The anti-art of 20th century art

Diotima's Children

An alternative title to this post could be, “Why existentialism and postmodernism ruined everything,” but that’s a bit grandiose. This is from Frederick Beiser, an authority on German Idealism, talking about his book, Diotima’s Children: German Aesthetic Rationalism from Leibniz to Lessing (Oxford, 2009):

The aporias of the present is that there really is no aesthetic criticism anymore, and that there are really no standards about art. Anything goes, and anything is good or excellent “in its own kind”. We got here because some aestheticians and philosophers took the avant-garde too seriously, and held that even snow shovels, urinals and soup cans can be works of art. I think that the avant-garde was making all kinds of interesting and valid points; but one it was not making is that these kinds of things are works of art. They were not intended to be works of art but, for all kinds of complicated philosophical social and political reasons, works of anti-art. There really are standards of criticism, and there really are rules of art, even though people shudder at the very thought of them. You only have to listen to film critics and book critics to see that they apply all kinds of standards, like the need for verisimilitude, the need for unity in variety, for coherence, for capturing the interest of the reader. You only have to talk to artists to see that they work according to rules, and that they know all too well that they can employ only certain means to achieve the ends they want. The question is to spell out these standards, and to make clear these rules, and that means first knowing what an aesthetic standard and an aesthetic rule means. The whole issue has to be re-thought, and to re-think we have to go back more to the past, when there was a lot more thinking about these issues.

One of the reasons standards and rules have been so undermined is because of the doctrine, common since Kant, that taste is only a matter of subjective pleasure, and that it has nothing to do with the object itself. This Kantian doctrine, which appears perfectly explicitly in the first paragraph of the Kritik der Urteilskraft, has been decisive in turning people away from criticism because there is no need to look at the object itself, to look at its qualities, to determine what is good or bad. Kant wanted universal aesthetic judgments, of course, but he could hardly guarantee them because there was no reason one could give for them. There was nothing about the object itself that made it pleasant or unpleasant to look at. We might as well look at snow shovels and urinals.

The reason why I like Diotima’s children — the aesthetic rationalists of the eighteenth century — is because they stress the importance about something in the object itself that makes it good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant to look at. They all defined aesthetic pleasure in terms of the perception of perfection, intuitio perfectionis, where perfection meant something like unity-in-multiplicity, a formal structural feature of an object, what we also call harmony or beauty. They did not deny that there is a subjective component to aesthetic experience in the feeling of pleasure; but they believed that there is also an objective component, that they judgment rests on a perception of this perfection in the object.

I think that there is something to this doctrine, and that we do well to revive it. Oddly, one of its tacit proponents, though explicit opponents, is Hume himself. When Hume insists that taste is a matter of delicacy, that it is a matter of having a sensitivity to features of an object itself, he is very close to the rationalist doctrine. Hume was really a covert objectivist (or partial one) about aesthetic pleasure because that pleasure had to be based on the sensitivity to features in the object. It was only having that sensitivity that allowed some people to be good critics. As soon as we explain what is involved in that sensitivity we get something along the lines of the rationalist’s intuitio perfectionis.

This is part of a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Beiser. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. If you are interested in this subject, Beiser expresses thoughts similar to Roger Scruton in his documentary on art for the BBC.

Note: The book, Diotima’s Children, is not available from Amazon for some strange reason. In addition to Barnes & Noble, you can get it through the publisher, OUP.



  1. Very interesting. I’m not super well-versed in arts/aesthetics (though that wil change over time hopefully), but I recall C.S. Lewis arguing that things usually thought subjective, like beauty, are actually objective, which is pretty interesting.

  2. It seems to me that the origins of the origins of the situation you describe has much deeper roots. It is described and/or prophesized in the statement attributed to Paul when he told us that the left-brained letter always kills the living Spirit. Indeed it was Paul and the essentially anti-Spiritual tradition that he created which was the inevitable precursor to the situation that you describe.
    The relatively new completely absurd project that pretends to find “new” interpretations or the “universal significance” of “Paul” is evidence of this. Tom Wright of course specializes in this – Wright is oh so painfully boring!
    From a similar perspective how many of the hot-shot theologians (past and present) including Calvin and Barth were also poets, artists or composers? Theology of course is essentially an exercise of the Spirit-killing left brained mind.

    Meanwhile of course the aesthetic experience is entirely subjective. As indeed are all experiences.

    • Quite a number of theologians, past and present,were/are artists of one form or another – actually, now that I think of it, most of the dogmatics from the Patristic era were written in hymns and songs (Ephrem Syrian, for example). Luther wrote a million hymns, Bonhoeffer wrote poetry and hymns, C.S. Lewis was a literary artists, Barth wrote poetry, Aqinas wrote hymns, Kierkegaard was a literary artist, the Wesleys were both hymnwriters, so there’s no shortage of artistic theologians. I am quite curious about your Pauline anti-spiritual tradition comment, though.

    • Yes, and Barth’s CD is itself a work of art.

      Still, Protestants have clearly prioritized the word over the eye, the aural over the visual. T. F. Torrance defended this, in one of his audio lectures that I heard, as true to the Israelite prioritization of the same. This is still very much something that I wrestle with, especially since I read Seeing the Form, the first volume of Balthasar’s masterful treatment of theological aesthetics, where he makes some powerful criticisms of Protestant theology. Notably, he says that Barth is the only Protestant dogmatician to understand beauty and incorporate it into his theology.

      • Yeah, you’re definitely right in the priortization of word over eye. Francis Schaeffer wrote some profound things on art, culture, and the de-arting (my own term) of Christianity since the Puritans. I forget which book that was but it was good. You do have Edwards writings on aestethics/beauty, but aside from a few notables like that, aesthetics is pretty much second-fiddle in Protestantism. Wolterstorff has done a lot of good work in that area, though, and I think we’re starting to see a renewal of interest in things like art, architecture and general aestethics in contemporary theology.

      • I forgot to mention David Bentley Hart’s works on aesthetics, in his ‘Beauty of the Infinite,’ as well as his most recent book. He does a good job articulating a more Platonic aestethic.

      • Yes, it is definitely a popular topic today for theologians, but I have yet to see a real grappling with the way Protestant particulars (the solae of the Reformation) can produce a visual aesthetics. William Dyrness at Fuller has come close. I know the Dutch masters are hoisted as exemplars, but I would like a more transcendent form of visual aesthetics (high gothic and renaissance), not just landscapes and household scenes.

        Edwards is, interestingly, entirely absent from Balthasar’s vast studies — because continental theologians have a habit of completely ignoring American theology!

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