Resurrection of Art in Hegel’s Aesthetic

Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art continues to alarm literary critics who interpret the essay to predict, if not dictate, “the death of art.” And indeed Hegel does bring poetry (the highest art, according to his system), in its evolutionary ascent toward Idea, to termination—at which point it transcends itself and merges into philosophy. But it is not necessary to toll the death knell upon the occasion; this is not death, but resurrection. And it is possible to say (I shall say) that when poetry becomes philosophy, philosophy becomes poetry as well.

What is art? Hegel’s answer to this question is a powerful defense of art against centuries of detractors. In Western culture, art has been indicited on rational grounds (Plato), on religious (Augustine, Medieval and Renaissance critics, the Puritans) and on utilitarian grounds (from Tertullian to Mill and Bentham). Its adherents have protested that though poetry does deal with “fictions,” these inventions are corrections to deficiencies in nature itself (Aristotle), that these fictions are not lies, but allegories, concealing and revealing immutable (divine) truths (Dante, Boccacio), that poetry in its sensitive selection and presentation of men and life serves up moral instruction to mankind (Horace, Scaliger, Sidney, Johnson, Shelley), and, finally, that the effect of poetry is delight, a perfectly acceptable end in itself (Longinus, Castelvetro, Burke, Hume). Philosophers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Kant, Hegel, von Schelling, Schopenhauer), however, laid down a new line of defense. Art is its own justification; it does not exist to serve a purpose higher than its own. Hegel, for example, in the manner of Plotinus (who preceded him by fifteen centuries) and Heideqger (who followed him by one), defines art as a phenomenological outcropping of “absolute Idea” (in Plotinus’ system, beauty; in Heidegger’s, Being). Fine art is:

…. merely one mode and form through which the divine, the profoundest interests of mankind, and spiritual truths of widest range, are brought horne to consciousness and expressed … the peculiar distinction … being that its presentation of the most exalted subject matter is in sensuous form, thereby bringing them nearer to nature and her mode of envisage meant, that is closer to our sensitive and emotional life.1

In Hegel’s philosophy absolute Idea is the unity, the totality, of all things—matter and spirit, the objective and the subjective. The activity and the purpose of life and history are nothing but the “unfolding” of absolute Idea; absolute Idea becomes conscious, awakens, and realizes itself. This evolution occurs according to a systematic succession of stages. In the beginning nature is manifest as an" object in opposition to Idea. The end of history will see the reunification of these two. Every step along the path toward the realization of absolute Idea, in Hegel’s system, involves this partition of a whole (thesis/antithesis), and the gathering up of the parts so divided into a new unity (synthesis)—larger now, encompassing and preserving both original parts while transcending them. Art is one (the first) means by which Idea becomes self-conscious. Art expresses consciousness through the medium of sensuous forms.

Hegel relates the history of art as an evolving consciousness. First, man in the East attempts to cast idea into sensuous form. His idea is indeterminate. The only forms at hand are those of nature. Since these are inadequate to express the “sublimity” of idea, the artist either attributes:dsproportionate significance to ordinary objects or he exaggerates and distorts natural forms, “doing violence to their truth.”2 Hegel calls the art of this period symbolic art. The art object (a material form) is raised separate from the content (idea) it is meant to express. Architecture is the preeminent medium of symbolic art. Later, as content becomes more determinate, as idea begins to enter into the sensuous .form, art moves into its second historical stage.

The second period of art is the classical period. Man brings idea and form into perfect harmony; the medium is sculpture. Idea is clearly determinate; the object that expresses it is none other than the human form, spirit incarnate.“[The] classical type of art is the first to present us with the creation and vision of the complete ideal, and to establish the same as realized fact.3

But the human form can only embody the human intelligence, not the ultimate absolute. Therefore art passes through the perfect equilibrium of content and sensuous form and enters more deeply into the subjective realm of spirit. It moves into the romantic period. Now art attempts to reach beyond the sensuous to the spiritual. Though its medium is still the sensuous (by Hegel’s definition), the activity of art has changed. No longer is art the sensuous form alone, separate from and symbol of idea; no more the representation of a perfect unity of form and content; now art expresses idea itself, beyond .sensuous form, using the sensuous only to evoke the “inward content of heart and mind.4

And now, when art is internalized, freed from the “[fetters]” of the “externally sensuous material,” it … “terminates.”

