Origins of the modern notion of "useful" art

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Most functional approaches to the history and concept of "art" would state that cultural production always used to be closely related to distinct symbolical functions: magic, religion, propaganda, historical memory, etc. When in the modern era such functions lost prominence, and culture risked becoming plain entertainment, the modern concept of "art" evolved as a promise of a new sphere dedicated exclusively to the refinement of taste. Immanuel Kant’s account of disinterested pleasure as the mark of fine art (schöne Kunst) is often quoted as the origin of both the modern concept of art and of modern a-political aestheticism. Proponents of various progressivist and anti-elitist movements in the art world have often referred to Kantian aesthetics as the absolute antithesis to what they want to achieve; often basing themselves on rather narrow and superficial readings of Kant. It would be wise, then, to consider the extent to which certain notions of critical reflexivity held to be progressive and anti-Kantian would hardly be imaginable without Kant’s contribution to practical philosophy. The notion of “usefulness” or “purposefulness” (Zweckmässigkeit) in Kant’s third Critique may seem to be related to individual gratification only, but on closer inspection it clearly has political implications. The ability to differentiate between the beautiful and the ugly is said to be not only based on disinterested contemplation, but also accessible to “anyone” (Jedermann) as an unavoidable equality. In enlightenment philosophy more generally, the recognition of capabilities common to all members of humankind became closely connected to the revolutionary idea of certain rights which don’t follow from ancestral roots or education, but simply from the fact of being born as human. The idea that cultivation of the shared sensibilities of “anyone” could be purposeful for the whole of society is pronounced in the work of earlier British empiricists, such as Jonathan Richardson. Today’s instrumentalist discourses on the “usefulness” of culture for the development of national economies should be understood at the background of these ideologies of early modernity and the protestant and early capitalist values which shaped them. When today it is taken for granted that art pedagogy is “useful” for increasing the accessibility of art, and that all citizens have a right to develop their creative sensitivities, the same basic connection between politico-aesthetic equality and societal benefits is operative. This means that we all very well know what art is good for, but that it is increasingly difficult to imagine a state in which art has a symbolical function only.
Original languageEnglish
TypeConference paper
Media of outputVideo
Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2020
MoE publication typeO2 Other


  • Art History
  • Art Theory
  • Aesthetics
  • Modernity
  • Enlightenment
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Jonathan Richardson
  • Instrumentalism
  • autonomy


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