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Art and brain: thinking beauty

What is beauty ? This notion is very subjective. Is beauty the representation of a beautiful thing or the representation of something beautiful? Asks Emmanuel Kant. As art evolves and beauty becomes superfluous, we will delve into the thought processes that trigger feelings of pleasure and happiness when glancing at a work of art. With the help of Emmanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, we attempt to understand the anatomy of beauty.

Each of the aforementioned philosophers is unique in his view and understanding of beauty, and the feelings triggered in an individual because of being subjected to beautiful things. For Kant [1], our impression of beauty is governed by perceptions of morality, sensuality and rationality. Beauty appears through the prism of everyone’s sensitivities and is, in essence, the product of positive feelings. Hegel, unlike Kant, thinks that beauty reveals truths and subconscious meanings vested in all us throughout time. For Hegel [2], man-made constructions, such as The Sphinx, are reminders that human civilization aspires to detach itself from nature. Art thus becomes superior, in a way, to nature because of this near spiritual undertone. Finally, Freud [3],   understands human appreciation for beauty as an act of sublimation. Art allows the mind to let unacceptable thoughts that are to this point suppressed deeply into the subconscious, resurface in a socially acceptable manner. Beauty thus becomes the agent of a peaceful mediation between ego and superego.

Kant, Hegel and Freud seem to all agree that beauty is not imparted on us by art or any other medium; it is however the product of a personal energy triggered by an outside stimulus such as a work of art. In his book When beauty saves us [4], Charles Pépin expounds on this topic eloquently. It is thus up to us all to become the adjudicator on matters of beauty; and through introspection, discover if we belong to the Kantian, Hegelian or Freudian school of thought.


[1] Quand la beauté nous sauve. Charles Pépin (2014).

[2] Critique of the Power of judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft) Immanuel Kant (1790).

[3] Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1998).

[4] Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Sigmund Freud (2008).

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