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Art, Religion, and the Modernity of Hegel John Walker In Hegel’s philosophy, art and religion both come to an end and yet continue to be in modernity. In this essay I want to explore the relationship between the ending and the afterlife, and consider what light that relationship can shed on the relevance of Hegel’s philosophical aesthetics today. 1 The structure of Hegel’s thought suggests a paradoxical kind of analogy between the fates of art and religion in the modern age: that is to say, Hegel’s own. Art and religion are both modes of absolute spirit. Both therefore, in different ways, express and communicate—they reveal— the ultimate cognitive and ethical truth which is what Hegel means by “spirit.” Art manifests that truth in sensuous embodiment or intuition (Anschauung), while religion enables us to worship it in the mode of religious representation (Vorstellung).1 But the capacity of art and religion to reveal the truth of spirit also means that they are connected to both history and the third mode of absolute spirit, which is philosophy. For Hegel, absolute spirit cannot be without being revealed in and through human history. The crucial feature of the modern consciousness, Hegel argues, is its demand for self-conscious knowledge. In philosophy, the critical philosophy inaugurated by Kant insists that the key to reliable reasoning is our capacity to become reflectively aware of the categories which govern our thought. In politics, the legacy of the French Revolution means that political authority in modern societies depends upon the self-conscious assent of their members. In religion, the culture of civic conscience and ethical inwardness fostered by Protestantism means that the certainty of faith itself must become self-conscious. The modern believer’s relation271 ship to God is inseparable from the modern sense of human selfhood. All these features of modernity mean that philosophy can articulate modern experience in a way denied to art and religion. Philosophy, for Hegel, is the most self-conscious form of knowledge and so most appropriate to the self-understanding of the modern age. This is the source of Hegel’s thesis of the cognitive and, in the modern world, the cultural priority of philosophy over art. Art, Hegel argues, can be cognitively autonomous (that is, independent of philosophy) only when the connection between human selfhood and cultural experience has not yet become reflectively self-conscious, but remains partially immediate or “given.”2 Such were the worlds of ancient Greece and the Christian Middle Ages. But now the self can no longer be known in culturally immediate terms. This argument is the source of what has misleadingly been called Hegel’s thesis of the “end of art.” In fact, Hegel suggests in his Aesthetics only that art, in the modern age, has come to an end as a selfsufficient mode of truth. The truth of art cannot now be articulated in art, but only by philosophy which relates art to the modern critical consciousness . The truth of art must be both preserved and superseded (aufgehoben ) by philosophy. While art itself has lost its centrality in modern culture , Hegel suggests that the “science of art” (Wissenschaft der Kunst) can partially fill its place. But he also argues that modern art must seek and find both new subject matter and new forms of representation appropriate to the content furnished by modern experience.3 Indeed, Hegel argues , one of the key features of modernity in art will be an increased concern with the sphere of representation itself. This changed function and significance of art tend to lead it away from Anschauung or sensuous embodiment and toward the sphere of Vorstellung or representation, which is that of religion.4 Similarly, Hegel argues that the truth of religion can only be preserved in modernity by philosophy, both because only philosophical knowledge can satisfy the modern mind and because it is the purpose of God that spirit should become fully self-conscious.5 For Hegel, then, the truths of art and religion can and must now be aufgehoben by that of philosophy. There is therefore a paradox in Hegel’s account of art and religion as modes of absolute spirit in the modern age. Hegel differs from his idealist predecessors and his postmodern critics alike in his insistence that art and religion are both vehicles of cognitive and ethical truth, a truth different in mode but not in substance from that which philosophy expounds. But the doctrine which enables him to say this...


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