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A Note on Hegel: Art between Archival Memory and Remembrance

In the context of Hegelian philosophy, art is the first means by which a culture breaks through the gates of its own history to perceive itself in another way; it is the threshold that must necessarily be crossed to pursue the path of absolute spirit (cf. Hegel 1986, §552–53). According to Hegel, in the realm of objective spirit, and hence, in the realm of world-history, a culture reconstructs facts, brings them back to the present, and accumulates them, such as a collector would do in “a gallery of pictures” (Hegel 2010, §808: 718).1 In this context, both history and the kind of memory belonging to its realm are understood as an archive, in which all the files from the past are meant to be stored, classified, known, and studied in the present—“like the rows,” Hegel writes, “of sealed and labeled boxes in a grocer’s stall” that have omitted and concealed “the living essence” of what [End Page 71] they were originally meant to keep (cf. Hegel 2010, §51: 46). Nonetheless, even though art can be located historically and develops within the realm of worldhistory, it is also a step beyond archival objectivity. Through art, spirit (and hence, culture, the spirit of an epoch, and the way a community understands and interprets itself within its own history) surpasses a notion of history and memory related to the past in terms of accumulation, conservation, and classification. Art, Hegel insists, opens the gates of “remembrance” (Erinnerung): it is the event that actively transforms facts into a living past to keep them from becoming “soulless carcasses” catalogued in remote places of memory.

Thus, through history’s doubling and repetition, that is, by going over history time and again to retell, represent, and comprehend it, art steers clear of simply accumulating and recounting historic facts. Therefore, as Angelica Nuzzo proposes and has recently described in detail, in Hegel’s system art becomes “the absolute memory of Spirit”: a recollection of history that, as poetic memory, no longer represents an aspect of an epoch or stage of world-history, but rather “allows history to be revisited in a new light, allowing for a new form of comprehension and hence of organization of reality” (Nuzzo 2012, 141). In this sense, Nuzzo continues, the type of memory produced by art, a (systematic) reconciliation between subjective-collective memory and world-history, “is both historically past and fully present,” and it becomes, “in truth, the gesture of looking forward” (143).2

This is what Hegel means when he states that art is the threshold leading to absolute spirit. Entering and exploring art’s sceneries involves the apprehension of what we have lived in another way; no longer in the sphere of what is verifiable (which is, to Hegel, the challenge taken up both by history and law),3 but rather in the sphere of absolute truth. History’s “pastness” can only be understood by experiencing its passing by, its having been, and, consequently, only when we have gone through the paradoxical experience of remembrance: for remembering, comprehending, and interiorizing history as what has past (these are the intertwined possible meanings of the German verb “erinnern”) means to perceive what is no longer present from the standpoint of the present; it means to experience the present’s loss and its continuous passage into the past.

The kind of memory that can be carried out through art, according to Hegel, is thus not entirely opposite to forgetting: its resistance to oblivion depends precisely [End Page 72] on a certain kind of fragility. To Hegel, remembrance can only take place in the threshold between two poles that would again erase, obstruct, and paralyze the process of a living memory. On the one hand, there is a pole that explicitly seeks to establish radical oblivion. On the other hand, there is an apparently opposite pole represented by the experience of trauma; here facts are lived in the form of an absolute present through constant repetition—in some of his works, Hegel compares this kind of experience to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth...


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