>Hegel’s Artistic Progress

>In his Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel extends his concept of the dialectic into the realm of art and the Artist. He begins with the questions, “What is art?” and “Where does art come from?” and delineates two flawed conceptions, finally settling on a third.

Initially, he suggests that since a work of art is “a product of human activity,” it might be something that can be “known and expounded, and learnt and pursued by others” (Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition, p. 547). Hegel has an interest in rejecting this view because it does not take into account what he considers the spiritual nature of the artwork:

…what can be carried out on such directions can only be something formally regular and mechanical. For the mechanical alone is of so external a kind that only a purely empty exercise of will and dexterity is required… (547)

Rejecting this view because what is spiritual in art, cannot be taught through formal rules (i.e., “spiritual activity…is bound to work from its own resources and bring before the minds eye a quite other and richer content” (548)), Hegel suggests the opposite scenario. That is, perhaps the work of art is “a work of an entirely specially gifted spirit” which “is supposed to give free play simply and only to its own particular gift” (548). This, too, he finds limited in its applicability:

…even if the talent and genius of the artist has in it a natural element, yet this element essentially requires development by thought, reflection on the mode of its productivity, and practice and skill in producing. For…the work of art has a purely technical side which extends into handicraft…(548)

We can certainly see Hegel’s point with a little imagination. Suppose that Michelangelo had had never worked under Giovanni, or that Mozart’s father had not been a music teacher. While there is surely something to be said for each of these artist’s talent and genius (both far exceeded their teachers in ability), it is hard to imagine either of them getting started without some formal training.

Hegel’s use of the word “handicraft” to describe an aspect of high art is telling. He understood, as I and others have suggested, the relationship between the artist and the material world. There is something to Art that is no more than labor, and while he does place importance on inborn (i.e., Natural) talent, he states quite clearly that “Skill in technique is not helped by any inspiration, but only by reflection, industry, and practice” (549).

And so we can see the dialectical synthesis: Art cannot be produced either through gross manipulation of material, nor through pure spiritual abstraction, but must combine elements of both. The manipulation of the object is tempered by the spirit, and likewise the spirit is informed by the artists skillful (i.e., practiced, formal) manipulation of the object.

It must be admitted that Hegel’s interest in locating the Spirit in the work of art and Artist is a priori. One might ask him, “how can you tell?” That is, I could likely hire a counterfeit artist to paint an exact replica of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. If the copy is good enough, and I secretly hung it in place of the original, it is unlikely that anyone would suddenly realize the difference: “This painting looks the same but lacks the artist’s Spirit!” Indeed, art forgeries are widespread, and forgers find success specifically through the strict implementation of Hegel’s first proposition (his thesis, if you will), that art can be created entirely formally. And Kant’s aesthetic judgment suggests that this formalism is all that is required for beauty. Certainly we can’t perceive the artist’s Spirit when we behold in the painting its perposiveness without purpose. However, Hegel’s concept of art seems tied specifically to his interest in locating the sources and implications of human self-consciousness, an idea which he ties directly to the Spirit. He suggests as much in his discussion of a third question: “Why is Art Necessary?” The need for art, he says,

has its origins in the fact that man is a thinking consciousness, i.e. that man draws out of himself and puts before himself what he is and whatever else is…The universal need for art, that is to say, is man’s rational need to life the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes again his own self (550-51).

Hegel has little interest in Art for the viewer, for the critic (Kantian or otherwise) who would judge a work of art. For him, art is essential to man in its capacity to help him gain self-consciousness.

It almost sounds here, as was implied or guessed at in his Master-Slave Dialectic, that Hegel’s artist is, necessarily, in the position of the Slave. He states as much when he discusses the artistic imperative. “[M]an brings himself before himself by practical activity,” he says, “since he has the impulse…[to alter] external things whereon he impresses the seal of his inner being and in which he now finds again his own characteristics” (550). Compare this to his claim, in Phenomenology of Spirit, that “through work…the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is” (546).

After expound the dialectic of Art on an individual, one might say psychical, level, Hegel puts forward a historical understanding of Art. He proposes that Art has moved through three historical phases. In symbolic art (which is for Hegel represented by the early art of the pantheistic East), the concept of the Idea remains entirely detached from the object, which is only taken, in its more or less natural form, to symbolize the idea. In totemic art, for example, the animal representation is a simple externalizing of the self-conscious Idea onto what amounts to a ‘found object.’ This results, Hegel claims, from the symbolic artist’s inability to shape and determine his own Spiritual Idea, and his realization of the continued incompatibility results in the sublime:

…the Idea, as something inward, is itself unsatisfied by such externality, and…it persists sublime above all this multiplicity of shapes which do not correspond with it (552).

In classical art, on the other hand, the form of the Idea is found in representations of the human body. Hegel considers that this is a step in the right direction, because in representing the external form as that of a human, the Artist has located the external form which most corresponds to the Idea:

…in so far as art’s task is to bring the spiritual before our eyes in a sensuous manner, it must get involved in this anthropomorphism, since spirit appears sensuously in a satisfying way only in its body (553).

Hegel finds classical art deficient in its necessity of finding the Spiritual form in a concrete human form. By doing so, he seems to say, classical art attempts to overcome the gap between the Idea and reality. This is ultimately fruitless, however:

…if the correspondence of meaning and shape is to be perfect, the spirutality, which is the content, must be of such a kind that it can express itself completely int he natural human form…Therefore here the spirit is at once determined as particular and human, not as purely absolute and eternal…(553)

Hegel’s Spirit is far to vast to be contained within a particular human form, and by placing the expression of it within a human, classical art limits the spirit to those manifestations of it that are particularly human. The solution to this problem presents itself in Hegel’s third (and final) category of art: the romantic. Romantic art becomes possible because man becomes aware of the relationship between his physical form and the world of Spirit. Classical art implies this relationship, but, as Hegel points out:

…this elevation of the implicit into self-conscious knowledge introduces a tremendous difference…the unity of divine and human nature, is raised from an immediate to a known unity, the true element for the realization of this content is no longer the sensuous immediate existence of the spiritual in the bodily form of man, but instate the inwardness of self-consciousness (554).

What started out, in symbolic art, as a mere recognition of the Spirit in the natural world (a recognition which brought about the sublime, which must necessarily be seen as quite fearful and uncomfortable) became an embodiment of the Spirit in human form for classical art. (Classical art, it would seem, grew out out an attempt to do away with the fearfulness of the sublime.) Finally, with the self-conscious recognition of the essential divide between form and Spirit, Romantic art achieves a synthesis. Romantic art is essentially meta-artistic, continually pointing, as it must, to the impossibility of a perfect expression of the Spirit in physical form. Hegel says as much: “romantic art is the self-transcendence of art but within its own sphere and in the form of art itself” (555).

The implication here is that ‘art is over.’ That art has risen, in Romanticism, to as high a degree of understanding as is possible, as Hegel suggests, may be true, but this truth may simply be a symptom of how he defines art and how he defines Romanticism. Because he defines Romanticism as the self-conscious interaction between man’s consciousness and his environment, it might even be said that much of art that was created before the Romantic era is essentially Romantic art. Is not Shakespeare’s exploration of the limitations of stage productions in showing reality, as well has his opposite insistence that “all the world” is indeed “a stage,” a manifestation of the same meta-artistic tendencies that Hegel requires of his romantic artist? It might be argued further that man’s understanding of himself at the time of Hegel’s writing seems equally as “classical” to us as his classical artists did to him. It strikes me that what he defines as a completion might simply be another step in humankind’s ongoing process of self-actualization and expression.


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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