The Importance of Intentions: Morality and Kant in Art
When trying to examine the topic of Art from a particular vantage point, it is important to first distinguish what is meant by the term in the context of discussion. Art, by nature and practice, is both an infinite and malleable process. The grandeur of its scale makes it hard to satisfactorily pin point with a simple definition. Its importance comes from its essence as an idea or process of thinking and acting which fluxes with, and reflects the context in which it is taking place. Art is a medium constructed by many forms and methods of creation: writing, drawing, acting, performing, etc. Without trying to tie Art down to a single manifestation, there are a few distinct elements that should be present when trying to delineate between what is Art and not Art. For one, the human element must always be present. Without consciousness there would be no way to be aware of our existence or any way to draw relationships between our selves as individuals and the rest of the universe. This would then make the next essential element, creation, impossible. All Art must necessarily be something that was created by a person. For instance, though we find the same beauty in both a sunset and a painting of a sunset, only the painting is considered Art. It involves the conscious act of bringing something into existence that did not previously exist in that unique form. However, we as humans are always creating things that cannot be considered art. Technically, just by existing I am altering things in ways that could be considered creation, whether it is moving an object to a different location, creating a new space, or interacting with another person, changing their perspective or mood. For this reason it is necessary to talk about the idea of intention in regards to Art. While it can be confidently said that part of the experience of interacting with Art is removed from the artist's intention, initially there must be some conscious decision on the part of the artist about what, how, and why he feels he should create something. Without this initial intention, the act of creation has no connection with the artistic experience. Beyond these basic principles, Art refers to a potentially infinite realm of ideas and forms and it is for this reason that people have continually pursued artistic endeavor since the beginning of human history.
Since Art has such a prevalent role in society, many philosophers have critically examined its effect on social issues. One of the major focus points when analyzing the social element of Art is the issue of morality. For the purposes of this essay, the focus will revolve around the distinguished moral philosopher Immanuel Kant's, whose 1785 publication, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, represents an important foundation for Kant’s ideas on morality. In the book, Kant approaches the problem of establishing an infallible concept of morality based on a priori principles. It is my aim to examine the act of artistic creation in the context of Kant's idea of morality, in order to better understand what role Art has in society, both past and present, in respect to his ideas of moral obligation. Having done this I will explore my own thoughts on the interaction between art and society.
Most people have an idea of what morality refers to. Whether it is based on religious dogma or more secular ideas, the basic idea of "goodness" is common throughout. When we attempt to distinguish what are the most successful means of existing within and propagating this goodness, we find the need to establish a concrete framework of moral conduct. Kant believes that a moral good is objective for all human beings and that the only actions that have moral worth are those that are determined exclusively through reason, without the influence of sensuous impulses. This basic principle forms the foundation for Kant’s theory on social morality.
However, ideas of good and bad are informed on the individual level before they are considered within a society. Through the cognitive recognition of an exterior stimulus in relation to all previous, and personal, cognitive experiences, my idea of good or bad is informed. To the individual, if we are to assume that he is functioning according to his biological needs of survival, this formation of good and bad is directly correlated to pain and pleasure. Naturally, we feel pleasure when we do things that sustain our existence, and inversely, we feel pain when we act in ways that could threaten that existence. In this sense, good and bad is subjective because these value judgments are dependent on the unique traits of the individual. It is when people begin to rely on each other for basic needs that conceptions of a larger moral framework change from a subjective grounds to an objective one. When people begin to interact and cooperate with each other on a consistent basis, ideas of good and bad are no longer related to the individual but are developed on the social level, through the consideration of an actions affect on a group of people. The question is no longer “What is good for me?” but “What is good for everybody”, and since it is so seldom that the action of an individual affects everyone equally, it becomes an extraordinarily difficult question to answer.
Rousseau posits in his On the Origin of the Natural Inequality of Mankind when people become dependent on one another there is a fundamental change in mankind from individual freedoms to one of communal dependence. This change includes the loss of certain individual strengths in favor of communal ones. Thus, this shift in what faculties we use to sustain ourselves as a group is reflected in the morality of that social structure as we replace individual needs with those of the community.
