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What Was Abstract Art? (From the Point of View of Hegel) Robert B. Pippin 1 The emergence of abstract art, first in the early part of the twentieth century with Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, and then in the much more celebrated case of America in the 1950s (Rothko, Pollock, et al.), remains puzzling. Such a great shift in aesthetic standards and taste is unprecedented in its radicality. The fact that nonfigurative art, without identifiable content in any traditional sense, was produced, appreciated, eagerly bought, and even, finally, triumphantly hung in the lobbies of banks and insurance companies, provokes understandable questions about both social and cultural history, as well as about the history of art. The endlessly disputed category of modernism itself and its eventual fate seems at issue. Whatever else is going on in abstraction as a movement in painting, it is uncontroversial that an accelerating and intensifying self-consciousness about what it is to paint, how painting or visual meaning itself is possible, a transformation of painting itself into the object of painting (issues already in play since Impressionism), are at issue. Given this heightened conceptual dimension, one might turn for some perspective on such developments to that theorist for whom “the historical development of selfconsciousness ” amounts to the grand narrative of history itself. Even if for many Hegel is, together with Locke,the bourgeois philosopher (the philosopher of the arrière-garde), he is also the art theorist for whom the link between modernity and an intensifying self-consciousness—both within art production and, philosophically, about art itself—is the most important. And the fairly natural idea of abstraction as a kind of logical culmination of modernist self-consciousness itself, that way of accounting for the phenomenon , is the kind of idea that we owe to Hegel. More broadly, the very existence of abstract art seems to represent some kind of deliberate departure from the entire tradition of image-based art, and so involves some 244 sort of implicit claim that the conditions of the very intelligibility of what Hegel calls the “highest” philosophical issues have changed, such that traditional , image-based art is no longer as important a vehicle of meaning for us now, given how we have come to understand ourselves, have come to understand understanding. And Hegel was the only prominent modern philosopher who in some way gave voice to that departure, who argued—at the time, outrageously—that traditional art had become “a thing of the past” and that it no longer served “the highest needs of human spirit.” (That is, it still served many extremely important human needs, it was hardly “over” or finished, but it had declined in importance, could not represent “the highest” or most important self-understanding.) Of course, all these ideas—that a form of art could be in some sense historically required by some sort of conceptual dissonance in a prior form, that a historical form of self-understanding could be called progressive , an advance over an earlier stage, that various activities of “spirit,” art, politics, religion, could be accounted for as linked efforts in a common project (the achievement of self-knowledge and therewith the “realization of freedom”), and so on—are now likely to seem naive, vestigial, of mere historical interest. But the justifiability of this reaction depends a great deal, as in all such cases, on how such Hegelian claims are understood . For example, it is no part at all of any of the standard interpretations of Hegel’s theory that, by closing this particular door on the philosophical significance of traditional art, he could be understood to have thereby opened a door to, to have begun to conceptualize the necessity of, non-image-based art. And, given when Hegel died, it is obviously no part of his own self-understanding. But there is nevertheless a basis in his philosophical history of art for theorizing these later modern developments. Or so I want to argue. 2 Consider the most obvious relevance: the general trajectory of Hegel’s account . The history of art for Hegel represents a kind of gradual dematerialization or developing spiritualization of all forms of self-understanding. Put in the terms of our topic, the basic narrative direction in Hegel’s history of art is toward what could be called something like greater “abstraction ” in the means of representation—“from” architecture and sculpture, “toward” painting, music, and finally poetry. “Abstraction” is not the word he would use (he would insist on greater “concreteness...


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