Let us look at the philosophies that dominates contemporary figurative painters. Are they so different from the modernists as they sometimes claim to be?
Some people would dismiss thinking as irrelevant and argue that skilled painters use their hands more than their brains. But as time passes, people might take it for granted that people like Thomas Aquinas liberated Europe from the Dark Ages through the unification between faith and logic.
My brother, Öde S. Nerdrum and I, decided to ask a group of figurative painters — at The Representation Art Conference (TRAC) 2018 — 12 questions related to the aesthetic philosophies of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant to see whether it is the Renaissance ideals or the values of the Enlightenment Period that dominate their own views.
For more info, read these four articles about the history of art and kitsch and the philosophies behind the two disciplines.
For references, please see below:
In the Poetics, Aristotle says that “representation comes naturally to human beings from childhood, and so does the universal pleasure in representations…”
Something beyond an imitation of nature is absurd to Aristotle as he is primarily concerned with our senses.
“Indeed” he says, “this marks off humans from other animals” as man is “prone to representation beyond all others and learns his earliest lessons through representations.” 1
Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, argues that: “a product of fine art must be recognized to be art and not nature. Nevertheless the finality in its form must appear just as free from the constraint of arbitrary rules as if it were a product of mere nature.”
For Kant, “of nature” defines a product that exists on its own account. A tree is nature, an imitation of a tree is a copy. A true artist must therefore strive to become nature, not to imitate it.
As a prolific modernist from the 20th century proclaimed: “I do not paint nature. I am nature.”
It is unlikely that Kant would go down the line and promote abstract paintings. He did, however, regard the supersensible as superior to the sensible and advised all artists to strive for genius instead of imitation. His distaste for imitation and handcrafts has arguably caused the separation between depictions of objective reality and Art. 2
First off, it is important to point out that Kant would recognize the appeal of the familiar in a painting. This appeal would not, however, be an aesthetic one.
“All interest ruins a judgment of taste and deprives it of its impartiality,”3 Kant writes and further on he argues that aesthetic interest is devoid of meaning and familiarity when he says that”we regard the beautiful as the exhibition of an indeterminate concept of the understanding, and the sublime as the exhibition of an indeterminate concept of reason.”4
A correlation between the “Mona Lisa” and the viewer’s identification with the subject’s likeness to a human being, is therefore an impure judgment of taste.
A popular variant from this line of thinking is the cringe that people have for something “new,” implying that an interest in the aesthetic is the interest in something that is previously unknown to us.
Aristotle has a different view. If representation comes naturally to human beings, then the logical response would be that “people like seeing images, because as they look at them they understand and work out what each item is, for example, ‘this is so and so’. Whereas, if one is unacquainted with the subject, one’s pleasure will not be in the representation, but in the technique or the colour or some other element.” 5
Aristotle recognizes man’s love for identification through representation and storytelling. He says that the characters in a stage play should not be strangers to us, but preferably people within relationships, as between father and son. 6
He even criticizes abstract painting, stating that “if someone were to apply the most beautiful colors to a surface at random, he would give less pleasure than if he had sketched a portrait in black and white.” 7
According to Kant, a valid judgment of a beautiful object considers only the form — without any meddling from our concepts of reality.
The painting in and of itself is the purpose of judgment, regardless of whether the depiction of hands, ears and eyes correspond nicely with the subject — and regardless of whether the painting has a good story.
“When we judge free beauty (according to mere form) then our judgment of taste is pure. Here we presuppose no concept of any purpose for which the manifold is to serve the given object, and hence no concept [as to] what the object is (meant] to represent; our imagination is playing, as it were, while it contemplates the shape, and such a concept would only restrict its freedom.” 8
An aesthetic judgment is to judge without any knowledge — with a “pure mind.” This is illustrated by Kant when he talks about the starry sky and that upon our sight of it “we must not base our judgment upon any concepts of worlds that are inhabited by rational beings.” He adds that “we must take it, just as it strikes the eye, as a broad and all-embracing canopy: and it is merely under such a representation that we may posit the sublimity which the pure aesthetic judgement attributes to this object.” 9
Aristotle proclaims that “poetry utters universal truths, history particular statements. The universal truths concern what befits a person of a certain kind to say or do in accordance with probability and necessity – and that is the aim of poetry…” 10
Poets, as a general rule, all have the same goal in Aristotle’s philosophy: to depict archetypal stories. There is poetry where there is representation of action, character and emotion. The quest for universal truths are connected with the aforementioned argument about the viewer’s identification with the represented object and the use of family drama in tragedy.
