece of anthropological understanding?  For Arnold, the critic is mindful of both sweetness and light. And, there is always the suspicion that a concentration on the relations of art — the politics, the morality — might be to the detriment of the sweetness, to the detriment of the art itself.

For aesthetics, “the function of criticism at the present time” is to examine, once again, not the relations of the art but the object itself.

For aesthetics, “the function of criticism at the present time” is to examine, once again, not the relations of the art but the object itself. As in Kant, this object is conceived as an end, though not in transcendental terms. To say this empirical approach is disinterested, is to say all the relations that are connected to art — all the emotions and expressions, all the moral imperatives, all the melioristic interests — are put to one side. Although these are of undoubted psychological or sociological interest and importance, although they might explain in many instances the motivation to create a work of art, they are distinct from an examination of its beauty. The critical approach, — what Arnold calls Hellenism — can be understood as an examination of the intrinsic problems of beauty. Karl Popper’s account of the evolution of objective knowledge is an exemplification, and points to the role of imagination in both art and science.

Following Popper, all forms of enquiry — both in the natural and social sciences, — start with a problem situation. The evolution of objective knowledge is achieved by trial and error. Tentative theories resolve these problems, theories are purged of errors, and new problems then arise. The more problems a theory generates, the more progressive the research program. The aim is progressive problem shifts; regress is a paucity of new problems. An artist, just as a scientist, also grapples with a problem, and disinterested judgements on his ‘theories’, in other words his practical methods, is an examination of whether his approach leads to progress or to regress. If it were progressive, Kant would judge it imaginative. The history of Impressionism is an illustration.

Vincent Van Gogh described his method, and his problems, as

the mental effort of balancing the six essential colours, red, blue, yellow, orange, violet, green. This is work and cool calculation, when ones’ mind is utterly stretched like that of an actor on stage in a difficult part, when one has to think of a thousand different things at a time within half-an-hour…Don’t think I would ever artificially work myself into a feverish state. Rather remember that I am engrossed in a complicated calculus…9

A critical investigation of Van Gogh would explore the ‘calculus’ and the new methods he discovered.

MOVEMENTS IN ART, between Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism, for example, can be critically understood as an opposition between competing research programs. Indeed, Paul Cezanne, as with Van Gogh, speaks of his “researches in painting”. For two decades, Cezanne worked with the Impressionist, Camille Pissarro. Following Pissarro, a “green patch is enough to give us a landscape, a flesh tone translates into a face’. The tentative theories of Pissarro meant the “elimination of black, bitumen, sienna and the ochres from his palette.’ In their stead, ‘paint only with the three primary colours’ and ‘their immediate derivatives”. Cezanne’s further refinements led to the development of Cubism, and the radically different problem shifts of Braque and Picasso before the First World War. The basis for this progress, and a departure from the Impressionism of Pissarro, is described in a letter to Emile Bernard in 1904. Here Cezanne outlines his new problem situation, and implores Bernard

…to treat nature in terms of the cylinders, the sphere and the cone, everything put in perspective, so that each side of an object, of a plane, leads to a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breath…Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth.10

A disinterested art historian would not stop with the artist’s understanding of the logic of the situation. These might be confused or mistaken. The historian’s critical skills would include an objective analysis of the context, the history of ideas imbedded in their situation. He would be informed by the ‘best that had been thought and said.’ And, if he was consistent with Popper, his conjectures would be conceived as tentative and subject to refutation.

Roger Scruton’s critic, by contrast, is a polemicist, standing on less secure ground. The critic of art and culture is a moralist. There is no disinterest, only a “steady apprenticeship in sympathy”.

In studying pictures we are adding to our knowledge of the human heart: the knowledge what to feel, which is the core of virtue.11

A step towards spiritualism stops Scruton slipping into relativism. Tradition is the measure of worth, and it evolves from ‘two enduring impulses: the aesthetic and the spiritual’. The early Modernists – Schoenberg, Monet, Picasso – shared this conception; post-modernism, by discarding the spiritual, pulled the two impulses apart. TS Eliot is Scruton’s practical guide at this point.  He becomes Arnold’s Bishop Wilson, writ large, as it were. It is a somewhat depressing trek. Art draws upon, and amplifies

…the experiences which form the bedrock of religion, and in doing so provides a secular vindication of a sacred view of human life.12

But it is pointless following Eliot, and the “doctrines and liturgy of the Anglican Church”, because

The path that Eliot took is today overgrown with weeds, and leads only to ruins.”13

With the collapse of the Modernist project, nearly one hundred years ago, “art has only a slender chance of survival”. Certainly, in Scruton’s view, the art of a Biennale or a Triennial would be dismissed as “sterile”, “kitsch”, a “cliché”. Jeff Koons was a particular dislike, because he produces kitsch “deliberately” as a “sophisticated parody”.

The world of kitsch contains no soul, beside the corrupted soul of the observer; and everywhere he turns he sees a mirror, designed to reflect some gratifying image of his kind and sensitive nature.14

Abstraction, introduced by early Modernists such as Mondrian or Klee, was a design based on their understanding of “things as they are”. Today, post-modern abstraction is no more than “construction”.

The new kind of painter constructs a design from abstract elements – shapes, lines, colours which may never have been bathed for him in the light of reality.15

For realists, such as Popper and Gombrich, by contrast things are less grim. There is a future for art. Criticism proceeds empirically and objectively by exploring the problem situation. This is a very different task to that set by curators. It is also very different to artist statements that often accompany modern art.  And, even if it could be shown these sociological, psychological or philosophical remarks, by curators and artists alike, were cogent, it would still remain a mystery what was beautiful about the work of art itself.

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 first part of this essay is here.


  1. Georg Wilhelm Fredrick Hegel. Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, Penguin Books. 2004:61 Hegel goes on to reject this particular utilitarian conception, maintaining ‘art has the vocation of revealing the truth in the form of sensuous shape’, where ‘instruction, purification, improvement’ are not a part.
  2. Ibid,12-13
  3. Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, The Free Press. 1949.
  4. Roger Scruton, Beauty. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 2011:123
  5. Roger Scruton, Art and Imagination: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind. St Augustine’s Press. 1997:245
  6. Roger Scruton, The Aesthetic Understanding: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture. St Augustine’s Press. 1998:21. See also, 13, 14, 35.
  7. See ibid,249-251.
  8. E. H. Gombrich. “The Logic of Vanity Fair”, in The Philosophy of Karl Popper. Paul Arthur Schilpp (ed.). Open Court Publishing Co. Book II .1974:949, 951.
  9. Quoted by Karl Popper in “Gombrich on Periods & Fashions in Art”, in The Philosophy of Karl Popper. Book II 1974:1179.
  10. See The Letters of Paul Cezanne, edited and translated by Alex Danchev, Thames & Hudson. 2013: 119, 189, 334.
  11. Scruton. 1998:249, 250.
  12. Ibid,224.
  13. Ibid, 227.
  14. Ibid, 235.
  15. Ibid, 230-231.

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