However, this transformation in humanity does not mean that individualism is completely replaced by social concerns. The dichotomy that arises between our egoism and the moral obligations we assume when we enter into a society is the source of great conflict, both internal and external to the individual. There is a constant struggle between satisfying our own inclinations and acting in accordance with, what we understand to be, the common good. This struggle is compounded because we are not always able to confidently distinguish between what is beneficial and what is detrimental outside of ourselves. Moreover, the problem of a morality is not only deciding what is the right thing for people to do, but also figuring out how to get them to actually do it. For this reason, Kant felt it necessary to formulate an idea of morality that was founded on a priori principles. He believed that by formulating a morality that was based on pure reason it would eliminate the guesswork involved with figuring out moral dilemmas. However, this is only possible from Kant’s view if we as humans are able to approach the question using our faculty of pure reason. Kant believed that as humans, our ability to use reason was the most distinguishing and important factor in determining proper moral conduct. But since the dictates of reason are only part of a great mixture of inclinations deriving from the brain’s other faculties, achieving this purity of mental disposition is not at all easy. Thus, ideas of morality are often informed through a combination many other personal inclinations outside of reason, and this causes many differences in opinion between people on how to behave properly and administer the same. The result is a society in which morality are many morals whose codes are dependent on the particular individual or group; not an objective, overarching singular moral structure.
To postulate how Kant regards Art in relation to morality, it is first necessary to understand what qualifies as being good and what actions can have true moral worth. In the very first sentence of the first paragraph of the first section of Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals Kant writes, “Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good, without qualification, except a good will.” This stems from the fact that though Kant believes in a true objective good, the individual who is not using their faculty of pure reason will still view good and bad subjectively. Since Kant’s moral concern is with the motivation of an action and not the effect, Kant spends a lot of time examining the “maxim” behind people’s actions. Kant defines a maxim as “the subjective principle of volition”. Since the maxim only refers to subjective ideas of good and bad for the individual, the moment the translation of a maxim to its external action occurs, the intention of the creator is gone and the action becomes subject to the subjective ideas of good and bad for those perceiving the action. For this reason Kant says that only the will to do good can be universally good. Kant does not say that there is nothing else good in the world besides a good will, but everything else requires “qualification” , or justification within a contingency. This means that a particular action may be looked upon favorably in one circumstance and unfavorable in another depending on contingent circumstances. From this we can say that, to a certain extent, the intention of the artist during the creative process cannot be an accurate determinate of the work’s reception, because Art, like all things is subject to the will of the beholder. If we relate the creative process to the will, it is only during this initial stage of creation that the intention of the artist has any real value. When others view the artwork for themselves, there is an element of separation from the artist’s intentions, and we must say that the work informs and exists, in part, beyond the will of the artist.
To examine what role intention plays in Art, it is necessary to consider what happens during the creative process. If we consider Art to be a truly malleable and continual idea, then the process by which it is created must reflect those qualities. At the most basic level, Art seems to be a product of the human need to create. The reason that this need is felt is vital to understanding the worth behind the action.
However, in some cases the identity of the artist is completely withheld from the viewer. Such is the case with Shephard Fairey, a street artist who gained recognition with is campaign titled “OBEY”. The campaign took the form of posters, stickers, and other paraphernalia that were adorned with the artist’s representation of the famous retro wrestler, Andre the Giant, and the word “OBEY” transcribed in white, capital letters on a red banner. The image of Andre the Giant is stylized past the point of recognition and the viewer is left with an anonymous yet familiar face associated with the imperative. It is not at all specified what the viewer is supposed to obey, or even if the image is meant in an authoritative sense. This image, plastered around the myriad decrepit and forgotten areas of highly populated metropolitan cities, invokes many social considerations such as the ideas of authority, privacy, and social obligation among others. When asked about the intention behind the campaign, Fairey admits that at first, he had no specific agenda and was only attempting to get a reaction from a small group of friends for his own mischievous satisfaction. However, once Fairey became aware of the interest in the ambiguous image, he attempted to develop the idea further. So how does the intention inform the work in this case? Fairey makes meaning through the effect that his work has on the viewer. In this way, he is reacting to and creating work based off the result of his artwork. Unlike Kant who is motivated by pure intention, Fairey uses this empirical reaction to define and develop his work.
Another question Fairey’s work raises is the question of whether or not art that is illegal is able to be morally sound. For Fairey, the success of the communication in his work depends on the medium: graffiti.
I saw the political angle for Obey Giant as "the medium is the message". When something is illegally placed in the public right-of-way the very act itself makes it political. My hope was that in questioning what Obey Giant was about, the viewer would then begin to question all the images they were confronted with.
Since Kant is only worried with the intention motivating an action and not the outcome, the reaction that viewer’s have to Fairey’s piece is inconsequential in determining its moral value. Furthermore, since we cannot know the true intention behind Fairey’s campaign, only he can be the moral judge. However, since Fairey says in the interview that he, at first “thought it would only be a few weeks of mischief” , it seems safe to say that his intentions would not fall into line with what Kant would deem morally sound motivation. But what is interesting in Fairey’s work lies in the reception of the artwork by the public whose reaction created the artwork’s meaning.