“Just as all men have not the same writing,” concludes Aristotle, “so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images.” 11
For Aristotle, a general understanding of the world is vital to reach truth or “common sense.” Our concepts of reality give us the capacity to distinguish a mountain from a tree.
Kant is more sceptical: “In the sense – representation of external things, the quality of space in which we intuite them is the merely subjective side of my representation of them (by which what the things are in themselves as objects is left quite open)“ 12
For Kant, reason provided by empirical reality is impossible since man inserts his subjective ideas onto nature. By legitimizing the subjective view of reality, Kant could be regarded as the philosopher who alienated art from depictions of nature — a trend that has been going on for the last two centuries.
A more popular variant of this argument is the notion that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This way of thinking gives ugliness the upperhand.
According to Kant, imitations are restricted in their quality because of the likeness they have to achieve. Real nature on the other hand is beautiful prior to our judgment:
“…we here confine our attention in the first instance to the sublime in objects of nature (that of art being always restricted by the conditions of an agreement with nature), we observe that whereas natural beauty (such as is self-subsisting) conveys a finality in its form making the object appear, as it were, preadapted to our power of judgement…” 13
The idea that imitation is in some ways “not enough,” is widespread, even among imitators who often claim that you have to add something extra for it to become “real art.”
In contrast, Aristotle states in his Poetics that “things that representative artists represent are the actions of people, and if people are represented they are necessarily either superior or inferior, better or worse, than we are. […] Polygnotus portrayed better people, Pauson worse people, and Dionysius people just like us.” 14
Further on he says that “poets should copy good portrait-painters, who portray a person’s features and offer a good likeness but nonetheless make him look handsomer than he his.” 15
An objection to this view could be that an edified portrait is less credible than a portrait painted in a highly realistic manner. Similarly, a playwright could be confronted with the objection that he has written something that is not true.
Aristotle would then argue that perhaps it something that ought to be true, and further out in the book he explains why:
“In general, impossibilities should be justified by reference to the needs of poetry, the desire of edification, or the prevalence of an opinion. The needs of poetry makes what is plausible though impossible preferable to what is possible but implausible. Perhaps it is not possible for people to look the way Zeuxis painted them, but that is an idealization of the truth, and the artist should improve upon the model.” 16
For Aristotle, the question about the idealized truth is also an ethical issue.
In his Politics, he adds to the argument from the Poetics by stating that “young men should be taught to look, not at the works of Pauson, but at those of Polygnotus, or any other painter or sculptor who expresses moral ideas.”17
Genius for Kant is the “exemplary originality of a subject’s natural endowment in the free use of his cognitive powers. Accordingly, the product of a genius (as regards what is attributable to genius in it rather than to possible learning or academic instruction) is an example that is meant not to be imitated, but to be followed by another genius. (For in mere imitation the element of genius in the work — what constitutes its spirit — would be lost.) The other genius, who follows the example is aroused by it to a feeling of his own originality, which allows him to exercise in art his freedom from the constraint of rules, and to do so in such a way that art itself acquires a new rule by this, thus showing that the talent is exemplary.” 18
A true artist exercises freedom, not craftsmanship powered by imitation. The reason Kant gives as to why this is, is vague, but he states that beautiful art is “only possible as the product of a genius” and that “the genius’ foremost quality is originality.”
About sculpture he writes that “the work is a mere imitation of nature — even though one that involves a concern for aesthetic ideas — and so the sensible truth in it must not be carried to the point where the work ceases to look like art and a product of choice. “ 19
Sensuality is in conflict with the artist’s originality. The goal is personal expression, not to sensualize the subject.
In his counterreply, Aristotle uses Homer (his favorite author) as exemplary “because he is the only epic poet who knows what he should do in his own person. The poet should say as little as possible in his own voice; for that is not what makes him a mimic.” 20
A representation is concerned with what the story demands, not the wishes and whims of its maker. A poet must be responsible and serve the work instead of the personality, which is a destructive admixture when it interferes with the completeness of f.ex. a stage play.
