Hegel’s Christian Aesthetics

Friedrich 01 Morning in the Riesengebirge

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840): Sunrise in the Riesengebirge (1808)

To my friend Paul Gottfried, by far the most learned man in my ken, and the uncrowned monarch of the American Right.

Like everything by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831), the Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics require from the reader no little patience.  Originating as actual lectures – which Hegel delivered to his students at Heidelberg between 1820 and 1826 – the posthumous booklet, edited by H. G. Hotho and first issued in 1835, can nevertheless claim the virtue of brevity, and perhaps beyond that a prose-style as close to accessible as its author ever came.  On the one hand then, the reader’s patience will likely reap him a reward; on the other hand, however, the reader might come away from his exertion slightly disappointed.  The science of aesthetics has to do with art, to be sure, and the Introductory Lectures certainly address the topic of art; but art has to do with beauty, and the Lectures, after a sequence of promising paragraphs in the First Lecture, seem as a whole to give rather short shrift to the topic of beauty.  In the second sentence of the First Lecture, for example, Hegel asserts his remit to be “the wide realm of the beautiful,” whose “province,” he adds, “is Art,” or rather “Fine Art.”  Yet this artistic beauty is not to be confused with “beauty in general,” nor with “the beauty of Nature.”  The latter, Hegel insists, counts only as a “lower” type of beauty, a thesis well calculated to offend the Twenty-First Century’s prevailing “Gaian” view of life – the universe – and everything.  Fine art, by contrast, constitutes the higher type of beauty for the important reason, as Hegel puts it, that fine art “is the beauty that is born – born again, that is – of the mind.”  In consideration of the fact that “the mind and its products are higher than nature and its appearances,” it follows that “the beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature.”

Hegel continues his argument by elaborating a crucial difference: “Even a silly fancy such as may pass through a man’s head,” he writes, “is higher than any product of nature.”  The most fleeting and unserious of mental, or more properly of spiritual, actions participates in freedom and qualifies itself thereby, even though in a trivial degree only, as self-determining.  The appearances of nature share in no such freedom, but, being as they are “absolutely necessary” and yet at the same time “indifferent,” take their meaning only to the degree that they refer to something else.  Hegel offers as his example the sun, whose pleasant usefulness men acknowledge and praise and in whose lavish light the other manifestations of nature appear to them and become useful, but with which they have, and can have, no spiritual traffic.  The sun remains incapable of acknowledging the men who acknowledge it, however much they might enjoy basking in its effulgence.  Nature is the realm of matter — and matter, eternally mute, never communicates with consciousness but only stimulates the suite of sensuous effects with which consciousness is familiar.  Thus for Hegel, the quality of consciousness makes whatever is truly beautiful, beautiful; and it does so both by imbuing matter with the order that originates in consciousness, including the element of freedom, and by placing the material or sensuous part of the art-object into parenthesis, so that the object becomes a pure image in the spectatorial mind just as it was, before its incarnation in the plastic medium, a pure image in its creator’s mind.

Hegel 03 Looking Right

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831)

In the discourse of the Lectures such vocabulary items as “mind,” “spirit,” “consciousness,” “idea,” and “ideal,” the latter two sometimes capitalized, blend with the vocabulary item “beauty.”  The word “beauty,” itself, might seem to withdraw into shyness after the opening phase of the First lecture, emerging again only occasionally, but those other words subsuming it and the argument of the lecture-sequence always resonating with the fundamental phenomenon of it, the topic of beauty at least tacitly insists on itself more or less on every page.  Even supposing, however, that the definition that Hegel gives of beauty in those opening paragraphs of the First Lecture is a bit deficient or that the topic indeed goes a bit fugitive, those same opening paragraphs would nevertheless furnish the reader with one or two stunningly suggestive notions, which turn out indeed to bear significantly on the topic and partly to define it.  Not the least surprising and pregnant of these notions is Hegel’s natal-redemptory metaphor of beauty being “born – born again, that is – of mind.”  No readerly strategy can avoid the theological implication in the figure, which derives from and alludes to Pauline thinking about the Ceremony of Innocence.  Those seven words, moreover, comport themselves entirely with Hegel’s other claim, proximate to it in his text, that art belongs together with religion and philosophy.

Hegel writes of fine art as “a mode of revealing to consciousness and bringing to utterance the Divine Nature, the deepest interests of humanity, and the most comprehensive truths of the mind.” “Truth” therefore amalgamates itself with the existing set of intercommunicating vocabulary items, the nuance of every item impregnating all the other items. Here again, Hegel, whom such as Karl Marx and André Kojève interpret as atheistic and revolutionary, a man, despite himself perhaps, of the Left, a Progressive and a repudiator of Testamental faith, proves himself something else entirely.  “Depth” likewise joins in this verbal congeries.  In the Third Lecture, Hegel will equate “depth” with “mind,” hence also with “spirit,” “consciousness,” and “truth.”  Hegel, writing in the Third Lecture, rejects the argument that beauty can be reduced to a “feeling,” that is, to a mere sensation, somehow edified by instruction in “taste.” That notion, he concludes, is not only relativistic, but jejune: “For when great passions and the movements of a profound soul are unveiled, we are no longer concerned with the finer distinctions of taste and its pettifogging particularities.”  Hegel’s remarks not only deny any doctrine of relativism in perception and cognition; they strenuously replace beauty in the realm of objective reality, and indeed make beauty the very guarantee of objective reality.  In addition, Hegel’s allusions argue for the epoch of Christianity as a decisive moment in humanity’s grasp, or concept, of beauty – or in Hegel’s German, das Begriff.

