Archive | March, 2015

Danto’s “Transfiguration of the Commonplace”; A Generously Cosmopolitan Theory of Art

23 Mar

Arthur Danto’s Transfiguration of the Commonplace

    Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. It is simply a urinal, with “R. Mutt” written on the side. Is it an artwork? Kant would have us answer this question by deciding whether we can engage in the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties as we look at it. Let us say that we do. In that case, Kant would say it must be art and it must be beautiful. But let us consider all the other urinals built, which all look identical to Fountain. Since we are basing our determination of this object as art based on our Kantian visual analysis of it, it follows that all of these urinals would have to be considered artworks as well. And yet, that sounds ridiculous, because we would never say that the public urinal at the rest stop is art. What is Kant’s theory missing?

    In the first four chapters of Arthur Danto’s book Transfigurations of the Commonplace, Danto pushes against theories of art which use aesthetic or expressive properties to identify works of art, arguing that these properties are not enough to distinguish between mere real things and works of art, especially in the cases where a mere real thing and an artwork are visually so similar that it is impossible to tell which object is which simply by observation. To illustrate this, Danto gives us an example of several objects which all look identical, and yet are not all works of art. The first is a painting of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, and it is a simply a red square on canvas. Then there is a painting adjacent to it called “Kierkegaard’s Mood,” which consists of a set of red rectangles placed next to each other. Then next to this painting is a landscape painting called “Red Square,” which resembles the other two paintings exactly. Several other works by other names and by other artists are placed next to these works, such as Matisse’s “Red Table Cloth” and a metaphysical painting titled “Nirvana.” There is also the unfinished Giorgione canvas which would have been titled “Conversazione Sacra,” and it is merely a canvas primed with red paint.

All of these objects are materially identical. Yet they all have profoundly different expressive contents, and not all of them are even artworks. This example shows how expressive or aesthetic properties alone cannot define something as an artwork. Contrary to Kant’s aesthetic theory which implores us to look at an object without outside information to determine its beauty and status as art, Danto shows us through this example that it is absolutely necessary to consider an object’s context, and not only the properties conveyed through its materials, to determine not only its meaning but also whether it is art.

For Danto, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes defied traditional definitions of art because they depend on criteria which the Brillo Boxes render ineffective. In fact, Danto goes so far as to say that with the Brillo Boxes, “the possibilities” for exclusive definitions of art “are effectively closed and that the history of art has come, in a way, to an end. It has not stopped but ended, in the sense that it has passed over into a kind of consciousness of itself and become, again in a way, its own philosophy: a state of affairs predicted in Hegel’s philosophy of history.” The problem that Brillo Boxes raises lies in the fact that Warhol’s creation looked identical to the commercial Brillo pad container, and yet Warhol’s was a work of art worth a substantial amount of money while the product can be bought in stores for mere dollars. Since each object looks exactly the same, it would only make sense that we would view both as having expressive and/or aesthetic properties. But these theories cannot account for the fact that we do not in fact view both objects as artwork but instead only one of them, and why that is.

Danto believes that the answer to this question is in part historical. “Not everything is possible at every time…meaning that certain artworks simply could not be inserted as artworks into certain periods of art history.” Objects which would have been considered artworks in one historical period could not be artworks in another historical period. Danto demonstrates this by using Robert Morris’s piles of hemp to show how such a work would be received in different times. While Morris can now exhibit this as an artwork, he would have been unsuccessful in doing so in seventeenth-century Antwerp, for instance, because “the concept of art had not then evolved in such a way as to be able to accommodate it as an instance.” In other words, we were not ready to receive Morris’s hemp piles as art until the time that he made them. This idea shares more with Hegel’s emphasis on history than with Kant’s timeless theory of beauty, because it emphasizes that art means certain things at certain times, and it would be impossible for art to have the same effect on people whether they lived in thirteenth-century China or twentieth-century America. Danto also uses an interesting example from language to highlight the importance of context in defining something as art. “You cannot identify something as witty, by any necessary attributes of it, for the same line in one context can be witty there but not in another,” he reminds us. Similarly, without the context of the red square paintings used in Danto’s earlier example, we would not know whether to treat it as Matisse’s work of art or as Giorgione’s primed canvas.

The other important part to answering this question is recognizing that there is a subject matter, a content, to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, while for the identical brillo containers we could buy in a store there is not subject matter or content. This explains why Warhol can take artistic credit for the Brillo Boxes while whoever originally designed brillo containers cannot. Warhol used the Brillo Boxes to say something, to make a mundane object have “aboutness”. He uses these boxes to question our established notions of where you find art. This is what separates the visually identical brillo containers from the Brillo Boxes, a distinction that would have been lost in Kant’s theory.

