Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)'s Transcendental Critique of Aesthetic Judgment offered a variety of innovations in the way scholars evaluate Art, 'reversals' or 'radical turns' as they are sometimes called. He was looking for the conditions of mental life that create the possibility for the apprehension of beauty and the sublime- an epistemological project which is said to have contributed to the foundations of modern psychology.
How is it that beauty appears in the eyes of the beholder? It’s the result of the workings of the mental faculties of reason, understanding and imagination, cognition and feeling.
'Transcendental" in Kant's usage is not outside or above us, as we might conceive God to be, but within , the ground from which all that we perceive that is outside of us proceeds and for which we are in the most fundamental way responsible, as individuals.
By "critique" Kant meant an analytical investigation into the quality, quantity, relations and modalities of human mental faculties, of an intent and scope not previously seen before. Beyond these simple assertions, however, Kant often becomes quite obscure. Reading Kant, and many who followed in his philosophical turn, is a confrontation with dumbfounding definition, dizzying distinctions, diabolical doctrines and heaps of jargon. It's very difficult to understand what Kant means by the individual 'moments of taste' comprised in the mental faculties which constitute an aesthetic judgment. For one, the word 'moment" is not used in the temporal sense. "Quality' denotes a unique subjectivity which is never-the-less universal. Quantity is pervasive, something that 'lights the whole room' not just the object we happen to be looking at. 'Relation' refers to the self-generating, purposeful purposelessness of the apprehension of a beauty that surpasses the mere sense of a pleasant or gratifying experience. Exactly what Kant means by modality I have not yet been able to discern.
Perhaps what Kant was trying to say in his rather pseudo -scientific manner - brushing aside the multiple categories in his juggling act- was that art brings together the things of nature in way that generates a sense of a new way of being or sense of wonder and extraordinariness, expanding of the horizon of what we can think, where we find our freedom, the dignity of self-rule and autonomy. Kant believed this -- the experience of the beautiful and the sublime-was a matter of our feelings rather than specific knowing, an act of the (unbound) imagination rather than of reason or understanding. The beautiful is accepted as a complete end unto itself, having no agenda, no proofs, free of prejudice or restraint, or any ideology.
Put in such terms Kant's critique of aesthetic judgment seems a bit sentimental, an excessive piling up of love for art which is belied by actual experience but, paradoxically, at the same time, making the claim that the perception of beauty in its broadest sense embodies no personal interest and is a universally shared experience.
Well, our capacity to embody paradox may be what ultimately distinguishes us from animals, so give credit where credit is due.
No doubt we will be hearing more about Kant as we proceed along in The Critical Tradition.