Constable 01 Shoreham Bay, Evening Sunset (1828)

John Constable (1776 – 1837): Shoreham Bay – Sunset (1828)

Hegel’s argumentative procedure in the Lectures solicits commentary.  Already in the First Lecture, Hegel concerns himself predominantly with the history of aesthetics and with an account of contemporaneous, competing theories of art and the beautiful.  Often, in a long paragraph which takes as its topic either that history or one of the contemporaneous, competing theories, Hegel, in critiquing a chosen proposition, will gradually articulate his own thesis.  The claim that Hegel makes in the First Lecture that the beauty of nature is of a lower order than the beauty of fine art is already a repudiation of a standing notion, which Hegel obviously finds inadequate and of which he is eager to dispose.  In a direct sequel, Hegel disposes of the related notion that the essence of art consists in the artist’s perfection of his imitations of nature.  This would make of art a mere reduplicative technique, reducing it to a species of “deception” or “deceptive semblance.”  Again, on this notion, art would be trivial and superficial; but art, as Hegel insists, is an organ of “thought,” and as thought or mind or spirit, art strains to transcend the superficiality of appearance.  “The world,” Hegel writes, “into whose depths thought penetrates, is a supra-sensuous world, which is thus, to begin with, erected as a beyond over against the immediate consciousness and present sensation.”

Elsewhere in the First Lecture, Hegel invokes two more of his figures: “The hard rind of nature” and the “chaos of accidental matters.”  In penetrating that armor, that seeming barrier of phenomena, and in bringing order to that disorder, “art liberates the real import of appearances from this bad and fleeting world, and imparts to phenomenal semblances a higher reality, born of mind.”  Such “liberation” – or, as earlier, being “born again” – is identical with “breaking through to the idea.”  Hegel sees in the history of artistic creation a struggle of the mind, only recently completed, to achieve emancipation from the appearances and to breakthrough to the transcendent realm.  As everywhere in his work, Hegel understands institutions both historically and, as it were, genetically, using that latter term in its sense of active origination.  In addressing art, and therefore also beauty, the philosopher will “consider [his] object in its necessity”; that is, he must “unfold and demonstrate the object out of the necessity of its own inner nature.”  From this imperative comes that strand of the Lectures in which Hegel gives both a history of the arts and a history of art-appreciation or the theories of art.  This strand comes to the fore in the Second and Fourth Lectures, but it surfaces elsewhere and frequently in Hegel’s booklet.

In the First Lecture, for example, Hegel stakes his claim, to which he will return, that the present (that is, his present in the 1820s) belongs to a culminant historical phase that has, in fact, transcended the necessity of artistic expression because it has perfected philosophy.  That claim belongs to what Eric Voegelin identifies as the Gnostic character of Hegel’s thought: The philosopher’s egocentric conviction that the Dialectic of History had come to rest at last in his own speculation and had found its expression in the Prussian State.  One must naturally be skeptical about that claim but that same skepticism would not imply the total error of the treatise.  On the contrary, the reader of the Lectures would be well-advised to adhere to Voegelin’s critique, which concedes that Hegel’s Gnostic tendency, howsoever regrettable, never invalidates his richness of valuable and true observations, which it would be dishonest to ignore.  Hegel himself is generous in his disagreements.  While the concept of art cannot be reduced to the history of art, a tendency that he remarks, history nevertheless informs artistic production in every era, from which fact it follows that knowledge of that history informs the appreciation of every individual work of art.  Each individual work of art contains within itself, so to speak, the historical germ or genesis, of its own possibility.


Louis Janmot (1814 – 1892): Dancing Muses

Even primitive art, as Hegel sees it, yearns towards a greater validity than its own that only its future will achieve; and in the same way, today’s art, to sustain its validity, must subsume the whole history of art.  Art, humanity’s “first instructress,” is the metaphysical space in which the idea of the human reveals itself to itself and studies itself with the aim of ever greater understanding.  Hegel writes: “Even if artistic works are not abstract thought and notion, but are an evolution of the notion out of itself, an alienation from itself towards the sensuous, still the power of the thinking spirit (mind) lies herein, not merely to grasp itself only in its peculiar form of self-conscious spirit (mind), but just as much to recognize itself in its alienation in the shape of feeling and the sensuous, in its other form, by transmuting the metamorphosed thought back into definite thoughts, and so restoring it to itself.”  The syntax is Hegelian in extremis, but in the long and winding – and self-reflexive – sentence, Hegel stands not too distant from his ancient precursor, Aristotle, whom he discusses elsewhere in the Lectures.  In the Poetics, Aristotle argues that in literature, especially drama, the polis, considered as a subject, and acting through the talent of the poet, externalizes its own nature so as to gain self-knowledge.  Aristotle anticipates Hegel in making explicit the common knowledge of his day that drama originates in rite (dromenon – from the Dorian verb drân, to conduct a religious procedure fastidiously); and in his declaration that poetry is more philosophical than history, precisely because it treats the ideal or how things should be rather than how things are.