    The idea of aboutness being helpful in identification of artworks does not by itself explain why some things that also have aboutness or semantic meaning, i.e. are representations, are not artworks as well. What makes some representations artworks and others not is whether they are interpreted as artworks. Danto explains this by likening the identification of an object as an artwork to a transformation of the object into art via interpretation. “In art, every new interpretation is a Copernican revolution, in the sense that each interpretation constitutes a new work, even if the object differently interpreted remains, as the skies, invariant under transformation. An object o is then an artwork only under an interpretation I, where I is a sort of function that transfigures o into a work: I(o) = W.” Even though what we saw did not change when Copernicus changed our understanding of the universe as centered on the Sun rather than the Earth, the way we thought about the universe and interpreted it was forever altered. Similarly, interpretation has the power to change a mere real thing into an artwork in our eyes.

The moment when a representation is given an interpretation is like the moment of linguistic representation being used to interpret objects. As Danto writes, interpretation, which is artistic identification, has as “its linguistic representation…a certain identificatory use of ‘is,’ which I shall merely designate the ‘is’ of artistic identification: as when one says a dab of paint that it is Icarus, or of a smudge of blue paint that it is the sky…It is a usage mastered in the nursery when the child pointing to a picture of a cat says that it is a cat.” When we identify a smudge of paint as sky, we are not literally identifying it as the sky, because it is not the real sky. This demonstrates the gap between both art and reality and language and reality. “Art differs from reality in much the same way that language does when language is employed descriptively…[art’s] ontology is of a piece with that of language, and…the contrast exists between reality and it which exists between reality and discourse.” Both art and language represent real things the world without being the real things themselves, and thus it is necessary for artistic and linguistic representations to have interpretations so that we can understand and identify them as art and language.

Continuing his theory of art as against the traditional use of aesthetic properties, Danto begins his argument as to why aesthetic properties cannot be used to define a representation as art by using the art theory of George Dickie. Dickie’s institutional theory of art, which states that a work of art is a “candidate for appreciation” if it is given that status by the artworld, which Dickie defines as, according to Danto, “an institutionally enfranchised group of persons who serve, so to speak, as trustees for the generalized musée imaginaire.” What this leads to according to Ted Cohen whom Danto also cites, “is that there are certain objects which cannot be appreciated, [and] the citizenry of the artworld is bounded by the constraints of appreciability and cannot by fiat declare just anything a work of art.” Cohen gives specific examples of objects that could not be appreciated aesthetically, and thus cannot be works of art. These include “ordinary thumbtacks, cheap white envelopes, the plastic forks given at some drive-in restaurants, [and] urinals.”

What Danto objects to in this view of art is that it is unclear “whether the claim is that these cannot be appreciated or simply cannot be appreciated favorably.” And if it is the case that the only things that are art are those which can be favorably appreciated, then Danto believes this theory unjustly leaves out the legitimate possibility for negative appreciation of works of art. “We are repelled, disgusted, even sickened by certain works of art. To restrict to the favorable cases the application of the epithet ‘work of art’ would be parallel to regarding moral considerations as arising only with persons and actions which had some ‘minimal potential value or worthiness.’” For Danto, whether a work is disgusting or not, it should be able to be aesthetically appreciated in some way. And even if it cannot be aesthetically appreciated, it should still be able to be a work of art. “Even granting that the thumbtack itself was beneath appreciation, it would not follow that an artwork materially like a mere thumbtack could not be appreciated; and that to which we might respond appreciatively would be the properties of the artwork without necessarily being the properties of the thumbtack.” Furthermore, to focus on appreciation of the aesthetic properties of an artwork could be, especially in some cases, to miss what is most important about the work altogether. While Dickie says we can appreciate Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain for its ordinary qualities which are also found in a normal urinal, and thus he defends his way of identifying art through aesthetic properties. But as Danto points out, this completely misses what is actual vital to understanding, let alone appreciating, Duchamp’s Fountain. Indeed, “If what made Fountain an artwork were only the qualities it shared with urinals, the question would arise as to what makes it an artwork and not those…[Dickie] has emphasized how something gets to be a work of art, which may be institutional, and neglected in favor of aesthetic considerations the question of what qualities constitute an artwork once something is one.”

Danto then offers his own view on why aesthetic properties are inadequate to identify works of art. While an artwork may have aesthetic qualities, one would have to know that the object is an artwork first, because real things versus artworks require different responses. “We may cry at a representation of a mother’s despair at the death of a child, but he would be hardhearted who just wept at the correspondent reality; the thing is to comfort and console.” Since we can respond aesthetically to both artworks and mere real things, we cannot depend on aesthetic properties to determine what objects are art and which are not.

