The Paradox of Idealising Art

Rationalism attempts to know the nature of reality purely through ideas, by a priori reasoning. According to this premise we can know things without experience through reason, and this pure theory, being somehow more real and therefore more valid, can grasp the essential truth of being, and, indeed, the beautiful. Therefore art must have its basis in ideas, and have science-like qualities, with set conventions and practices if it is to be considered to have any relation to truth by the rationalist.

The criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive. – Vernon J. Bourke

According to the Rationalist standpoint the idea of beauty amounts to composites, certain arrangements in which there are patterns to be discovered. If rules and proportions can be understood, art can be a kind of visual logic, like maths or geometry, and taught as such. Within the Rationalist perspective art becomes idea lead and strictly representative, for if art cannot be lead by reason then it would seem that it cannot have intelligible content.

For rationalist thinkers such as Descartes, the truths and ideas represented by art must be ‘clear and distinct’; art should be practiced as a Science, a means of expressing thought with absolute clarity. From this point of view art could, perhaps, be the beautification of philosophy, with philosophy requiring art to embody its general ideas as particular objects of splendour.

However, unlike the truth supposedly gained through reasoning, no worldly thing can be perfect. The most beautiful forms can, and generally do, have ‘imperfections’. Within Rationalist thinking the artist could create a more ‘perfect’ form because they can consider nature in the abstract, as an idea, or ideal. This idea expressed clearly and distinctly would then supposedly fit the Rationalist aesthetic. Yet this thought produces a rather strange abstraction itself, an abstraction of art. Furthermore it does so through some very strange assumptions that still continue to arise in modern thinking.

Without the sensuous faculty no object would be given to us, and without the understanding no object would be thought. – Immanuel Kant

In the above quote from Kant we see the false dichotomy of the separation of subject and object upon which our rationalist abstraction of art rests. Of course, the very terms by which Kant puts forward his ideas about transcendental logic continue to cage the discussion within this illusion; as if there really were such ‘faculties’ as the ‘sensuous’ and the ‘understanding’, and such were not just parts of a linguistic map by which we were attempting to understand our apprehensions – a map which we had gone on to confuse with the territory. As with so much in philosophy.

The idea that such things as ‘Pure Reason’ and ‘Truth’ have objective reality rests upon the fallacy that they are not in themselves ephemeral contextualised constructs to aid our understanding of something much more complex. They are abstractions. An abstraction may have a form of ‘imaginative reality’ but you cannot place an abstract ‘thing’ on a table in front of me, just as you cannot ever claim to see the ‘thing in itself’, or object seen without involving your own perception. Nor should we expect to. This assumes that everything that can be known about anything rests within the human spectrum of understanding; it also assumes the possibility to see things without any bias, without projecting anything of the observer upon it. Both of these assumptions are highly suspect.

Firstly it seems clear from looking at other beings, such as animals and plants, that there do exist more refined and complex methods of perception, many of which are not within the range of human experience. Why would such methods evolve if human perception covered everything? Clearly there exist realms of perception we may never know.

Secondly the idea that anyone could be capable of observing anything without any cultural, historical, social etc. bias, not to mention the bias of individual experience, seems frankly inhuman. Even when we use machines, a human specifies what data to collect and a human interprets the data. The very language we use creates a contextualised framework for the experience. Every human has a map of their world of some form or other that they use to make their way within it, a unique and shifting abstraction comprised of the above influences and much more. To suggest we can interpret anything without using our own particular individual form of judgement, or map, seems not only absurd, but impractical.

Thirdly, all our observations, no matter what apparatus we use to make them, take place at a particular moment and place in space time. To suggest some ‘everywhere’ ‘every-time’ theoretical reality that we cannot ever experience is more real and more valid than this is unscientific at best.

Reality is always plural and mutable. ― Robert Anton Wilson

Rationalism seems to expect more from human experience than human experience, unsatisfied with the wonders of our perceptions as they are. Indeed it almost seems an attempt to denigrate our perceptual capacity by making comparison with functionally unattainable ‘superior’ methods. Granted we may attempt to refine and expand our experience, become more capable and competent at using our perceptual apparatus and maps, but to expect to gain and retain inhuman insight within a human mind seems not only unreasonable, it seems like a grand insult to a highly complex and wondrous thing. We have not even begun to understand consciousness or experience, let alone altered states, and yet some would attempt to condemn consciousness as we know it as inferior to something purely hypothetical.

The boundaries of conscious experience are what make our particular forms of reality possible, the permutations and exploration of which seems limitless. Pure Reason implies standardised knowledge, this implies knowledge has limits and remains static; that at some point somewhere we could ‘just know’ everything, within the confines of our tiny human brains. ‘We’, being an intellectual elite, and the limits being defined by their understanding, no doubt. I think this says more about the thinkers in agreement with this than it does about ‘reality’. But I digress.

An abstraction cannot be a real thing within the material world by virtue of being an abstraction and not a particular. An imagined triangle cannot be a specific triangle, yet each refers to the other via designated commonality within a particular framework. Now I have no problem with abstraction when used properly, to explain something general that then will need application to a specific. But the idea that the imagined ‘existence’ of an abstract renders the specific somehow less worthwhile shocks me. It shocks me almost as much as the idea that because a person can be thought of as separate from their environment they must actually be separate from their environment. This might seem like mere semantics, but that way we talk about our world directly impacts how we interact with it.

The map is not the territory. – Alfred Korzybski

The search for an ‘object in itself’ seems thoroughly illogical, but we have become so caught in the Aristotelian object/predicate trap that we cannot find the woods for the trees. Trees are a good example. Ask most people to draw a ‘tree’ and you’ll get a lollypop shape with a green fuzzy top. Fine for reference to a particular, but not only does that not have much in the way of reality in terms of a given specific organism, but it also denies its connection to its environment. Any individual tree would die in a vacuum, as would a human. Yet we do not think of them within such complex surrounds. We can only survive such conceptualising in our imagination. Individuality seems pretty abstract too, but this abstraction helps us to function at basic levels of cognition for survival purposes. It does not help us in developing higher areas of thought, which require the development of as much of the perceptive capacity of our minds, with as little abstract baggage as possible.

So where does Art fit in to all of this? Well it certainly doesn’t just represent abstract ideas. What it represents could be said to be a form of seduction into the artist’s map of a particular territory, their particular subjective perception, but that completely depends on the methods of the artist, the context of the works display and the individual disposition of each viewer. Each experience creates a particular event, a particular interpretation, the range of which depending entirely on many different factors. Art refers to the ephemeral moment of the union of consciousness with the world.

The more representational an artwork the more it aims to use particular symbols within a context designed to produce affinity. In referring to our own experience they do not reveal a thing in itself, but create an experience through interplay with the observer. Even the meaning of a familiar everyday symbol may be changed, and in time will disappear completely, as it will at some point have no context. In this way language and forms of representation like it, such as mathematics, may be viewed as forms of art, created methods of understanding and transmission within a given framework. They attempt to frame that which can never be framed, the mapping of human experience and beyond. They have no existence beyond our creative interplay with them that we can know.

Advertising and illustration will aim to transmit very specific messages, by utilising symbols specific to the target audience. This does not mean that they will necessarily make the desired interpretation, and for those beyond the context it may make none of the intended sense. Conceptual artists take their work to levels of ambiguity in which each individual interpretation may differ radically, without any touching on what the artist was driven by. Some works of art have no intended sense to begin with and leave interpretation completely open to the viewer. In fact, if we are open to it, the entire world may be viewed as a work of art, created by the interplay our inputs and our capacity to interpret them. Our attempt to map the unmappable.

The paradox in suggesting that art necessarily refers to ideas, as an object has innate predicates, is that art merely refers to art – to the creative interpretive capacity of consciousness, and our entanglement in any given environment with interpretations and mixtures of past and present moments. A process caught up in a process. Any sense of separation, any ideas, are products of an abstraction of our union, of the beautiful singularity of seemingly individual judgement, which may or may not have a reality of its own in the realm of imagination.

Art, then, has the ability to both create particular unique ephemeral experiences and to project potential for interpretation of particulars. Aesthetics shape and re-shape our perceptions, creating ideals and abstractions as readily as it alters them.

What we see changes who we are. – JR, Lets Turn The World Inside Out

And who we are changes what we see. In other words, our inner maps are constantly used to understand the process we are caught up in, and constantly informed by this. Subject and object collide and unite in perception. Aesthetics has the power to inform and contextualise understanding at all junctions, but there can be no guaranteed prediction of the outcome, no a priori knowledge of an actual experience, just a guess.

If taken to the extreme, a priori reasoning seems like a form of mere assumption or preconceived prejudice that may become projected. A potentially dangerous method. Idealising not only denies the purely sensuous aspect of experience – the visceral embodied moment – but by arguing that art can be broken down into rules and proportions – mere visual logic – it attempts to constrain a primal creative force within a homogenising framework. It becomes an attempt to view reality within limited confines, narrowing and biasing our perceptions, closing our senses and ceasing to think through creative interplay. Our mind becomes a mere projector.

I would suggest an alternative view of rationalism to avoid this. Instead of the mind referring to ideals, we may be experiencing a world of ideas; in other words the imagination inter-penetrated with the world. The mind may know things in some sense through the imagination, which remains a form of experience in and of itself. In my opinion Art certainly may refers us to this, and can indeed vary in its clarity in doing so, depending on the context as well as the ability of the artist.

We find our own truths in the beautiful, our own particular perceptions and imaginings. No matter how similar these may seem, each comes from a unique point in a unique process. A great artwork functions as a vehicle to such forms of cognition, and for its development. It may perhaps refer to an advanced form of human experiential phenomenon, an ephemeral realm of maps and abstractions beyond which may exist far more – yet it remains a particular subjective experience. Our understanding of the universe seems limited only by our ability to perceive and interpret – with less bias and more imagination we can continue to push the boundaries of that understanding. Art can do far more for truth than merely make reference to it or beautify it; art can create and define it. Beauty does not refer to Truth; Truth refers to beauty.

Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest. – Friedrich Nietzsche


  1. Excellent work Janice. I feel that the key of interpreting Art lies in Kant’s works, especially his ‘A Critique of Pure Reason’ publication. His synthesis of rationalism and empiricism truly ‘works its magic’ for a satisfactory exegesis.

    • Thank you 🙂 It’s had a few edits and quotes added since you read it, to clarify a some things.

      Kant’s Critique of Judgement and Critique of Pure Reason could do with being more widely understood, and not just for art. We would avoid some very basic and fundamental mistakes with perception.

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