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Reviewed by:
  • Hegel and the Modern Arts
  • Matthew C. Altman
Benjamin Rutter . Hegel and the Modern Arts. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 286. Cloth, $85.00.

In his lectures on aesthetics, Hegel famously declares that art has become irrelevant, because at this point in the history of philosophy, artists can only provide us with an incomplete and distorted picture of how we have come to reconcile the opposition between mind and world. The philosopher, not the artist, can bring freedom fully to consciousness. Benjamin Rutter's project in Hegel and the Modern Arts is to show that, although art cannot give us the comprehensive self-understanding provided by philosophy, art nonetheless serves an important function precisely because of its particularity. Artists "offer eye-level insights into local domains of human experience," and in doing so, they present the reconciliation of mind and world sensuously to consciousness (17). Successful art finds vitality in the activities of daily life, making us feel at home in the contingencies of the world and showing us concretely how freedom is actualized in a way that philosophy's abstract theorizing cannot.

Rutter focuses on Hegel's analyses of Dutch genre painting, lyric poetry, and what he calls "objective humor," a style of writing through which we remove ourselves from and then embrace our subjective attachments. Rutter begins with a discussion of Dutch Golden Age painting, and the themes that he develops here reappear throughout the book. According to Hegel, Dutch artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals infuse simple domestic scenes with a sense of liveliness. Individuals are portrayed as absorbed in the activity of daily life; and the artist, by devoting such attention and skill to their depiction, becomes absorbed in the piece itself. The banality of everyday existence, which seems like a limitation or a problem, is resolved with the artist's and the subject's shared investment in it. The incredible skill of the Dutch painters typifies the virtuosity that comes to define post-romantic art. A virtuoso has mastery over his materials and freely engages them to express himself, and so the artistic product represents the reconciliation of spirit and nature, freedom and necessity.

Next, Rutter unpacks Hegel's appreciation of lyric poetry, which, he claims, continues the work of making visible the achievement of reconciliation. First, love poetry expresses the poet's feelings in a reflective way, such that the poet comes to terms with his desire and makes it his own. Petrarch's poetry is illustrative here, in that the woman he loves becomes a poetic image and the longing for her, expressed poetically, becomes an end in itself. Freedom emerges from the contingency of feeling. Second, occasional verse, like Dutch painting, enlivens the trivial features of everyday life. The poet creates a persona whose self-sufficiency is reflected in the world he inhabits. And, in identifying with the poet as hero, the reader comes to see her life as a work of art. She engages the world freely, as a virtuoso engages his medium.

Rutter's final topic is Hegel's appreciation of objective humor, where he focuses on Laurence Sterne and the little-known T. G. von Hippel. Both authors reveal that, although we recognize the insignificance of our everyday attachments, we cannot help but be invested in them. Hegelian reconciliation occurs when we are able to laugh at and forgive those elements of our lives that are contingent, idiosyncratic, and resistant to rational incorporation. Rutter concludes his discussion with a detailed reading of Goethe's West-östliche Divan, which combines a Persian wit and freedom of the imagination with an Italian engagement with the life of feeling, purified through the process of reflection. [End Page 381]

Hegel and the Modern Arts is a significant achievement in Hegel scholarship. Unlike much secondary work on Hegel, Rutter does an excellent job of explaining Hegel's technical philosophical vocabulary in ways that are generally understandable. Rutter's Hegelian analysis of Dutch genre painting, in particular, would be an excellent addition to both art history courses and courses on German aesthetics. Rutter often follows quotes from Hegel with helpful paraphrases, and he includes occasional references to...


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pp. 381-382
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