Danto’s theory, which encompasses more artworks in a way that many theories of art do not, is useful in that it solves puzzling cases in the history of art, for example why some modern and contemporary artworks are in museums despite their close resemblance to a painted wall found in most homes or a toddler’s finger painting project. Yet while his theory can explain and perhaps comfort those who may be frustrated by how such simplistic works can be worth millions of dollars and be considered artistic achievements, it leaves one wondering whether such works actually deserve to be artworks. Against Dickie, Danto had defended works which may repulse us as still being worthy to be considered artworks. Yet is it fair to consider works as art those which are only about shocking us, and have no actual meaning or message behind them? While Danto’s theory requires us to still call such works art, we are still allowed to consider them terrible artworks. But depending on one’s reverence for the category of art, it may not sit right to let that category be so inclusive and allow the risk of it losing its respectability.

Works Cited

Danto, Arthur C. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano PMA Exhibition Review

13 Mar

Kano Hogai. Two Dragons, 1885. Ink on paper. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Two Dragons, shown above, is one of the numerous beautiful works on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for their spring exhibition, “Ink and Gold: The Art of the Kano,” on display from February 16th- May 10th. They also showed another Asian art exhibition last year around the same time, on the art of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, and thus this similarity naturally invites comparison between the two. Personally, I found the Korean exhibition from last year to be more satisfying and enriching than the Kano school exhibition, although I did find faults with it which I discussed in my review of the exhibition that I wrote for my UPenn class on Museum Studies last year.

The main reason I felt unsatisfied with the exhibit is a reason that also gives credit to its curators for choosing such beautiful, fascinating artworks: I wanted to know more about them. While the exhibit had many more themes that PMA exhibits usually do, which meant there were more general wall texts in each room of the exhibit than is typical, none of the artworks themselves had any accompanying text to tell us more about them. So I was left knowing generalized facts about the works in a given room, while left wondering the story behind each specific artwork. My guess as to why they did this for this exhibition, which is pretty unusual, is that since all of the works are on paper and so they will have to rotate the works that are on view in the exhibition three times during its on view dates, it would be a lot of work to come up with new captions for all four rotations, because that would be four times the amount of captions they would normally write for one exhibition. So practically it makes more sense to just use more wall texts that can apply to many artworks rather than using more individualized texts. Still, as a visitor who likes to stop and read almost everything in an exhibition, I was disappointed to not be able to learn more about individual artworks.

But like I said, my desire for more attests to the fact that the exhibition does contain visually interesting artworks that would whet my appetite for more. The exhibit did an excellent of job of showing how the art of the Kano school changed throughout its long history as it adapted with changing cultures and changing hands of power within Japan. It was clear to see the distinct contributions that different Kano artists made during their life, such as how second-generation artist Kano Motonobu brought more color and gold leaf to the school’s repertoire. This contribution was preceded by the founder of the school, Kano Masanobu, whose delicate, precise line-work is at its finest in works such as the four hanging scrolls titled “Queen Mother of the West and Dong Fang Shuo” and the hanging scroll “Hermit Viewing Waterfall, both made in the fifteenth century. Again, here I would have liked to know more about the reasons Masanobu created these works, or perhaps an analysis of the symbolism used in nature motifs in these works.

The exhibition continues with more themes involving notable Kano masters such as Kano Tan’yu, favored subjects in Kano school painting, Kano school patrons, the practices of the Kano school including copying ancient masterworks, and the revival of the Kano school in the 19th century as well as the affect of Western influences in near-modern times. An especially interesting fact was discovered in the room which had as one of its themes “Mount Fuji.” This famous Japanese landmark, according to the exhibition, was painted by Kano master and child prodigy Kano Tan’yu over twenty-five times, and he pioneered the drawing of a subject (in this case Mount Fuji) from real-life observation instead of from an idealized, pre-made or pre-conceived image. Drawing from observation was of course an important part of both the realist movement and the impressionist movement in the West, so it was very interesting for me to see the same technique appearing in Japanese art.