Yet it is precisely in this its highest phase, that art terminates, by transcending itself; it is just here that it deserts the medium of a harmonious presentation of mind in sensuous shape and passes from the poetry of imaginative idea into the prose of thought.5

Art becomes absorbed into philosophy. Art has been “the external realization of [the self-unfolding idea of beauty].” When the “spirit of beauty” has no more need of external realization, art—by definition as sensuous expression of idea—is transcended, thrown off. The butterfly flies away from its cocoon. And the spirit of beauty completes its “self cognition, . . . to complete which the history of the world will require its evolution of centuries.”6

There are several ways a modern critic may react to Hegel’s conclusion. He may recoil in horror: “Art is dead, alas!” (Heller, Croce, Knox); he may deny that Hegel meant what he wrote (Bosanquet, D’Hondt, Findlay, Harries); or he may, as I am going to do, interpret Hegel in a manner suitable to his own taste (Carter).7 I offer the assertion that Hegel’s philosophy not only does not degrade poetry, but it instead elevates poetry to the height of philosophy, and further that Hegel’s written account of his own philosophy contradicts his stated assertion and proves mine.

In Hegel’s philosophy art does not die. Nothing dies. Through cycle after cycle spirit makes its way toward absolute consciousness: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Each stage of unification absorbs each former stage. Nothing is abandoned. All is carried forward into the next cycle. Thus sensuous form—the medium of art—is retained, though transformed, realized. Absolute Idea is concrete Idea.

Everything that possesses truth for spirit, no less than as part of nature, is essentially concrete, and, despite its universality, possesses both ideality and particularity essentially within it.8

In Hegel’s system idea does not extricate, separate, itself from the matter of its origination; it realizes itself. Spirit does not withdraw from matter; it assimilates matter. Matter awakened, is spirit. The straw is spun 1nto gold. Therefore when poetry disappears into philosophy, there is no loss to lament—the sensuous and the spiritual are one totality. Poetry does not die; it transcends itself.

If this version of resurrection is not consolation enough, there remains Hegel’s own consolation of philosophy (as I contend). Philosophy in Hegel’s philosophy is spirit—contained in and presiding over history. The philosophy of a period in history is evidenced in the political institutions of the state. For example, the despotic political system of the ancient Orient was indication of a people unwilling to “subordinate their desires to universal laws.”9 Where there is no freedom, “Conscience does not exist, nor does individual morality.”10 Philosophy (self- consciousness) occurs first in Greece when personal political freedom occurs, for a few at least. Thus philosophy is the awakening of absolute Idea; it is the spirit that manifests through political institutions, through art and religion, and, above all, through the science of philosophy.

Now while philosophy is spirit, the science of philosophy exists as a body of literature. Hegel’s theories may indeed be correct, and the spirit of philosophy may be spinning its ethereal course toward an absolute, but we are aware of such a possibility only because Hegel gave a written account of his thought. Philosophy, then, as we know it, resides in language. With these distinctions in mind, let us examine Hegel’s “death of art” passage once more.

. . .[art] deserts the medium of a harmonious presentation of mind in sensuous shape and passes from tile poetry of imaginative idea into the prose of thought.11

The “Prose of thought” may mean abstract, unsensuous thought, past the need or power of language to express. But I interpret the phrase to indicate instead the science of philosophy, where, if “prose of thought!’ be demonstrable, I shall expect to find it.

