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.
Early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and his later counterpart, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), had different views on art and its purpose. Both philosophers believed Classical Greek art was art in its highest form, but disagreed over who it served–man or nature.
According to Hegel, art, along with religion, science, and philosophy, are all expressions of our mind’s need to know itself, or its need to reconstruct the world in its image. He believed this is realized through practical activity, activity that, for art, includes painting, sculpture, etc. It’s through these mediums that absolute spirit (everything real, including the external world and human minds) expresses itself in sensory form. Because it is a power of spirit to externalize all internal things, and internalize external things, art must be an expression of some internal aspect of the artist.
In the broad case of art through the ages, the “artist” is spirit working itself out through history. Hegel believed the internal aspect of spirit is truth; therefore truth must be what is externalized in an artwork. The truth of art is inseparable from its physical form. Hegel also believed the ideal of beauty is perfection of form, which for him expresses the most spiritual truth. Since, for Hegel, art reaches its technical perfection (in other words, in perfect form) in Classical art, Classical art is therefore the most beautiful art form. The goal of art is to unify content and form.
Located at 310 Genesee Street in Utica, New York, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is an enjoyable art museum with several notable pieces, including a Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dalí, and Picasso. It also has a fine collection of 19th-Century American painting and sculpture, as well as an annex showcasing the 19th-Century home of James and Helen Williams, “Fountain Elms”. I’m not a fan of modern art, but it was nice to see some pieces by prominent artists at a smaller art museum. Similar institutions would charge visitors to see such “high profile” pieces, but the M.W.P. Arts Institute only takes donations to see its general collection.
A special exhibition of Steve McCurry’s photographs will be on display until December 31st. Steve McCurry is best known for his haunting photograph of a young Afghan Girl with piercing green eyes taken in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1984.
The World through His Lens: Steve McCurry Photographs is an exhibition of more than 60 large-scale photographs by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry. It costs $10 general admission, or $5 for students, and is free to children under 12.
According to their website, “McCurry’s evocative images reveal collective human struggles and explore diverse societies across the boundaries of language and culture. Organized around universal themes of personal adornment, place, and ritual, exhibition will include unforgettable images from across six continents and spanning ancient traditions, international conflict, and vanishing cultures.”
This a unique opportunity to see his photographs up close, as the M.W.P. Arts Institute is the only venue for this exhibition.