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Jeremy Proulx “Nature, Judgment and Art: Kant and the Problem of Genius”

Proulx, Jeremy 2011. Nature, Judgment and Art: Kant and the Problem of Genius. Kant Studies Online: 27-53.
In §46 of the Critique of Judgment Kant defines genius as ‘the innate [angebornes] mental predisposition [Gemütsanlage] (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art.’ (27)
If art is to be considered beautiful – if fine art is to be possible – then it must in some way be ‘natural’. Kant needs a conception of artistic genius that can account for art objects that are at once products of artistic intention and yet conceal this intention by appearing as necessary products of natural mechanism. (27)
[…] I will argue that since Kant seems to understand the genius’ connection to nature as a relationship in which creativity mirrors nature’s original productivity, the peculiar talent of the genius lay in an ability to find ‘natural’ expression for aesthetic ideas. (29)
‘[A]rt,” so the famous passage goes, ‘can be called fine [schön] art only if we are conscious that it is art while yet it looks to us like nature.’ Art is at once an opus of the artist and an effectus of natural fecundity (Fruchtbarkeit). The special relationship between the genius and nature is here explained by pointing out that on Kant’s model of aesthetic appreciation nature is the paradigm case of beauty, so that if art can be called beautiful at all it is only insofar as it appears as a natural product. (30)
[…] Kant wavers between the more radical claim that genius can produce natural effects and the claim that art is always guided by the intentions of the artist. For if art is just an opus, then the artist must employ a judgment of taste to ensure that his intentions are communicable to others. (33)
I suggest that the tension between genius and taste is not evidence of ambiguity (at least not only ambiguity) on Kant’s part, but is rather a tension internal to genius itself […] (33)
There are three basic ways that Kant defines genius: 1) originality; 2) exemplarity and communicability; and 3) naturalness. (34)
Genius is a natural phenomenon, a result of nature’s original productivity. Kant’s term in the third Critique is ‚Naturgabe’. ‘Art,’ so Kant’s reflection continues, ‘is like a garden, in which everything happens according to a method […]’. Genius is the avenue through which nature becomes subject to rules that have their origin in human reason. On this conception, fine art is a mediated form of nature itself. (35)
A necessary condition for fine art is thus 1) that nature acts through the genius, and 2) that it is this natural force that is the source of creativity. (35)
Kant, 1772-1773: ‘Not the imitation of nature, but rather the original fruitfulness of nature is the ground of beautiful art.’ (36)
So when Kant identifies the artistic genius with nature, he seems to mean: 1) that artistic beauty, just like natural, can be given at least a partial explanation in terms of determinate concepts; and 2) that such a mechanical explanation cannot explain the beauty that results from what on some level at least seems to be governed by determinate rules. (37)
But simply cobbling together conceptual components does not make a fine work of poetry just like any old natural form does not amount to natural beauty. The artistic genius may create ‘another nature out of the material that actual nature gives’, but this is more than simply putting together elements according to the laws of the understanding because, as Kant says, the work of genius must proceed without the guidance of any rule. (37)
To be ingenious is to expand concepts by creating new associations, new connections between concepts that expand the concepts themselves. Kant uses the example of the concept of the sublimity and majesty of creation. (37-38)
The talent of the genius consists in the ability to find ‘natural’ expression for such concepts, an expression that, while completely novel, completely unpredictable, seems to follow necessarily from what we mean by a concept. In this, we can understand what Kant means when he requires that fine art is both original and exemplary: art must be new, but it cannot be nonsense, it must serve as an example. A great work of art strikes us as original; it gives us a new, exemplary aesthetic way to think a concept. (38)
The peculiar talent of the genius consists in the ability to render a rational concept in such a way that it strikes us as ‘natural’, a necessary implication of the concept. (38-39)
To create art is quite literally to create another nature, a nature populated by ideas that exceed the bounds of sense, and held together by the aesthetic ingenuity that yet finds a sensible expression to capture such ideas. (39) – „a nature of ideas”
In reflective judgment, the order of operations from apprehension to comprehension to exhibition is short-circuited because that which is apprehended (beauty) resists comprehension. (40)
