Reading Hegel’s ” Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art”, it is difficult to remain indifferent towards the concept of the “end of art”. As is expected, this concept has been the source of heated debates between philosophers and art theorists. Adorno and Danto long after Hegel’s death, developed their own theories to describe how art reaches its end in the modern world. Although they all disagree as to how or why this happens, they all agree in one thing: art has, or has almost reached its end, meaning that we now live in a post-art world. Here, I will briefly unpack Hegel’s conception of the end of art.
Before moving on, it is necessary to clarify that the end of art does not refer to the end of art’s chronicle, but its narrative. This means that:
“None of them [Hegel, Adorno or Danto] claim that art, as the practice of producing artworks, is at an end. The chronicle of art is assuredly open-ended, and without a conceivable endpoint. Rather, it is some form of narrative – some ordered progression – which is taken to have concluded, or to no longer be at issue, in art. ” (Hulatt 2016, 745)
Art’s purpose for Hegel
An important aspect of the Hegelian philosophy is that the world is perceived as improving with time, and the Western World is considered to be the closest to the end of history. As the most progressed civilisation, the West serves as a point of reference for every other civilisation to measure itself.
Hegel sees art’s purpose in allowing the Geist (Spirit), the conscious being of reason and the world in which it lives, to actualise itself, become self-conscious and ultimately free. Freedom as a result of self-consciousnesses is the final point of the teleological Hegelian system and the ultimate aim of art.
Art occupies a high position in Hegelian thought, as one of the ways in which the Geist can reach this much wanted self-conscious state. Hegel writes that though art:
“ …the man contemplates his impulses and inclinations, and while previously they carried him reflectionless away, he now sees them outside-himself and already begins to be free from them because they confront him as something objective…” (Hegel 1975, 48-9)
Next to art, religion and philosophy are the two other paths through which the Geist can understand and express itself. As humanity refines its self-consciousnesses in the course of history, it requires more and more sophisticated and complex methods to continue its advancement. Art fails to keep up with the Geist’s needs and this, as is explained further bellow, causes its end.
The Three Types of Art
Hegel divides art in three types, the symbolical, classical and romantic. The classical period was the only moment in history when art and Geist were in complete harmony. At that time, the state of conceptualising freedom had not surpassed a sensuous state and was perfectly embodied in the Greek Gods. Art in the classical era was the perfect means for expressing sensuously this concept of freedom. With the coming of Christianity, art could no longer keep up with the level of abstraction needed to apprehend the Geist’s even more refined level of awareness. The three types of art have also been compared with the body in the different stages of human life. In the classical state the young, full of energy and strength body is aligned perfectly with a naive but high level of consciousnesses. In the final state, the romantic, the body is weak and cannot express the accumulated wisdom that the mind possesses.
The End of Art
People no longer venerate works of art as the people in the Middle Ages, or ancient Greece. God is now present in faith alone and not in icons and images. Art as such is now detached from religion becoming secular and the end of art comes as a result of the increased secularisation of art.
“Art satisfied our highest needs when it formed an integral part of our religious life and revealed to us the nature of the divine (and, as in Greece, the true character of our fundamental ethical obligations). In the modern, post-Reformation world, however, art has been released (or has emancipated itself) from subservience to religion.” ( Houlgate 2016)
This does not mean that art has no function. It still makes visible the indiscernible truth of being, just not as effectively as religion or philosophy. In this way it is not that art comes to a finite end but it rather serves a limited function.
“…art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it, and found in it alone, a satisfaction that, at least on the part of religion, was most intimately linked with art. The beautiful days of Greek art, like the golden age of the later Middle Ages, are gone… In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.”
According to Hegel art has served its primary historical duty. Religion is the next mode of understanding the world and its truths. However, Hegel believes that by his time, even religion is reaching its own end and only philosophy can effectively continue pushing humanity forward in history.
It is evident that Hegel’s theory has flaws. The greatest is probably the teleological belief that art history is a course from imperfect/simple to perfect/complex forms. In any case, Hegel remains essential for anyone who wishes to study the Philosophy of Art
Hegel, G.W.F. 1975. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, translated by T. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Houlgate, S. 2016. ‘Hegel’s Aesthetics’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E.N. Zalta.
Hulatt, O. 2016. ‘Hegel, Danto, Adorno, and the end and after of art’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 24:4, 742-763.