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Freedom from Nature? Post-Hegelian Reflections on the End(s) of Art J. M. Bernstein Hegel’s thesis that art is consciousness of plight has been confirmed beyond anything he could have envisioned. Thus his thesis was transformed into a protest against his own verdict on art. . . . The darkening of the world makes the irrational of art rational: radically darkened art. —T. W. Adorno There is an intense elective affinity between Hegel’s announcement of the end of art and the situation of twentieth-century art, especially modernist art, as if the fate that Hegel had proclaimed was finally realized, or perhaps just realized again, with the social eclipse of the project of modernist painting that occurred sometime in the middle part of the last century. So much might be gathered from the titles of important recent works: Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art (1997), T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea (1999), Yves-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning” (1993), or, somewhat less portentously, Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the AvantGarde and Other Modernist Myths (1986). That the two most demanding works of twentieth-century aesthetics—Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” and T. W. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory—explicitly locate their reflections in the context of Hegel’s end of art doctrine makes the thought irresistible. Something of art has ended. The debate is not about the fact, but its significance: What does it mean to say art has ended? How does that end manifest itself in art? Above all, is that end something we might welcome, 216 as Hegel welcomed it, or is it something whose eventuality is a cause for concern, even distress, a sign of an intolerable defeat? What is uncanny about Hegel’s doctrine is how perspicuously it projects the terms of the twentieth-century debate. As is well known, when Hegel states that “art is, and remains for us, on the side of its highest vocation , a thing of the past” (ILA 13), by “highest vocation” he means it no longer “satisfies our supreme need” to represent the divine (ILA 12), that is, it no longer can represent the truth about human beings.1 And this is because the truth about human beings is that our spiritual life is selfauthorizing , free, and self-determining. So the determining fact of modern life, anticipated in Descartes and Kant, but made intersubjective, social , and historical in Hegel, is the discovery of our utterly secular but nonetheless emphatic freedom from the authority of nature.2 Which is why for Hegel art beauty supplants natural beauty, and the truth of art beauty is its utter mindedness, spirit in the alien form of the sensuous, spirit infusing dead matter with its own vitality.3 Of course, to say so is already to view art from the perspective of its overcoming: in art, spirit is illegitimately bound to its sensuous representation and therefore falsely presented. A full-throated version of this claim occurs in a context where Hegel is fending off the anxious thought that works of art are concoctions of dead matter , and we, generally, “are wont to prize the living more than the dead” (ILA 33); if this is so, and it is, then would we not be bound to nature’s authority, its gift of life (at least), in opposition to dead matter? How can we care about art above nature? We must admit, of course, that the work of art has not in itself movement and life. An animated being in nature is within and without an organization appropriately elaborated down to its minutest parts, while the work of art attains the semblance of animation on its surface only, but within is common stone, or wood and canvas, or as in the case of poetry, is idea, uttering itself in speech and letters. But this aspect, viz., its external existence , is not what makes a work into a production of fine art; it is a work of art only in as far as, being the offspring of mind, it continues to belong to the realm of mind, has received the baptism of the spiritual, and only represents that which has been moulded in harmony with the mind. (ILA 33) There is something presumptuous, ominous, and ambiguous in Hegel’s confident statement. What is presumptuous is the claim that all the animation of the work of art derives from it being an offspring of the mind, as if art’s...


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