Kant’s emphasis on intention over result limits the discussion of morality in artwork to attempting to determine the artist’s motivation for creating the artwork as the only true informant of the morality of a piece. This is at least true for Kant. However, a unique character of art is that, since the viewer determines part of the meaning of piece, it forgoes the artist’s intention and exists in a moral grey area. Here is where Kant would lose interest with discussing art in moral terms. However, not being bound to considering art only in terms of motivations, we can explore the actual effect of the artwork as a determinate of its social worth.
Kant’s imperatives reference an unspecified “good” as their goal. Kant defines his imperatives according to how the subjective will recognizes this “good”, either as a hypothetical or categorical. Kant defines the hypothetical imperative as: “the practical necessity of a possible action as a means to something else that is willed.” From here Kant separates the hypothetical imperative in two categories: problematical and assertorial. The problematical imperative refers to the motivation behind many apparent “goods” as they differ dependent on a person’s disposition. The assertorial imperative refers to the means to acquiring happiness; a good that Kant believes we all share an affinity for as rational beings. Here it is important to note that the action is only a means to a subjective good. The categorical imperative represents an action that is good in itself and is objectively agreed upon through pure reason.
There are two broad categories into which Art should be considered in respect to morality: public and private. The public element includes commissions for corporations, church, state, individuals, groups, and any other forms in which the artist has a message to communicate that is determined by the commissioner. These works are the result of the ideas of the commissioner being interpreted and modified through both the conscious and unconscious will of the artist. Here, we cannot say that the intention is completely subjective because both the commissioner and the artist are using the same piece of art as a means for differing ends.
One example of artwork acting as a means for both the commissioner and the artist is the work of Caravaggio, the great baroque oil-painter. The Baroque movement is generally considered to last from the end of the sixteenth century to the very beginning of the eighteenth century. The major patrons of this period belonged to the Catholic Church and the work reflected their agendas. This was also the time of the Counter-Reformation during which the Catholic Church tried to revive enthusiasm in their particular dogmas and bolster attendance for mass. The artwork of this time is very theatrical and dramatic. The church frequently commissioned Caravaggio for paintings representing biblical scenes. As such, the work he produced was acting as means for the Church to communicate their message. Though Kant says it is impossible to determine the intentions behind a moral action, we can assume that at least part of the Church’s intention was to increase an acceptance of their morals; an end which they believed to be good. Thus, commissioning the artwork is motivated by the hypothetical imperative. For Caravaggio, he is simultaneously fulfilling a need to have an income as well as a need to develop his own artistic vision. This need for development can be seen as assertorial if we assume Caravaggio gains some form of happiness from his efforts.
It is important to remember that past intention, the success that the artwork has on accomplishing its goal is somewhat subjective, and therefore impossible to categorize as good or bad except by those who witness and are influenced by the artwork. Kant would say that the volition of the artist here is a mixture of public service, the need to make a living, the chance to propagate the artist’s career, and some amount of validation that is gained from applying the practice of art to the service of a greater economic system. More immediately though, the artist is serving the need of the commissioner, without which, he would not be prompted to create. In contrast, the principle of volition for the commissioner spawns from a pre-existing need that is disassociated from the artist. The commissioner is acting on his duties as an employee to the group that requires the commission. He is using the work produced by the artist as a means to fulfill that need of service. The work, in this case, is not an end so much as it is a means for the commissioner.
Public artwork is therefore a hypothetical imperative because it represents the potential to fill a legitimate need based on contingent circumstances, such as the effect of the work’s communication. So public art is necessarily a hypothetical imperative at its base. It is hypothetical in that by creating a piece of artwork, there is only provided a means to a perceived, but not absolute good. It is partially assertorial because of the work’s potential to bring happiness to artist through the satisfaction of artistic creation.
The need to create something is first and foremost an individual’s response to being alive. The need to act as a contributor to a world full of stimuli seems to be a core reason of artistic creation. As humans, we are constantly synthesizing energy into information with our limited senses. As conscious beings, we place those stimuli into our memories and through the facility of reason, contextualize those memories with all our previous experience, both in chronology and importance. From this constant and immense surge of input, it seems a natural reaction to want to add our own stimulus to the world. It could be that by creating, we are bringing into being something that previously existed only in our minds, hence creating a physical and more understandable manifestation of some original but not necessarily defined inspiration. Possibly through the comparison of the original idea and its physical counterpart, the creator is able to achieve something similar to the saying, “the whole is greater than the sums of its parts”, in which a new, more complete and over-arching understanding is attained.