Hegel’s science of philosophy is extant in his published works. If the spirit and the science of philosophy are non- poetic, then we may expect to find Hegel’s prose to illustrate something of the effect of “prose of thought.” We recall his definition of art as a “presentation . . . in sensuous form, … bringing [even the most exalted subject] nearer to nature and her mode of envisagement, that is closer to our sensitive and emotional life.”12

We do find passages in Hegel’s works devoid of poetry— dense, graceless passages, in fact, of abstract prose:

In respect to the first and second of these divisions it is important to recollect, in order to make all that follows intelligible, that the idea, viewed as the beautiful in art, is not the idea in the strict sense, that is as a metaphysical logic apprehends it as the absolute.13
…. The conformability, however, of notion and reality in the classical type ought not to be taken in the purely formal sense of the coalescence of a content with its external form, any more than this was possible in the case of the ideal.14

But we do not find his philosophy to be altogether of such tough fiber as this. Here, for example, is a moment of sensuous beauty:

The variously colored plumage of birds is resplendent unseen; the notes of this song are unheard. The cereus, which only blossoms for a night, withers away without any admiration from another in the wilderness of the southern forests: and these forests, receptacles themselves of the most beautiful and luxuriant vegetation, with the richest and most aromatic perfumes, perish and collapse in like manner unenjoyed . . . 15

Here is an extended metaphor:

. . . albeit[the idea] expatiates in all these shapes, having no other means of expression among all that is real, and seeks after itself in their unrest and defects of genuine porportion, yet for all that it finds them inadequate to meet its needs. It consequently exaggerates natural shapes and the phenomena of nature in every degree of indefinite and limitless extension: it flounders about in them like a drunkard, and seethes and ferments, doing violence to their truth with the distorted growth of unnatural shapes, and strives vainly by the contrast, hugeness, and splendor of the fonus accepted to exalt the phenomena to the plain of the idea . . . . 16

And here is outright fable:

. . . Architect ure is in fact the first pioneer on the highway toward the adequate realization of Godhead. In this service it is put to severe labor with objective nature, that it may disengage it by its effort from the confused growth of finitude and the distortions of contingency. By this means it levels a SPace for the God, informs his external environment, and builds him his temple, as a fit place for the concentration of spirit, … It raises an enclosure for the congregation of those assembled, as a defense against the threatening of the tempest, against rain, the hurricane, and savage animals.17

Such poetic passages are Hegel’s most powerful passages. They express more than rational idea: they carry the impact of sensory experience; they appeal to the emotions: and they delight. Hegel’s own definition of art establishes the fact of poetry in these passages. Wordsworth might have agreed:

. . . It may be safely affirmed that there neither is nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.18
. . . Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.

It may be (but I am not conceding the point) that consciousness will in time transcend the need for symbol as Hegel maintains. But until we transcend the need for language itself (and until we have nothing human to say), I confidently conclude that Hegel’s philosophy poses no threat to the security of art.


Carter, Curtis L. “A Re-examination of the ‘Death of Art’ Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics.” Art and Logic in Hegel’s Philosophy, ed. Warren E. Steinkraus and Kenneth I. Schmitz. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1980.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Introduction.” The Philosophy of Fine Art. Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “On Philosophy.” On Art, Religion, Philosophy, ed. J. Glenn Gray. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Wordsworth, William. “Preface to the Second Edition of

Lyrical Ballads." Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971.

  1. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Introduction,” The Philosophy of Fine Art, in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971), p. 518.

  2. Hegel, p. 523

  3. Hegel, p. 523

  4. Hegel, p. 528

  5. Hegel, p. 530

  6. Hegel, p. 531

  7. Curtis L. Carter, “A Re-examination of the ‘Death of Art’ Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics.” in Art and Logic in Heger’s Philosophy, ed. Warren E. sateinkraus and Kenneth I. Schmitz (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1980), pp. 83–98

  8. Hegel, 519

  9. G. W. F. Hegel, “On Philosophy,” in On Art, Religion, Philosophy, ed. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 299.

  10. Hegel, “On Philosophy,” p. 301.

  11. Hegel, “On Philosophy,” p. 530.

  12. Hegel, “On Philosophy,” p. 518.

  13. Hegel, “On Philosophy,” p. 521.

  14. Hegel, “On Philosophy,” p. 523.

  15. Hegel, “On Philosophy,” p. 520.

  16. Hegel, “On Philosophy,” pp. 522-3.

  17. Hegel, “Introduction,” p. 527.

  18. William Wordsworth, “Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads,” in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard. Adams (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., l97l), p. 436.