Aristotle criticizes Euripides for committing this mistake in the scene where Orestes reveals his own identity from Iphigeneia in Tauris, claiming that Orestes “is made to say in his own person what the poet, and not the story demands.” 21
In § 46 about the genius, Kant writes in such a clear language that no further comments are necessary: “Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art. […] From this it may be seen that genius (1) is a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given, and not an aptitude in the way of cleverness for what can be learned according to some rule…” 22
For Aristotle, “all potencies are either innate, like the senses, or come by practice, like the power of playing the flute, or by learning, like artistic power…” 23
“The virtues,” he maintains, “we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre…” 24
In his Poetics, Aristotle approves of comparing and contrasting tragedies, but he says that “we must do so principally in respect of the story, that is, whether they share the same complication and explication.” 25
One thing that clarifies his position is that throughout the short treatise on poetry, Aristotle himself compares playwrights and painters to each other several times — based either on their similarities or their difference in quality.
When we witness something of great aesthetic value, according to Kant, we do not find the need to compare it to anything, as the sensation is incomparable. He argues that “we call anything not alone great, but, without qualification, absolutely, and in every respect (beyond all comparison) great, that is to say, sublime, we soon perceive that for this it is not permissible to seek an appropriate standard outside itself, but merely in itself. It is a greatness comparable to itself alone.” 26
Instead of juxtapozing their work, Kant suggests that aspiring painters should have the same lifestyle as previous geniuses: “Not that predecessors make those who follow in their steps mere imitators, but by their methods they set others upon the track of seeking in themselves for the principles, and so of adopting their own, often better, course. […] Following which has reference to a precedent, and not imitation, is the proper expression for all influence which the products of an exemplary author may exert upon others – and this means no more than going to the same sources for a creative work as those to which he went for his creations, and learning from one’s predecessor no more than the mode of availing oneself of such sources. “27
While the judgment is devoid of moral, Kant assures that “the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, and only in this light (a point of view natural to every one, and one which every one exacts from others as a duty) does it give us pleasure with an attendant claim to the agreement of everyone else, whereupon the mind becomes conscious of a certain ennoblement and elevation above mere sensibility to pleasure from impressions of sense, and also appraises the worth of others on the score of a like maxim of their judgement.” 28
What pleases aesthetically has to be the symbol of a morality that requires everyone’s consent. Knowledge about the subject prevents it from appearing as “free beauty,” as Kant calls it.
“But the beauty of a human being (and, as kinds subordinate to a human being, the beauty of a man or woman or child), or the beauty of a horse or of a building (such as a church, palace, armory, or summer-house) does presuppose the concept of the purpose that determines what the thing is [meant] to be, and hence a concept of its perfection, and so it is merely adherent beauty. […] Much that would be liked directly in intuition could be added to a building, if only the building were not [meant] to be a church. A figure could be embellished with all sorts of curlicues and light but regular lines, as the New Zealanders do with their tattoos, if only it were not the figure of a human being. And this human being might have had much more delicate features and a facial structure with a softer and more likable outline, if only he were not (meant] to represent a man, let alone a warlike one. “ 29
The judgment of a purposeful object, such as a man, or in this case Stalin and Hitler, is “merely adherent beauty” because of our presupposed conceptions of the object/subject. A flower, on the other hand, has a function that is not interesting to us, thus it is a self-supporting beauty.
Referring to characters in tragedy, Aristotle suggests that they should first and foremost be good (better than us*), and he explains that “this is possible in every class of person: there is such a thing as a good woman and a good slave, even if one of these is perhaps inferior, and the other base.“ 30
The conclusion is that we should not judge characters in a stage play based on who they are, but how they are represented. That explains why women, who according to Aristotle and his contemporaries were inferior, could be portrayed as noble. This logic also applies to the example with Stalin and Hitler. For what poetry is concerned, we should not let ourselves be guided by our preconception of them as political leaders. We should look at their portraits and see if they have been painted in a manner that makes them look beautiful and preferably better than us.
Another example from Poetics that adds to Aristotle’s differentiation between morality and poetry is his justification of depicting corpses and “the most revolting animals” — as long as they are represented in a highly realistic manner. 31
Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” does exactly what the title suggests; it offers us critical ideas concerning judgment. Kant shows little interest for painters, sculptors and architects. Instead, he teaches critique and suggests that “the reflective judgement which is compelled to ascend from the particular in nature to the universal stands, therefore, in need of a principle. This principle it cannot borrow from experience, because what it has to do is to establish just the unity of all empirical principles under higher, though likewise empirical, principles, and thence the possibility of the systematic subordination of higher and lower. Such a transcendental principle, therefore, the reflective judgement can only give as a law from and to itself. It cannot derive it from any other quarter (as it would then be a determinant judgement).” 32
The beautiful object must be judged alone and you cannot borrow any knowledge that could pollute your judgment. It is arguably this view that lay the foundation for modern art criticism through art historians and art critics.
