Kant's Notion of 'Genius' in Art

This article was written in 1999 and was part of a paper I was completing in Art Theory under the tutelage of Dr Denis Dutton. Having the good fortune to be a student of Dr Dutton was a highlight of my academic studies and I am very proud to boast of an 'A' mark for this particular essay. I have updated it slightly and it will be part of a larger collection of academic articles I plan on publishing later this year, concentrating on art and philosophical theory. Dr Denis Laurence Dutton unfortunately passed away in 2010 (9 February 1944 – 28 December 2010) but had an impressive career as a philosopher of art, web entrepreneur and media activist. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was also a co-founder and co-editor of the websites Arts & Letters Daily, ClimateDebateDaily.com and cybereditions.com. I highly recommend you check out Dr Dutton's website here.

Dr Denis Dutton


KANT’S NOTION OF GENIUS IN ART


Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804)

In an integral section of The Critique of Judgement[1] that deals with notions of art, Kant attempts to explain what constitutes a fine or beautiful work of art and that which is called genius. In the ‘Deduction of Pure Aesthetic Judgements’, he begins his analysis by stating that for the representation of any work of art to be possible; it must have certain rules at its foundation. He initially asserts that a work of art can only be “fine art if its purpose is that the pleasure should accompany presentations that are ways of cognizing”(§ 44.2). That is, that the pleasure is in the reflection, rather than the sensation, that the work presents. With fine art, however, being distinct from other art (i.e. ‘agreeable’ art), the beauty of the work is independent of any concept. Therefore, for Kant, a work of fine art is not derivative of any rule that has a concept as its basis.  From this deduction, it follows that “fine art is only possible as the product of genius” (§46.3).
This definition, of the kind of purpose a fine artwork has, evolves alongside the notion of genius as Kant continues. He claims that such a purposiveness “without a purpose”, generates (on a universal level) a development of the intellect and our ability to communicate socially. Presumably, this communication is to be about the very thing that has furthered the “culture of our mental powers”(§ 44.4), i.e. fine art. He then seeks to justify this claim by explaining what genius consists of and how a work of genius (fine art) is determined (or indeterminable). The defining purposiveness of fine art and its aesthetic characteristics is central as the locus for his treatment of genius and a definition of both as natural in character, purpose, and effect.

Kant’s notion of genius tends to provide a privileged view of the artist, or producer of fine art, with ethereal and conjectural claims. For example: “the artist’s skill can not be communicated but must be conferred directly on each person by the hand of nature” (§ 47.1). This particular quality of natural endowment is what distinguishes a genius from a scientist, who incidentally can not be a genius unless he/she meets the criteria for genius, and is a fine artist. This is near impossible, in relation to Kant’s ‘rules’ of genius, considering that discoveries of science rely on pre-existing rules and empirical proof of explanatory explanation. Any exception to the rule, I suspect, would be considered an accident of fate or a scientific misadventure rather than the work of a genius. However, it is clear that Kant’s does not favour these scientists below the producers of fine art or works of genius. He in fact claims that they are “far superior to those who merit the honor of being called geniuses”(§ 47.1).

Kant’s explication of genius does not definitively say how or why nature endows a particular person with genius in order to produce fine art. This leads one to inquire as to whether ‘nature’ favours those, whose habitus enables the pursuit of ‘fine art’ and the expression of genius. Moreover, whether such bestowed status is a phenomenon of Western society and breeding, as that is where the majority of ‘fine art’ is produced. Of course there have been many non-western artists from cultures lacking in fine art environments and education, which have mysteriously produced works of genius commonly known as fine art without any recourse to intent, rules of tradition, technique, qualifications etc. Despite my obvious (politically correct) scepticism about this aspect of Kant’s notion, it raises an important question about fine art, which is what ‘fine art’ means for Kant.

Kant defines fine art as being the ‘art of genius’, claiming that “nature, through genius, prescribes the rule not to science but to art, and this also only insofar as the art is to be fine art” (§ 46.4). He defines genius as an innately natural enigma that characterizes the creator of fine art and which is also necessary for the creation of fine art that is original, exemplary, and ‘naturally’ endowed. It is primarily a talent that can not be taught by rules, its main principle (or property) being ‘originality’; rather it applies and creates the rules with its ‘exemplary’ products that others seek to imitate. The creator of fine art is born a genius; a product of ‘nature’, devoid of reason and empirical explanation for their involuntary bursts of inspired ideas (§ 46.4).

