Some thoughts on the end of art

December 2016

Ideas on the end or death of art have been a topic of debate among philosophers for over a hundred years. You can blame the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel for that, or at the very least you can blame his students.

Reach out, touch faith, Gdańsk (2016)

Hegel is frequently cited as having developed one of the most significant aesthetic theories since Aristotle. In his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics – transcribed it should be noted by his students not written by Hegel himself and published posthumously –  it is suggested the art has peaked, its moment past, no longer able to convey the truths of human existence through sensory experience alone. From Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, Volume 1, published circa 1835:

 “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. What is now aroused in us by works of art is not just immediate enjoyment but our judgement also, since we subject to our intellectual consideration (i) the content of art, and (ii) the work of art’s means of presentation, and the appropriateness or inappropriateness of both to one another. The philosophy of art is therefore a greater need in our day than it was in days when art by itself as art yielded full satisfaction. Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is.” — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, circa 1823

The problem with Hegel’s arguments that art in its highest vocation is a thing of the past is not so much that his claims are untrue but rather that they hold true for a specific moment in history, for an understanding of art which has since ceased to exist. That is because art is not ahistorical. Not only has art’s place and role in society changed dramatically through space and time, the very nature and definition of art is in a constant state of flux. Since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, divides between the arts and sciences have been cemented with the need for increased specialisation of labour and also with subsequent backlash against the elite and bourgeois nature of art. That Hegel’s call for the need for philosophical discussion on what art is may indeed hold true for certain less figurative realms of visual art in particular; though Hegel wrote before abstract art and conceptual art, before the time when art itself pushed forward philosophical thought.

Admittedly, my own readings of Hegel are entirely cursory, and my interpretations may lack a certain finesse and may certainly benefit from further reading. Still, I remain instinctively skeptical.  Whether or not Hegel actually believed in the death of art is highly questionable, and such claims have likely been somewhat overestimated. Given that art is not something static, Hegel’s arguments today are tenuous, and should be read with their historicity in mind rather than applied without careful consideration for their points of origin.

I find more solace in Hegel’s ideas of art as spirit and would argue that the spirit of art persists today, should you know where to look for it and permitting you are able to let yourself go into the uncomfortable and emotional experience of art. I remember a trip to London in 2011 and my first visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum. I remember a pot of tea and a scone with clotted cream and jam and I remember weeping so unexpectedly as I sat before John Constable’s landscape paintings. This experience supports Hegel’s claims on the nature of art for it is precisely this type of figurative art which requires little interpretation but rather sensuous experience, a viewing which truly rouses the spirit. But I was equally moved in spirit by the concurrent exhibition on Postmodernism: Style & Subversion 1970–1990 which showed everything from photography and architectural drawings to clips from Bladerunner, music videos by the Talking Heads, and Laurie Anderson’s O Superman hauntingly looped on repeat before an assemblage of empty chairs. The suspended grace and contours of Chihuly’s glass chandelier in the rotunda of the museum was equally rousing. And I can offer many other examples of my own emotional experience of art, even those which I encounter habitually in my everyday navigations of the city.

Art after Hegel, Gdańsk (2016)

Art is not just expression, but meaning. There is expression and meaning in every piece of art, even in the most seemingly trivial of expressions. These expressions and meanings change with time. What art is is completely nebulous then, for these expressions and meanings change through history. Art evolves, just as thought does. Rather than argue about the end of art, if anything, Hegel wrote of the death of a certain era of art; one in which beauty, mimesis, the divine, and authorship figured more prominently and one in which philosophy was not present. Eras of art, it should be noted, in which the artist was male and women figured predominantly as object. Art is not just object just as woman is not just object; art is also impulse and process. There have been many considerable philosophical contributions of art movements that have arisen since Hegel. And perhaps one of the most significant contributions is that art itself can further philosophical thought.

Hegel wrote in a time before the revolutions of modern art. He died before German expressionism, before Otto Dix’s prints depicting the travesties of war, before Picasso’s Guernica, before so many great classics of literature, before the golden age of cinema, before the poetry of the Beat Generation, before all the powerful works that questioned the wars and injustices of the twentieth century.

References to Egypt and other writings on the wall, Gdańsk (2016)

Aesthetic philosopher Arthur C. Danto uses the art movements of Dada and Pop Art to underscore the important philosophical contributions of art since Hegel. In his 2013 book What Art Is, he uses the specific examples of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box. The idea that anything can be art exemplified through the readymades of Duchamp presented philosophers with many questions: “What are the boundaries of art? What distinguishes art from anything else, if anything can be art?” And as Danto continues: “ that something could be art but not beautiful is one of the great philosophical contributions of the twentieth century” (Danto 2013, 2628). Danto wrote in his initial reconceptualisations in the 1980s and 1990s of Hegel’s end of art that it is only when art and reality are indistinguishable that the end of art has arrived. Yet even Danto softens slightly on his original stance, revisiting his initial claims on the end of art in his 2013 book; that even Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box in their imitation of the everyday, even if aesthetically indistinguishable from reality, nevertheless exist as distinct pieces of art. There are no doubt countless other examples in which art has made contributions which Hegel could never have anticipated. From my own work, graffiti and street arguably take philosophies of Dada and Pop Art further, adding aspects of site-specificity and geography which contribute to the very essence and meaning of works while simultaneously questioning the bourgeoisie of art like the Dada movement and commercialisation of art as with the Pop Art movement.

The colour of collaboration, Gdańsk (2016)
The colour of red, Gdańsk (2016)
The colour of Tarkovsky, Gdańsk (2016)

I sketched a simple little bird this morning, full of life and meaning, when I was thinking about this debate. I cannot help that this is the way that I think through ideas and how I am best able to communicate and express myself, mediated through art and the visual. I communicate in photography and illustrations, in quick little sketches, and even something as seemingly pedantic as a website contains for me an artistic expression tinged with dissolute traces of Hegel’s spirit. I find blanket assertions that art is dead not only provoking but angering. Indeed, I am not the only one for Hegel’s views on the dissolution of art have been contested and reconfigured by generations of philosophers since, from Adorno to Heidegger to Danto. While the notion of art as component of spirit is comforting, I have to disagree with the idea that the moment of art has passed. I contest this assertion as both an artist and as a scholar whose body of work is contingent on the continued importance and relevance of art in conveying truths, not just beauty, and in innovating thought, and in rousing spirit.

That spirit can still be felt in the experience of art is testament to its continued life. Art cannot end when the creative impulse of the artist continues to exist.

Reflecting on the nature of art, Gdańsk (2016)

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