For example, the artist Giorgio Morandi spent nearly forty years of his artistic career painting the same set of bottle arranged into various compositions. For him, there must have been something created through the process of translating the arrangement of bottles from a three-dimensional view to a two-dimensional panel. Perhaps he exploring the inherent imperfection of geometry in the physical world or precisely testing variations in composition and the effect on the picture plane. Whatever the reason, the sense of artistic fulfillment was created through the duality of the bottles existing in the physical world and on the painting surface. The amount of time that this type of genuine artistic endeavor requires allows for the artist to gain a unique and personal their own relationship to the world as a whole. This seems to be especially true in the case of Morandi, who spent so much time with only one subject. This process helps the creator feel more grounded in his own existence with a better understanding of how he relates to the external world.
I share in a similar experience of developing a deep understanding of subject whenever I paint my own still lives. In order to accurately represent an observed color in paint, a great deal of concentration is needed. The process involves deliberately isolating one color from the rest in a scene. Since a perceived color is never absolute and is constantly changing due to the biological process of seeing, this process of isolation can take a long time. From here the color is mimicked through the mixing of paint; a process which takes a considerable amount of time if done accurately. By the end of the painting, I will have spent so much time with each individual color contained in the scene that the colors seem to have more of a presence in my mind. I notice that the mixed colors individual pigmentation components are much clearer to me the next time I try to mix. Also, the still life or scene I am painting is much more familiar to me and ingrained in my visual memory. Often I notice that when walking around, different scenes I’ve painted pictures of will catch my eye and memories will accompany this visual recognition. This last phenomenon is one that has been related to me by many of my artistic friends. The act of intensely focusing on a scene and trying to visually analyze the components that make it up strengthen the artist’s visual relationship to the world.
If we accept that at least one of the principles of volition in creating art is for the creator’s enjoyment, then it is worth exploring Kant’s ideas on happiness in order to understand how it is related to our moral obligations. Throughout The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals Kant continually stresses the importance of acting on pure reason in attaining true moral worth. Actions must be done without the slightest concern for self-elevation. In fact, his entire thesis rests on the presupposition that pure reason must be concerned not with the practical application, or contingency, but non-empirical, a priori knowledge. This distilled method of thinking is not easy to achieve because we use our faculty of reason both in applied and abstract thinking. Kant explains that the problem of reason is that it often gets in the way of our happiness.
For as reason is not competent to guide the will with certainty in regard to its objects and the satisfaction of all our wants (which it to some extent multiplies)…and since, nevertheless, reason is imparted to us as a practical faculty, i.e., as one which is to have influence on the will…its true destination must be to produce a will, not merely good as a means to something else, but good in itself, for which reason was absolutely necessary. This will then, though not indeed the sole and complete good, must be the supreme good and the condition of every other, even the desire of happiness.
It would seem that Kant is arguing for a repression of happiness in favor of what he calls a more “noble” form of existence. As long as one has established a will that is
good in itself, happiness is secondary and not vital to moral worth . However, Kant later addresses this issue and posits that happiness is “indirectly a duty” in that by not being happy, one is more susceptible to forgo his duties. Here Kant seems to give some ground to the idea that emotion affects our ability to rationalize properly. This raises the question is whether Kant regards happiness as an end in itself or just as a means to help us act in accordance with our duty. When considering the goal of morality on a broad scale, this seems contradictory. It would seem that the ultimate goal of morality is to secure a high quality of life for those living within society. In a morally sound system, each person is functioning healthily as an individual and is not impeding on another’s ability to do the same. To Kant however, the goal of acting only on the categorical imperative is to create a form of social interaction that best suits our qualities as reasonable beings. I think this stems from Kant’s association of happiness as empirical. Since he is unable to satisfactorily analyze it, he thinks it is not basis for morality. It is wise that Kant does not place happiness as the main goal in his formulation of morality as it is an elusive state, both in experience and the ability to achieve consistently. Also, Kant thinks that if we place happiness as our ultimate goal in life we necessarily fail because our reason is not a good facility for attaining happiness.
Now in a being which has reason and a will, if the proper object of nature were its own conservation, its welfare, in a word, its happiness, then nature would have hit upon a very bad arrangement in selecting the reason of the creature to carry out this purpose…Should reason have been communicated to this favoured creature over and above, it must only have served it to contemplate the happy constitution of its nature, to admire it, to congratulate itself theron…but no that it
should subject its desires to that weak and delusive guidance and meddle bunglingly with the purpose of nature.
