Beauty, Truth, and the
Passing of Transcendental Philosophy
IN HIS WONDERFULLY LIGHTHEARTED BOOKKantafter Duchamp, Thierry de Duve reminds us, by an unmarked implication, of the utterly baffling, improbable, historically inert, all but irrelevant initial pronouncements on taste and beauty that may be found in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment—which might have been rectified long ago by an obvious and still needed reform, after all the learned mischief possible has been wrought, by simply replacing the analysis of natural “beauty” by the analysis of “art.”1 It's a change long overdue, now courageously managed through the crazy distraction of Marcel Duchamp's blessed (would-be) submission of his readymade (fountain) for the 1917 Independents' Show in New York (but never shown), which adds some complicating nonsense about “art” to Kant's own nonsense, and which at the right time would certainly have made unavoidable a frontal revision of Kant's aesthetic formula if that had not already been required by events as early as those of the modernist art world of the century following the publication of the third Critique.
I don't mean to suggest by this that de Duve's effort is not a serious one. Far from it. But the absurdities in the entire chronicle that spans the reception of Kant's Critique, the independent history of Western painting that should have tested the perspicuousness of Kant's original thesis at once, the extraordinary challenge posed by Duchamp both to the perceived coherence of the evolution of nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting and the philosophy of art that shadows that entire story—which de Duve captures in all its bewildering extravagance but which he also skillfully penetrates in an oddly sane way by simply imagining something