Aesthetic ideas, rather than the work itself, seem to define Kant’s notion of genius. The ingenious idea and its effect on related objects and concepts, the manipulation of imagination and the means to do so, and the originality of the idea, are all aspects that take precedence over the aesthetic form of an artwork.  Moreover, these characteristics reveal ‘genius’ and not the work itself (on its own). For Kant, fine art is the art of genius, characterized by beauty, which has no purpose and is of universal character. The produced work is reflective of that genius which is a necessary part of its own production and ‘greatness’. Genius is an innately natural faculty that is a ‘rule’ unto itself, that imparts original talent and rules of art to the art-world. It is, no less, than “the innate-mental predisposition (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art” (§ 46. 1). This is paradoxical considering that for fine artworks, genius is the creator, and is also that without dependency or imitation of other ‘rules’. As Kant states, “genius must be considered the very opposite of a spirit of imitation” (§ 47.1).

Kant does not elaborate in depth on his proposition that originality is the central property of genius. He claims “genius is the exemplary originality of a subject’s natural endowment in the free use of his cognitive powers” (§ 49.12). Yet, he seems to take this as a given principle of genius without any further need of explanation, as he does ‘natural endowment’. These ambivalent aspects of his definitions provoke many questions and few answers, and it is probable that this is the reason why there is a shortage of explanatory elucidation. [2]

   Fine art, for Kant, eventuates and is discernible as a product of genius, only where “genius is a talent for producing something [more definitively: fine art] for which no definite rule can be given” (§ 46.4).  Therefore, as no definite rule can be a basis, the genius (artist/author) will not be able to explain how, why, and where the ideas that created the fine work of art originated. He claims that the “artist’s skill cannot be communicated but must be conferred directly on each person by the hand of nature” (§ 47.1). He distinguishes between the work of a genius and the work of a great mind in terms of determinative rules.

As rules do not enable the creation of works of genius, this is the reason why fine art works differ crucially from the work of a scientist, whose work is based entirely on formula, principles, and theoretical concepts of law.   He gives the example of Newton as a prime candidate for a great thinker who is not a genius because he, as a scientist, could “show how he took every one of the steps to get from the first elements of geometry to his great and profound discoveries . . . in an intuitive[ly clear] way, allowing others to follow”. Kant implies that no genius could empirically explain and track the origin of their ideas, as they themselves do not know. Therefore, no matter how important or groundbreaking the work of a scientist (or any other great thinker); it can not be the work of a genius. Kant sees this area of the genius’s mind as distinct from the scientist’s, because genius is characterized by ‘spirit’. This ‘spirit’ is the ability to present aesthetic ideas and a self-sustaining and “animating principle in the mind”(§ 49.2), and the justification for Kant’s distinction between fine arts, other art, and science.

Kant’s notion of a rule without concept, as the basis for a work of fine art, is problematic, as it is illogical in the standard sense of a rule, due to its lack of concept or principle characteristic.  Kant suggests that the only way, in which genius can be understood as a rule, is through experiencing works of genius. Yet, he also says, that “fine art cannot itself devise the rule by which it is to bring about its product” (§ 46.3). The works themselves become exemplary models, or rules, which a pupil can then use for inspiration although not for imitation.  Alternatively, the work of a genius may inspire other geniuses to create their own original works of genius.

Kant’s notion, that the artist cannot connect the rule of genius with aesthetic ideas and expression (or spirit), is not conclusive. If a ‘genius’ can not discern whence an idea originated from, then how could they possibly know that it was an original idea or one of exemplary genius? The answer is simple: if you can not identify the cause of an idea, it does not necessarily follow that the idea is ‘natural,’ original, exemplary, or of genius. It can also not be proven, nor does Kant even try to, that an idea of genius is not merely a memory of another work of genius that acts as a rule?

