Kant and the Sociology of Taste
The sociology of taste is a modern discipline that is sometimes thought as undermining Kant’s theories of pure aesthetic judgment. Kant has supplied a rigorously rational analysis of aesthetic judgment, and describes the ideal which all such judgments tend to as ‘pure aesthetic judgment’. But since the advent of sociology, through the likes of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, aesthetic judgment tends to be explained in sociological terms, and the metaphysical approach of Kant is increasingly derided.
But this paper argues that the sociology of taste, such as is promoted by Pierre Bourdieu, has no bearing on Kant’s theories, because they do not address the same question.
Kant is a philosopher, and he scarcely encroaches on the field of sociology. Of course a philosopher cannot ignore society. Kant alludes to society when he calls something practical, or contingent. Aesthetic judgment takes place in the context of society, as far as it is motivated by determinate ends.
Only that part of it which transcends all determinate ends, and prefigures beauty, in its purity, and in its inexplicableness, may be said to be beyond the bounds of society. The object of Kant’s metaphysics is to point out how the contingent is ruled by the transcendental. Therefore, in his epistemology he makes out practical reason to be ruled by pure reason, and is his critique of morality he describes duty as being ruled by the categorical imperative. His critiques of morality and judgment are in fact based on his epistemology, and not surprisingly bear the same structure (Kant 1987, p. 225). In his earlier analysis judgment was simply described as the sum of the various faculties of the mind, both innate and acquired, and which function towards perception and understanding. On the one hand there were the pure concepts of the mind, such as ‘cause and effect’. On the other hand there was practical reason, which utilizes the universal concepts of the mind towards judgment of sensory perception. In the third critique however judgment is introduced as a faculty in its own right, and is said to be innate. Its function is to mediate between the universal concepts of the mind and practical reason. Two kinds of judgment are postulated – there are judgments ‘with a concept’, and then those ‘without a concept’. In the first case the concept contains enough information for the judgment to be made in a determinate fashion. But all the complexity arises from the second case in which the judgment turns out to be an original contribution over and above the facts of the matter. It is this sort of judgment that is classed as aesthetic, which in the ideal sense is described as ‘pure’.
We must immediately distinguish between aesthetic judgment and taste. To make this distinction Kant uses the example of judging fine art. We may express a painting to be beautiful, without it being required of us to explain our judgment. It is only the professional art critic who is expected to provide a considered explanation. Now, what the professional art critic is likely to come up with is an account of taste. He will give us a litany of the various historical conventions in art that has either been followed, or has been deliberately flouted by the artist, or in what sense the painting is in harmony with natural law, and so on. This ‘lawfulness’ is what is expressed by taste, and it is a necessary adjunct to creative art, because the aesthetic idea is only an expression of the rational idea, and genius is employed only in aesthetic creation. But our first untutored judgment is the more valuable, and for the very reason that such a judgment is beyond explanation. It is pertaining to pure aesthetic judgment, and is therefore suffused with the highest reason, or the highest good.
So the object of Kant’s philosophy is not to explain taste, but rather to overcome the dialectics of taste towards acquiring pure aesthetic judgment. The sociology of taste, on the other hand, in only concerned with the dialectics of taste, and therefore does not interfere with Kant’s conclusions. We consider the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu in this regard. He does not see the point in considering individual judgment as purely rationally motivated, because he sees judgment as severely constrained by social barriers. He sees society as divided into “social spaces”, the borders of which may be defined by various factors – economic class, ethnicity, religion, common interest, and so on. Within a social space one is described as having “cultural capital”. Simply put, it expresses the fact that it is not wise to strike out on one’s own regarding aesthetic preference. In certain matters it is better to fit into the crowd, following the precept which says that there is strength in numbers. It marks a process of consolidation behind cultural battle lines, so that each group “has its own artists and philosophers, newspapers and critics, just as it has its hairdresser, interior decorator or tailor” (Bourdieu 1977, pp. 231-32). For example, a boy from the ghetto might have an innate aesthetic sense which would normally make him dress in a prim and formal style, more in keeping with upper class boys who attend private schools. But such an aesthetic sense is unlikely to find full expression, because the boy comes to realize by stages that such a preference does not represent cultural capital. In the end he dresses down like all the other boys in the ghetto. It is not even correct to say that he has been forced to do so. It is simply that his aesthetic sense has been conditioned by his social situation.
