A Blog for Everyone and No One

“arguments” on the beauty of Picasso’s owl

On birds and beauty

The first feature that speaks in favour of this picture is that it depicts a bird. Kant writes on page 114 that birds are examples of free beauties because we do not have any idea of what sort of thing they are supposed to be or what sort of purpose they are supposed to fulfil. Since this is a picture of a bird and not for instance a horse, which has a purpose, it is beautiful.

First of all: you are jumping to conclusions here. Just because something is a necessary condition does not make it a sufficient condition. I.e. being a bird does not automatically make you beautiful. Secondly: when Kant speaks of birds he is not talking about pictures or drawings of birds, but birds birds, that is, real birds. So the fact that this is a drawing of a bird does not make it beautiful. If anything it disqualifies it of being beautiful. As Kant writes on page 187: genius is entirely opposed to the spirit of imitation, and this owl is only a poor imitation of a real owl.

I have two points to answer that objection. First of all, when Kant discusses what sort of rule nature gives to art on page 188, he compares copying and imitation, and claims that the latter is completely legitimate. And since this picture is not a result of following some kind of precept it is to be classified as an imitation and not a copy, and consequently it can perfectly well be described as beautiful. Secondly: as Kant writes on page 185: “art can only be called beautiful if we are aware that it is art and yet it looks to us like nature”. This picture looks like an owl, and hence nature, but we are aware that it is art.

But the picture is too simple; it looks like a child’s drawing.

Well, Kant writes on page 110 that it is precisely the drawing that is the import part in a picture, not colours since they can arouse charm, which would make the picture agreeable and not beautiful. In this picture there are no colours, only drawing and hence it should be classified as beautiful.

But it lacks spirit! In Kant’s words: It is accurate and well organized, but with no spirit. And the academic form is showing through.

A second ago you claimed that it looked like a child’s drawing and now it is suddenly too academic? That does not make any sense. I agree with you that spirit is important but form is also important, and this requires precisely the organization that you oppose. As Kant writes on page 191: “To give this form to the product of beautiful art, however, requires merely taste, to which the artist, after he has practiced and corrected it by means of various examples of art or nature, holds up his work, and after many, often laborious attempts to satisfy it, finds the form that contents him”. And furthermore form is according to Kant the most important thing as specified on page 197 when he discusses the relationship between taste and genius in the art making process: “Thus if anything must be sacrificed in the conflict of the two properties in one product, it must rather be on the side of genius…”. Consequently, form is more important than genius, and I guess we both agree that this picture possesses a purposive form?


Eh… could you elaborate on that?

No! This picture does not get my faculties going, or how should I put it, I experience no free play of my understanding and imagination. Since you are the one implicitly demanding my consent in your judgment, you will have to prove that it is beautiful.

Prove it?

Yes, prove it!

But that is impossible according to Kant, there can be no disputing about taste and no proof can be given for why an object (or the way of representing it) is beautiful.

Okay, then you are stuck. I won the debate.

Why did you win?

Because if it were beautiful, I would necessarily find it so too. But I do not. Since you have given up convincing me, the verdict is: not beautiful.

But I could not find it beautiful if it not actually were beautiful, so it must be beautiful.

PS: all quotations refer to: Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).


One comment on ““arguments” on the beauty of Picasso’s owl

  1. January
    December 5, 2012

    I wrote my M.A. thesis on Emerson’s essay “Experience,” which shows definite influences from Kant. In the essay RWE writes, “But the definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence.” Your discussion here leads me to surmise that comment is additional evidence of Kant’s influence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on December 4, 2012 by in Philosophy, Video and tagged , , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: