Monday, November 10, 2008

Hegel's Conception of Art as the Ideal and the Historical

Another installment of the "philosophers on art" series from Ovi Magazine.

Hegel's Conception of Art as the Ideal and the Historical
by Emanuel L. Paparella

“In art we have to do, not with any agreeable or useful child’s play, but with the liberation of the spirit from the content and forms of finitude, with the presence and reconciliation of the Absolute in what is apparent and viable, with an unfolding of the truth which is not exhausted in natural history but revealed in world history. Art itself is the most beautiful side of that history and it is the best compensation for hard work in the world and the bitter labor for knowledge.”

--G.W.F.Hegel (from Lectures on Fine Arts)

Let us go on with the examination of Art through the eyes of great philosophers of Western Civilization. We have already briefly seen that for Aristotle, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche art depends on their general metaphysics. In other word, their conception of art is colored by their philosophy. This is even truer for G.W.F. Hegel for whom art is nothing less than one of the forms of absolute spirit, what he calls Geist, defined as the essence of the world.

In Hegel’s view the universe is a self-perpetuating, dynamic whole or spirit whose articulation follows a rational plan that is revealed in art, religion, and philosophy, the three aspects of absolute spirit. Spirit and not matter is primary despite Marx’s turning Hegel up-side-down. What’s different about art is that it remains tied to sensible form or the perceptible, particular work, while religion and philosophy have as their goal the articulation of truth in purely universal or general terms. Thus art is the Ideal. This is a term that for Hegel indicates the ineradicable presence of individuality and not the thorough-going universality of the Concept which is Hegel’s term for the fullest grasp of reality.

Most of Hegel’s reflections on art can be gathered in his Aesthetics, a compilation of students’ transcriptions and the master’s own lecture notes. What is striking about them is that they begin with an abstract description of a certain idea or concept to then go on to show in more detail to what that idea amounts to. The very first general claim is that art, as the Ideal, must be a totality. For Hegel, a totality is a particular type of whole, one in which each part reflects the nature of the whole. A thesis combined with an antithesis becomes a synthesis or a whole; that whole then becomes the thesis which meets another antithesis and becomes a bigger synthesis. So the original synthesis or whole reflects all the bigger synthesis that will inevitably follow; in the microcosm one can individuate the macrocosm. This is how Hegel attempts to describe the development of humankind’s history.

By analogy, in an organic whole such as the human body, the function of each part, such as seeing for the eye, can only be comprehended with reference to the totality. So, when Hegel claims that an art object is a totality, he is asserting that each of its elements must reflect the content of the entire work, thus conveying a sense of profound integration. Even a glimpse or a fragment of a great work ought to give an idea of the whole. This is literally true of the pre-Socratic fragments of philosophy. He then explores the implications of this view of art asserting that “inner” and “outer” need to be harmonized in a work of art. What does Hegel mean becomes clearer when Hegel uses this very claim to criticize all those conceptions of art, which date all the way back to Plato, that characterize art as imitative, and its truth as mere correctness and accuracy of representation. He rejects this formal conception of art. As far as he is concerned, art must have a content that is true. Not unlike Aristotle, art for Hegel functions to reveal metaphysical truth, hence his rejection of formalism in favor of a more substantive conception of art’s truth.

Hegel makes this claim even more precise when he discusses portraiture. He rejects the idea that a portrait ought to slavishly resemble its sitter’s appearance; rather, it should display the subject’s inner character through its depiction of external appearance. To do this requires that the painter idealize the sitter, ignoring idiosyncrasies of appearance the better to reveal essential character. Hegel even gives an example of successful portraiture: the Madonnas of Raphael.

Moreover, Hegel differentiates three distinct species of art. This typology is characteristic of the historicism of his general philosophy which is teleological, that is to say, aiming toward a final goal. Although it is developed as a set of logical distinctions within the concept of art itself, it simultaneously constitutes a sequence of historical types recapitulating art’s progress toward its own essence and the full manifestation of “Geist.” As already repeatedly pointed out in other articles, the problem with this conception of reality as progressive is that it assumes the determinism of progress; in other words, it assumes that what comes at the end of a process (its synthesis) is always for the better. That assumption has been disproved by the same events of history which have shown that regression is not only possible but remains a constant possibility as the underpinning of Man’s intrinsic freedom. The Holocaust of the 20th century is one poignant example of such disastrous regressive events of history.

Read the rest of the article to see the three types of art Hegel defines.

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