- Kant with Michael Fried: Feeling, Absorption, and Interiority in the Critique of Judgment
While the greater part of criticism and reflection on Kant takes the question of aesthetics in the Critique of Judgment to center on the subject’s relation to art, art is not actually Kant’s model of aesthetic experience in the text.1 Niether is it simply nature. The Critique of Judgment, in other words, cannot simply be understood as Kant’s engagement with the realm of what we understand by aesthetics. Rather, it is the case that in the third Critique, an aesthetic object for Kant constitutes itself as aesthetic object only in relation to a particular kind of subject or unique experience of the subject. Aesthetic experience for Kant is an economy between subject and object rather than an encounter with what we understand by beauty. Aesthetics, then, rather than being the division of Kant’s philosophy concerned with art or the beautiful becomes, instead, a mode or a displaced way of his posing questions about subjectivity more generally.
The fact that Kant does not understand aesthetic experience, or the power of judgment, to be primarily “of” art or to be limited to the experience of art has great consequences for how the third Critique can be read and for what its implications are for Kant’s philosophy as well as for literature and philosophy following Kant. How an aesthetic object constitutes itself as aesthetic object, for Kant, cannot be understood simply in terms of the object’s formal features. The question of the constitution of an aesthetic object in the third Critique is neither a formal nor even an epistemological one. Because Kant conceives aesthetic experience as an economy, Kant’s aesthetic object must work to achieve an ontological shift in itself, one through which too a different kind of subject is brought into existence. It is an economy that, as I hope to show, bears a striking resemblance to the shift between artwork and apprehender that Michael Fried claims transpires at about the same period in the history of art and conceptions of aesthetic experience. [End Page 15]
Kant famously terms the aesthetic a “separate” sphere of experience in the Critique of Judgment. The “separateness” of aesthetic experience for Kant is grounded in the difference and division of this kind of experience from other kinds of experience—moral, intellectual, sensible, everyday, and so on. One of the implications of the fact that Kant does not take aesthetic experience primarily to be the subject’s experience of art is that the “separateness” of aesthetic experience in the third Critique is not a function of the difference of the art object from other kinds of objects. That art is somehow “different” does not for Kant take care of the distinctness characteristic of aesthetic experience. If aesthetic experience is different or separate, then, this difference becomes in the text a question of the subject’s very capacity for this “separation”—Kant calls it “disinterest”—that is, the subject’s capacity for a kind of experience distinct and in a particular sense disengaged from the moral, practical, sensible, intellectual, or everyday. Kant does nothing short in this text, in other words, of giving explicit articulation to a wholly new capacity of the subject, in effect a new dimension or aspect of what he at one point calls the human: the capacity to be disinterested, neither ethically nor practically driven, one which grants and requires a new relationship to the self, to others, and to the natural world. The third Critique, then, is not only a seminal text in the emergence of aesthetics as a division of philosophy. It also recasts the question of the nature of experience generally in light of the fact that for Kant something like aesthetic experience or the exercise of the power of judgment is possible.
Kant measures the difference or distinctness of aesthetic experience not according to the kind of object the subject encounters—art, or the beautiful in nature—but instead by what he very specifically calls the “feeling”—Lebensgefühl—engendered in the subject. It is that feeling that makes aesthetic experience different and distinct. The task...