Bo Kampmann Walther: Questioning Digital Aesthetics

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Closure and System

What is significantly new about Immanuel Kant's theories of the structure of aesthetic judgement is his emancipation of 'the beautiful' [das Schöne] from a property within the thing itself to a property in the viewing [Anschauung] of the thing. (2) In Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790) he claims that the centre of taste and judgement must be located in "subjective commonness" [das subjective Allgemeine], which, in turn, corresponds to the common beautiful. A certain piece of art may evoke a specific joy [Wohlgefallen] in us; and hence it would seem that the work itself possessed beauty's source through immanent correspondences - such as the Renaissance art theoreticians believed. But this is an illusion, according to Kant. True beauty is placed in the form attributed to the transcendental subject; and this form acts as a prism through which the art-thing is experienced (see especially paragraph 6 in Kritik der Urteilskraft (Kant, 1971)).

Thus Kant has not only liberated the art discussion from the Rationalistic position, where beauty is a readable entity assigned to the object in itself (in the guise of substance); he has further accentuated the ongoing secularisation of art. As the Danish media researcher Lars Qvortrup notes in an article on interactive multimedia art, Kant's critique expresses the idea that beauty in art signals human beauty (Qvortrup, 2000). And hereby the differentiation from a religiously oriented hierarchy of judgement (that is, a deocentrism) to a rationalistic form of articulation is brought to an end. Art in Kant's anthropomorphic theory is not entirely de-conditionalized, since the essential criteria for art's transcendentalism are precisely guarantied by what is believed to be shared human faculties.

One may say that Kant closes the philosophy of art by ascribing the aesthetic judgement to mere questions of the transcendental perspective of viewing's aprioric status. But that does not imply, however, that Kant banishes the experience of art to a hysterical assembly where everybody reveal their less than adequate opinion on art. The very forms of viewing and the categories of reason that carry the aposterioric delight in art experience are not simply subjective interiors, but rather inter-subjective premises for apt communication concerning the structure of aesthetic laws. The common conditions of art allow us to discuss the transcendental bios of taste and experience - for this very bios is a concept deployed by philosophy.

By contrast one could claim that Niklas Luhmann in his systemic definition of art as a symbolic, generalising medium opens up art thinking, not least because he seems to dismiss 20. Century's congenial prioritising of art as a pivotal and utopic placeholder for otherwise unacknowledged metaphysical experiences. Like economy, love, society, and religion, art is a bundle of contingent relations, which account for modern man's testing of self-experience and self-reflection.

To Kant the forms of viewing condition art's reason. In Luhmann's perspective the domain of art is a general sphere or form within the world-structure where different kinds of viewing and viewing mechanisms are staged. There has been a tendency in post-Kantian art philosophy to regard the aesthetic judgement of taste as a temporary result of the development of a more general art system, and not, as Kant would claim, as a transcendental, a-temporal apperception. Luhmann builds heavily upon this critique. In Die Ausdifferenzierung des Kunstsystems (1994) and Die Kunst der Gesellschaft (1995) he suggests that art, in its emancipation from religious, metaphysical, or edifying motives, none the less 'obliges' itself to difference. Modern art must be conceived as a difference which is propelled forward when man, in the absence of a 'clean' code of communication, embarks upon an artform which, paradoxically, tries to articulate the very un-explicable or un-articulated fabric of true expression. This vision of art - which furthermore is normative, since it puts art on a special mission within society and history - we can also find in the writings of Adorno and Lyotard. According to them, the language of art is non-identity, that is, a difference that cannot be mediated; or it is différence, as in Lyotard and his concept of the sublime.

The shift from Kant to Luhmann can be described as a movement from a metaphysically grounded understanding of art to an interferentially based art form. Kant may withdraw from the orthodox idea of both God and the thing "in itself" [an sich], but still he builds his critique on an order that exists prior to sensual experience and physical touch. This order is the human concept of beauty, the optics through which we regard and judge upon art. The interferential aesthetic, on the contrary, creates works and theories of art that are more likely consequences of the world. That is also why I pushed forward the hypothesis that Luhmann widens the field of art critique, precisely because he transforms the system of art into a (by-) product of a world-movement - as it were, a movement towards form (Compare Brown, 1971).

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(2) How to translate Anschauung? Comprehension, or envisioing? I have deliberately chosen viewing here, primarily to emphasise the strong allusions to the gaze and the eye in the German philsopheme.