Something that I was thinking about throughout the exhibition made me curious about the study and exhibition of Japanese art. All of the works in the exhibition, which were all on paper and were either painted on screens, on scrolls, or on fans, were functional in some way. Unlike paintings in the West, which were made with the spirit of “art for art’s sake” at the advent of modernism, all of these works, when they were originally made, served a decorative function. They decorated rooms in some way. Screens served to create two rooms out of one by acting as a divider. Yet when we discuss these works, we basically discuss them the same way that we discuss Western paintings. While there is a clear distinction between decorative art and “fine” art in Western culture (hence the reason there is a decorative arts wing in most museums which is separate from paintings) there is no such distinction in non-Western art. I think it would be interesting to think about these works as decorative, and I feel like we would get a better understanding of them if we think about how they were used and perceived in the historical period and culture in which we were made. By assimilating them to Western culture by treating them the exact same way we treat Western painting, I feel as if I lose the chance to have a fuller, more accurate understanding of them as distinctly Japanese art forms.

Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus”, and Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”

5 Mar



Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus.” 1920. India ink, colored chalk, and brown wash on paper. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

I never thought that I would get the chance to write a paper for my Postmodern Religious Thought seminar that combined my studies in Art History, Philosophy, and Religion, but I was excited and fortunate to be able to do just that with my reading of Walter Benjamin’s essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In this essay, Benjamin discussing Paul Klee’s surrealist mixed media drawing titled “Angelus Novus,” which was the inspiration for Benjamin’s concept of the Angel of History that he uses to expound on his idea of historical materialism. The Wim Wenders 1987 film titled “Wings of Desire,” which is about angels walking amongst people in Berlin just before the Berlin Wall was demolished, also had parallels to Benjamin’s Angel of History. We watched a short clip of this film the first week of class, and when I read this part of Benjamin I immediately thought of it. So I decided to incorporate the film into my essay as well. While I do not necessarily agree with Benjamin’s ideas, I really enjoyed exploring how they could be interpreted and expressed in various artistic media. This is my favorite way to think about art.

The Wings of Desire of the New Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s Vision of History

Before Benjamin, There Was Hegel

Before the monstrous tragedies that occurred during World War II in the twentieth century, philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel were able to see history as generally progressive, with humanity and its institutions always improving as they moved forward in time. Hegel fully developed this view, known as historicism, into a comprehensive theory that showed how art, religion and philosophy helped human cultures in specific historical epochs progressively discover deeper understandings of human self-consciousness, a stronger connection to the Absolute (what Hegel calls the divine “Spirit”), and more effective notions of freedom. In Hegel’s sense, this freedom does not refer to an existence without constraint or with individual autonomy, but instead a sense of feeling at home in one’s relationships with others, and feeling peaceful and comfortable in the choices we make as to who we consider our family, the institutions we build, and the way we live as citizens of a state.

Art, religion, and philosophy are what Hegel defines as the three forms of the absolute Spirit, in that they are the fundamental forms which reveal and reflect to us our self-consciousness, our Spirit, our freedom. At certain points in history, one of these forms dominated the others as the most accurate form to depict that historical era’s Spirit. First, art was the dominant form of Spirit for the Ancient Greeks. Then religion, specifically Christianity for Hegel, replaced Art in its creation during the Ancient Roman era as the dominant form. In the modern era, which for Hegel began during the Renaissance and has continued to Hegel’s day in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and beyond), philosophy has been the form that has best captured our society’s freedom and spirit. For Hegel, our modern institutions of the nuclear family, the free-market economy, and the parliamentary democracy are the conditions which will best guarantee our freedom (as Hegel defines it) in the modern world. With modern philosophy at the wheel, we have tapped into our Spirit and self-consciousness as a culture. History has been a steady marathon and we have finally reached the finish line in the modern era.

Hegel’s Historicism versus Benjamin’s Historical Materialism

Hegel did not live to see World War II, and so perhaps his notion that we have reached the epitome of human progress would have changed. But for those who did live to see World War II, such as Walter Benjamin, the shock that was the project of Nazism and its resulting mass genocide profoundly shattered in their minds this historicist view of human history and any questions of progress. For Benjamin, whose writings in his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” stem from Marxist theory, history was not a story of progress, but a harrowing accumulation of destruction. Even when humanity made small bursts of progress through legislation or reform, these victories were only superficial, and did not address the inherent evils in our systems and nature. This view, which Benjamin refers to in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” as historical materialism, requires revolutionary change by the hands of individuals. In harsh contrast to historicism, which finds the individual detrimental and sudden revolutions hostile to the communal progress of peoples, historical materialism champions the bold actions of individuals against the faceless institutions of the masses and shuns historicists who empathize with the victors—those powerful elite who, as the adage goes, are the ones who write history. In a passage which would directly address Hegel’s admiring account of art, religion, and philosophy, Benjamin reveals the appropriative nature of such accounts of history:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate…the spoils are carried along in this procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.[1]

