Kojève was born in Russia to a wealthy and influential family. His uncle was the abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, about whose work he would write this influential essay in 1936.
He was educated in Berlin and Heidelberg, Germany. He completed his PhD, on the Russian religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev’s views on the union of God and man in Christ under the direction of Karl Jaspers. Early influences included the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the historian of science Alexandre Koyré. Kojève spent most of his life in France, and from 1933 to 1939, he delivered in Paris a series of lectures on Georg Hegel’s work Phenomenology of Spirit. After World War II, Kojève worked in the French Ministry of Economic Affairs as one of the chief planners of the European Common Market.
Undoubtedly there is a relationship between art and beauty.
However, they are clearly not the same thing. Even setting aside the “pretty”—(everywhere—and in art the “ugly” and the “pretty” can be beautiful or not-beautiful) there is the Beautiful in Art: a piece of music, a painting, a building, poetry . . . and the Beautiful in that which is not Art: a plant, a human body, a birdsong, a machine, etc.2
The Beautiful that is specified in being incarnated in the tree is the beauty of the tree, of trees, of this tree; in a locomotive it is the beauty of the locomotive; in a painting [tableau] it is the beauty of the painting. But in all these specifications, two types are confronted: the Beautiful in Art or of Art and the Beautiful in non-Art or of non-Art.
The two Beautifuls are the same Beautiful. However the Beautiful-in-Art is not the Beautiful-in-non-Art. How and why?
One and the same Beautiful is incarnated in the real tree and the painted tree.3 But the incarnation of the Beautiful in the real tree—that is to say, the beauty of this tree, the Beautiful in the tree or of the tree—differs from the Beautiful in the painted tree. The real tree is “in the first place” a tree; it is only following—“in the second place”—that it is beautiful, that it is an incarnation of the Beautiful. The real tree is “in the first place” thing, plant, giver of shade to the stroller, furnisher of wood to the carpenter, etc., etc. And it is only “subsequently” beautiful: for the “aesthete” who contemplates it, for the painter who paints it. The real tree is beautiful “in addition,” “also,” and it remains a tree even if it is not beautiful or ceases to be beautiful. Things are completely different with the painted tree, the painting “Tree.” It is not a thing; it is not a plant. It shelters no one and serves no one. It is not and is of no usefulness. And in being not, it is not a beautiful tree; it is the Beautiful as tree. Or better still: it is not beautiful “also” and “in addition”: it is only beautiful—or nothing at all. The painting [tableau] “Tree” is beautiful and beautiful only or it is not a tableau, but merely some colors on a surface.4
The painter who paints a beautiful tree does not paint the tree, but the beauty of the tree, the Beautiful in the tree or as tree: he neglects everything in the tree except its beauty, that is to say the Beautiful in it, and if he is not able to represent the Beautiful of the tree, he is not able to paint the tree, to make a tableau: he only dirties (colors) a surface.
Art is thus the art of extracting the Beautiful from its concrete incarnation, from this “other thing,” which is—“also”—beautiful, and of preserving it [et de le maintenir] in its purity. In order to preserve it, art also incarnates the Beautiful, in a painting [tableau] for example. But the tableau is beautiful “first and foremost” and it is only “also” and “subsequently” that it is canvas, colors, etc.. . . If it is not beautiful, it is nothing: good for nothing, good for being destroyed; the real tree is a tree which is “also” beautiful and which can be without being beautiful; the painted tree is the Beautiful that is tree or—if you prefer—the tree that is only beautiful and nothing else, that is nothing outside of its beauty. The beautiful in the real tree is the ornament of that tree; the beautiful in the painted tree is its very being, the painted tree being nothing [néant] without its beauty, outside of its beauty.
Thus: the Beautiful-in-non-Art is the beauty of a being, the Beautiful in being; the Beautiful-in-Art is the being of beauty itself, the Beautiful existing as such, the Beautiful being “in and for itself.”5 Art is the art of preserving [de maintenir] this Beautiful “in and for itself” by incarnating it in a being—painting, statue, music, poetry, etc.—which is only insofar as it is beautiful, the incarnation of the Beautiful. Specifically, Art is the art of “extracting” the Beautiful from the being (real, useful, etc.) that is “also” beautiful and incarnating it: the Beautiful in a being that is only beautiful, without then adding to the “extracted” and “incarnated” Beautiful something that, in being real, useful, or otherwise, would not be beautiful. For one cannot say that the painter, for example, “adds” to the Beautiful the oil and the canvas of his painting [tableau]: the oil and the canvas are not the tableau, and the tableau is only the “incarnation” of the Beautiful and nothing else. What is this Beautiful that Art “extracts” from the beautiful thing by “incarnating” it in its pure state, in making of it a Beautiful-thing? It is a “value”—without any doubt. And—also without any doubt—a “useless” and “unreal” value. Useless, because it serves no purpose and is not made to serve. “Unreal” because it “does” nothing; it would not weigh down the pan of a scale, would not alter the needle of a galvanometer, would not stop a projectile . . .; it would do nothing to avoid a blow, but the blow would be able to do nothing to it.
Being a value, the Beautiful is. It is without serving another thing, without being served by another thing, without being able to create or destroy anything other than itself, without being able to be created or destroyed by something other than itself. If, then, this value is a value, it is simply because it is what it is, in itself only, for itself only, and by itself only.
