In 1790, Immanuel Kant wrote his third critique, Critique of Power of Judgement, completing his trilogy after Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason. Kant’s third critique, Critique of Power of Judgement, is considered to be a foundational reading for anyone concerned with art criticism. Almost two centuries later, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu released La Distinction: Critique sociale du judgement, translated into English as Distinction by Richard Nice. Bourdieu had compiled a massive ethnographic study relating aesthetic experience and taste in culture to socioeconomic status. Both these text, are extremely crucial in understanding the theorisation of aesthetic experiences and Bourdieu’s work could be seen as arguing for structural determinism as against the universally subjective agency proposed by Kant.
In Critique, Kant’s focus lies on the accessing of the beautiful via pure judgments of taste transcendent of sensual, social, or moral being. Bourdieu expresses doubts about Kant’s claims of beauty, and counters that Kant’s judgment of taste is only a manoeuvring for status by acting as though one’s tastes have some sublimated, elevated character.
According to Kant, beauty is felt when a purposiveness is felt in the representation of an object, in a subjective and yet universally valid manner that excludes interest. Kant begins the Analytic of the Beautiful, the first section of the third Critique, by emphasizing the subjective nature of judgments of taste. He says
In order to decide whether or not something is beautiful, we do not relate the representation by means of understanding to the object for cognition, but rather relate it by means of the imagination (perhaps combined with the understanding) to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure. The judgment of taste is therefore not a cognitive judgment, hence not a logical one, but is rather aesthetic, by which is understood one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective.
Kant invokes the idea of “agreeable” to posit the idea of beauty as universal. Judgments of beauty demand that one to express his judgement with a universal tone, considering that given the right environment, each human being could not possibly disagree. To him, expressing that something is beautiful is nonsense. He writes that “the maxim of the power of judgment is to think in the position of everyone else”.
But this notion of moving towards a universally acceptable understanding of beauty raises many questions. It does not take into considerations the social and cultural aspects in these agencies of judgement are shaped and nurtured. Hence it becomes important to look at the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction: Critique sociale du judgement, or Distinction. Bourdieu had compiled a massive ethnographic survey to correlate aesthetic experience and taste in culture to socioeconomic environment.
In its entirety, Distinction explores this possibility of social domination through the use of pure judgments of taste and argues to refute Kant’s model of taste in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. Distinction presents an ethnographic study of 1960’s France that details how cultural practices stem from and reify social realities. Bourdieu uses his standard model of lived experience consisting of interaction between habitus, or the socially and historically generated principle that guides our practices and choices of objects of consumption that in turn generate influential social structures, and field, the environment in which habitus works.
Distinction views taste as a social phenomenon, correlated to different categories of agencies with specific social origins and trajectories inextricably embedded in a larger social framework. Taste serves as an indicator of these positions within social structures. Take for example case of Rain, a natural phenomenon celebrated by many artists trying to articulate its beauty through poetry, paintings, music etc. A dalit poet, Sambhaji Bhagat, has a very interesting counter argument to this when he says only those find rain as romantic who do not live under leaky roofs. Here, one’s judgement of beauty of rain is directly linked with his or her socioeconomic status and not in just pure sensual experience of it.
Bourdieu engages with Kant in the Distinction’s postscript. The postscript’s title-“Towards a ‘Vulgar’ Critique of “Pure’ Critiques”-advocates for the ‘vulgar’ critique integral in sociological analysis of the ‘pure’ territories of aesthetics, taste, and beauty. Bourdieu argues that Kant constitutes the subject of the aesthetics-oriented philosopher as “the universal subject of aesthetic experience-Kant’s analysis of the judgment of taste finds its real basis in a set of aesthetic principles which are the universalization of the dispositions associated with a particular social and economic condition.
Kant is unable to give fair account to the social and the historical in our aesthetic experiences. His account gives does not give any importance to the social factors that impacts our judgments. Kant’s emphasis on the importance of subjective emotional response to aesthetics is interesting, but his account of the mechanics of such responses and their implicative depiction of a subjectivity disconnected from social reality during these moments of aesthetic experience seems inaccurate and seems like he is dismissive of the social and historical factors of subjective response.
There is no fixed rule proposing that the Kantian notion of being will produce exactly the same results in every subject, and it gives some space for being skeptical of utopian ideal in which Kant is imagining to propose that all subjects will arrive at same conclusions. Also, if according to Kant, saying that “this is beautiful for me” is nonsensical, it becomes a problematic argument. That implies we will have to communicate with everyone about our encounters of experiencing beauty. But if the experience of the beauty is so conclusive bereft of any doubts according to Kant, then why should one even bother to obtain a confirmation? The judgment of taste does not necessarily has to be spoken about. Kant indirectly assumes that we all must talk about beauty. In this argument too, it looks like Kant is not considering the societal mechanisms responsible behind engaging into communication with other subjects.
It is really difficult to take a position here on both the sides. Both approaches of looking at taste and notion of beauty in an epistemological lens and its relevance in current understanding and formation of taste within subjects. Even Distinction leaves much room to raise doubts and problematize the postulates put forward by Bourdieu which in certain aspects appear reductive but that’s not the focus of this exercise. We may at certain moments believe whole heartedly to have experienced a Kantian sort of beauty, and we may find ourselves being critical towards that that very experience later on, seeing the ways in which larger social and historical forces have led us in thought to certain conclusions. The meaning of such an experience may be slightly flawed and no longer totally sure of itself. One should also not deny the importance of critical thinking, and the ways by which acts of critique provide an equally fulfilling experience. At the same time, an experience of beauty can unsettle any dominant notion or understanding of critique.