Provisional Painting: a Kantian analysis

 View of Michael Krebber's   The Painting Machine  , 2003

View of Michael Krebber's The Painting Machine, 2003

Immanuel Kant is an 18th Century German philosopher who, in his works on aesthetics, argues that our faculty of judgment enables us to have experiences of beauty. It is tempting to box him into his own time and only talk about his theory of aesthetics in the context of 18th century painting, however the nature of his theory seems to suggest that we can make aesthetic judgments through our cognitive faculties that are universal and necessary. Is it possible to analyze contemporary painting through the eyes of Kant and see whether or not Kant would be able to make sense of it in the same manner that we do?

The question which many contemporary painters ask themselves is what kind of image to produce when anything can be created digitally. Art critic Terry R. Myers writes that: "Painting since the end of the nineteenth century is inextricable from the parallel (if not superseding) story of the perpetual cycle of its deaths and rebirths in the face of photography, conceptual art, installation, digital imaging technologies, the world wide web, or plain lack of ignorance." Much of what contemporary painting is doing seems to be reacting against the longer history of how painting has functioned in various cultural contexts. Provisional painting (often used interchangeably with the term "Casualism") aims to embrace aesthetic poverty as a positive factor. Alan Pocaro, an artist and professor associated with the New Aesthetics movement, puts it this way: "Not nearly thoughtful enough to be conceptual, nor skillful enough to be aesthetically captivating, provisional painting falls harmlessly and lifelessly in the middle.”

The New Aesthetics movement was founded in 2007 in lsree, southern Germany. It holds that, for the first time ever, art is focused on the practical experience of making art that serves the needs of the artist. The material existence is still vital to The New Aesthetics and can thus be seen as differentiating itself distinctly from conceptualist art, which places the immaterial idea above the material artefact. Instead of "reassessing basic elements like colour, composition, and balance, based on 1920-s vintage Bauhaus principles", Provisional artists do not take these factors into consideration in the first place. This type of work targets the idea of being a painter rather than putting emphasis on making good paintings. The focus of Provisional painting specifically addresses the nonessential nature of skill and craft within a painting. In refusing aesthetic challenges that date back to hierarchical power structures within art, Provisional Painting appeals to a more egalitarian philosophy of painting. Artist Sharon Butler describes Casualist work as often having "an anti-heroic, offhand feel and ostensibly show[ing] little attention to craft or detail… Casualist pieces seem quickly made, self-amused, and untethered to the rigorously structured propositions and serial strategies favoured by artists of previous eras." An example of Provisional Painting is Michael Krebber's The Painting Machine (2003). For this exhibition the artist haphazardly leaned a few canvases against the wall, some with seemingly incomplete brush marks and each with a poster or a dishtowel draped on top. The nature of his work is unfinished and shows his refusal to represent straight-forward and completed works of art.


Provisional Painting at first glance seems to tie in with Kantian aesthetics in the sense that the artist approaches the work intuitively, unfazed by ambiguity, ill-defined parameters or specific lines of thought. Provisional Painting integrates traditional references of painting with a more improvisational and conceptual contemporary sensibility. The Provisional (or Casualist) vocabulary provides a reinvigoration of the expression of contemporary concerns. It represents the criticism of traditional boundaries but does not ignore them. It is on the verge of earning its own place in art history by occupying an indefinite space between conceptualism and traditional painting. It embraces the “unpredictable encounters in the studio in ways that their predecessors did not.” Some established living artists in this genre include Raoul De Keyser, Albert Oehlen, Christopher Wool, Mary Heilmann and Michael Krebber. The contemporary nature of Provisional painting makes it one of the most relevant art genres to look at today. Its direct ties with questions about the purpose and relevance of painting (and beauty in painting) while still putting emphasis on its form, relate directly to Kantian language. In unpacking contemporary painting through a Kantian eye, we see whether Kant can make sense of Provisional Painting and what exactly he would have to say.

In Kant's third Critique, the Critique of Judgment (1790), the central purpose is to investigate whether the faculty of judgment provides itself with an priori principle, in other words it discusses the place of Judgment itself. Kant defines judgment as the subsumption of a particular under a universal. That is, judgment is the interplay of understanding and reason, during which the understanding supplies concepts (universals) and reason draws specific conclusions (particulars). In the introduction, Kant distinguishes between the kinds of judgments that can occur: determinate and reflective judgments. The former is a judgment in which the concept contains sufficient information for the identification of any particular instance of it. It is determinant, and it specifies and comprehends. On the other hand, reflective judgments are more complex during which the judgment has to proceed without a concept, sometimes in order to form a new concept. Kant thinks that aesthetic judgments are a form of reflective judgments that neither begin not end with determinate concepts. This is the reason why Kant comes to deal with beauty and fine art. He is concerned with what kind of features an aesthetic judgment exhibits, how such a judgment is possible and if there is any transcendental guarantee of the validity of such a judgment.

