Why is art beautiful? Does art reveal something about truth? Is truth identical to beauty? German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) both contemplated these questions, and they came up with different answers. For Hegel, truth and beauty are found in art. For Kant, truth and beauty are in the mind of the beholder.
According to Kant, when we view beautiful art, we recognize it as beautiful (a judgement of taste) because of the feeling it arouses. Liveliness of the mind brought about by a “harmony of the cognitive powers” is the basis of tasteful judgment. This feeling of harmony shows us that beauty is in our minds, and is not a quality that an object possesses.
The two cognitive powers at work when we perceive the beautiful are imagination and understanding. Understanding allows us to recognize the universal. The “free-play” resulting from these two cognitive powers in harmony together is sensed by the effect it has on the mind and produces a sense of pleasure.
When someone recognizes beauty and experiences this feeling of “free-play”, they assume everyone else also feels that way about the object, since everyone has the ability to experience the interaction between imagination and understanding. The ability for everyone to experience that particular feeling is what makes it universally subjective. Because of this, for Kant, a judgment of beauty requires agreement between observers.
Form and design are both essential to beautiful art, according to Kant, because they each play a role in how we judge what is beautiful. Only from form can we “abstract from the quality of the kind of sensation in question.” Kant believed that all primary colors, which are kinds of forms, are beautiful because they have yet to be mixed together. He does not believe mixed colors are beautiful because “we lack a standard of judging whether we should call them pure or impure.” Purity is an important aspect of form.
Design is the essential aspect of fine art. It is compositional design, not color, texture, or other sensory details, that we call beautiful. Although perfection doesn’t equal beauty, a perfect object is something that fulfills its design exactly. According to Kant, design is the primary object of judgment, and composition, which is closely tied to form, is the second. An ornament added to a piece of art could add to its form, but if the ornament itself doesn’t have a beautiful form, then it “impairs genuine beauty” with its finery.
Kant believed fine art is the art of genius because fine art is based on no concept or rule. Fine art arouses in us a feeling of beauty because it is seemingly natural, yet created by man. The ability of some humans to create natural art that is animated by spirit, and that was made from no predetermined concept, is what makes them geniuses.
Hegel believed there is truth in art because art reveals truth about the human spirit, or mind. By studying art, the mind comes to know itself. Art is the mind in sensuous form. “The sensuous and the spiritual which struggle as opposites in the common understanding are revealed as reconciled in the truth as expressed by art” he wrote (Hegel, on the Arts, pg.5). It’s because of this revealing quality that the beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature.
Hegel believed art could be the object of philosophical science because art, like religion and science, is an expression of our mind’s need to know itself, which finds realization in the external world through practical activity. In fact, he argued, art is inseparable from religion and is an absolute need of human beings. If we can study religion scientifically, i.e. through theology, then it stands to reason we can study art in the same way. Along the same lines, art, religion, and philosophy are all in the mind, and differ only by the forms in which they show the absolute to human consciousness.
The root of Hegel and Kant’s disagreement is where “beauty” lies and whether art can reveal truth. While Kant believed beauty was only a feeling, a byproduct of a mind’s interaction, and not a property of art itself, Hegel believed beauty is essentially part of the artwork. The ideal of artistic beauty comes from the perfection of its form. For Hegel, humanity recognizes beauty in art. For Kant, art reflects the beauty in humanity. Likewise, for Hegel, spirit reveals truth through art, whereas for Kant, art has more in common with religious inspiration than objective science. It is a skill, not a type of knowledge.