Decolonizing European Aesthetic Values. A Critique of Immanuel Kants’ “Critique of Judgement”

Seda Pesen

Palavras-chave: Aesthetic theory; Colonial knowledge production; Art theory; Racial anthropology and its imagery

Participação: presencial

When juxtaposed, colonialism and the emergence of aesthetic theory in the 18th century seem almost like antonyms - the former as an economic system of exploitation, the latter as the theory of beauty and art, supposedly uninterested in the political. Both took place in the climate of the unfolding Enlightenment. In my presentation, I would like to examine the aforementioned tension through various aspects relevant to the present of aesthetic theory. The subject of my investigation is the philosophical treatise "Critique of Judgment" (1790) by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), which is still one of the most influential European philosophical studies on aesthetics. I argue that Kant articulated the exclusion of non-European subjects through his considerations of art theory, specifically through the trope of aping and slavish imitation. I centre this trope to demonstrate that in 18th-century natural history and art theory an overlapping of discourses took place that was formed against the backdrop of European expansion at the expense of Black people.

Imitation and emulation formed central subjects of 18th-century art theory; to this day, questions of succession, copying and emulation are still debated in art. At the same time, imitation formed an essential topos in the natural history discourses dealing with the great apes first discovered in the 17th century. The humanisation of apes, which was articulated in a specific colonial visual language, was of importance in this context. Kant draws on this knowledge in his aesthetic investigation and sketches out a European aesthetic based on the juxtaposition of metropolis and periphery, as well as racial anthropology reflected in various motifs and examples. Despite the eventful period of its writing (the abolitionist movement in Britain was in full swing, as were the French and Haitian revolutions), Kant's work is rarely also read as a work of contemporary history embedded in context. My research aims to critique Kant's aesthetic theory and the supposed universalism of the Enlightenment to challenge the neutrality of this discourse. The aim is to show that Kant's theory of aesthetic judgement was inherently linked to the colonial knowledge system and at the same time supported the structures of power and domination of the latter by linking concepts of cultural and civilisational progress to ideas of aesthetics.


Seda Pesen (*1994) is a cultural scientist and curator who lives in Frankfurt am Main and Vienna. Trained in art history and comparative literature at Rheinische-Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität Bonn, she continued her studies in the masters programme ‘Critital and Curatorial Studies’ at Städelschule and Goethe University Frankfurt with a focus on aesthetic theory, art theory and colonial cultural history. She is currently a researcher and PhD candidate at the Laboratory for Cognitive Research in Art History (University of Vienna), within the FWF/DFG-Programme ‘The Museum Gaze’. In her current research, she focuses on the colonial entanglements of aesthetic theory and the blueprint of a postcolonial contemporary aesthetic theory. In doing so, she investigates transdisciplinary entanglements between aesthetics, colonialism, and natural history, which have barely been considered by previous scholars.