In other words, genius can not conclusively distinguish itself from other prior influences and rules, which ultimately affects the main principle of originality and the total subjectivity of the genius’s mind. Kant would refute this possibility, as he states:



“Genius 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 not meant to be imitated, but to be followed by another genius.  (For in mere imitation the element of genius in the work – which 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.” (§ 49.12)   

 

As decisive as this definition sounds, it is problematic. How can a work of fine art (the product of genius), not be affected by the rule of those fine artworks which it is meant to ‘follow’ on from, without a degree of imitation or appropriation in the idea of its creation? Here we can see, that a work of genius may ‘follow on’, and therefore may be traced at least to its origins by the inspiration of a prior work. It is also logical, as Kant claims, that if works of genius ‘follow on’ from each other, then “fine art is to that extent imitation, for which nature, through a genius, gave the rule” (§ 49.12). Here he actually gives us a rule that determines the procedure and the purpose of an aesthetic idea, i.e. to represent (imitate) nature by a natural faculty and procedure.

The main question generated by these ambivalent evocations of meaning, is what is nature for Kant? If ‘nature’ can pass on the rule, through a naturally endowed genius (who acts as a type of medium), to impart an exemplar to be followed by “another genius” – why does not nature just ‘give the rule’ to all geniuses, rather than by transference between like minds and their products? The question of who was the first genius that generated such a response from other geniuses, who were obviously just waiting around to be inspired by example, remains to be answered. ‘God’ seems like the most probable conclusion, rather than ‘nature’, for like the concept of God the notion of genius seems as mystical, creationist, aesthetic, conceptual, and inconclusive.     

If we accept that genius consists of ideas that cannot be explained, then there is good reason to think that maybe the term is itself redundant. If we cannot explain how or why genius occurs in certain people, other than some kind of phenomenological natural selection, then we are in no position to justify a definition of it, for no matter how logical the rest of the characteristics of genius may be, this ethereal aspect denigrates the whole notion’s validity as a definition. Kant does not give any reason why not everyone else has such a fundamental and evolutionary faculty either, which does nothing to justify his position that only a select few are so ‘endowed’.

Kant claims that fine artworks are essentially products of new and original ideas i.e. the work of genius. However, an original idea is logically indefinable, in that its uniqueness is hard to define, because it is supposedly like no other. This is where the term genius applies to that which is not understandable, or definable, because of its originality. Genius can not exist without the idea of genius existing before it; it is the concept that determines the term not the other way round. That is, we do not call someone a genius unless we have an understanding of what a genius is; otherwise, we would call them something else.

Kant’s notion of genius helps us to understand more about the artist (subject) and the processes of imaginative inspiration, than the artwork (object). However, like ‘art’ itself, we need to understand what ‘genius’ is, before we come to recognize it as such. In this respect, it is an associative principle that requires the empirical and material proof of its existence for us to perceive it as genius, contrary to Kant’s view. In order to see the genius in an artwork, we must be able to understand its significance as both an artwork and as an example of genius.

 For Kant genius, like art, is a manifestation of a natural and creative disposition toward imaginative and intellectual practice. Such a notion is far from an absolute justification of the artist, as somehow any more special than the rest of us. Instead, genius seems like an attempt to enlarge the profile of poetry as a fine art, as being somehow more valid as an aesthetically motivated production of genius. Why poetry is any more viable as fine art, let alone as the production of genius, than say prose, seems strange because both are constrained by form and conceptual rules, language being the main one. If it is because poetry was an oratorical mode, rather than a literary one, this might make sense; but even then, it would clash with Kant’s notion of music without words being a fine art. 

   In Kant’s discussion of genius and fine art, he primarily concentrates on poetry, as the main aesthetic vehicle for the ‘faculty’ of the imagination. It is as much a notion of autonomous freedom as it is about aesthetic creation; the work of genius i.e. fine art, could be seen as a quintessential expression of the freedom of the unfettered mind of the fine artist. Kant’s notion of genius also works paradoxically in confining fine art to that produced only by genius, yet imbuing it with an evolutionary purposiveness that ensures its perpetuation and its autonomy. The only other concept, that has similar properties of such indeterminable origins, is the religious or numinous concept of God. It is an attempt by Kant to see fine art as a transcendent form of freedom, an exemplar of morality and the human ‘spirit’ linked to its creator, in that it serves as a model for successive progression.

Whilst I have attempted to show that aspects of Kant’s notion of genius are inconclusive, if not empirically improbable, it is not to say that such a notion cannot be applied to aesthetic creation indefinable by any other means. Kant’s notion of genius is still useful in defining products of the creative faculty of the imagination, as fine art, and as a means of making some sense out of the phenomenon of original works and their creators. A recent art phenomena, which has used criteria similar to Kant’s to define peripheral (outside the fine arts) artefacts and the process by which they are created as art (and more specifically as fine art), is the genre of ‘Outsider Art’.