But it is a mistake to suppose that Kant’s theory does not take such possibilities into consideration. He concedes that aesthetic judgment is necessarily tasteful. To be tasteful does not only entail following conventional schools of taste. It in fact suggests lawfulness in the most general sense, so that we are able to ‘explain’ the judgment by the means of cause and effect. Through such an explanation the choice is made natural. Social constraints are causes, just as well as academic schools of taste are. Pure aesthetic judgment is posited as an ideal, and one that is able to subsume all these chaotic instances of taste. An innate desire to dress primly is not an ideal. It is only one more instance of taste.
As illustration we consider the 1873 painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926) titled “Sunset, an impression”. It was included among the radical Parisian exhibition of that year that inaugurated the movement known as Impressionism, an epithet which derives from the title of this work. To the literary and artistic establishment of the time Impressionism was the height of bad taste. It was a conscious protest against formalism in art, which was the norm. It can even be argued that formalism has always been the dominant mode in the Western tradition, and many identify the source of this tradition in Plato’s conception of ideal forms. Formalism in art posits that we derive aesthetic pleasure from essential form. Kant added further strength to this tradition by asserting that only form is the source of aesthetic judgment. He argued from the point of view of ‘disinterestedness’. Pure aesthetic judgment, says Kant, is disinterested, so that we cannot explain it as serving a determinate end. Kant’s comment was influential in guiding fine art towards abstraction. Expressionism reacts against this trend. Its object is to obliterate all innate forms from a composition, putting the emphasis instead on spontaneity and the temporal aspect. Brushstrokes are broad and hasty, the colors are pure and unmixed, and the subject matter is not limited to any part of the frame, but instead is suffused throughout the canvass. All these comments apply well to Monet’s painting mentioned above. We are told that the subject is a sunset, and yet we are drawn to all parts of the canvass in the same way, so that we with have an impression, not a study (Monet 1873).
At first glance Impressionism seems to vindicate Kant against Bourdieu, for the impressionist is drawn towards pure aesthetic expression, and is able to ignore convention. But Bourdieu will argue that only the very first impressionist paintings were radical works. Very soon the artist will want to belong to a group rather than to strike out with abandon, so that as a school of art Impressionism represents conformity rather than spontaneity. But the argument does not arise in the first place, because Kant is not concerned with ‘means towards ends’ as Bourdieu is. Both motives, wanting to belong to a group, and wanting to depict one’s spontaneous impression of a sunset, are equally teleological acts to Kant, and therefore has nothing to do with pure aesthetic judgment. If we are genuinely moved by Monet’s painting we are involved in aesthetic judgment, just as we are when we are moved by his later effort “Blue Water Lilies”, which is definitely more conformist towards a genre (Monet 1916).
In conclusion, the sociology of taste, as presented by such sociologists as Bourdieu, does not undermine Kant theories regarding pure aesthetic judgment because they are exclusive to each other. Bourdieu provides sociological explanations for taste, an area that Kant does not comment on at all. Kant acknowledges that aesthetic judgment will be guided by taste, but this will not explain why one is actually moved by beauty. To explain the latter Kant posits the existence of pure aesthetic judgment as an ideal, not as a contingent explanation.
BOURDIEU, P., 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
KANT, I., 1987. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Minneapolis: Hackett Publishing.
MONET, C., 1873. “Impression, Sunrise”. Painting. Dimensions: 63 x 48 cm. Type: oil on canvas. Location: Musée Marmottan, Paris, France. Information found at: Monetalia: Claude Monet paintings gallery [online]. Available from: http://www.monetalia.com/paintings/monet–impression-sunrise.aspx [Accessed 19 May 2008].
MONET, C., 1916. “Blue Water Lilies”. Painting. Dimensions: 200 x 200 cm. Type: oil on canvas. Location: Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Information found at: Monetalia: Claude Monet paintings gallery [online]. Available from: http://www.monetalia.com/paintings/monet-blue-water-lilies.aspx [Accessed 19 May 2008].
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