In the Second Lecture of the Lectures, near the end, Hegel returns briefly to his intermittent project of defining beauty, an endeavor requiring reference to the theory of Aristotle’s teacher, Plato.  Hegel believes that Plato abstracted too much in his agenda of subordinating the particular to the universal such that the Platonic forms or essences invite the charge of “emptiness of content.”  Hegel finds the germ of truth in Plato’s theory of beauty, however, insofar as essence or universality is a necessary albeit insufficient element of beauty.  For Hegel, beauty requires a combination of essence or universality with particularity; and particularity meanwhile requires for its expression an actual instance – that is, an embodiment in plastic material under the guidance of creative subject or artist.  In the passage in question, Hegel employs the word “Idea” in substitution for conscious subject.  Hegel is approaching, stage by stage, his formulation in the Fifth Lecture of art as the divine element in human consciousness breaking through the barrier of appearances to synthesize itself with the transcendent mind of God as the Absolute.  Hegel omits to address the themes of religious experience – especially of mystic transport – and theology in the Platonic authorship, but he perhaps expects his readers to recall them and to interweave their recollection with his unfolding exposition.

The longish Third Lecture of the Lectures, which Hegel divides into two halves, entitles itself as a whole “The Conception of Artistic Beauty,” and its first half entitles itself as “The Work of Art as Made and as Sensuous.”  Hegel’s Lectures are “introductory” to the “science of aesthetics” in general.  When the reader thinks of sensuous objects, he most likely conjures in his mind objects with powerful tactile characteristics – sculptural objects foremost but also paintings despite the injunction against touching the canvass.  The reader will likely not think of stories and poems under the category of sensuous objects, but the science of poetics although only a subset of the science of aesthetics plays an important role in Hegel’s historical scheme.  According to Hegel, the evolution of the arts begins in “Symbolic” sculptural art, as typified by ancient Near-Eastern religious bas-reliefs depicting chimeric deities, and culminates in “Romantic” literary art, as exemplified by the authorships of the leading European poets of Hegel’s own day.  One might think of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, or Alphonse de Lamartine.  The term “poetics” has, since Aristotle, referred to the making of verbal art-objects.  Conception (Begriff), which logically precedes execution or making in the plastic medium, once again partakes in a genetic connotation and is a co-dweller in the same semantic domain as being born or being born again.  This being born again, moreover, attains its highest, most mindful degree in its least material manifestation, not in stone or colorful paste, but in vibrations in air, in the Logos.

Greco Baptism of Christ

El Greco (1541 – 1614): The Baptism of Christ (1608)

In Hegel’s presentation, art and beauty insist on their vitality, their living quality.  Theologically, in those Christian terms that Hegel so easily appropriates, conception precedes incarnation, in which miracle the Word or Logos is made flesh.  “Inasmuch as we are undertaking to treat [art] scientifically,” Hegel writes, “we must begin with its Conception.”  The researcher will only find the “principle” of art “in the conception of the object [i.e., any art-object] itself.”  A difficulty now obtrudes itself on the inquisitorial agenda.  Because either “art” or “the beautiful in art” invariably instantiates the coming-to-consciousness and witting articulation of the cosmos itself through the medium of human consciousness, the origin of art must coincide ab initio with the origin of the cosmos.  The universe being, as Hegel puts it, “one single organic totality which develops out of its own conception,” and every part being subordinate to the whole, the conception of art is necessarily the same as the conception of the universe. Because there is no room in a pamphlet to rehearse the logic of cosmo-theology, Hegel asks the reader to suspend that inquiry and to assume the scientific derivation of “art” and “the beautiful in art.”  Hegel’s evasion nevertheless informs the reader that art and beauty partake in a cosmic character – unsurprisingly considering the etymology of the word cosmos.

In addition to possessing a cosmo-theological implication, “the work of art” is (1) “no natural product, but brought to pass by means of human activity”; is (2) “essentially… for man”; and is (3) such that it “contain[s] an end.”  The objet-d’art differs from other things that might also be described as “no natural product,” such as tools and devices, in being “meaning-laden.”  Rehearsing the argument that although the work of art requires a plastic medium it is not reducible to that medium and rejecting the thesis that the work of art fulfills some quotidian use, as might a tool, Hegel resurrects one of his religious metaphors in a heightened form.  “Its external existence,” Hegel writes, “is not what makes a work into a production of fine art,” but rather “it is a work of art only in as far as, being the offspring of mind, it continues to belong in the realm of mind, has received the baptism of the spiritual, and only represents that which has been moulded in harmony with the mind.”  In a further distinction, whereas natural objects and quotidian objects are “transient, vanishing, and mutable”; mind bestows on the work of art the quality of “permanence,” as though it dwelt in a dimension of eternity.  Moreover, in artistic creation, “God is honored by what mind does… For not only is there divinity in man, but in him it is operative under a form that is appropriate to the essence of God, in a mode quite other and higher than in nature.”  Art – or the production of beauty – is therefore in the character of Imitatio Dei.