If we, as a society, were able to forgo all our sensual impulses and rely only on our pure reason to inform our moral decisions, we would enter into a state that Kant calls: “The Kingdom of Ends.” In such a society, individuals are treated as ends in themselves and not as means for other people’s inclinations. For such a state to exist, a society must collectively ignore any inclination not informed through pure reason. The probability of reaching such a state is worth exploring to determine how such a society would perceive Art. Though man may, in a moment of enlightenment, be able to perceive the benefit of such a society, he will most likely never reach a mental state in which he can wholly disregard his inclinations and rely solely on his reason. For this reason alone, society will never be rid of this divide that exists between the citizen’s ability to rationalize and feel emotion. Just as Kant recognizes reason as one of humanities’ most distinguishing factors, he must also acknowledge the dichotomy that arises between these two aspects of human nature.
As stated before, it is not always necessary to have a specifically defined idea to create artwork that has worth. Since art has been present over the entirety of human history, it is obvious that the subject matter and form changes and reflects the culture of the time the work was created. This also implies that art, as an archetypal idea, is not something to be completed or finished. Doing so would inversely mean that humans knew exactly why they created art in the first place. This means that art need not be a concrete idea, as any certainty would detract from its malleability and interpretation. Indeed, the artwork that cannot be tied down to a single interpretation that is regarded as successful and is able to stand the test of time.
This implies that some of the value in artwork comes from the multiplicity of interpretations that it can inspire. For this to be possible, the artwork must necessarily be at once specific enough to be relevant in the time of its creation, and open enough to allow for future viewings. As is often the case, an artist’s work will not receive favorable reception in its own generation and then flourish in later generations. In this case, sometimes it is possible that the artist was aware that what he was doing was significant, regardless of its public reception. However, it seems more likely that during the time of creation, with an artist working on a particular problem, he creates pieces that are successful and unsuccessful. It is not the intention of the artist to create something for the sake of changing the culture, but rather he is working on a problem for its own sake. The recognition of the significance of the problem gives the artwork its cultural value. Also, a problem may mean one thing to one viewer and something completely different to another. For this reason, it seems that the intention of the artist is somewhat removed from the work’s reception. If the meaning inherent in a piece of art is generated only within the viewer, then the artist’s intention is irrelevant. It is only when an artist writes or speaks about the piece’s generation that we get some idea of his intention. So what does this say about the artwork’s moral worth? It seems to suggest that all worth in artwork is subjective. It is not in the creation, but in the reception that the artwork has effect, at least, outside of the artist.
If we then acknowledge that at least some art is done with the intention of bringing some good into the world, therefore being linked to the hypothetical imperative, it is worth examining what role intention plays between Kant’s morality and the creative process. To truly understand the intention of someone acting in a creative way, it is necessary to also know the context in which it is taking place. Circumstances surrounding the artist are a strong influence on all aspects regarding the “why” of art making. The environment that is being responded to inform the work and gives it a contextual framework in which to exist and make it’s meaning. However, this helps only to inform one single read of the artwork. A “read” of a piece of artwork refers to a particular person’s point of view when analyzing the work for meaning. An individual can come at a piece of work with many methods of viewing and is acted upon by the artwork. For instance, if I were to apply a de-constructivist read to an artwork, I would attempt to break down every element of the piece into its most basic forms, both formally and contextually. If I wanted to apply a historical read to a piece, I would carefully examine the events taking place during the time in which the artwork was created in order to understand what function the artwork served and what it meant to the audience of the day.
However, most people see artwork without fully understanding the context in which it was created. Indeed, the viewer is always necessarily removed from the mind of the artist and will read the work in relation to his own consciousness, not that of the artist. From this line of reasoning we can also see that each viewer’s read is distinct from any other’s which therefore makes every single person’s experience with art completely unique and subjective. This, then, changes art from being something that is acting upon a viewer with a distinct message and agenda to more of a catalyst of subjective for the viewer. Successful art, in this regard, is that which can be accessible by its relation to the viewer as well as new and multifarious in the new ideas it inspires. So, if we are ignorant of the context of the artwork as of well as the intention of the artist, what does this mean for its moral worth? To a certain extent, the artist is relieved of the responsibility of the work’s creation and therefore the effect that said artwork has. In my opinion that most artists who are truly seeking to create something genuine are not concerned with the attachment of their name, unless of course, the branding is part of the message. So for this type of artwork, it can be said that it is not being done from an inclination to propagate oneself socially but out of love for the creation of the artwork itself. But since Kant says that only actions that are done solely out from duty have true moral worth, then it seems art of this kind cannot be consider dutiful because the intention of the artist, which would be the informant of a actions moral worth, is absent.