While Hegel admires the art of Ancient Greece, especially Greek sculpture, as the epitome of its Spirit, Benjamin sees such objects as products of the toil of anonymous, talented but disenfranchised artisans which are appropriated by powerful people in powerful institutions. While in museums and elsewhere there is only one artist, if any, given credit for an ancient artwork such as a Greek sculpture, there are in fact a workshop’s worth of people who have contributed to that piece and yet can never claim any sort of ownership or reward for their work. And not only are they not given credit, but they are also erased from history, and even the products they are forced to make are completely taken away from them. But historicism wants to gloss over these ugly truths of humanity’s past and present, instead favoring an “eternal image” of the past which obnoxiously glorifies it. Benjamin gives us a vivid image of historicism’s exaltation of the past which historical materialism soberly avoids: “The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism’s bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”[2] Historicism for Benjamin is blind to the destruction of the past and views it instead with rose-tinted glasses, using an “additive” method in which time keeps moving forward and achievements pile on in a tower of progress. Historical materialism, on the other hand, is guided by what Benjamin calls the Angel of History, an angel who sees the past for what it is and looks on in horror.

Benjamin’s Angel of History: Klee’s Angelus Novus

Benjamin was heavily inspired by Paul Klee’s surrealist mixed media drawing Angelus Novus for his concept of the Angel of History (see fig. 1). One of Klee’s thousands of artworks created over his lifetime, he created it in 1920, a breakout year for the artist in which a major retrospective of his artwork was exhibited at the Galerie Hans Goltz in Munich, he was appointed to the faculty of the Bauhaus, a cutting-edge art school founded by Walter Gropius, and he published his book Creative Confession, which detailed his personal artistic theories.[3] If it were not for the public attention that Klee received that year, it is possible Benjamin would have never seen Angelus Novus, which is not considered an important work for Klee outside of its influence on Benjamin. In most scholarship on the work, it is only studied in reference to Benjamin, who was so taken with the work he purchased it in 1921.[4] Benjamin’s famous passage in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” interprets Angelus Novus, which translates as “New Angel,” as a depiction of the Angel of History who laments history’s destructive past:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[5]

This terrifying vision of human history deliberately uses dramatic language to awaken readers to the oppressive nature of human history which historicism has glossed over and covered up with an overriding narrative of progress and increasing knowledge. The angel, occupying an omniscient position where it can see all of history’s “wreckages,” wants to heal and reform the destruction that it sees. Yet the angel is powerless, for the storm of “Paradise,” which Benjamin sarcastically associates with historicism’s notion of progress, forces time forward. This goes against the orientation towards time that Benjamin believes historical materialists have, where “time stands still and has come to a stop” because this “defines the present in which [the historical materialist] is writing history.”[6] Benjamin and the Angel of History want to shout for us to stop the train of progress, to recognize that we have to stand still where we are and reflect on the past’s wreckages. If we do not stop, that storm of progress will continue to propel us forward, and we will not be able to stop these wreckages from accumulating.

Benjamin takes significant liberty to interpret all of this from Klee’s simple but cryptic drawing. But Klee seems to invite interpretations of hidden truths becoming revealed through art. One of the main ideas of Creative Confession is that “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes it visible.”[7] While it is most likely that Klee did not make Angelus Novus with Benjamin or historical materialism in mind, the artwork’s depiction of a “New Angel” subtly works in the spirit of historical materialist ideas. If we look at the artwork without knowing the title, we probably would not identify the sole figure that makes up the drawing as an angel. This is a subversive trait of the image which Klee may or may not have intended. For most of us, our idea of what an angel looks like comes from the Christian tradition, where angels are usually white, golden-haired corpulent infants or muscular and voluptuous adults, clothed in white robes with large white wings and a golden halo. Instead of presenting us with an image as such to force us to conform to the Western Christian idea of an angel, Klee takes the liberty to define for himself what an angel looks like. He uses the idea of an angel of which dominant Western Christian institutions have taken ownership and frees it back to the realm of individual interpretation. He recognizes that we do not have to draw or think of an angel the way that dominant powers have told us we should through the canonization of artistic motifs. As individuals, like Klee has done here, we can create a “New Angel” for ourselves, and thus be the harbingers of cataclysmic change that historical materialism encourages us to be.