Although Hegel objects to the reduction of art and the beautiful to mere moral instruction, as that would make art instrumental and so deprive it of its autonomy, he yet puts art in a redemptory relation with the base or animal motives in a large range of human behavior, that it might mitigate or correct them.  Hegel distinguishes between “desire” and “reflection.”  Impulses such as hunger or sexual appetite belong to desire, the goal of which is consumption.  Desire is thus firmly implanted in the realm of the sensuous.  The work of art must manifest itself in that same realm of the sensuous, but it is the case that “a work of art has a right to exist only in as far as it exists for man’s mind, but not in as far as qua sensuous thing it has separate existence by itself.”  The work of art must elude the type of relation that, as Hegel puts it, is “dictated by particular impulses and interests” and that it has as its goal the “sacrificing” of the object to the transient state of “self-satisfaction.”  Ascribing to the work of art a “right to exist” might at first seem bizarre, but only a little reflection is needed to see the justification of the phrase.  For Hegel, beauty, which the work of art expresses, is spirit; therefore the work of art, like its living, conscious spectator, is on the order of an embodied spirit or, simply, a person.  These observations once again locate the work of art in the light of Christian Revelation.

The second half of the Third Lecture entitles itself “The End of Art.”  Hegel revisits various refutations – of the instrumental theory of art, of the didactic theory of art, of the Aristotelian mimetic theory of art that he has already carried through – but the novel content is noteworthy.  Like the self-conscious person, the work of art enjoys a freedom that places it beyond appropriation.  The work of art is neither an idol, to which a sacrifice might be made, nor, in its status as a spiritual entity, a thing that might be sacrificed to some Power of the Air.  Again like the self-conscious person, to fulfill its freedom, the work of art must actively strive to surpass its purely bodily or sensuous character in the direction of spirit.  Hegel remarkably characterizes the work of art as the overcoming “the Bacchantic,” an assertion that reinforces his opening claim in the First lecture that art, religion, and philosophy belong to a shared historical development culminating in Christianity.  The Bacchant takes her motivation from the desire to dismember and to consume her victim.  Whoever intuits beauty in “theoretic contemplation,” by contrast, “has no interest in consuming” his object.  Science too assumes a disinterested, non-appetitive relation to object, but “artistic contemplation” differs from scientific curiosity in that it displays a “cherishing interest for the object as an individual existence.”  Finally, as Hegel writes, “Art, by means of its representations, while remaining within the sensuous, delivers man at the same time from the power of the sensuous,” and as such “art is the vocation of revealing the truth.”

In the Fourth and perhaps least interesting Lecture of the Lectures, Hegel summarizes several recent (for him) “modern” theories of aesthetics, beginning with the theory of Immanuel Kant, whose case, as Hegel writes, “we pronounce inadequate.”  Hegel does concede, however, that Kant’s attribution to beauty of a teleological character contains the germ of a truth.  It is only that Kant’s epistemology being ahistorical – teleology fits better in Hegel’s own, historically informed phenomenology, as Hegel himself argues.

It is in the Fifth Lecture, entitling itself “Division of the Subject,” however, that the fascination of Hegel’s pamphlet fully reasserts itself.  The work of art, Hegel begins by reminding his reader, reconciles the immaterial content or “Idea” with the plastic or material image, drawn from the sensuous repertory, such that both aspects merge in a “full and united totality.”  The “Idea,” moreover, must appear in some “concrete” or specific or individual form.  Hegel’s capital example of this “full and united totality” that combines the individual with the universal comes in the Christian doctrine of God as a Trinity of persons.  “God in Christianity,” Hegel writes, “is conceived in His truth, and therefore, as in Himself thoroughly concrete, as a person, as a subject, and more closely determined, as mind or spirit.”  The human body itself, said to have been made in God’s image, represents “full and united totality,” being in its physical manifestation wholly adequate to its inner, spiritual content.  For this reason, art has since the Greeks taken the human form as its major theme.

Sumerian 04 (Winged Animal-King)

Assyrian Bas-Relief (Ninth Century BC)

With these somewhat belated preliminaries out of the way, the Fifth Lecture arrives at its historical scheme of artistic development, what Hegel calls “the doctrine of the types of art.”  The history of artistic expression consists in a quest for the proper embodiment of the “Idea,” or rather, at first, in a groping quest for the accurate intuition of the “Idea.”  As previously remarked, Hegel sees the Symbolic, which he links with what archaeology at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century had revealed as the earliest of known civilizations, as the first phase of artistic expression.  In the context of the historical discussion concerning the phase of the Symbolic, Hegel’s usage of “Idea” seems more to indicate the Divine Absolute or God than it does human consciousness.  A sense of divine solicitation but barely grasped permeates, for example, this sentence: “First, the Idea gives rise to the beginning of Art when, being itself still in its indistinctness and obscurity, or in vicious untrue determinateness, it is made the import of artistic creations.”  Under the Symbolic, the creative impulse borrows the forms of nature without spiritualizing them, employing them only as tokens of something for which it cannot give shape to an adequate representation, “as when a lion is used to mean strength.”  The Symbolic tends to “exaggerate” the natural shapes.  Hegel gives no specific references, but any review of Sumerian bas-reliefs will supply a gallery of illustration.