Arthur Danto compares the work of outsider artists, who he defines as “deeply outside artists, in that the art world does not enter into any explanation of their work . . . [e]ach was an art world unto himself”, to fine art and the Modernist era. He frequently uses the term ‘genius’ to describe the quality, process, originality, and characteristic qualities of the work of these people who create art on a par with fine art, but without any prior training, rules, or determinate concepts.[3]

Another recent article discusses the same topic, except under the different title of ‘visionary art’. John Maizels traces the origins of marginal forms of art and their subsequent inclusion and acquired status as viable works of art. He discusses the art of the mentally ill and ‘Art Brut’, amongst other art movements that appropriated and encouraged work of those who did not consider their work as art, rather as a means of expression. Maizels defines ‘visionary art’ as a concept that can:



“. . . restore the impetus of the reasoning behind the original “Art Brut” and “Outsider Art” concepts: work that is free from commercial pressures, that has little or no contact with the art world, that originates from deep within the creator, that is entirely personal, inventive, original; a pure and genuine expression of each individual that owes nothing to teaching or tradition and everything to an inventive mind, an idiosyncratic vision and an inner creative compulsion.”[4]



As can be seen, there is allusion to Kant’s notion of genius in these attempts to understand art in terms of creativity, originality, and as works that seem to have no allegiance to rules, standards, conventions of practice, or art tradition. They also meet the criteria for genius in that they are ‘successive’ in their influence, on generating new genres of art, within the art world, and the on other artists who recognize their own originality in their predecessors examples.

Danto’s relation of the Modernist’s example, whose credo was “make it new” (c/o Ezra Pound), to outsider art, also echoes Kant’s primary principle of genius, ‘originality’. David Novitz also traces the origins of the twentieth-century art world to a notion clearly resembling that of Kant’s:



“The twentieth-century has taken shape around a narrative according to which genuine artists enjoy a bountiful reservoir of talent – what some call “genius” that demands its own development and fulfilment. On this view, artists have both the right and, it seems, the sacred obligation to follow their genius wherever it may lead. In the end, it is the originality of an individual’s vision which allows him or her- the highest accolade of all: that of being an artistic genius.”[5]



If Kant’s notion of genius is still necessary for understanding art, which it obviously is, then it is to understand that in art, which is unexplainable. As I have shown, Kant’s deductive account of genius is both decisive, yet problematic in parts. Perhaps, the greatest weakness of his notion of genius in art, is the fact that the problematic aspects I have emphasized cannot be either disproved, or empirically proven. Nevertheless, it gives us a term and a set of characteristic qualities, which we can apply to artefacts and their producers as evidence of the creative process, that would probably otherwise remain a mystery.











NOTES:






[1]  Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Judgement, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987). All textual citations in parentheses refer to section and paragraph numbers.

[2]  Some of the exasperating questions I found myself asking of these particular notions of Kant’s, are as follows. If genius is innate in the subject, how is it that it is only manifests as a sporadic occurrence and not an everyday event? If one is naturally endowed, why is it that one may only create a single work of genius, and at the same time be entirely hopeless at other naturally normal activities like conversation or love-making?  Is it the ‘genius’, or the ‘talent’, that is fundamental? Can someone who is not a genius discern that which constitutes a work of ‘genius’ and the character of a genius? In other words can we all (universally) recognize a genius, or a work of genius, if what is needed to create a work of genius is surely what is needed to recognize it as such? Some of these questions are answerable, but seem too obvious. Some are probably not worth asking, yet were provoked by the particular notions, so are possibly relevant. As I have not read his other major works, I can not say with any certainty that Kant does not provide the answers to my questions. Hence my exclusion of these questions from the main text and argument of my essay.

[3]  Danto, Arthur, “Outsider Art”, in The Nation Digital Edition (World Wide Web: The Nation Company, 1997), at http://www.thenation.com.

[4]  Maizels, John, “An Introduction to Visionary Art”, in Raw Vision: An International Journal of Intuitive and Visionary Art, No. 27  (World Wide Web: Raw Vision, 1996?), at http://rawvision.com.

[5]  Novitz, David, The Boundaries of Art (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), p. 201.

 END


Dr Denis Dutton, Immanuel Kant, Philosophy, Art Theory, Article, Academic Essay, Genius, Art

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