Philosophy of Art Versus Aesthetics

Philosophy of Art. Photo Credit – Flickr: dogwelderAre tattoos meaningless markings or a possible form of 
self-beautification or self-expression?

What purpose does it serve to discuss tattoos as possible works of art?

Immanuel Kant discusses tattoos as a possible form of self-beautification in The Critique of Judgment. He writes:

We could add much to a building that would immediately please the eye, if and only if it was not to be a church. We could adorn a figure with all kinds of spirals and light but regular lines, as the New Zealanders do with their tattooing, if only it were not the figure of a human being.

It is Kant’s position that the Maori, who tattoo their faces, do not produce anything beautiful with tattooing because they disrupt the human’s inherent form. The tattoo designs, themselves, might be beautiful but not if they are manifested on a human being. The beauty of a human being, for Kant, depends on the human’s natural form. Adding a tattoo to a human being is an inorganic act and therefore not beautiful, he concludes.

Although Kant does not state that tattoos cannot be works of art because they are not beautiful, this evaluation of tattoos is only a superficial response to the presence of tattoos. Kant does not examine how the evaluation of tattooing as an art form may give rise to a more accurate assessment of what art is. A work of art is more than something aesthetically pleasing, though a work of art can also be beautiful. My view is similar to Danto’s position regarding aesthetics and art. Danto states:

that a work of art has a great many qualities, indeed a great many qualities of a different sort altogether than the qualities belonging to objects materially indiscernible from them but not themselves artworks. And some of these qualities may very well be aesthetic ones, or qualities one can experience aesthetically or find ‘worthy and valuable.’ But then in order to respond aesthetically to these, one must first know that the object is an artwork, and hence the distinction between what is art and what is not is presumed available before the difference in response to that difference in identity is possible.

My preliminary assessment is that the beauty of a tattoo is independent from whether or not it is art, and therefore the beauty of a tattoo is not a main factor when evaluating tattoos as potential works or art. With that said, however, I now wish to explore Kant’s view of beauty in regard to tattoos because it seems to be a position that some still hold today. I do not want someone to disregard my argument about what we can learn about art through tattoos because she is preoccupied with the notion that tattoos are “ugly,” “trashy,” or “stupid.” Tattoo philosophy differs from aesthetics.

Kant distinguishes between “dependent” and “free” beauty, as briefly described above. Free beauty is that of a flower. “Hardly any one but a botanist knows what sort of a thing a flower ought to be.” An object that possesses free beauty is independent from everything else. It has no purpose other than to be beautiful, and no external factors determine its beauty. There is no predetermined concept of what it needs to look like in order to be beautiful.

Kant does think, however, that some things possess a predetermined notion of what they need to look like in order to be beautiful. Humans possess this type of dependent beauty. It is Kant’s position that human beings need to be in their natural form in order to be considered beautiful; he considers tattoos on human beings not beautiful because they disrupt the natural human form. The subjective nature of Kant’ s notion of dependent beauty helps eliminate the idea of beauty from the realm of determining what art is.

Instead of Kant’s view that human beauty is “dependent” on its natural form, let’s suppose that each person’s external human beauty depends on the depiction of concepts through tattooing that are important to that person. Just as it is Kant’s assumption that external human beauty depends on its natural form, it is my assumption, for this example, that external human beauty depends on manifesting concepts that help shape an individual’s identity. My proposed notion of human beauty actually corresponds to the general factors of dependent beauty that Kant describes. Unlike an object of free beauty that’s purpose is fulfilled through its quality of beauty, an object of dependent beauty must serve a different function or purpose.

It is a matter of opinion what this purpose is. It is clear to see why Kant thinks tattoos disrupt human beauty, but that view presupposes that human beauty is indeed dependent on its natural form. I do not wish to claim that human beauty depends on the presence of tattoos, but throughout this essay I discard the notions that a human being’s body must remain in its natural form and a human body is superior if it is unaltered. My above treatment of the subjective nature of Kant’s view of dependent beauty served to illustrate that sentiment.

In The Critique of Judgment, Kant also writes, “If we wish to explain what a purpose is according to its transcendental determinations, the purpose is the object of a concept, in so far as the concept is regarded as the cause of the object; and the causality of a concept in respect of its Object is its purposiveness.” In non-abstract terms, for example, a record player was created so that one could listen to music without any live music actually playing. Kant explains that the existence of an object depends on a purpose that it must serve. This purpose is based on a concept. The concept of listening to music when live music is not actually playing is the purpose that led to the creation of the physical object, the record player.

Kant establishes this idea of purpose or function prior to proposing his ideas about free and dependent beauty. The idea of purpose helps support Kant’s view that an object of free beauty needs no other function because its function is beauty, whereas an object of dependent beauty needs to serve the function of that certain object. Once again, Kant subjectively assumes what this function is and even states “there can be no objective rule of taste which shall determine by means of concepts what is beautiful.” Because Kant’s personal taste does not directly stifle my argument, I will not cover it any further.

Kant’s idea of objects serving functions of beauty is similar to my thesis that tattoos can, in some circumstances, serve artistic functions. Tattoo art helps show the importance of the artistic concepts behind physical objects of art, whether the creations are tattoos or paintings. H.W. Cassirer explains Kant’s notion that “the concept has brought the object into being. The object is a mere effect, which owes its existence to its purpose. The object would not exist at all, or at least it would not have the same form as it has, but for the concept which is to be regarded as its real ground.”

It is my position that tattoo art concepts demonstrate that human skin is the most appropriate medium for some artistic concepts, and tattoo art, in general, shows the function that physical objects of art can serve. Art allows for concepts to exist “in concreto,” as Roman Ingarden proposes in Ontology of the Work of Art. These concepts have no tangible existence without physical objects of art.

— This is an excerpt from The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art. —

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The Philosophical Functionality of the Tattoo: A Philosophy of Art
Stefanie Flaxman
is the creator of @RevisionFairy and author of a new book about heartbreak.

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