“Wings of Desire”: Angels of History Made Manifest

Wim Wenders’ 1987 film “Wings of Desire,” whose original title translates from German as “The Sky Over Berlin,” is fascinating in the ways it manifests Benjamin’s characterization of the Angel of History. Set in Berlin a couple years before the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the mostly black-and-white film tells the story of the angel Damiel, who yearns to be human so he can have the sensuous experiences humans enjoy as they engage with the world through their five senses. Like the angel depicted in Angelus Novus, these angels do not look the way we would normally expect angels to look: they have a human form, but they wear trench coats, are clean shaven, and keep their medium-length hair in short ponytails. In the film, angels walk among the humans, but they cannot touch them, see colors, taste food, or hear music, among other limitations. Like the Angel of History, they also cannot help but see all of the past and hear all of humanity’s thoughts at once. Being omniscient, they cannot be blissfully ignorant or even temporarily forget the tragedies of the past and present, and so they also yearn for the uncertainty and limited knowledge and perspective that humans have. “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds,” says Damiel to his fellow angel, Cassiel. “But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence. I don’t want to always hover above. I’d rather feel a weight within casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth.”[8] Damiel is expressing a desire to no longer be an Angel of History. He would like to give up the power he has to see the entirety of humanity and history and simply be able to live in one community and attend only to the choices of one life. He would like to rid himself of the burden of acute awareness of humanity’s problems, but for now he has the duty of the Angel of History to record the truth of all, rather than just the truth of the victors as historicism does.

While the film mostly follows Damiel as he walks among and admires from afar the lives of humans, Cassiel goes on his own journey. Intermittently he follows an old man who considers himself a storyteller. As the old man browses books in the library and replays memories of death in his mind, he wonders why no one has “sung an epic of peace.” “What is it about peace that its inspiration is not enduring?” he wonders. Then later in the film, this man ponders, “Why doesn’t everyone see from earliest childhood the passes, portals, and crevices down on the earth and up in the sky? If everyone saw them, history would continue without killing and war.”[9] These questions the old man considers echoes Walter Benjamin’s concept of history being “shot through with chips of Messianic time.”[10] The old man’s laments speak to the same desire that the Angels of History have, which is that people would look for times to redeem society, to spur revolutions which will alter the destructive conditions of life enough to allow peace to prosper in its stead. These opportunities are small but abundant, “For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”[11] Yet this is the crucial element of history that is the only way Benjamin believes we can stop wreckages from piling up, the awful sight that the Angel of History is forced to behold while being powerless to stop it.

“Wings of Desire” ends with the same old man reflecting on the desire for peace that he shares with the angels and the historical materialists alike. Cassiel watches the man from afar as he walks towards the Berlin wall, and the man thinks, “Tell me of the men, women, and children who will look for me—me, their storyteller, their bard, their choirmaster—because they need me more than anything in the world. We have embarked.”[12] This storyteller, who recognizes the importance of seizing the moments we have for Messianic time, knows that we need him in order to know the actual truth, rather than the self-serving truth that historicism tries to pass off as universal. If we let ourselves forget the true oppression that occurs, the wreckages that the Angel of History is forced to see and remain powerless to change, those shots that we do have to seize Messianic time for revolution will disappear altogether. This is what the storyteller, the Angels of History, and Benjamin beg us to grasp.


Hegel’s Philosophy of Art as Historically Functioning

1 Mar

This is another paper I wrote for my class on Aesthetics. It focuses on Hegel’s theory of art, which sees it as a historical function. Again, it makes me consider the implications for this on museums. How cool would it be to have an exhibition which uses Hegel’s theory of art as the theme and examines how his theory would cause us to treat different artworks, which would be different from the way we treat them now?

Hegel and His History of Art as Conceptions of Freedom

To be free has looked myriad ways to both philosophers and laypeople alike, yet freedom as a concept is often considered to be one of humanity’s basic desires. One of the fundamental differences between Kant and Hegel is the role that freedom plays in each of their theories of art and of beauty. Both philosophers understood that experiencing art and beauty involved freedom in some way, but they differed in their views as to the source and creation of that freedom. Kant believed that it was humans who provided the freedom in the experience of the beautiful, with the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties being the process that allowed us to truly see what was beautiful and what was not. In Kant’s conception, freedom is experienced within oneself, and it is therefore Kant’s goal for individuals to live autonomously based on individual reasoning. Hegel, on the other hand, believed that it was in fact the art object, the beautiful object, that allowed us to recognize our freedom in a sensuous way. Thus for Hegel, freedom is something we experience through others and in others, because for him freedom is based on how we feel in the world living and relating with other people. Whereas Kant saw humans as the liberators of the beautiful through harmonious cognitive free play, Hegel viewed art itself as the objects that showed us our freedom.