Aristotle has the more old-fashioned view that “people experienced in any department judge rightly the works produced in it, and understand by what means or how they are achieved, and what harmonizes with what, the inexperienced must be content if they do not fail to see whether the work has been well or ill made—as in the case of painting.” 33
This attitude towards crafts echoes the story about the shoemaker who finds fault with the sandal in Apelles’ painting. Apelles rectifies the mistake but when the shoemaker then finds fault with the subject’s leg, Apelles famously says: “Cobbler, do not go beyond your last.”
Aristotle himself could quickly find himself in the shoemaker’s position. There is a good amount of objections and praises made against different kinds of poets in his surviving work.
If he has not contradicted himself, It is astonishing to think about the wide range of Aristotle’s achievements within disciplines such as comedy, tragedy, painting and stage production, that presumably are now lost to us.
For a person who considers the admiration of beauty to be an intellectual occupation, the answer is obvious: contemplation.
“Every one must allow that a judgement on the beautiful which is tinged with the slightest interest, is very partial and not a pure judgement of taste. One must not be in the least prepossessed in favour of the real existence of the thing, but must preserve complete indifference in this respect, in order to play the part of judge in matters of taste.”
He goes on to say that “if the question is whether something is beautiful, what we want to know is not whether we or anyone cares, or so much as might care, in any way, about the thing’s existence, but rather how we judge it in our mere contemplation of it (intuition or reflection)”34
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that “when one is active about two things at once; the more pleasant activity drives out the other. […] in the theatre the people who eats sweets do so most when the actors are poor.”35
Aristotle was a man who observed nature and drew his conclusions based on what he observed. Referring to painting and sculpting among other disciplines, he also noted that “each class of things is better judged of and brought to precision by those who engage in the activity with pleasure.” 36
In the Poetics, he firmly states the importance of attaining the instant and enthusiastic reaction from the viewer. “The story,” he says, “should be put together in such a way that even without seeing the play a person hearing the series of events should feel dread and pity.” 37
Kant believes the genius to possess a god-given talent. The genius cannot teach his ability to others, at least not entirely.
“The product of a genius (in respect of so much in this product as is attributable to genius, and not to possible learning or academic instruction) is an example, not for imitation (for that would mean the loss of the element of genius, and just the very soul of the work), but to be followed by another genius — one whom it arouses to a sense of his own originality in putting freedom from the constraint of rules so into force in his art that for art itself a new rule is won — which is what shows a talent to be exemplary. […] imitation becomes aping when the pupil copies everything down to the deformities which the genius only of necessity suffered to remain, because they could hardly be removed without loss of force to the idea.” 38
“The force of the idea” is essential here. Observation would tell us that many masterpieces are in fact either direct copies or “in the style of.” But as Kant deals with philosophical absolutes, this needs to be dismissed.
Although Aristotle never covers this issue in plain language, he does say that “men will be good or bad builders as a result of building well or badly. For if this were not so, there would have been no need of a teacher, but all men would have been born good or bad at their craft.” 39
Perhaps the issue of the pupil who “remains in the shadow of his master” was close to non-existent in Ancient Greece. The question is tied up with the concern for originality and it is likely that Aristotle would present a follow-up question and ask if the distance is necessary because it is (A) for the betterment of the poet or (B) for the betterment of his poetry.
But the initial question asks if the pupil “ought” to take distance, to which it is certain that Aristotle would say “No!”
It sums in some ways up his entire philosophy, his way of undermining our senses and their connection to our reasoning: “It will be found that a perfectly regular face, such as a painter would like to have as a model, usually conveys nothing. This is because it contains nothing characteristic and hence expresses more the idea of the [human] kind than what is specific in one person; if what is characteristic in this way is exaggerated. i.e., if it offends against the standard idea (of the purposiveness of the kind) itself, then it is called a caricature. Experience shows, moreover, that such wholly regular faces usually indicate that inwardly too the person is only mediocre.” 40
In Physiognomics — a work generally attributed to Aristotle — it says that “if the ill-proportioned are scoundrels the well-proportioned would naturally be just and courageous.”
It further states that “the most favourable part for examination is the region round the eyes, forehead, head and face; secondly, the region of the breast and shoulders, and lastly that of the legs and feet; the parts about the belly are of least importance. Generally speaking, these regions supply the clearest signs, in which there is greatest evidence of intelligence.” 41
Regardless of whether Aristotle is the author of this writing or not, it is yet again certain that he would not deem those with symmetrical faces as stupid.