A Camera is a Paintbrush: Kant Contra Scruton

It is not amiss, however, to remind the reader of this: that in all free arts something of a compulsory character is still required, or, as it is called, a mechanism, without which the spirit, which in art must be free, and which alone gives life to the work, would be bodyless and evanescent (e.g. in the poetic art there must be correctness and wealth of language, likewise prosody and metre).

Kant, Critique of Judgement, ‘Art in General’, pp. 133-134

'Books' - Alexander Rodtschenko -1924

As with his British forebears of the 18th century, Addison, Hutcheson and Burke, that which makes art aesthetic for Kant is the pleasure that is incited in the experience of art, or, as transcendentally indicated, of the harmony of the faculties conjured by the purposiveness of the object disclosed in aesthetic reflection.  The pleasure is essential in that it alone distinguishes art as aesthetic from art (making) that is merely technical (production).  However, the invocation of pleasure, for Kant, demands a clarification in the form of a distinction between fine art and agreeable art (entertainment).  The latter is an art of enjoyment oriented to sensual pleasure (and is thus not purely aesthetic), while the former is an art of reflection and is oriented to the act of reflective judgment.

Nevertheless, in both cases that which distinguishes art as aesthetic from art as mere mechanism is the pleasure that is invoked in the mere judging of the aesthetic object.  As Kant writes: ‘For, whether we are dealing with beauty of nature or beauty of art, we may make the universal statement: that is beautiful which pleases in the mere judging of it (not in sensation or by means of a concept).’ Fine art, in this way, manifests the pure aesthetic character as it is a free making of a free spirit, as Kant has alluded in the epigram.  Fine art, for Kant, is that which brings forth, seamlessly, an object of free making that provokes a universal esteem, the expression of which is disclosed in the articulation of a universal communicability, as the discourse of a sensus communis.

For Kant, the pre-eminent senses for the manifestation of fine art are sight and sound, which would seem to include various plastic arts, painting, poetry and music.  That which is at stake for Kant are not the concepts, methods or purposes of production of the artist, however, but instead, the autonomy of both the artist and the public (in their aesthetic experience and communication) amidst the existential and social process of art.  Art, born of freedom, provokes the feeling of freedom, of the pleasure of harmony, as it reveals the purposiveness of the temporal world in which we are situated. 

Yet, the interest in such a question would not be relevant if it were not a dire concern, as if there could be a doubt about the purposiveness of Nature.  It is, in this way, that we purchase a thought of harmony at the cost of an admission that our freedom is always subject to constraints.  As Kant counsels in the epigram, ‘It is not amiss, however, to remind the reader of this: that in all free arts something of a compulsory character is still required, or, as it is called, a mechanism…’ Every art form will – as it is not the gift of Nature – be condemned to rely upon mechanism, as a necessary factor of its making, its poiesis. Kant gives the example of poetry, and that which is required as the mechanism of the art.  That which distinguishes art as aesthetic from art as mechanism, however, is the primacy of pleasure and freedom that is at the heart of fine art, regardless of the methodology of production.

Such thoughts could readily apply to other possible examples of forms of art and of the traits of mechanism that would be inherent in the practice of each.  We could consider painting, for instance, or perhaps, film, although Kant himself did not know of this or other possible art forms or other more recent styles of art.  However, it would seem quite possible that Kant, given his concern for freedom as the pleasure of the aesthetic experience, and with his prioritization of sight and sound, could have much to contribute to our understanding of film. 

This essay makes a foray into the question of the aesthetic status of photography and film in order to underline Kant’s contention – against the rationalists – that existence must be situated within a horizon of possible experience, or in the words of contemporary philosophy, of embodiment, and its existential and material constraints. It is in this way that Kant would disagree with Scruton’s rational and conservative aesthetics and their exclusion of materiality from art. From a Kantian perspective, there is no reason to not embrace filmic representation.

Film, as it was with Deleuze, could hold, from a Kantian perspective, a pre-eminent status as an example of art that, in its syncretism of vision, action and sound is, like opera, or Greek tragedy, an intimation of a universal communicability of the sensus communis, of human existence.  Film could in this way be comprehended as a topos for a dissemination of various tragic and comic poetics of existence. Film itself, for Kant, would readily meet the criteria of art in its provocation of an aesthetic pleasure in the mere judging of it.  In this way, moreover, in keeping with the prior clarification, there would be agreeable films (entertainment) and those films which are occasions of fine art, and of which the history of cinematography gives ample evidence.               

