When one thinks of Hegelian aesthetics, it is most often in relation to the art historians who were impacted by his philosophy and his central concept of the dialectic, or a method of thinking in terms of opposites. Therefore in the book Principles of Art History. The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art (1915), Heinrich Wölfflin introduced the notion of two modes of painting: linear and painterly and used this pairing to compare “classical” Renaissance art with its successor, Baroque art. One can argue if the art historian simplified and watered down Hegelian thought, but it is clear that his use of Hegelian dialectics was a very useful tool if one wanted to do a formal analysis that called attention to stylistic differences. Wölfflin moved on from linear and its opposite, the painterly, to planar an recessional, closed and open form, multiplicity and unity, a series of oppositions that are useful tools to distinguish differences between classical art and its hard clear outlines and the Baroque approach to painting which blurred outlines. The linear and the painterly were in a dialectic: out of the linear comes the painterly, which has evolved out of necessity. Art historians will use this concept of paired opposites the rest of the century as a convenient if reductive formal tool of identification. Decades later, the impact of Hegelian thought returned in the art critical works of Clement Greenberg in his theory of “post-painterly abstraction,” following the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism. It is possible to pick up echoes of the Hegelian idea of artistic oppositions–thesis/anti-thesis–that marched painting off a cliff and plunged art into into void that was idea/mind/spirit or synthesis that was Conceptual Art (the Hegelian Absolute). Thomas Lawson’s “Last Exit: Painting” (1981) is an example of a contemporary rewriting of Hegel’s ideas on aesthetics–that art must reach its logical end, returning to its ontological status of thought.

One expects Hegelian aesthetics to be an extension of Hegel’s signature concept of the dialectic, if only because it was important to the philosopher that his work answer that of Emmanuel Kant. When Hegel was working on his own ideas of the philosophy of art, Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) was the most significant and most modern work in aesthetics. Paradoxically, G. W. F. Hegel created a tripartite philosophical system that attempted to flee the static architectural universe of Emmanuel Kant by positing universal and transcendent Absolutes that were capable of movement. Unlike Kant, Hegel located his philosophy in history.  Kant’s categories of the mind were static and ahistorical and immobilized by his architectonic system, but Hegel’s concept of the mind was dynamic and he considered the functions of the mind to be development, over time, or across history. For Hegel the subjective mind or spirit created or evolved into the objective mind or spirit that manifested itself by creating a world that was external. The dialectical of subjective and objective spirit produced the human spirit that was expressed through art, religion and philosophy. Hegel was determined to avoid debate and argument, which was so often the basis of philosophy. As opposed to putting forward different epistemological systems, Hegel thought that the role of philosophy was to explain the universe. Rather than getting bogged down in debates over where knowledge could be located, in the realm of the Ideal (Plato) or the Material (Aristotle), Hegel retreated into abstractions, which were based upon the logical and reasonable method of deduction.

Hegel wrote in a deliberately obtuse manner in his major works, The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), The Science of Logic (1813-16) and Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, (1817), refusing to make philosophy either easy or accessible.  He wanted to put philosophy on the same basis as the sciences as a new kind of truth reached through process of trial and error or thesis and antithesis, producing an agreement or synthesis, which is a resolution of conflicts. Science proceeded via this deductive manner from hypothesis to testing to theory.  The theory that resulted from the process of deduction would stand as a thesis until it was tested by a new antithesis. Theories are never proven. Theories are always in the process of being tested. Borrowing deduction from  science, Hegel, like a scientist, sough the truth. The mind had to be always active and always evolving towards an ultimate goal. Art was part of the mind’s journey towards the truth. Being conscious means having a mind, but Hegel disagreed with Kant’s static philosophy and insisted that contemporary history had to be taken into account as it affected the mind. IF the mind is not independent of reality but is experiencing things or content, then the mind changes constantly, so that the self and the object are not distinct but dialectic and complementary structures within an experience.  In other words, there is no object without a self and no self without an object.  For Hegel, the Ultimate Truth is that consciousness is not substance but a prime metaphysical concept.