            Other philosophers that we have talked about in the seminar, such as Hume and Kant, identify and elucidate art and beauty in a timeless, unchanging way. For Hume, art will always be able to be identified by a consensus among experts with certain characteristics. For Kant, individuals will always be able to experience the beautiful for themselves through the process of harmonious cognitive free play, and what is determined to be beautiful will be agreed upon by all and remain beautiful. Hegel, on the other hand, recognizes that art and beauty changes as times change. The reason they change for Hegel is that art has a specific historical function in human life based on its status as one of the three forms of the absolute Spirit, forms which are fundamental for reflection upon what people hold highest, or value most, in a particular epoch.

To understand the absolute Spirit and its significance for human life in Hegel’s philosophy, it is important to understand Hegel’s conception of human life. Drawing from Plato, Hegel believes that in the absolute, which is literally everything, there is an absolute Idea, or abstract patterns for everything. While physical, actual forms may change, the absolute Idea which they represent does not change, making it in some ways more real than the physical representation. Hegel believes that the point of this absolute Idea is freedom. Everything, according to Hegel, is ultimately striving for freedom. By freedom, Hegel does not man without limitations or constraint, nor autonomy in the Kantian sense. Instead, Hegel takes a much more social, collective view on freedom, in which freedom represents being with oneself in another, and feeling at home in the world we create for ourselves through the choices we make. Everyone is striving to find the things that will give us our fullest, most realized freedom. For us humans, “the purpose of human life is to both be free in our various social, political, and familial practices and to deepen our consciousness and understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit.”[1]

To find the fullest expressions of human life and freedom, which will differ depending on the historical period since resources available to people change and knowledge changes, we must look, Hegel tells us, to the three forms of the absolute Spirit. Hegel believed in God and the absolute being one and the same, and so these forms of the absolute Spirit were ways to understand ourselves and freedom, which come from God.[2] The three forms of the absolute spirit are philosophy, religion, and art. Each of these forms were best able to capture truth and freedom at different points in history, because, as Eldridge points out, the Spirit develops throughout history just as human life develops.[3] In the modern era, Hegel believes that we no longer need art the way we did in earlier times because it no longer serves its highest vocation. Art for Hegel is limited to a specific conception of truth, a truth that “in virtue of its own specific character be able to go forth into [the sphere of] sense and remain adequate to itself there.”[4] The specific conception to which art was limited flourished during the Classical era of the ancient Greek civilization, for Hegel. Now, Hegel believes it is philosophy which bests grasps our conception of freedom and best understands our truth and our self-consciousness. This does not mean that we do not need art anymore, however. Since art no longer has to fulfill the task which philosophy has now taken over, “it may now explore and reconcile us to quite particular circumstances of life and feeling,” as Eldridge explains.[5] No longer focused on big-picture truth telling, art can now respond to smaller expressions of freedom and self-consciousness.

While philosophy provides the clearest understanding of the truth for us, and religion helps us understand truth through “feeling, faith, and imaginative representations,”[6] art gives us the most sensuous expression of freedom and Spirit. Art manifests in a sensuous way what philosophy and religion can only express through ideas and word, reconciling “between pure thought and what is merely external, sensuous, and transient, between nature and finite reality and the infinite freedom of conceptual thinking.”[7] The reason art reconciles between pure thought and the sensuous is that art is a sensuous expression of humanity and crucial to our deepening understanding of humanity. It is not merely sensuous in that it only appeals to the senses, nor is it pure thought (like philosophy or religion) because it has sensuous form. We need that sensuous expression because it is the only way or the best way in many cultures to reveal the truths that are necessary to understanding humanity. It is in this way that “the work of art brings before us the eternal powers that govern history.”[8] Since everything strives towards a freedom in which we are home in the world we create based on our choices, art is special in that it visually brings to us the eternal powers of humans to create societies and institutions, and form relationships which aid our being in others, the interconnectivity through which we are liberated.

Hegel also believes that art is a crucial third form of absolute Spirit because unlike philosophy or religion it has a visual component, an appearance. This appearance “is essential to essence,” because “truth would not be truth if it did not show itself and appear, if it were not truth for someone and for itself, as well as for the spirit in general too.”[9] We need art because we are sensuous beings, and as sensuous beings we need to see the truth in order to fully grasp the truth of our freedom. Art is also “often the key, and in many nations the sole key, to understanding their philosophy and religion.” What art does that philosophy and religion cannot do by themselves is to express “even the highest reality sensuously, bringing it thereby nearer to the senses to feeling, and to nature’s mode of appearance.”[10] While philosophy and religion contain full expressions of human life and freedom, art is the force that makes them most accessible to us in the world which is experienced and registered through the senses.