Nevertheless, there are some who would like to deny us this possibility.  Roger Scruton, in his ‘Photography and Representation’ wishes to deny to photography, and thus to film, the status of art.  For Scruton, art requires conscious intervention, it presupposes an intentionality between the medium and the work, and thus, a conscious artist who controls an artistic process.  Photography, however, lacks, in Scruton’s view, this intentionality, this consciousness, in that it is a mechanical process, without the artist present at the crucial event of the artistic act. 

Without giving away the criticism that is to come, there seems to lie within this portrait of the artist as an intentional centre of artistic creation, a Platonic pure soul in harmony with immediate forms, without mediation and without mechanism, or mere physical causality.  There are deep prejudices that abide in Scruton’s artistic soul, ones which incite a range of criticisms of his position which however merely circle around the central problem with his argument.

Rehearsing the range of various criticisms, we could at the outset point to the wide-ranging acceptance of film as a form of art and one that is capable of representation in the context of the universal communicability of the sensus communis, of human existence.  Of course, Scruton, could in the manner of Socrates, simply question the wisdom of the many, of the crowd. Others could point out the actual artistic processes that have been involved in photography and filmic production, of a myriad of decisions and techniques that are deployed in the free making that is film.  One could think of Eisensteinian montage or Buñuel’s surrealistic techniques as artistic orchestrations of the medium of film.

Still others could point out that Scruton’s central focus upon consciousness and intentionality fails to comprehend that which is most peculiar about artistic production, and which were communicated to the public in modern art forms such as Dadaism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, etc.  Contrary to Scruton’s position, it is the unconscious which is most central to the artistic process – even Kant admitted that aesthetic experience concerned a feeling, whether of beauty or the negative pleasure of the sublime. 

Scruton may still object that these examples do not challenge his position.  Indeed, he could simply say that, on the one hand, that artistic techniques do not silence the basic question of representation as conscious intentionality, and that, on the other hand, the contrary emphasis upon the unconscious is merely a negative repetition of his Cartesian position of consciousness, and one that does not necessarily pertain to the question of representation.   

If we are to arrive at the central issue of criticism, however, we must return to the prejudice that is intimated in Scruton’s portrait of the conscious, intentional artist.  That which is at stake is not the sobriety of the artist, or whether or not the artist painted his dreams, as did Dali, but of the central role of the human artist in the artistic process.  But, why cannot this be the case in the medium of film?  Because the artist is not there, making the image with his hands and according to his intentions.  With his hands… a photograph is not etched out with our hands, but through a photo-chemical/photo-electrical causal act.  There is no room for the artist in this process and thus the product is not a form of art.  It would seem that we must acquiesce to the power of the better argument, and simply remove the status of art from film.

But – perhaps not so fast, as we are still troubled by the prejudice of the hand in the context of painting – as the most immediate practise which can be distinguished from photography, even in the family resemblance of their respective visual forms.  The hand holds the paint brush which glides across the canvass, there is an intimacy of the artist, the brush, paint, and canvass.  This is not the case with photography… unless, of course, contrary to the procedure of Scruton, one actually picks up a camera and points it at some object and takes the picture, with the intention of taking the picture of that object.  In both cases, intentionality seems evident, one of painting and the other as photography.  If we then take a few steps back, we begin to see two artists, each with a differing mechanical means of realising an artistic act.  The camera is a paintbrush, and vice versa.  Each is a medium which operates as a mechanics of art: a mechanics of photography and the mechanics of painting. 

We have listened to Kant’s statement in the epigram: ‘in all free arts something of a compulsory character is still required, or, as it is called, a mechanism…’ In both cases, with Kant and Scruton, there is a primary concern for freedom.  For the latter, freedom is the state of an intentional, conscious creator; for the former, freedom is the state of an autonomous creator who is capable of and concerned with provoking aesthetic pleasure.  Intentionality and autonomy as the respective conceptions of freedom would not seem to be necessarily in conflict, nor would there be any necessary conflict with respect to pleasure as the goal of aesthetic experience.  Yet, these conceptions of freedom may descend into conflict if we look more closely at their respective treatments of mechanism as it pertains to their own respective conceptions of art.  For Scruton, it would be photography which has contaminated our realm of aesthetic creation and experience with mechanism. 

