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Friday, June 8, 2018

"Exemplary Originality": Kant on Successful Art

Immanuel Kant was the first philosopher to recognize that genius, as exemplary originality, will stimulate and provoke a continuing revolution in the history of art. In his Critique of the Power of Judgement, he defines genius as the talent or the natural gift (an inborn productive faculty) that gives rule to art (or through which nature gives rule to art).

In his essay, “Exemplary Originality,” (Chapter 10; Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics), Paul Guyer offers an interesting explanation of Kant’s theory that a successful art must always possess exemplary originality. Here’s an excerpt:
A successful work of art is thus one which pleases us precisely because both its content and its form induce a free play of our imagination and understanding in a way that cannot appear to be dictated by any determinate concept or rule, but which is nevertheless itself a rule or norm for everyone in the sense that, under ideal circumstances, it should please everyone by inducing the same pleasure in the free play of these cognitive faculties. In natural beauty, such as that of a flower or a sunset, it is the form of an object produced by nature without human intervention that induces this free play of imagination and understanding; artistic beauty must be both produced by rational human activity and not produced in accordance with visible rule, so Kant construes it as the product of nature working through the medium of a human being to produce something that is not visibly rule-governed but yet is itself a rule for the pleasure of all.  
This analysis of artistic beauty entails that truly successful art must always possess what Kant calls “exemplary originality”:* originality, because the successful work of art can never appear to have been produced in accordance with a rule but must always strike us with an element of contingency or novelty; yet exemplary, because it must at the same time strike us as pleasing  in a way that should be valid for all. Originality by itself, to be sure, is easy to achieve: just make something that departs from all known rules and models. Of course, in this way a lot of nonsense will be produced, so what Kant calls “original nonsense” is easy to come by. The trick is to produce exemplary originality, objects which, “while not themselves the result of imitation… must yet serve others in that way, i.e., as a standard of judging,”* or objects that strike us as original in appearance to depart from known rules and models but which can themselves be pleasing to all or a rule for all. Thus, in Kant’s view, all truly successful art must be the work of genius. 
* Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement

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