However, if we examine the same circumstance in relation to the categorical imperative, a different argument can be made. Kant’s categorical imperative states: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” By this rule, we judge our actions based on whether or not we would wish everyone were required to act in the same manner. Since Kant distinctly describes the categorical imperative as an end in itself, the example he gives must necessarily be abstracted from empirical experience. Trying to give examples from the real world would make them contingent in that the actions would never exist in the same context twice, therefore changing their effect. This is the same reason actions can only be truly good when they are still intentions, as their execution makes them subjective and no longer categorical. However, since it is actions that influence the quality of living within a society, the categorical imperative must, at some point, be translated into contingencies if there is to be any practical use for it. Therefore we can safely say that art, in certain contingent circumstances, would not contradict the dictates of the categorical imperative. This is because there exists a hypothetical society in which the universal creation of art could be beneficial.
We can also examine the creation of art in relation to what Kant calls the imperative of skill . This imperative deals with only the means of attaining a goal, not whether or not the goal is good or bad. Kant gives the example of a physician’s ability to cure and a poisoner’s ability to kill having equal value in this respect. The artist is concerned with creating an image to some effect, but first he must acquire the skill to arrange the medium of his choice in such a way as to create the illusion of a picture. The ability to do this well requires both hard work and some amount of talent. Kant later cites a specific example of a person discovering a talent, and through proper dutiful action, pursuing the talent for the greater good. He states that if one discovers in him a talent that could be beneficial to society, then it is his duty to pursue and develop that talent. This presents a great question as to how one can determine whether or not his particular talent is of any good to society. In the modern age, the proclamation of “Art for Art’s sake” has transformed the question of art from one of just social concern to a more self-referential place. The benefits of this direction in Art are certainly present, but for the sake of this argument we will assert the commercial and social aspects of art in regards to Kant’s idea of what benefits society. As stated previously, art done for a commission is considered hypothetical in its results, as it is not an absolute good in itself. Since all jobs, including commissions for art, fall into this category of the hypothetical imperative, we cannot say with any certainty that one talent is better than another in the success of producing some “good”. Furthermore, since we do not have the foresight to predict what effect our efforts will outside of ourselves, we can only act with our best intentions. Therefore, if we discover in ourselves a propensity for drawing, it is no more or less worthy of our attention than any other skill, at least in regards to the imperative of skill.
It can be said that most artists never create a piece that they think is perfect. In fact, more often than not, the artist will only produce a handful of pieces over the course of his lifetime that he finds to be successful, either formally or otherwise. Even these pieces are still far removed from the original intention. The act of creation, of translation from consciousness to actuality, necessarily means some variation in the form of the artwork. It is literally impossible to create an exact, material, replica of an image imagined in the mind. Also, this experience will be different for someone who has dedicated his life to a particular medium, and for someone who has never had any prior artistic experience. Regardless of the skills that accompany general “artistic talent”, a person who is not accustomed to a medium will think of images in a way that are not grounded in any artistic medium. For instance, as an artist, I often think of an image already in a particular medium such as oil, ink, pencil, etc. I’m thinking of a painting or a drawing, and not an image that is removed from its physical manifestation.
If we can understand the will to create as being analogous to Kant’s principle of volition, then we can examine the similarities between the two in regards to the variation inherent in acting upon them. Since a physical piece of artwork is necessarily different from the initial idea of the artist, what is actually created is in some ways removed from the will of the artist. Any element of a message or idea stemming from the work is something that is not perfectly controlled by the artist. In this way it is similar to the separation between the intent of the will and the reception of its manifestation by others. However, when acting upon other principles of volition, there is a greater opportunity to more accurately represent one’s intentions. For example, if I want to compliment a friend on a particular trait, conveying this in a sentence is a much more straightforward means of communication. It allows little room for interpretation on the part of the recipient and thus is more closely tied to my intention.
Though Kant does not believe that the goal of acting morally is for the betterment and overall good of society, it is still important to ask the question: is art good for society? Kant would argue that while something moral is necessarily good, something good is not necessarily moral. His ideas of intention and motivation stop this from being so. To this argument I would say that the end is more important than the means. This is not meant in the Machiavellian sense that would seem to justify a lack of moral actions for good ends, but rather in the sense that the good of an act is more important than its motive. This is especially true in the case of art, which I have previously established as being partially removed from intention.
So now I must examine the effect and purpose of art on a society. Art is vitally important to the social identity of a culture. It both reflects and is reflected in the ideas and actions of a people. Thoughts on religion, philosophy, politics, science, technology, etc. are all synthesized and manifested in the artistic production of a culture. This openness and ability to incorporate and reflect the entirety of human pursuit is partially the reason why art is so important and meaningful to us. Unlike a mirror, art does not only tell us what we already know. Rather, it speaks through our previous knowledge to something more fundamental and basic. It shows an understanding of the world. If we think about communication and its vast importance to the evolution of the consciousness of our species, art is truly able to transcend cultural barriers while representing its own marks of origination.
