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Art and History: Hegel on the End, the Beginning, and the Future of Art Martin Donougho But it is simply astounding that Goethe and Thorvaldsen are still living, and Beethoven has been dead just a few years, yet H[egel] pronounces German art dead as a doornail [mausetot]. Quod non! So much the worse for him, if he really feels this; yet if you reflect a little on his reasoning, it appears quite empty.1 We can readily understand why the young Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy would resent the verdict that art (or at least what he terms “die deutsche Kunst”) was over and done with—he was a living composer after all. Mendelssohn was not alone in his scornful reaction: Hegel’s idea had gained some notoriety even before his lectures on aesthetics were published in the 1830s. True, the subsequent reception history of the Aesthetics tended to feature other themes, notably Hegel’s alleged bias toward content or toward classicism, or—in the famous phrase, which nevertheless has no trace in any surviving lecture notes—beauty considered as the “sensuous shining (Scheinen) of the Idea.”2 In more recent times, however, the “end of art” topos figures once again as central to Hegel’s aesthetic thinking. The topos has become topical, in short, rather than (as it might have seemed in the Goethezeit or later, once art had attained the status of a full-blown institution) merely perverse. It suits our late modern (or postmodern ) climate, a time of cultural crisis when contemporary art seems either to have run its course or to be of interest to just the few. In the philosophical literature, it was perhaps Heidegger’s essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art” (published in 1952, though written before the war), with 179 its baleful framing by the question concerning the fate of art, that gave the Hegelian topos a new lease on life.3 Recently the lease has been extended thanks to Arthur Danto’s unexpected discovery of a parallel between trends in postwar art—in painting especially—and features that had led Hegel to diagnose a crisis in the art of his time (I shall come back to Danto’s suggestions). How the topos itself might properly be understood, and whether it helps us understand Hegel’s philosophy of art or his approach to the history of art, are among the questions I shall address here. My overall assumption is that Hegel’s speculative conception of art is highly complex, despite its simplified presentation in the form of lectures for a general undergraduate audience, and despite (it must be said) Hegel’s own patchy acquaintance with the individual arts. Some of that complexity stems no doubt from our retrospective distance from Hegel. Imagine several “models floating above each other as in distinct dimensions ,” Fredric Jameson suggests, so that “for us” the discrete levels never quite mesh and we are left constantly having to make adjustments.4 But even if distance lends disenchantment to the view, much of the complexity can fairly be traced also to Hegel’s own presentation of art’s historically reflexive and reflective nature, or rather, his acknowledgment of the fact that it has no given nature or essence. His approach to art reflects both on various cultural phenomena in the past and upon a contemporary classification of such “data,” one we might call post-Kantian or Romantic (in our sense rather than the sense of “romantic” current in Hegel’s day). Seen thus, in a kind of “stereoscopic” vision, art or the work of art may be said to have multiple beginnings and multiple endings: in Egypt, with the production of architectural signs which then reflect on their failure to signify; in ancient Greece, with the production of sculptural signs which at least seem (but turn out not to be) a perfect fusion of intellectual meaning and sensuous embodiment; with postclassical art, as cultic image differentiating itself from the divine it is also meant to serve; in what we now call Romantic art, ironically reflecting on its own semiotic and cultural status as art. All of these narratives of origin and declension are brought together thanks to the “medium” of philosophical Vermittlung (mediation, conveyance, communication). But it should be noted at the outset that the classical “norm,” in both form and content, is not to be taken as normative for Hegel: the “Ideal” is not his ideal. Hegel was no (neo)classicist, in other words, even though the...


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