Personen / Gelehrte / Deutschland / Hegel / Porträts

Georg Hegel in 1828

Hegel developed the Begriff or the notion or concept generated within content and reflects its uniqueness. Another meaning for Begriff wold be “essence” and essence is the essential nature of everything. Therefore the Idee or Idea is the object of the understanding which a person thinks. The Absolut or Absolute refers to the absolute meaning or absolute concept and should be through of as the synonym for God. But the Absolut is not the same as Spirit which transcends the concept of the “mind” indicating that the mind of the human is the Spirit in the sense that it it is the “candle of the Lord.” It is the mind that creates culture and therefore, logically, the mind is not independent and can never get away from its other or content.  Thus Hegel’s other major concept, Being, or experiencing content, means that the mind is always changing and shaping forms. Hegel disliked the formalism of traditional rationalism, which forces content to conform to arbitrarily chosen concepts, ignoring mediating character of experience. Opposing Kant’s architectonic structure of categories, Hegel considered the Search for “truth” to be both a developmental and an empirical inquiry.  The mind is an inner force creating and shaping outer forms. The result of Hegel’s challenges to Kant was several conclusions. First, truth was a historical or genetic approach, the evolution or necessary outcome of series of conflicts and corrections. Second, Negation actually had the power to advance mind to higher levels. And third, Experience “..carries the process of its own dissolution within itself…” For Hegel, the Self was a process of dissolution and the Spirit was our own experience, in other words, a living process. Thus True Reality was the process of reinstating self-identity or the process of self’s becoming.  Reality was related to science, which is a process in its entirety or a total system of knowledge. The result is the Whole or Reality itself, which is actual knowledge.  Paraphrasing Kant, Hegel remarked, “Content is nothing but the transformation of form into content, and form is nothing but the transformation of content into form…” Truth, for Hegel was an historical approach, an evolution to particular stage, or a necessary outcome of series of conflicts and successive corrections of concrete universals or notions, which are contextual and more precise than abstract universals.  Thesis, antithesis and then synthesis—this is the “progress” of history.  These contradictions between thesis and antithesis are levels of consciousness.  According to Hegel, “The truth is the whole”, in other words, truth is realized in the form of system.  The idea that represents the absolute as spirit (Geist) is the total system of knowledge or reality itself.  “I” am transcended as well as “my object.”

Transcendence is the synthesis of idea and nature or Spirit.  Hegel did not allow for dualism and always sought synthesis or the absolute spirit.  Hegel put forward the concept of Weltgeist or a world spirit or the “universal mind.”  According to Hegel,  “Our epoch is a birth-time, and a period of transition.  The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things hitherto fore prevailing, and with old ways of thinking…” The paradox in Hegel is the conflict between history itself, which is always pushing the human mind forward, from thesis to antithesis, and the ultimate goal with is abstract and beyond time.  It is here that beauty, the ultimate goal of art, can be found. Unlike Kant who probably had little or no experience with actual works of art, Hegel used actual art and concrete art examples in his discussions on art. He understood art to be a universal human need and impulse. This Hegelian understanding of art as a defining aspect of being a human being immediately puts him in a conceptual different site from Kant. Kant was concerned with judgment, the question of the proper basis for making judgments on the subjective, when there was no objective truth. He selected art as his example of an element in culture that we humans respond to psychologically, for lack of a better term, out of emotions and sought to discover a universal method of finding a firm footing for an evaluation that was disinterested. For Kant, in other words, the epistemology or the definition of art or the grounds for art was that humans “recognize” art and name objects as art, based upon inalienable rules that asked the viewer to eliminate all personal preferences and to think in terms of form only. While Kant sought universal judgment, Hegel’s goals were quite different. He asked, in effect, why do we, as humans, have art and decided that art came from the human spirit found in particular cultures. Individual artists, as humans, are conduits for this general impulse to make art found in all humans, universally. Just as Hegel assumed that history moved forward, art, therefore, had to also move and progress. This is a huge assumption—that history and art should progress and “progress” implies movement toward the better, rather than merely moving through time. A value judgment comes into play. While Kant concluded that art was connected to a moral value, Hegel assumed that art revealed something about the human spirit and in so doing, revealed the truth.

Art has meaning. For Kant, judgment had meaning, but for Hegel, its was art that shows that which transcends the everyday and yet gives the everyday a framework. Only art can express this higher truth or meaning. Hegel began his Lectures on Aesthetics by stating that his discussion of Aesthetics would focus on the beautiful and the fine arts. In fact, the subtitle of his book was “Lectures on Fine Art.” He continued, “..Aesthetics means, more precisely, the science of sensation, of feeling. In this sense it had its origin as a new science, or rather as something which for the first time was to become a philosophical discipline..” Although the word itself is one of mere convenience, it will serve as he laid down the limits of his study, which would exclude the natural beauty found the world at large. “The beauty of art,” he stated, “is beauty born of the spirit and born again, and the higher the spirit and its productions stand above nature and its phenomena, the higher too is the beauty of art above that of nature.” Hegel began these lectures in 1818 and continued in a series of presentations throughout the 1820s until 1829, and published in 1835. Having set his stage for discussion, Hegel wrote an aesthetic history of art, which grew in stages. Once again, the familiar elements are present: progress through a triadic movement. The first stage must be symbolic, part of an age that is gripped with ideas os powerful that the available forms are not capable of fully expressing the concepts. Hegel uses Egyptian art as an example of how a culture will distort or exaggerate forms in a search for a mode of art that reaches for a concept just out of reach. But Hegel was also thinking of the form itself. The next stage is the coming together of the form that suits the concept so perfectly that there is no distortion of the form. Of course predictably Hegel used Greek art as an example of the second stage or moment, a brief flash of perfection after centuries of struggle to find the physical form that would best embody the idea itself. The final stage is a removal from all that is material and an elevation to the inward or the spiritual. Christian Art with its religious content might be an example of this last stage. In the era of Hegel the art was termed Romantic when the artist turns inward and away from all things material and fleshy such as physical form. In its final stages, art ends and there is no need for symbols or mark making or form making. Art reverts to its original state–in the mind itself. Since the final state, art without physical form, necessarily derived from its predecessor which was an inward art, the next state must be a purity that transcended the need for a material state.

Read also “Kant and Reason” and “Friedrich Schiller” and “Hegel” and “Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics” and “Hegel and the Dialectical Method”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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