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Celebrating art 250 years after Hegel’s birth

Most people don’t even know the name of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), yet he was one of the major figures in the history of philosophy. More specifically, he played a role in the development of German idealism from Immanuel Kant in the 18th century via figures such as Schelling and Fichte. In fact, German idealism culminated in Hegel, who is known as an absolute idealist. 

Idealism, in philosophy, means — in ontological (reality-related) terms — that “the idea” is regarded as the true reality, instead of material things. Karl Marx, who learned a lot from Hegel as far as his dialectical method goes, famously remarked that Hegel had turned the world on its head, and he, Marx (a materialist thinker), would put it back on its feet again. 

If you think that idealism is a silly position to take, ask yourself whether you can say anything sensible about material things without using ideas (in language). You’ll discover it’s well-nigh impossible.

What made me think of Hegel’s pertinence for the present was my participation on August 28 2020 in a virtual symposium presented by the philosophy department of Akademia, as far as I know the only Afrikaans-medium university left in the country. Akademia is a private, and privately funded, university where Afrikaans-speaking students can study in their mother tongue. The virtual symposium was presented on the occasion of the 250th commemoration of Hegel’s birth in 1770, and I was glad to be part of such a meaningful event in the middle of the pandemic-madness surrounding us. The participants were three South Africans (myself, Professor Pieter Duvenage and Dr Hercules Boshoff), with another participant, Prof Ad Verbrugge, joining us from the Netherlands.

My own paper concerned Hegel’s substantial contribution to the philosophy of art – his Lectures on Aesthetics is a volume that is justly famous – but instead of discussing it in general terms (as it is a massive amount of material), I focused on Hegel’s puzzling statement that art had reached the highest point of its development as bearer of “the idea” in his own time (the first half of the 19th century), and would have to make way for religion and philosophy as expressions of the idea, or spirit/mind. This is known as Hegel’s thesis of the death of art.

What on earth does this mean? Surely anyone can see that, if he meant the end of art as a cultural practice, he was simply wrong, because all around one there are signs of artistic activities continuing. Certainly. But recall that I wrote above that Hegel saw art as having reached the highest point of its development as bearer of “the idea” at that time, suggesting that there would still be a role for art after this point. This is precisely what is the case. Let me explain.

For Hegel, the idea, or spirit/mind as ultimate reality, unfolds itself in the history of the world at various levels. At the level of social and political development, which Hegel writes about in his Philosophy of History, he understands history from the ancient Chinese, Indians and Persians, through the Greeks and Romans until his own time as the history of the increasing “consciousness of freedom”, with every new era displaying a step forward, approximating the ideal of political freedom. 

In this, his most accessible work, as well as in his magnum opus, The Phenomenology of Spirit/Mind, Hegel displays what is probably his most lasting philosophical legacy – a keen awareness, more than any philosopher before him, of history, and the fact that everything human is subject to historical development. Contrary to what most people would say today, however, he believes that history has a meaning and direction in which it was “moving”.

Moreover, instead of a simple-minded, linear conception of history, he thinks of historical change dialectically – that is, developing from one state of affairs through its negation by its dialectical opposite, or antithesis, to another, higher state, which comprises a synthesis of the two preceding stages. 

This new stage is again negated by its opposite, and so on. 

Very importantly, however, Hegel claims that, with every dialectical movement from one historical condition to another, the previous, negated stage is preserved, lifted up, and cancelled simultaneously (a tripartite process called sublation in English, and Aufhebung in German). This means that every earlier stage of development is still present in every later stage, but in a transformed fashion. Hegel also calls this “the negation of the negation” – incorporating something of the other into oneself. (Think of what this implies regarding the development from the apartheid state to our so-called democracy: what has been preserved, lifted up, and cancelled of that fascist past?)

To reach the level of what he calls absolute spirit, it develops through subjective spirit (sense perception, consciousness, self-consciousness) and objective spirit (the family, the state, law) to the point where it manifests itself in art, followed by religion, and eventually the highest level, namely, philosophy, where spirit or mind “knows itself” in clear conceptual terms. 

In the development of art he distinguishes three stages, namely symbolic art, classical art and the art of his own time, namely romantic art. Certain kinds of art correspond to these, with architecture being the exemplary symbolic art, sculpture the epitome of classical art, and painting, music and dramatic poetry the clearest expressions of romantic art.

Moreover, in every stage, and kind, of art there is a typical relationship between the idea and the material within which it is enveloped (for that is what art is, for Hegel: the sensuous, or material, embodiment of the idea). 

In the case of symbolic art the idea does not appear clearly, but is only dimly suggested because the sensuous envelope predominates over it. The art of the ancient Egyptians serves as an example of symbolic art, with the Sphinx as “the symbol of the symbolic”. 

Classical art is exemplified by ancient Greek sculpture, which is in a sense the “highest” that art is capable of as far as the relationship between idea and matter goes: in the sculptures depicting the Greek gods, such as Apollo, we see the perfect equilibrium, Hegel claims, between idea and matter, with neither dominating the other.

However, when romantic art replaces classical art we find a preponderance that is the opposite of that in symbolic art, insofar as the idea becomes too strong for the material to contain, so that it threatens to break its material bonds. 

Hegel sees this happening in the painting, music and poetry or drama of his time. Think of romantic paintings such as those of Eugene Delacroix or Theodore Gericault, for example, the latter’s painting of The Raft of the Medusa, which commemorates the sinking of a ship by that name and shows survivors on a raft, in various stages of exhaustion and desperation. It is as if the painting is striving to surpass itself as artistic medium to be able to express the suffering of these people.

The same is true of some of the music of Hegel’s time. He would probably have been familiar with Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, although he does not refer to it. But it is particularly poetry and drama, where the poetic expressions of joy and suffering come close to philosophy (except that here they are instances of imaginative, instead of conceptual articulations), that testify to romantic art signalling the passing of art’s capacity to embody the idea.

Art passes the baton to religion, which Hegel thinks of as “pictorial thinking”, and which expresses the subjectivity of humans and of God better than art could. Eventually religion has to make way for philosophy, though, because it is there that spirit or mind knows itself self-reflectively and clearly. 

As far as art is concerned there is an important corollary, however. Hegel writes about a “free art” that continues to exist after art has relinquished its “highest vocation”, and attributes to this art a critical, polemical function, given that the artist has become free from the constraints of a specific world view. In this respect Hegel seems to have been prescient; even in his own time he noticed that people had become less interested in merely looking at art, for instance, and more interested in what art meant – hence Hegel’s anticipation of a “science of art”.

Beyond Hegel’s lifetime art developed in a manner that bears out his expectations. Particularly in the early 20th century one notices a plethora of new art movements – abstract expressionism, cubism, fauvism, conceptualism, suprematism, futurism, metaphysical art – all of which bear overtly theoretical names, and all of which claim to reflect the true nature of reality. In his wonderful philosophical analysis of this modern art, The Meaning of Modern Art (Northwestern University Press, 1968) Karsten Harries provides an interpretation that confirms this. It is truly as if Hegel had anticipated art becoming philosophy. 

Author

  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.