Kant, however, has reminded us that all arts are constrained by mechanism.  It must be the case therefore that Scrutonian art, that of painting, for instance, should also be susceptible to and require a specific mechanism, deployed in the midst of the artistic process.  And, we readily find that to be the case, nearly as an analytical, though a posteriori, definition of the very meaning of painting.  Paints, palettes, brushes, canvas, a well of water to rinse the brushes… the mechanics of painting…

Scruton’s entire conception of photography is false.  Think about the material existence of the camera.  The first premise of his argument is wrong: what is the difference between the camera and the paintbrush?  There is no material difference between a paintbrush and a camera, in terms of Kant’s reminder that all arts are constrained by mechanism. Both are directed by my consciousness, the brush and the camera, the latter being a more complicated mechanism, but I can still direct a camera just as I can a paint brush.  And, that is even assuming that consciousness is even necessary ala surrealism, for instance.

What is the prejudice here? Scruton is thinking about freedom – he thinks he has more freedom with a paintbrush than a camera, but a paintbrush has to be operated in a certain way – you do not have absolute freedom with it, you cannot just think of an image and then it appears – it is not a magic wand.  Nevertheless, Scruton still thinks there is something so thoroughly mechanical about photography that we are not actually responsible for the image produced, that its process precludes freedom – this is the prejudice.

We have already considered the tactile prejudice of the hand.  The entire motif is that of the hand to the pen or paintbrush, under the direction of the eye.  It is the prejudice of Michelangelo as the hand of God touches the hand of man – a prejudice still accepted by photography itself as the form of ‘the shot’.  Yet, if that which is essential to the artistic act is same for each, that of the artist directing the mechanism within its requirements and limits, can there still be a difference between mechanisms that is a question of principle? 

To dispel the prejudice, we must consider the brush, this time, close-up, as a mechanism, a tool, along with the rest of the mechanics of painting.  Just as the photographer does not actually draw the picture with his or her hand, the painter does not actually control the colours of the paint as these primary colours, the painter does not control the resistance of the wood in the palette and the brush, items which he must hold in a specific manner, nor can the artist escape his being always upon the surface of the canvass.

The painter is forced to accept the constraints of mechanism, and in the case of painting, there are many constraints to the realisation of conscious intention.  It is no different than a camera, in terms of the essence of its status as mechanism.  But, both as surely implicate the eye and the hand in the designation and orchestration of that which is to be shown – in the context of each of the mechanisms which pertain to their art forms: the painting ‘stroke’ and the photographic ‘shot’.  These are the decisive acts that are effectuated by the artist. 

The painter is no more free than the photographer, or the cinematographer.  Each is constrained by his or her own mechanism, as a mechanics of art.  Scruton’s idealisation of the hand of the artist is a symptom of the disembodiment of the artist, revealing a Platonist tendency to forget about the body of the artist, and to suppress the question of the praxis of intentional creativity. Scruton in his repetition of the cultural prejudices of traditional art, fails to provide a sufficient criteria to distinguish between art and non-art, much less one between good and bad art. 

Scruton’s position is blind to the bodily feeling of freedom in the midst of the creative act, to the actual practises of art, and to the physicality of art.  His question of the status of photography as representation is besides the point, for in the context of the inseparability of mechanism from art, the question and the criterion of freedom will be concerned not with the bodiless intentionality of the artist but with the embodied autonomy of the artist and the reflective pleasure of the aesthetic public. 

These are the representations that matter in the midst of a universal communicability, of a time image, as Deleuze suggests, that provide for the freedom of an indefinite iterability of our representations of existence.  For if we base our criticisms of art around notions of whether or not there is the participation of mechanism, then we will find that there will be no art left – that if we accept this notion of freedom as conscious intention without the mediation of mechanism, then we will be forced to admit that art is no longer possible – and may never have been as none of it has or will ever be without mechanism, as a disembodied Cartesian spirit, as the Platonic divine which has forbidden any images of itself.   