In Hegel’s scheme, the “Classical” succeeds the Symbolic.  Hegel identifies the Classical with the Hellenic.  In the Classical, the bas-relief at last detaches itself from the wall and becomes a free-standing figure extending itself in all three dimensions.  The Classical image purges itself of all chimeric grotesqueness and any false sublimity of exaggerated shape.  In positive terms, “the classical type of art is the first to afford the production and intuition of the completed Ideal, and to establish it as a realized fact.”  Notice that Hegel refers to the Ideal rather than the Idea.  Greek statuary, in giving representation to the Hellenic notion of deity, actually gives representation to the ideal human form, as grasped by the Athenian artists.  And yet a too strict adherence to the Ideal limits the appropriateness of Hellenic statuary imagery: The universal finds its right articulation but only at the expense of the particular.  The confusion regarding the identity of many Greek statues affirms Hegel’s assessment.  A Bronze originally identified as Poseidon might later be identified as Zeus.  How does the expert really know that the Apollo of the Belvedere is Apollo and not simply a generic kouros?  Hegel does not pose these questions specifically, but his comments imply them.  A similar ambiguity attends images of Christ only during the period of syncretism – basically the late Second through the early Fourth Centuries.  Otherwise Christian imagery tends to foreground the particular.

Just as the Classical succeeds the Symbolic so too the Romantic succeeds the Classical.  Romantic is, for Hegel in the 1820s, a recent term, but Hegel’s usage of that term is not restricted to his own contemporaneity.  By Romantic, Hegel means to include the Christian Medieval Period, fresh insight into whose character belongs among the achievements of the recent, in Hegel’s day, self-denominating Romanticism.  Whereas the Classical failed in making full provision for the particular, the Romantic, already in its medieval precursion, makes good on that failure.  Absorbing the Gothic centuries into itself, as the reader will have noticed, the early Nineteenth-Century Romantic merges with the Medieval Christian.  In the Symbolic repertory, the mind has not fully separated itself from nature and cannot therefore represent itself except through inadequate borrowings from natural shapes.  In the Classical canon, a capitalized Mind finds its expression in three-dimensional marble figures of youthful men and women whose beauty while ideal nevertheless remains anonymously ideal.  In dialectical language, “the Romantic form of art” all at once “destroys the completed union of the idea and its reality, and recurs, though in a higher phase, to that difference and antagonism of the two aspects which was left unvanquished by symbolic art”; and it declares “an escape from [the inseparable unity] of the classical phase,” which saw insufficiently into the depth of the spirit.  Classical statuary is “immediate”; Romantic art is “self-conscious inward intelligence.” The vocabulary is maddeningly abstract.  How to explain it in plainer terms than Hegel’s own?

Greek Statuary 01 Apollo of the Belvedere

Apollo of the Belvedere (Late Fourth Century BC)

Consider the startling difference – one that participates in Hegel’s claim that painting, poetry, and music signify the attainment of higher spiritual levels than statuary – between the Apollo of the Belvedere and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  If one visited the Apollo of the Belvedere in the Pio-Clementine chapter of the Vatican Museums, it would appeal to its visitor in silence; and even were the visitor to examine it in all three dimensions, it would appeal as surface-image only, no matter in how many aspects.  If one took any edition, say a recent paperback edition, of Hamlet and examined it only in the way that the Apollo of the Belvedere permits examination; then it too would appear only as visual surfaces and as an object of tactile quality.  Bracketing one’s literacy, the pages would reveal a characteristic patterning, which would afford only as much interest as they would to an illiterate.  Perhaps the book would illustrate its cover with a portrait of Shakespeare, but what would that mean?  Compared to the Apollo of the Belvedere, Hamlet would be insipid and unmemorable.  It would lack the material presence of the famous statue.  Its brittle, perishing paper and glue would seem transient and meaningless compared with the weighty solidity of the god in his image.  That is not, of course, how the reader apprehends Hamlet.

In the first place, unlike the statue, Hamlet is not confined to a particular geographical locale or to a material substrate.  Hamlet is available ubiquitously, nowadays even in the form of an electronic file that one “calls up” on his Kindle.  A castaway on an island, provided he has preserved his Kindle, can still communicate with Hamlet.  It need not even entail vibrations in air, which would still count as a type of plastic embodiment.  Since the early Christian centuries Westerners have known how to read silently; and yet such silent reading is voluble next to the statue’s muteness.  While it is true that a statue might be copied and that indeed copies of the Apollo of the Belvedere exist, even miniatures in actual polystyrene plastic that one can add to the Kitsch on one’s mantle, everyone knows that the copy is precisely not the original and is somehow, whether one can explain it or not, inferior to the original.  Respecting Hamlet there is nothing but a vastness of copies and, except for grossly incompetent typesetting or editing, there is no difference among the copies, none of which is inferior to any.  The statue tells the reader nothing of himself.  The character Hamlet consists in nothing but what he tells the reader of himself.  Hamlet is the self-divulgence of his interior – his psychic depth.  Without lending him an image, the reader still knows, or rather kens, Hamlet in a way that he can never ken the god.

“The world of inwardness,” Hegel writes, “celebrates its triumph over the outer world, and actually in the sphere of the outer and in its medium manifests this its victory, owing to which the sensuous appearance sinks into worthlessness.”  Painting and music are a good deal like poetry in this way.  The subject “reads” any painting in much the way that he reads a poem.  While the canvas is flat like the printed page, through perspective it signifies depth – the depth in which consciousness baptizes itself in the medium of its own spirit and is born again, as Hegel would have it.  Music rivals poetry in its ethereality, being realized only as vibrations in air.  Where or what is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor?  Where or what is Hamlet?  In either case, its paradoxical most-real mode is when understood in its totality by the performer during its execution or when remembered in that same totality by the educated listener or theatergoer or reader either of score or typographic page.  Hegel claims that the work of art is a person.  Hamlet and the Toccata and Fugue are indeed more fully human, more like actual people whom one can know and cherish than the marble deity; for one thing, Shakespeare’s creation and Bach’s escape the anonymity of the god.  For another, each has its own internal duration, which the contemplator can experience vicariously.  Again, after Fortinbras’ valedictory “good night, sweet prince,” or after the final echo of the concluding D-minor chord of the Toccata and Fugue, either the play or the composition is liable to be born again, resurrected as it were, at any time by any mind capable of the conjuration.