Before the third Critique, Kant had always maintained that imagination and understanding take on a relation of cooperation that unifies a manifold into a structured object. Now we learn that imagination and understanding can take on a new relation, a relation characterized by ‘harmonious free play’ rather than cooperation. This means that the typical relationship between imagination and understanding – the relationship in which imagination provides content that the understanding logically comprehends – is unhinged; that is, the imagination is no longer bound to the laws of the understanding, leaving its manifold free from the conceptual rule of the understanding and consequently from the imposition of determinative judgment. (40)
Without going into any of the necessary details, reflective judgment is not concerned to exhibit some concept of this state of the freedom of the imagination, but rather to reflect on it. The object of reflection is not, then, some object of experience (for to be an object at all in the Kantian sense is to be conceptually determined) but rather the purposive relation between imagination and understanding itself. (41)
In the case of empirical cognition, the relationship between imagination and understanding is purposive in that its purpose is to determine an object by exhibiting a concept that fits a given manifold. When confronted with the beautiful, this purpose of determining an object to be an instance of a concept is replaced by a purposiveness without a purpose because while the purpose of concept exhibition is absent, the purposive relation itself remains. That which is apprehended, though it cannot be comprehended, still harmonizes with the understanding. (41)
In the case of the experience of the sublime, the imagination is given even more freedom in that it is charged with the task of coming up with some supersensible meaning for what is a purely sensible given content. But when it comes to Kant’s account of artistic genius, imagination is charged with the even more challenging task of coming up with a sensible version of a supersensible idea. (43)
Indeed, Kant claims that artistic genius is characterized by an ‘ability to exhibit aesthetic ideas’, and defines an aesthetic idea as ‘the counterpart (pendant) of a rational idea’. A rational idea is a concept that cannot be exhausted by any intuition; an aesthetic idea is an imaginative presentation that cannot be thought determinatively. An aesthetic idea gives sensible life to that which is purely rational. (44-45)
An aesthetic idea is, as Kant says, a ‘presentation of the imagination’ that exceeds any possible determination by concepts. (45)
It is striking that Kant’s understanding of ‘spirit’ is so similar to the function of concept exhibition that he assigns to determinative judgment. Just as the latter is charged with the task of exhibiting a concept that the understanding comprehends out of an apprehended manifold of imagination, the function of spirit is to exhibit a rational concept in an aesthetic way, as an aesthetic idea. “When the imagination is used for cognition,” Kant says, “then it is under the constraint of the understanding […] [b]ut when the aim is aesthetic, then the imagination is free.” (48)
That which is presented in the imagination is conceptually grasped and determined by judgment to be an instance of a concept. The process of creativity on the other hand moves from reason to imagination to judgment. Here, the process begins with a rational concept or an idea that needs to find expression. (48)
So art is beautiful only when it is natural; only when, that is, it employs judgment to arrive at an expression that is meaningful to others and that gives aesthetic life to ideas that for most of us are only rational. And just as nature is not some inconceivable jumble, if art is to be successful in communicating a supersensible idea, then it is necessary that it too cannot be an inconceivable jumble; it is necessary, in short, that it be subject to a judgment of taste. (49)
“Taste,” Kant says, “is the basis of judging, genius however of execution.” The idea here seems to be that genius is the creative force behind the work, while taste makes the judgments that keep the work within the realm of comprehensibility. Thus, Kant continues,
“[T]aste without genius brings dissatisfaction with oneself; […] in contrast, much genius brings crude yet valuable products.” (50)
Kant: „Genius is not some sort of demon that gives out inspirations and revelations. If genius is to have matter, then one must have learned much or formally and methodically studied. Genius is also not a special kind and source of insight; it must be able to be communicated and made understandable to everyone. Genius only comes in where talent and industry do not reach; but if the illuminations presented amant obscurum and do not want to be seen and examined in the light at all, when they do not yield any graspable idea: then the imagination is raving, and, since its product is nothing (Nichts ist), it has not arisen from genius at all, but is only an illusion (Blendwerk).” (51-52 – Notes and Fragments, 15:393, 899.)
I shall conclude simply by pointing out that all of this supports the interpretation that genius is not some separate faculty, but rather a manner in which the faculties are set into motion. Kant makes this point explicitly in a reflection from 1776-78: “Genius […] is a principium of the animation of all the other powers through whatever idea of objects one wants.” And in the Anthropology Kant claims that genius, talent and spirit constitute a certain animation of the faculties. (52)

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