The Heretic: Why Dissent is Indispensable To Art

Pierre Le Gros the Younger (1666-1719), Religion overthrowing Heresy and Hatred

In a thought provoking article calledArt, Taste, Money,” the author reflects on the current state of art. He notes a sharp difference in taste between the so-called cultural elites and the masses who “just don’t get it”. He illustrates his point brilliantly with a response by an anonymous commentator on a review published by Aurelio Madrid entitled, “Difficult Art”.

You can read the full article, but basically the anonymous commentator vehemently disagrees with Madrid, equating Madrid’s concept of “difficult art” with what he calls “fartwork”:

When I see this fartwork I get sick from the fumes of its own arrogance.

Even without reference to the concrete work criticized here, the comment and the feeling that goes along with it should be immediately recognizable to many of us. Who hasn’t walked around a modern art museum looking for the nearest exit, only to discover it’s part of some ironic self-referential installation?

Okay, maybe not all of us . . . but polemics have always played a central role in the history of art. The discourse is strewn with disagreements about authenticity, originality, and of course, true beauty.

Immanuel Kant’s famous Critique of Judgment discusses the notion of subjective-universality in taste judgments:

(§ 22) The necessity of the universal agreement that is thought in a judgment of taste is a subjective necessity, which is represented as objective under the presupposition of a common sense: In all judgments by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion; without however grounding our judgment on concepts but only on our feeling, which we therefore place at its basis not as a private, but as a communal feeling. Now this common sense cannot be grounded on experience; for it aims at justifying judgments which contain an ought. It does not say that every one will agree with my judgment, but that he ought…

I interpret the anonymous commentator of Aurelio Madrid’s article as trying to convince us of the truth of his taste judgment precisely on the basis of Kant’s feeling of subjective necessity. The commentator’s outcry essentially calls out for someone to share his feeling. In the above passage, Kant is inviting us to find out what binds us together as a community of human beings, through the questioning of each other’s taste. A taste that, according to Kant, is based on a presupposed communal feeling, a common sense, a shared sensibility. I argue this process of taste conformity, this reaching out, this calling out, is part of our human nature.

The only way to prove the beauty of a piece of artwork is–as with all aesthetic and literary judgements–by arguing for it. Taste judgments, however, work differently than other arguments, according to Kant. The difference with aesthetic judgments is that they are based on feelings derived from the senses, instead of logical concepts. They are not based on experience, because Kant, speaking as an empiricist, holds to a distinction between “feeling” and “experience” (of things existing out there). To argue for an aesthetic judgment thus means striving towards consensus and conformity, but also a true and lasting consensus.

Theodor W. Adorno, another philosopher of aesthetic theory, writes:

Only the pedant presumes to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly in nature, but without such distinction the concept of [natural] beauty would be empty. (Aesthetic Theory, 1997, p. 70)

Without the effort by some to make a distinction between what is beautiful and what is ugly, the beautiful disappears, becomes meaningless, and ultimately incomprehensible. But since there are no universally accepted aesthetic values, we can never reach indisputable criteria when judging taste.

I do believe true works of art–as concrete examples of an attained ideal–demonstrate Kant’s “feeling of necessity” and ask us to try and make that distinction. I believe we need those among us who’ve spent lifetimes developing their powers of sensory differentiation, to point us in the right direction and help us in cultivating our own. That is not to say we cannot have our own aesthetic judgements; it is only to suggest further learning and cultivation.

Truth exists in art, and it still exists in art today. The only problem is that “every man believes he’s in possession of the truth” (Robert Musil). We need the community, we need the conflict of opinions, we need the experts and the non-experts, to decipher what is true to us. Our final conclusion on a work of art, if there ever is one, should be the reconciliation between the consensus and the individual. More so than any other field of inquiry, art demands this complex process of understanding and enlightenment.

An art critic, like a layperson, should be open to critique, because that’s the way each of us sharpens our senses and opens up to new possibilities. Sometimes art critics forget that art isn’t just there to please and confirm them, but that it is a common good. A good that expresses, through painting, photography, or sculpture, what is common to all. A good art critic should take the outcry of the anonymous commentator to heart. Art is a language but not a secret language…


EscapeIntoLifeReinaert is an amateur artist and addicted to culture. His interests for anything cultural reach far and deep, ranging from Japanese cult movies to religion and comedy. He loves the ancients and classics, but is open to innovation, the exotic, and modern experimentation in art. He studied philosophy specializing in art philosophy, but also holds a bachelor in cultural anthropology.