Turner 01 Heaving Coals by Midnight

J. M. W. Turner (1775 – 1851): Heaving Coals at Midnight (1838)

The Italian Hegelian Benedetto Croce (1866 – 1952) well understood this particular strand of Hegel’s theory.  In his Essence of the Aesthetic (1912), Croce makes a bold claim complementary to Hegel’s.  Croce writes that rigorous thinking “denies, above all, that art is a physical fact.”  To a hypothetical examiner who finds this proposition incredibly paradoxical, Croce replies that whereas “physical facts do not possess reality”; yet “art, to which so many devote their whole lives and which fills all with a divine joy, is supremely real.”  It follows then that art “cannot be a physical fact, which is something unreal.”  The contemporary verbal-ideological formula that reduces poetry to text is in effect a reactionary denial of Hegel’s and Croce’s affirmation that beauty is spirit and that in the sensuous domain where the mortal person lives, the most beautiful is that which is minimally material and maximally spiritual.  It is unsurprising that the contemporary humanities professoriate finds the archive of Western-Christian poetry, painting, and music unintelligible and concentrates its whole interest in the melanin-content of the epidermis or the structure of the sexual organs and on a fleeting present moment.  The ugliness and artlessness of contemporary display, which often absurdly refers to itself as “conceptual,” betoken only a brutal atavism of the unalloyed Symbolic.  So, too, do tattooed bodies, pierced eyelids, lips, and ears, and the gamut of the new tribal scarifications.

To return to the Fifth Lecture of the Introductory Lectures – Hegel comments on the anthropological and theological implications of architecture, an artistic genre whose iterations occur in all three of Hegel’s historical phases and which is altered successively in a way that statuary, in particular, and once it achieves its Classical form, cannot be.  How does Hegel deal with the materiality and massiveness of architecture, which would seem to threaten the cohesion of his historical-evolutionary scheme?  Romantic art strives to generate “a world of actualized beauty,” the content of which is “the beautiful.”  Beauty, however, is spirit.  Thus “a world of actualized beauty” will be a “region… of divine truth artistically represented to perception and to feeling.”  Indeed, the mortal dweller in such a world in experiencing the tension between his finite nature as subject and God’s infinite nature as object will transcend that tension such that “the distinction of objectivity and subjectivity is done away.”  In communal devotion God will be “living and present.”  Architecture, despite its materiality and massiveness, clears the way for this transubstantiation.  Architecture, more obviously than sculpture, transforms nature.  “It is architecture that pioneers the way for the adequate realization of God”; architecture “levels a space for the God gives form to his surroundings, and builds him a temple as a fit place for concentration of spirit, and for its direction to the mind’s absolute objects.”

The temple first appears with the Symbolic in the form of an artificial mountain or ziggurat.  The Classical retains the temple, but subordinates it to the statuary image of the god to which it gives pride of place in the naos of the cella.  The Romantic also retains the temple.  Hegel omits the details, but an informed reader can supply them.  The Gothic cathedral teems with sculpture, which however it reattaches to the wall.  The internal space of the Gothic cathedral is, of course, vaster than the internal space of a Classical temple and that vastness belongs to its conception.  The object of contemplation in the internal space of the Gothic cathedral is spaciousness itself, the illuminated space, or even more properly illumination, light, as such.  The space is regularly filled with words and music – those of the liturgy and its accompaniment.  “The unity attained,” as Hegel writes, “is a more inward unity” than that associated with the freestanding plastic-anthropomorphic image of the god.  Music, Hegel argues, “Liberates the ideal content from its immersion in matter.”  Poetry, Hegel argues, is the sign and act of consciousness addressing itself.  The light entering the holy space through the Rose Windows in turn illuminates the painted images of prophets and saints that gather themselves in the niches and about the altars inside the edifice.  With perspective, the flatness of paste on canvass learns to imitate space and depth.  In the canvasses of John Constable, J. M. W. Turner, George Inness, and Frederick Church, the painted image seems to be dissolving itself into fathomless luminosity – pure spirit.

Turner 02 Sun Setting over a Lake (1840)

J. M. W. Turner (1775 – 1841): Sun Setting over a Lake (1840)

The student of the Lectures would do well to recall that Hegel believed the development of art to have come to its term in his day and that, with his own work, philosophy at that moment exceeded, and no doubt subsumed, art as the highest expression of mind in the discovery of itself.  This particular claim we might permit ourselves to doubt.  Hegel’s death from cholera in 1831 in his sixty-first year came rather prematurely.  Looking back from our own perspective on what succeeded Hegel, we would at least like to know what the author of the Lectures would have said about the state of painting, poetry, and music in, let us say, 1851.  Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), who read both Hegel and Hegel’s competitor for the status of greatest living philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, understood his own work in the genre of Music Drama to be the rebirth and continuation of art, philosophy, and religion in a context where these had all become diminished and, as it were, de-spiritualized.  Wagner’s Parsifal, in which the author reconciles himself with Christianity, thereby repudiating his own earlier atheism, owes a greater a debt to Hegel than it does to Schopenhauer.  In the Twentieth Century, however, Hegel’s sense of a cessation of creativity might well be applied both to art and philosophy – or whatever passes itself off as one of those things or the other.  Karl Marx, writing in the 1840s, claimed to have turned Hegel on his head.  Marx’s followers in the Twentieth Century then turned civilization on its head and – in a slew of wars and in endless implacable cultural sabotage – destroyed it.