In beginning to unpack aesthetic judgments, Kant begins with an account of beauty. He is interested in what kind of judgment is involved in our saying ''That is a beautiful sunset.” In doing so, he argues that there are four key features involved in this kind of aesthetic judgment (or judgment of taste). These four features are also known as Kant's Four Moments of Taste.

The first moment characterizes aesthetic judgments as disinterested. To clarify, Kant identifies two types of interest: Sensations in the agreeable and concepts in the good. Aesthetic judgments, according to Kant, must be free from any such interest. This is because interest has a direct link to real desire and action which creates a determining connection to the real existence of an object. For example the judgment that ''this spaghetti tastes good" involves a direct interest in the object, I really care that there is spaghetti on my plate. In theory, aesthetic judgments are indifferent to the existence of the object being judged. The real existence of the beautiful object is irrelevant. I could argue that I may wish to own a beautiful painting (or a copy of it) because I derive pleasure from it, but that pleasure is not a result from a pure aesthetic judgment as it involves impartial interest towards the object. Another important distinction is that an aesthetic judgment results in pleasure (aesthetic beauty) rather than pleasure resulting in judgment (the agreeable). In being disinterested, an aesthetic judgment must defer from any sensible content (such as colour, tone, etc) and focus primarily on form (shape, arrangement, rhythm, etc) in the object. This is what makes Kant one of the founders of formalism in aesthetics in modern philosophy.

The second moment holds that aesthetic judgments are universal. In other words, my judgment that this sunset is beautiful involves an expectation on the agreement of others, as if beauty were a real property of the object that everyone should agree on (it seems obvious to us). When I judge a landscape to be beautiful, I directly demand universality - because if there is a disagreement about this judgment it seems that there is error involved somewhere, rather than an agreement involving mere coincidence. This universality is different from the mere subjectivity of judgments such as "I like carrot cake". We don't expect everyone to like carrot cake, it is not an error not to like carrot cake. It is also distinct from objective judgments such as "carrot cake is sweet", because aesthetic judgments must be universal apart from a concept (in this case sweetness). Aesthetic judgments, in fact, have no adequate concept to begin with and are reflective. It is tempting to think of this as the common truism "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", however this cannot account for our experience of beauty itself, insofar as we see "beauty" as if it were somehow in the object itself (or in the immediate experience of the object). In other words, this relativist attitude cannot account for the way our claims about what we can find beautiful behave. Aesthetic judgments must be "apart from a concept", because this is when the free play of the cognitive faculties (understanding and imagination) can occur. Since we all have the same capacity to engage our free play, according to Kant, if we do it properly then we can claim universality in making aesthetic judgments.

The third moment claims that aesthetic judgments must be purposive without a purpose. To clarify, an object's purpose is the concept according to which it was manufactured, for example: The purpose of this cup is to hold coffee. Purposiveness, on the other hand, is the property of at least appearing to have been manufactured or designed. According to Kant, the beautiful has to be understood as purposive, but without any definite purpose (what the object is meant to do or accomplish or what the object was simply meant to be like). Kant emphasizes beauty in nature, because it will appear to be purposive to our faculty of judgment, but upon further investigation its beauty will have no real “purpose”. This is why beauty is pleasurable, which Kant defines as arising on the achievement of a purpose, or the recognition of a purposiveness. When moving from nature to art, things become a bit more complicated. Kant argues that a work of art can have specific purposes behind its creation (such as the artist wishes to communicate something specific), however this cannot be a sufficient reason for judging the object to be beautiful. Any knowledge we have about the real purpose of the art object must be abstracted from our aesthetic judgment in order to judge it properly. The real purpose for the beauty of the beautiful, Kant argues, is unknown and cannot be known.

Lastly, the fourth moment aims demonstrate how aesthetic judgments must pass the test of necessity. Everyone must agree with my judgment, because it follows from this principle. Kant defines this type of necessity as "exemplary" and "conditioned". The former points towards the idea that necessity does not follow a determining concept of beauty, but exhausts itself in being exemplary of an aesthetic judgment. The latter refers to what the necessity of the judgment is grounded upon, or what it says about those who judge. Kant calls this ground "common sense", which can be explained as the a priori (before experience) principle of our taste. Common sense, according to Kant, does not refer to the intelligence about everyday things. Rather, it is when the universal communicability, the exemplary necessity and the basis in an a priori principle are all different ways of understanding the same subjective condition of possibility of an aesthetic judgment that Kant calls common sense. Basically, to simplify Kant, one could claim that all four moments of the beautiful can be summed up as "common sense”.

