Xavier Journal of Undergraduate Research

Article Title

A Kantian Redefining of the Conception of "Art"


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In this paper, I analyze Kant’s theory of art through the claim from Clement Greenberg that Kant was the first Modern Formalist. Formalism is the way in which we judge a value of a work determined by its formal properties such as a line, shape, color, etc. Modernism is defined by breaking away from a style or movement in traditional or classical arts. Clement Greenberg has co-opted the term formalism to mean modernism and has thus conflated Kant’s theory for his own. Greenberg’s theory gifts modern art with the concept of absolute autonomy, but as a by-product he pushes the discussion of quality into the background. Kant and Greenberg differ in two respects, through the criteria of beauty and through Kant’s aesthetic ideas. Fine art is beautiful art for Kant: a declaration produced through reflective judgment that occurs when the imagination (the power of intuitions) harmonizes with the understanding (the power of concepts). Second, in his explication of aesthetic ideas, Kant assigns the production of fine art to genius and the judgment of fine art to taste. Greenberg’s discussion only covers taste, which is what I highlight to be the cause for modernism’s allowance of both bad art and non-art to pass as fine. Through my explication of Greenberg’s overarching criticism (I), the relationship between Greenberg and Kant (II), an analysis of Kant’s theory of art that is compatible but not restricted to modern formalism (III), and an example of art, Yves Klein’s Blue, through both a Kantian and Greenbergian lens to demonstrate the loss of discerning value through Greenberg’s modernism (IV), I hope to revive value judgment in art criticism covering all movements; past, present, and future.

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