This idea of “understanding” coming through in a piece of art is what makes it a success. A successful piece of art will communicate something to the viewer on a level that makes him aware of a relationship between himself and the idea inherent in the piece. To take a classic example from art history, when looking at Picasso’s Guernica, we feel a deep sense of empathy for the figures in the piece, stricken by the horrors of war, even though they are represented through geometric abstractions. There is an element there that allows for the viewer to connect to the piece and draw upon experiences in his own life. This particular painting is so successful because war is a problem common to all mankind and therefore many people are able to relate to the pain and suffering they witness within the piece. This idea of deep communication is one that is completely symbiotic, requiring the autonomy of a viewer to act in order to gain meaning from the piece. This is what allows for the evolving nature of art. It also happens that as the viewer is able to make a meaning from the piece, he is also able to understand something about the artist. For, if the viewer is able to receive an idea, surely the artist had some hand in giving it. This communication is within the act of making art. Like a gift, art can represent a sincere act of appreciation and deep understanding between people. It strengthens the relationship of one person to another. This can happen on an individual level or on a much more popular scale. The importance of this understanding coming through in art is built upon the sincerity of this communication. Like all forms of communication, it allows for a nuanced awareness of another’s perception on both an intellectual and emotional level. When a piece of art does succeed, it will spark this communication.
This type of communication engages two aspects of human experience: rationality and emotion. The rational holds things at a distance and tries to examine them for what they, apart from itself. The rational sees the thing in its context and then itself as outside of that circumstance. As a method of thinking, the rational allows us to perceive patterns. When one distinguishes and separates particulars and then perceives the relationship of their separation and repetition, one can infer larger ideas inherent in a particular pattern. Kant’s synthetic proposition is a rational process of the brain that is dependent on this ability to remove one’s consciousness from a thing being perceived. Being truly rational first requires a perfect understanding of a set of parameters from which to infer and guide reasoning. This set, necessarily, is only a mental construct, and does not exist externally from that unique human consciousness. For this reason, these sets are singular to individual subjectivity and are thus contingent upon the evolving autonomy of our consciousness.
In contrast, the emotional aspect of understanding is one that cannot be removed from consciousness. The experience is consuming and involuntary. Depending on the mental discipline of an individual, our rational ability allows us to recognize an emotion as one part of a more complete consciousness. However, this ability to use reason is also affected by emotion in a way that it cannot distinguish the feeling as disconnected from itself. Understanding that reason as a faculty needs content from which to inform our actions, the raw information in our mind has a direct correlation to the dictates of reason. Emotion connects the information in our minds involuntarily and engages our entire awareness. We are unable to maintain a measured mental removal but are instead swept up in the current of that particular feeling. This encompassing feeling colors the content of our mental cache and thus influences our reasoned decisions. For example, often in the case of history there are mentioned examples of emperors, kings, and nobility etc. who, under the spell of their own pride, will ignore the voice of reason and bring destruction on themselves. Indeed, the theme of the power of emotion over reason is explored in much Greek tragedy. One such example is in Euripedes’s Medea in which the main character, after whom the title is named, scorned by her husband, murders her own children in a torrent of emotional outpouring.
It is also true that no two of us experience emotion in the exact same way. Each one of us is imbued with a unique biological set which affects our own propensity to experience particular emotion. For example, with the knowledge of significant advances in neuroscience gained since Kant’s time, we now know that there is a connection between the biological structure of our brain and our experiences with emotion. Since we each begin with a unique biological potential for emotion that evolves based on our own subjective experiences, we can say that emotional experience is subjective.
Since no two people’s experiences of consciousness are completely identical, there can be no universal “perfect” piece of artwork. A perfect piece would mean that the artwork created a sincere response in every person that viewed it. But as evidenced in the differences in taste and dispositions towards one thing or another, there is no universal emotional framework that we all operate within. However, what is truly important here is not that a piece of art is universally successful, but that it is successful to at least one person. Though art can accrue praise in the form of words like “masterpiece” and “classic” across many generations, art needs only a single person’s approval to have value. Furthermore, the creator can be the only supporter of the work and still have created valuable work because it is fulfilling a need for the artist. An example of this is when a lonely person consoles himself through writing about his loneliness. The artwork is acting as a type of creative therapy.
Kant argues that, in order to rationalize in a pure manner, the emotional side of our being must be suppressed so as to nullify its effect on our rational facility. Indeed, he posits that those acting in a truly moral manner are acting on a priori principles and are therefore acting above inclination, or in other words, not acting on their subjective emotions. Since reason based on a priori grounds refers to an ideal method of thinking, it also refers to an objective method of thinking, as part of the definition of a rational being is one whose reason is more powerful than their sensual inclinations. This move toward an objective being or, more importantly, away from a subjective one is an idea that Kant furthers later on in his discussion of the Kingdom of Ends.
