Kant and the Politics of Beauty
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Kant and the Politics of Beauty

That aesthetics and ideology collaborate with each other is now a common assumption in many intellectual and academic circles. Art is ideological, it is widely declared, and, of course, ideology possesses a powerful aesthetic dimension as well. Terry Eagleton believes that the aesthetic is “a peculiarly effective ideological medium,” while Paul de Man reminds us that “the aesthetic still concerns us as one of the most powerful ideological drives to act upon the reality of history.” 1 Increasingly, in fact, postmodern theorists discuss aesthetics and ideology in a single breath, preferring to apply the term, “the aesthetic ideology,” whenever they are mapping out either aesthetic or political problems. This collapsing of terms may not seem very rigorous, but it has gained widespread appeal—and to the point where ideology critique, originally a radical branch of political science, is now more likely to concern itself with aesthetic judgments than political ones.

Before aesthetic judgments could be condemned as ideological, however, they had to be recognized as political. Beauty was first linked to politics in Homer’s account of the judgment of Paris and its disastrous results for Greece and Troy, and classical Athens under Pericles fell in love with its own beautiful democracy. Renaissance Florence and the English Commonwealth both served as imaginative backdrops to prepare for Shaftesbury’s invention of the virtuoso science of aesthetics, while Winckelmann created a cult of German Hellenism that equated the study of beauty with the rise of political freedom. Winckelmann, of course, inspired the man who first coined the phrase, “the aesthetic state,” but before Schiller was able to imagine this state, he needed a philosophical basis by which to link aesthetics to politics, and he found it in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Prior to the [End Page 31] eighteenth century, any number of notions of beauty had fired the political imagination of artists and politicians alike, but no argument had yet arisen that was strong enough to validate a politics of beauty in terms acceptable to the rigors of either philosophy or political science. Kant gave philosophical rigor to some twenty-five centuries of dreaming about the politics of beauty. 2

It was Kant, then, who established the conditions by which the emergent category of the aesthetic could be linked philosophically to politics. For him, the relation between the history of aesthetics and politics is no longer haphazard—a happy or unhappy compression of unrelated images and ideas. The symbolism between the two is motivated by a theory of human cognition. This explains why Kant is placed at the origin of both totalitarianism and modern liberalism, 3 for each relies as never before on the symbolic links between aesthetics and politics. It also explains why Kant and his work, especially The Critique of Judgment, are a bone of contention between those who condemn the aestheticization of politics and those who argue that it is not only useful but inevitable. The third Critique comes closest of all Kant’s works to an engagement with politics, with the possible exception of Perpetual Peace —at least that has been the reading given by the most politically interested of his modern interpreters, many of whom conclude that aesthetic judgments, especially of the beautiful, are a great resource for the political imagination. 4 A reading in this spirit is worth pursuing for two reasons. First, its implications have been largely ignored by postmodernists, who tend to brood about the sublime. Second, it suggests an alternative to dogmatic critiques of the aesthetic ideology. While critics of the aesthetic ideology condemn beauty as inherently fascist, a Kantian reading describes it as the element by which the contradictory impulses of individual freedom and social responsibility might be symbolically mediated, thereby making aesthetics indispensable to a democratic conception of political judgment.

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It would be beyond the scope of this small, polemical defense to explicate Kant’s Critique of Judgment in full, but it is possible to highlight the parts of his argument vital to the politics of beauty. The most obvious place to begin is with Kant’s sketch of aesthetic judgment itself. The third Critique defines two different types of judgment...