Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831), early 19th century German philosopher who had a profound influence on the course of western philosophy and on many other aspects of modern western culture. Hegel was perhaps the first western philosopher to take time, change and history seriously, in the sense that he took them to be essential to what philosophy studies, rather than a distraction from the realm of the ideal, the essential and the rational. In that respect he was the very opposite of Plato. At the same time he was an idealist, which means (in his case) that he thought that all that truly existed was rationality. In his famous words, "the real is the rational and the rational is the real." He saw history as the process in which Spirit or Consciousness comes to self-realization. This historical process occurs in dialectical stages. The first stage is a thesis; a contradictory antithesis follows this; and finally a synthesis reconciles or "mediates" the two and becomes, in turn, a new thesis. History has this structure at the largest, and also at the smallest scale (if you were drawing a picture of it you would use fractal geometry). At the most general level the stages are Spirit In Itself (the thesis), Spirit For Itself (the antithesis), and finally Spirit In and For Itself (the synthesis). This was Hegel's version of the Christian Trinity.

Hegel was an art lover and a student of the arts, and developed a more complete philosophy of art than most philosophers before him. In keeping with his emphasis on the historical development of ideas and of consciousness, he claimed that:

1) Art expresses the spirit of particular cultures, as well as that of individual artists and the general human spirit.

2) There is progress in art (no surprise here, as Hegel thought that history in general was moving forward to a climax).

When he first began thinking about the philosophy of art, Hegel was influenced by the ideas of Kant, Schiller and Schelling. He was inclined to think that artistic expression and artistic consciousness were a kind of climax of the history of the human spirit, and that art reveals truth in a direct, intuitive way. (Kant had thought that the aesthetic impulse enables us to sense a kind of harmony implicit in the world between the purposes of morality and those of reason. By the aesthetic impulse we sense a moral purpose at work in the world. See comments on Kant, Schiller and Schelling on this site.) In his more mature work, from the Phenomenology of Spirit through the Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel backed away from Kant's position, and held that the climactic stages of human history were purely rational, and did not involve intuition, emotion or image as the arts do.

The three main stages of art history recognized by Hegel in his lectures on Aesthetics are symbolic, classical, and romantic art. Each of these is defined by the relationship beween idea and form that is common within it. In the first or symbolic stage, a powerful idea is expressed in a variety of forms that are felt as not really adequate to its expression. As a result, the form is distorted in the attempt to accomodate the transcendent power of the idea. Hegel took ancient Egyptian and Indian art as examples of this, with their animal-headed gods and monstrous demons and heroes. Equally powerful examples could be seen in traditonal African and in ancient Inca art: e.g., fertility gods with exagerated sexual characteristics, protective deities with ferocious animal teeth or claws.

The second stage is exemplified by classical Greek sculpture. Here the perfect, idealized human form embodies the ideal without any sense of distortion. But while the perfection is evident, the depth of the idea expressed is limited. Hence the third stage, romantic art, stresses inwardness. When it uses images, it often emphasizes the inadequacy of the image to carry the idea, now apprehended more adequately in an inward way. Much Christian art has this character, focusing as it does on the crucifixion, on martyrdoms and sufferings.

Along with his division of western art into periods, Hegel also arranged the particular arts hierarchically, from those most tied to image and the physical, and hence most suited to symbolic art (e.g., architecture) to those most suited to inwardness and the self-realization of Spirit (e.g., poetry). However, he did not stick woodenly to these categories, and recognized the ability of artists in each of the arts to make works representing each of his three stages.

Perhaps the most famous of Hegel's claims about art is that art comes to an end. As Spirit reaches its full self-realization, the need for images and symbols withers away, and with it goes the need for any art that uses physical means to express itself. This "end of art" thesis is puzzling in somewhat the same way that his "end of history" thesis itself is puzzling. Hegel does not seem to have meant by it that art would stop altogether; but rather that the need for it, and its role in the development of spirit would be fulfilled.

The end of art thesis has had a new incarnation in the work of Arthur Danto, who (with acknowledgments to Hegel), has advanced a similar thesis about modern art. According to Danto, western visual art, in the period from the Renaissance to the very recent past (say, 1970), has had a linear history. Whether one wishes to call it progress or not, at each stage in that history, one had to move forward if one wished to be a serious artist. But that history has come to an end, with works like Warhol's Brillo Box, in which "art has become philosophy", and one can no longer tell works of art from other things just by looking at them. Since then, the linear history has been replaced by a pluralism in which (almost) anything goes.

The idea of progress in art, and the need not to fall behind the prophetic movement of the avante-garde, has had a strong life in modern European and American art. While it surely cannot be traced back to Hegel alone, it is a very Hegelian idea. So Picasso, for example, when he blamed Bonnard for not being a modern painter (quoted in Smithsonian, July 1998, p. 33) was being very Hegelian, even though, one imagines, Hegel would have thought such paintings as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon were throw-backs to symbolic art rather than representing progress in art. Kandinsky also spoke of the true artist as a lonely visionary at the leading edge of human spiritual development.

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