Sunday, August 7, 2011

Kant and the Sublime


At the end of the 18th century, Kant, like Edmund Burke shortly before him, determined that poetry was the greatest art because it had the best ability to evoke a sense of the sublime. Both philosophers reasoned that painting was at a disadvantage in this regard because of the need to faithfully depict real objects in the world. Burke: "To represent an angel in a picture, you can only draw a beautiful young man winged [...]."

Neither could predict abstract painting, though. In his "Analytic of the Sublime" from the Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant's explanation as to why poetry was the greatest art can easily be applied to the best abstract painting:

"It expands the mind by setting the imagination at liberty and by offering, with the limits of a given concept, amid the unbounded variety of possible forms accordant therewith, that which unites the presentment of this concept with a wealth of thought to which no verbal expression is completely adequate, and so rising aesthetically to ideas. It strengthens the mind by making it feel its faculty - free, spontaneous, and independent of natural determination - of considering and judging nature as a phenomenon in accordance with aspects which it does not present in experience either for sense or understanding, and therefore of using it on behalf of, and as a sort of schema for, the supersensible. It plays with illusion, which it produces at pleasure, but without deceiving by it; for it declares its exercise to be mere play, which however can be purposively used by the understanding."