What sentence could be more incomprehensible to the modern mentality than the following one?  “God is a spirit, and it is only in man that the medium through which the divine element passes has the form of conscious spirit, that actively realizes itself.”  The doctrinaire conformity that insists that the image of Jesus Christ be immersed in a vial of urine certainly cannot understand such a sentence.  The doctrinaire conformity that applauds as meaningful a college coed who lumbers herself with a mattress for some base reason and which then propagates her hunchbacked self-presentation ceaselessly for a twelvemonth certainly cannot understand such a sentence.  The doctrinaire conformity that expresses itself in commercial entertainments in the putrid rind, so to speak, of Computer Generated Imagery, beyond whose insipid Pixar colors there is no depth, certainly cannot understand such a sentence.  Where there is no depth – there is no possibility either of Baptism or of Rebirth.  Where once the image and the metaphor mediated the living spirit, dead idols now reign, to which the idolatrous conformity addresses its impoverished litany of stupefying slogans.  Would that we lived in the Eighteenth Century, when under the admittedly inadequate dispensation calling itself the Enlightenment, the elder generation nevertheless still instructed the younger generation in good taste.  That too we have seen stood on its head.

I must register my surprise and pleasure on returning belatedly to the Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, which I barely recall having read decades ago in graduate school, but of which, excepting a vague intuition of its merit, I retained little in the way of specific memory.  I have remarked with especial delight Hegel’s insistent usage of specifically Christian terms, most particularly his usage of the Pauline theme of being born again; and his metaphor of Baptism.  Hegel’s dismissal of Plato rankles me a bit, it is true, but in contradiction to that dismissal Hegel’s theory of the beautiful seems to me to be perfectly consonant with Platonic – and again with Neo-Platonic – philosophy.  In its last few pages indeed, Hegel’s pamphlet attains, despite itself, a type of poetic or visionary quality rising to a pitch.  I have the strong sense – reinforced during a recent conversation with my friend and colleague Richard Cocks – of Hegel’s convictions concerning art and beauty as having welled up inspirationally from something resembling a visionary experience.  “The self-unfolding idea of beauty” must have unfolded in Hegel’s subjectivity at some point.  I am startled but convinced by Hegel’s strong implication that art is essentially a dematerialized experience belonging to a dimension surpassing the three dimensions of the material universe.  I am startled and convinced by Hegel’s implication that the work of art is a person and as such accrues to itself the sacredness thereof.

9 thoughts on “Hegel’s Christian Aesthetics

  1. Pingback: Hegel’s Christian Aesthetics | Reaction Times

  2. Dr. Bertonneau,

    Thank you for this summer course and your reflections thus far. It’s difficult not to come to one like Hegel – I had considered him one of history’s monsters – without hesitation. But I found myself very sympathetic to a man who clearly loved art and loved the idea of beauty and who – at least it seemed to me – wanted very much to protect this beloved of his.

    For me art is experiential, a term altogether different from existential. That’s a description, and distinction, I think Hegel would appreciate.

    Hegel: “But the work of art brings before us the eternal powers that hold dominion in history, without any such superfluity in the way of immediate sensuous presentation and it’s unstable semblances.”

    There may be nihilistic artists, but nihilistic art is a contradiction. Art shows us that the human experience of life is momentous. It’s in how the artist deals with that moment that is so telling. Many of the stupidities that pass as great art today are stupidities not because they aren’t necessarily art, but because what they point to as momentous is stupid. They are period pieces of a stupid period.

    Although I appreciate greatly his critique of mimesis, I’m not as sympathetic of Hegel’s (to use phrasing from our opponents) appropriation at times of Christianity. But I do think that art allows us to peak into Providence. The apples that served as the model for the still life were apples. But they were never “just” apples. And it is in this sense that I take comfort in Hegel’s viewing the work of art as a person. Art is a natural revelation of sorts, that Christianity perfects. Hegel’s lectures helped me understand that better.

    • Dear Wood:

      I can certainly accept your notion that art is experiential, as you say, rather than existential, but I would go a bit farther: What art helps us to experience is being – and, indeed – the omnipresence of the Supreme Being, whom Hegel does not hesitate to refer to as God, placing that term in a context of other, specifically Christian terms. Borrowing from Kristor’s mathematical vocabulary, I would hazard that it is through beauty, hence also through art, that the teleological “strange attractors” exert their influence both on individuals and on the social body. It is significant that we see today such a large-scale resistance to beauty and to art, and a concomitant cult of ugliness. I take this as negative evidence for a positive thesis, namely that beauty is absolutely real and absolutely good in its effect – and that, quite as Hegel argues, it delivers us into our own freedom. The cult of ugliness is a rejection of freedom by those whose lust is concentrated entirely on power.