Thus: the Beautiful is a value simply because it is. And everything that has a value solely on account of the simple fact of its being is beautiful, is the Beautiful, is the Beautiful that is, the incarnation of the Beautiful. One makes something Beautiful—in and through Art—solely in order to make something Beautiful, that is, solely because of the simple fact that the being of the Beautiful has a value. And everything that one makes for the sole reason of its being, is made of the Beautiful, and made for Art.
This is the reason one makes a painting [tableau], for example. One makes it solely so that it might be. And that is why it is necessary to make it beautiful. If [it is] not, it has no reason for being. And, having no reason to be, it is not: it is not a tableau, but a dirtied surface, which is there only to be destroyed (or in the future, unnoticed, to be consigned to artistic oblivion).
The Beautiful is being that has a value on account of the simple fact of its being, in itself, for itself, by itself. In order to be beautiful, being must then be able to be, that is, to be sustained [se maintenir], in-for-and-by-itself. In being sustained thus, it is beautiful, and it is only in being sustained thus that it is beautiful. The real tree is sustained by itself, by its imminent constitution, by the relationship of its parts; but it is sustained also by the ground that supports it, by the salts, water, and rays of the sun that nourish it, that is, by things other than itself; it is sustained in itself in its branches, its trunk, its roots, etc., but it is sustained also in the universe, which is something other than itself; it is sustained for itself, but it is so sustained for the birds that it shelters, for the man that it serves, that is, for things other than itself. That is why it is beautiful only “also” and “second-arily”—it is beautiful only insofar as it is sustained in-by-and-for-itself; insofar as it is sustained in-for-and-by-something other than itself, it is not beautiful; but this is precisely why it can be sustained even without being beautiful, independently of its being-beautiful. The painted tree, by contrast, is sustained only by its being-beautiful: the tableau “Tree” must thus be sustained solely in-by-and-for-itself; the tableau is sustained only in the tableau, not outside of its “frame,” and it is not in the universe of real things (there, it exists not as a tableau, but only as canvas, oil, etc.); the tableau is sustained only for the tableau, because it is there—as a tableau—only for those who can transpose themselves in it, see it “like an artist,” that is to say, live—for as long as the artistic contemplation lasts—in it, for it, and by it. The tableau is sustained as a tableau only by itself, by the equilibrium of its parts, by the immanent laws of its interior life, nourished by nothing, save itself.
In summation: the Beautiful is that which is sustained solely in-by-and-for-itself, and all that is sustained in this way is beautiful. Art is the art of creating beings that are sustained in this way, and that are sustained only in this way. Specifically, Art can be [described as] the art of extracting from a being everything in it capable of being sustained in-by-and-for-itself, and of making from it something that is sustained solely in-by-and-for-itself.
2. During revision of the essay, Kojève deleted “an animal” from his list of potentially beautiful things outside of art, and added the more Kantian (or Soloviev-inspired) “birdsong” in its stead. He also scratched the sentences that immediately followed: “Thus Beauty and Art are not the same thing. But the Beautiful—in all its specializations—is always beautiful; there is the beautiful, one and the same, in all that is beautiful, in Art or outside of Art.” For Soloviev’s understanding of the nightingale’s song (as “the transfiguration of the sexual instinct, its liberation from the crude physiological fact—. . . the animal sex instinct embodying in itself the idea of love”), see his essay, “The Beauty of Nature,” in S. L. Frank, ed., A Solovyov Anthology, trans. Natalie Duddington (London: SCM Press, 1950), esp. 129.
3. There is an interesting mistranscription of this sentence both in the version of the essay published by Michael Roth and, presumably as a result of that, in the small paperback edition released by La Lettre volée. In each, the sentence reads: “Un seul et même Beau s’incarne dans l’arbre réel et dans l’esprit peint.” Kojève’s handwriting could hardly be more legible: the penultimate word in the sentence is clearly l’arbre rather than l’esprit. The only explanation would seem to be that Roth—recognizing the generally Hegelian nature of Kojève’s argument, and anticipating (somewhat incorrectly) the distinction that Kojève would soon draw between Beauty-in-Art and Beauty-outside-of-Art—projected “spirit” onto the painted tree. Ironically, the mistranscription calls our attention to the surprising absence of any reference to “spirit” in Kojève’s text, and so also to the complicated (if unarticulated) relation between Beauty and Geist implied by his argument.
4. Deleted phrase: “—like dirt on a table, which is there only by accident, insofar as it has not been mopped up, wiped away . . .”
5. The phrase that Kojève employs here, “étant ‘en et pour soi,’” is a translation of das An-und-für-sich used by Hegel. For Hegel, Being that is “in-and-for-itself” is wholly complete and self-contained. To further emphasize its autonomy—that its existence is not determined through some other thing—Kojève will later add “by” (par) to the mix, referring to Being that is in-by-and-for-itself. Indeed Hegel himself used the phrase Beisichselbst-sein (being self-sufficient, or at home with oneself), including in The Philosophy of World History, where he wrote: “spirit is self-sufficient being [Beisichselbstsein], and just this is freedom.” See Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 48. For Kojève, then, following Hegel, the “in-by-and-for-itself” is yet another way of designating the Absolute.