Scruton may not disagree as to the ubiquitous of mechanism in art. Yet, his peculiar blindness to mechanism in the case of painting, reveals his failure to establish a standard for art and the judgment of art, or, indeed, of even what art is.  For if there is no essential difference between a camera and a paintbrush, then mechanism cannot be the mark of distinction. What then becomes the mark of distinction:  for Kant and for post-Kantian philosophy a differing sense of freedom which gathers around the term ‘art’ that which is created out of embodied freedom and is capable of inciting aesthetic pleasure, of beauty as the aesthetic reflection of purposiveness, of harmony. 

Art, in this way, regardless of its precise methodologies among the myriad arts, is that which allows human beings, beyond the horizons of the theoretical and practical, of science and morality, to live, to feel the pleasure amidst the harmony that is provoked by the artwork, the created object which intimates the truth of human freedom and our potentiality for attunement with and comprehension of our mortal existence.

One of the implications of this critique of Scruton’s disembodied consciousness is that artistic reflection will allow us to broaden our comprehension of the artistic act in an exploration of the unconscious, as for instance in surrealism, not merely the paintings, but in the automatic writing of Breton and others, and in film.  Such orientations exhibit the myriad attempts to explore the truth of existence, and experiment with the methods of expression and style.  Indeed, in light of modern art, Scruton’s emphasis upon consciousness almost seems anachronistic.  Who but Van Gogh is a better example of the art of the unconscious, of art in relation to dream, intoxication, sickness and madness? Is a Van Gogh possible in a Scrutonian universe?  Or, in other words, are the aesthetics of Scruton helpful in the understanding of modern and contemporary art, or of contemporary photography, cinema, or any other art that utilizes mechanism, such as in the case with much conceptual art. 

Scruton seeks to prescribe an aesthetic standard to artistic production and assessment which does not hold its ground.  The mechanism that he faults in his conception of photography fails to understand the latter as a practise that is concerned with the ‘shot’, that decision between the eye, hand, frame and object – a decision that evidences freedom, just as the stroke of the painter evidences freedom.  Between the two there is no difference except for the complexity of the mechanism.  To continue such a focus upon mechanism as a means to deny photography the status of art is no longer possible.  It is equally impossible to deny photography and film (and other possible art forms) the status of art. 

As a conclusion to this meditation, I would like to turn to the film La Jetee (Chris Marker/France/1962), which is composed entirely from snap shots.  The shots proceed and guide us through a narrative which is not determinate, but reflective and imaginative.  The time image is a collection of eternal moments, cut away from the flow of temporality, joined together to create a differing temporality.  The film exhibits decisions within decisions, of shots, arrangements, the sequence of a story board, and the culmination of the narrative in the death recognition scene.  La Jetee is a hybrid between the photograph and the film proper, but its monstrous form allows us to reflect upon the universal communicability of images, and the sequence of images as narrative, and to feel the pleasure of a beautiful or thoughtful work of art.  Film allows for differing perspectives of our existence, differing temporalities, unseen or forbidden events. 

La Jetee is perhaps the best example of what Scruton thinks a film is – a collection of photographs, each of which is essentially a mechanical product.  But, immediately, in the presence of the film, in its showing, the faculties of our consciousness are provoked to free movement, and are delighted by the film, which is deemed a work of beauty, and is therefore art.  To regard photography as mechanical, and to deny it the status of art, not only misses the unique contribution of photography and film as art forms, but it also misunderstands what is essential in the artwork: the eye, the hand, mechanism, and decision.  The photograph is not made by the chemical process, but by the decision between the hand and the eye, just as the painting is not made only by the paint and brush but by the decision between the hand of the eye, in the one case by the photographer, in the other, by the painter.

With this straightforward example of La Jetee as art, it seems clear that Scruton is wide of the mark.  If my freedom is restrained by the mechanical in photography, it is also restrained by the materiality of a paint brush. We are simply more familiar with paint, back to the Lascaux Cave paintings in France, and we often forget that with which we are most familiar. Scruton simply allows his prejudice to project a qualitative distinction among mechanisms where there is none.  All art is embodied, but that which makes it art is its capacity to incite thoughtful reflection, and for Kant, hopefully an interest in the good.

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