To get a better sense of what Kant thinks about fine art, we must examine his idea of the "genius". The problem that occurs when moving from nature to fine art, is not how it is judged by the viewer, but rather how it is created. Kant's focus shifts from the transcendental conditions for judging the beautiful object to the transcendental conditions of the making of fine art. He thinks he solves this problem by introducing the idea of the "genius" who is responsible for creating “aesthetic ideas". He argues that aesthetic ideas are crucial for producing the "soul" in fine art. These are the opposite of rational ideas, since rationality is a concept that could never adequately be exhibited sensibly. Aesthetic ideas in turn are a set of sensible presentations to which no concept can be ascribed to adequately. They are the best attempt to exhibit rational ideas, and it is the talent of the genius to generate them. Kant argues that the genius must find a mode of expression which allows the viewer not just to understand the work conceptually, but to also reach the harmonious state of mind that the genius had in creating the art object.

We distinguish fine art from nature because, although we may judge nature as purposive, we know there is no prior notion behind the activity of a flower opening (the flower doesn't have a conscious mind or a will to execute ideas with). Art is also distinguished from pure labour or craft, as craft satisfies only for the payoff and not for the mere activity of making. One of the most important arguments Kant makes is that art (like beauty) is free from any interest in the existence of the product itself. This argument will be crucial in evaluating Provisional Painting.

Kant thinks there are a few varieties of fine art: The arts of speech (such as poetry, which ranks highest according to him), arts of visual form (sculpture, architecture, painting) and arts involving a play of sensible tones (music). The genius provides the matter of fine art, when taste provides the form. Taste can be learned, but aesthetic ideas cannot be (otherwise all art critics would be artists). The genius links the art work to aesthetic ideas, which makes it more than just an uninspired object. The expression of the beautiful is something that cannot in any other way be expressed.

Kant's aesthetic theory depends entirely on the physical existence of the art object, which is why I will not be discussing pure conceptual art and focus only on Provisional work. Another reason not to target conceptual art is that it is generally not concerned with aesthetic beauty, whereas Provisional Painting is in direct conversation with traditional forms of aesthetics (or lack thereof).

Firstly, I have to make sure to abstract any kind of interest and background information I have of Provisional Painting from my judgment. This means that all the information I mentioned in the beginning of this article is irrelevant and hinders us from making a true aesthetic judgment. My judgment must be free from any kind of interest in order not to find attachment in the object itself. The real existence of a provisional painting is irrelevant, and it is important that I do not judge it based on my pleasure in the painting, rather my aesthetic judgment must precede the pleasure I get from judging it. I must also ignore any sensible content within, in this case Krebber's paintings, such as colour and tone. My focus in judging his paintings is on the form, shape and arrangement of the composition. From adapting the first moment, I can tell that Krebber's paintings have a geometric alignment of shapes and are leaned against the wall. Whose face is on the poster draped overtop and what kind of colours have been used to create the paintings, this is not allowed to enter my aesthetic judgment.

Secondly, I expect everyone to agree with my judgment of Krebber. Assuming that my understanding and imagination are in free play, and that everyone else's is as well, I expect each viewer to come to the same conclusion and that a contrary view shows an error in judging. Supposing I come to the conclusion that Krebber's paintings are beautiful, I directly demand universality from everyone making correct aesthetic judgments. 

Thirdly, in making an aesthetic judgment, Krebber's paintings will have to appear purposive without a purpose. They have to appear as being made for a specific purpose, but upon further investigation no such purpose can be found. This means that one must examine only the formalist content of the work (according to the first moment), and in doing so I should be fooled by the forms and composition of the work. The shapes appear to have been painted and arranged in a purposeful manner, but really the more I examine the work, I should realize that I can never find the specific purpose of the work. This is when my aesthetic judgment of Krebber's paintings leads to pleasure.

Lastly, I realize that my aesthetic judgment is necessary and I have merely exercised my common sense in judging Krebber's work. This reveals something about myself, the one who makes an aesthetic judgment. I realize through necessity that I did not follow a determining concept of beauty but rather exercised a pure aesthetic judgment.

Now the question remains of what Kant would have said about Krebber: Are his paintings beautiful? It seems that it is possible to exercise anaesthetic judgment without hinderances, meaning that such a conclusion is at least not impossible. Perhaps a more relevant question to ask is whether Kant would see the same significance in Provisional Painting that we do today? Part of what is so noteworthy about Provisional Painting is the lack of emphasis on its physical existence. It is not a "precious object" nor is it labour-intensive. If we make an aesthetic judgment correctly and come to the conclusion that a Provisional artwork is beautiful, we may have found it much easier to be disinterested in the object's existence than, say, and 18th Century Rococo painting that would have been worked on over a number of years. In a sense the emphasis on form, disinterestedness and purposiveness without a purpose ties in nicely with the nature of Provisional work.

Bec Wonders