Now since it is by laws that ends are determined as regards their universal validity, hence, if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings and likewise from all the content of their private ends, we shall be able to conceive all ends combined in a systematic whole.
I think in this manner, not that it is impossible to ignore emotion in the establishment of moral principles, but that doing so wholly ignores a significant part of our being which both informs our reason and informs the quality of living. For those who are excluded from Kant’s Kingdom of Ends, being unable to ignore their non-rational side, they must attempt to satisfy their own moral code with an equally non-rational character; a thing impermanent and fleetingly successful. Trying not to make too sweeping a judgment of Kant’s personal character, his austere and dedicated lifestyle requires the mental piety and discipline that the bulk of society cannot sustain. For the vast majority of the population, this ability to focus on only one function of one’s mental capacity, reason, and act according to its dictates is either unachievable or disagreeable. Though he does not expressly say it, Kant’s description of the Kingdom of Ends as a theoretical possibility implies that Kant must have understood the massive separation between his Kingdom of Ends and actual society, as well as the difficulty of achieving such a society.
Considering what has been discussed up to this point, we can postulate that Kant would not consider Art to be part of the categorical imperative in itself. This comes, partly, from the fact that the categorical imperative necessarily must be an abstraction removed from empirical contingencies. It is not describing an action in itself but rather a way of thinking to motivate an action. This means that certain actions may contingently fall into line with the categorical imperative but they can never be ends in themselves. The only way Art could be considered absolutely moral would be if, upon its viewing, it only inspired the will to act according to the categorical imperative. But even this would mean that Art was only acting as a means and not an end.
As an assertorial imperative, Art can qualify as such based on an individual’s characteristics. Since the assertorial is concerned with prudence, it depends upon the particular dispositions of the persons creating or viewing a piece of art, and does not exist in qualities inherent in the work itself. Since Kant says that happiness is indirectly a duty , we can say that if making Art makes either the creator or the viewer happy, it is their duty to continue. Kant says this because if we are happy, we are more likely to act in a dutiful manner.
Art created from the assertorial imperative is the most common form of art created. Common people who are not considered artists in the public eye do the majority of artwork. For them, art is done for the sheer enjoyment of creating. There is no concern about the effect of the work on the public, only that it satisfies some simple need for the artist. It is a simple means of making oneself happy. Artwork on this level can be considered dutiful because it is created from the assertorial imperative and the resulting happiness facilitates further dutiful inclination.
As a hypothetical imperative, Art can qualify in two manners. Firstly, it depends on the good intention of the creator. Since the hypothetical imperative refers to an action that is motivated by a good will, a good will through artistic creation is required. Therefore, if the artist’s intention is to achieve something bad, we cannot safely call the work’s creation a duty. However, if the artist is hoping to achieve some good, then the work can qualify as a hypothetical imperative. However, this will only always be true for the creator in that he is the only one who truly knows his intentions. This is the same as the manner in which a good will is only pure as a will and not in its manifestation.
In conclusion, the exclusion of Art from the categorical imperative does not lessen its value to society. Considering the impossibility of achieving a society like that of the Kingdom of Ends means that people are not homogenously rational beings and therefore not objectively subject to ideal reason. Thus, a subjective and hypothetical method of pursuing good is the most practical. Though it was not Kant’s intention to determine a moral basis on empirical grounds, his establishment of a theoretical morality reveals the distance between Kant’s Kingdom of Ends and our society as it has existed and will continue to exist. Not being purely rational beings means that we are susceptible to influence beyond ideal reason and are, therefore, subject to the influence of Art. In regards to determining good will as a grounds for moral worth, Art should be considered the same as any medium whose intention is it to make some change in one who experiences it. Though the intention may affect those who know of it, we cannot say with any certainty that the intention will be reflected in the pieces’ perception. However, what distinguishes Art is that as a society, the idea of “Art” is one that carries a special significance.
In our current society there is a somewhat symbiotic relationship between the actual piece of artwork and what society expects of “Art”. For this reason we don’t always expect Art to be good in the way that morality requires. Indeed it can even be said that part of Art’s significance is that it references the full spectrum of emotions, either intentionally or unintentionally. Our willingness to open ourselves to Art means that through it we can experience the darker side of human experience such as pain, suffering, and death. And yet this is done not through a sense of exploitation but rather from the need to cope with these naturally occurring phenomena and learn about our selves. What Art gives us is not a consistent path or form for moral actions but a means of reflecting upon a world far removed from the Kingdom of Ends.