      An example of the impossibility of nihilistic art is the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, who is undeniably talented, technically accomplished, and masterful. Despite his mastery of the film-making craft, however, his films, such as Melancholia, are morally repellent and distinctly unbeautiful; and that is because their purpose is to clobber the viewer mercilessly with von Trier’s Satanic conviction that we live in a world without meaning and without the possibility of redemption, in which the only thing that can matter is someone’s mastery over someone else. (Most particularly, von Trier’s totalitarian mastery over his audience.)

      The vocabulary of revelation and of mystical experience pervades Hegel’s Lectures. It will be fascinating to see what links Richard Cocks establishes between Plotinus and Hegel when he addresses the next item in our seminar. My sense is that, in Hegel’s view of aesthetics, we have a deliberate synthesis of Neo-Platonic and Christian motifs. Given the dialectical character of Hegel’s thinking, such a synthesis should not surprise us. Indeed, that very synthesis begins with early Christianity, especially with the Alexandrine doctors but no less with Augustine.

      Thank you for your comment,


  3. After both essays certain things keep coming to mind when I reflect upon the readings. Hegel’s synthesis, the idea of mimesis from Aristotle’s Poetics, and the overall role of the human consciousness acting as a bridge. Human consciousness acts as a bridge between the physical and metaphysical forms of art. This leads me to recall Shelley’s Defence of Poetry where he talks about a poet’s imagination. All of these ideas lead me back to the passage of Genesis 1:27 where it states we are made in God’s image. If we were made in God’s image would this also provide us with the ability to act as arbiters physical (symbolic) forms and metaphysical (Romantic) when it came to the production of art?

    • Hegel takes issue with what he believes is Aristotle’s argument that art is mimesis – that is, the imitation of naturally occurring objects. Hegel misses an important qualification that Aristotle attaches to his argument that art – or more particularly poetry – is mimetic. Aristotle insists that the main object of artistic imitation is man himself, with his entire gamut of characteristics, and represented in the undertaking of his most significant projects. Art for Aristotle is already the externalization of self-consciousness, so that the mind might gain a proper view of and study itself. Another aspect of Aristotle’s discussion that Hegel overlooks is the former’s insistence that the highest form of poetry – tragic drama – has a ritual and therefore also a religious origin.

      I am unsure what you mean when you write that “human consciousness acts as a bridge between the physical and metaphysical forms of art.” According to Hegel (and it seems an inescapable premise), everything in the cultural domain including art has its origin in consciousness; and because consciousness itself has a taproot in a transcendent consciousness, all artistic production and every art-object has a metaphysical implication. There are limits, however, inherent in the genres. A statue in marble or bronze retains its solidity and its tactile qualities. A poem is recorded in print, or is recited by a performer and heard by an audience, but it is not weighed down by its solidity; and except insofar as the recitation of it vibrates the air, it has no tactile qualities. A poem emerges from the creative activity of one mind and is recreated by the activity of another. A poem, Hegel argues, imitates the Idea – the supreme and indeed metaphysical Principle of the cosmos – better than a statue. The poem therefore participates more directly in the Logos than does the statue.

      A defect of Hegel’s Lectures is that they only rarely deal with specific instances. I tried in my essay to make good on this defect by bringing in instances – the most important one being the difference between the Apollo of the Belvedere and Hamlet.

      Shelley’s Defense and Hegel’s Lectures belong to Romanticism, along with the aesthetic theories of Schiller and Coleridge. It is unsurprising that these writers make convergent claims and think along the same lines.

      You wrote: “If we were made in God’s image would this also provide us with the ability to act as arbiters [of] physical (symbolic) forms and metaphysical (Romantic) when it came to the production of art?” Here again I am unsure what you mean. As Hegel would have it, and quite naturally, everyone should strive to be as educated and as perceptive as possible; everyone should cultivate taste, as much as possible. We should all be critics in the main sense of the term – people capable of informed judgment who can sort the wheat from the chaff. An element in critical capability will be the critic’s knowledge of the history of artistic creativity. Hegel distinguishes three phases of art: The Symbolic, the Classical, and the Romantic, the last of which begins with medieval Gothic art and extends to Hegel’s present. The Classical succeeds the Symbolic, and the Romantic succeeds the Classical; but “succession” does not mean obliteration. Presumably, a Romantic artist could make use of motifs from the Symbolic or Classical repertories – which, incidentally, Shelley does quite often, not to mention Keats.

  4. When I suggested that the human consciousness acts as an arbiter between the physical and metaphysical the implication was a reference to the sort of divine character that consciousness possess such as the divineness of a poet that Shelley references. Since we were made in God’s image, as told to us in Genesis, God placed that divine glimmer in us so we can act as arbiters of the types of art mentioned in Hegel’s lectures. It’s something that is in our nature if we choose embrace it. Basically my argument hinges on being made in God’s image and the human mind already having that divine spark God placed in us so we can understand art.

    • As the divine basis of consciousness further articulates itself, it acquires the capability of distinguishing early, less articulate examples of artistic creativity from late, more articulate examples of the same — is that what you mean? If so, it is consistent with Hegel’s discussion.

  5. Pingback: Hegel’s Christian Aesthetics — The Orthosphere | Die Goldene Landschaft

  6. Pingback: Aesthetics: A Brief Introduction Part Two - Forms of Beauty


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