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Hegel on the Beauty of Sculpture Stephen Houlgate Hegel considers Greek sculpture of the mid–fifth century b.c. to provide the most perfect examples of ideal beauty. In this respect his views are close to those of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose influential work History of Ancient Art appeared in 1764.1 Hegel’s preference for the Greeks is not, however, simply a reflection of contemporary taste. It is rooted in a subtle analysis of the nature of sculpture itself and of what Herbert Read calls “the virtues proper to the art of sculpture.”2 Art and Beauty The art of sculpture, for Hegel, does not consist simply in the carving or casting of three-dimensional shapes. It consists in the creation of works of beauty. Human beings, in his view, are essentially self-conscious beings: not only do they have practical needs and concerns (for example, for food and shelter), but they are also interested in coming to a clear consciousness of their own nature and character, that is, in discerning the truth about themselves. Art, religion, and philosophy are deemed by Hegel to be the most important ways in which human beings articulate their selfunderstanding and self-consciousness. Art’s primary purpose, therefore, is not to decorate dwellings or to promote moral and political reform, but to bring to mind who and what we are.3 In Hegel’s view, what characterizes human beings above all are life, reason, and freedom or “spirit” (Geist). Since these qualities lie at the core of what it is to be human, we consider them to be of absolute value. Accordingly , they define for us not only what it is to be human, but also what it is to be divine.4 Art thus brings to mind a spiritual freedom that is both human and divine. Human understanding of freedom is not, however, uniform and unchanging, but develops over time. The more developed and explicit a civilization’s understanding is, the more advanced and free it is.5 In the course of history, therefore, art gives expression to different 56 conceptions of human and divine freedom. This gives rise to three different types of art: symbolic, classical, and romantic art.6 In each case, however , art expresses its content not through philosophical concepts or the metaphors and rituals of religious faith, but through the sensuously intuitable media of stone, wood, color, or sound.7 The sensuous appearance or “shining forth” (Scheinen) of freedom or spirit is beauty.8 Art, for Hegel, is thus not contingently but necessarily concerned with beauty. Its raison d’être is to present spiritual freedom in a sensuously intuitable form, and beauty is precisely spiritual freedom manifesting itself in ways we can directly see and hear. The highest forms of this “spiritual” (geistig) beauty are to be found in classical and romantic art, for these give expression to a much more developed understanding of freedom than symbolic art. Besides spiritual beauty, Hegel also recognizes the existence of merely “sensuous” (sinnlich) beauty.9 This is the manifestation not of distinctively human and divine freedom, but rather of the vitality, strength, or elegance of which animals as well as humans are capable. The depiction of such beauty, for Hegel, is a legitimate, if subordinate , task for art. The purpose of sculpture—like that of painting and poetry—is thus the creation of works of spiritual (and, to a lesser degree, sensuous) beauty. Hegel’s focus on the beauty of sculpture may strike some readers as unfortunate, for much modern sculpture has sought precisely to “emancipate” itself from beauty. From Hegel’s point of view, however, there can be no art of sculpture without beauty. The very purpose of art is to create beauty in which we see human and divine freedom rendered manifest. The purpose of sculpture, therefore, must be to create distinctively sculptural beauty, not to eschew beauty altogether. This purpose is fulfilled most magnificently, Hegel believes, by a select handful of fifthcentury Greek artists. Beauty in Sculpture Pure sculptural beauty, for Hegel, consists in images of free and independent individuals—gods above all, but also mortals—standing (or maybe lying or sitting) at rest.10 Such individuals are detached from the concerns of the world and so are unmoved by emotion, desire, or need. They stand apart from others and are neither embroiled in intimate relations with their fellows nor involved in action. Their beauty resides in their marvelously self-contained freedom and equanimity: they display no urge...


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