Hegel considers art to be a “universal and absolute need” because “man is a thinking consciousness, i.e. that man draws out of himself and puts before himself what he is and whatever else is…inwardly he must bring himself into his own consciousness…man brings himself before himself by practical activity.”[11] This draws attention to the fact that Hegel believes thinking and will occur in the same action and are inseparable. One must not only think, but act on that thinking through willful actions. Art is special as compared to philosophy and religion in this respect because art represent the unity of thinking and will. It is a “practical activity” which brings our freedom and self-consciousness to the fore, an action of thought and the willful manifestation of that thought occurring simultaneously.

This duality of thought and will also speaks to Hegel’s view of art as directed both to individuals and to appearance, rather than being a merely sensuous exercise or some abstract concept. While Plato thought of art in the latter sense, and philosophers such as Hume and Kant saw art as accessed through the senses and meant to provide a kind of sensuous pleasure, Hegel sees art as a sensuous form of the conception of freedom and the Spirit. Since the Spirit is God, and God works in and through us to create free lives on earth which honor God, the Spirit works through us to create art, and so art is a reflection of ourselves, our self-consciousness, and our freedom. Hence it is much more for Hegel than a sensuous pleasure. Yet we need, according to Hegel, to create and see physical conceptions of the Spirit as ourselves and freedom, and so a wholly abstract view of art such as Plato’s would be unsatisfying in a Hegelian world where art’s main aim is to serve the Spirit. Hegel uses a poignant analogy that speaks to this conception, where he describes the boy that throws stones into the river. In this action, the boy “marvels at the circles drawn in the water as an effect in which he gains an intuition of something that is his own doing.”[12] The boy has this impulse to create something for him to enjoy which is “an external realization of himself”[13] It is not enough for him to think about his freedom and his choices; he has the impulse to deliberately create an object that sensuously expresses his self-consciousness, his freedom, and to serve the Spirit.

Since art for Hegel has this specific purpose and derives from the need to reflect our freedom and self-consciousness as a human collective, different criteria would be needed to evaluate art with this conception in mind. When we evaluate fine art, it should not be an individual process in which we determine whether it is beautiful for us. Instead, in Hegel’s view, fine art should be evaluated based on how well it captures the self-consciousness and freedom of the culture in which it was made. “Beautiful art speaks to the mind through the senses by showing the mind its own freedom in a sensuous form.”[14] And as Hegel has told us, that picture of freedom will be distinguished by the historical epoch in which it is located. This goes directly against the more individualistic or formalist interpretations of art, in which historical considerations generally do not have much consequence. In those interpretations, historical details would not matter, because form and taste are universal terms that will judge each work of art on the same basis with the same criteria.

As for the evaluation of genius, which for Kant came from nature and was awakened in those gifted with it through the inspiration of other geniuses, Hegel seems to recognize that to reach “art proper…an inborn, higher talent for art is indispensable.”[15] But he diverges from Kant in that he thinks genius is not as simple as awakening the genius in a gifted person. In addition to this natural talent, the artist must also be spiritual and self-conscious. He must evaluate the needs and Spirit of his era, and respond to these things so as to reflect them in his work. A diligence to his world and to others is thus an additional component that Hegel requires of geniuses.

While originality was important for Kant in determining artistic genius, it would not seem that originality is as important for Hegel, because fine art is not about expressing oneself or one’s genius. Instead it is more socially conscious, and Hegel finds it most important for art to express our freedom and be an image of the Spirit working through us and in the world we create for ourselves.

Since the aim for the genius differs importantly from other theories of art, it follows that the meaning and function of art would differ also for Hegel. He criticizes mimetic theories of art, in which art imitates nature, for being superfluous, since they are merely representations of what we already have in nature. These imitations also are inadequate compared to nature, since they can only give a one-sided, particular depiction, rather than a full picture. Formalist views fall short because they do not pay attention to the historical considerations that Hegel believes changes which forms the truest art should take and what it should depict. Individual expressivist views are incomplete because it remains ultimately subjective. Instead, art must “proceed not from individual genius alone and its subjective psychological needs and powers, but further from the engagement of creative genius with a widely shared and lived conception of freedom,” as Eldridge puts it.[16] Hegel does not like how much choice in subject matter and form is left up to the artistic genius in Kant’s theory of the beautiful, because he believes that artists should pay attention to the inner truths of their culture, and use these to express their culture’s self-consciousness and conception of freedom. “Fine art cannot range in wild unfettered fancy…spiritual interests set firm stopping-places to it for its content.”[17] Art should not be aimless, but is meant to serve spiritual interests. These spiritual interests, for Hegel,

Consist in awakening and vivifying our slumbering feelings, inclinations, and passions of every kind, in filling the heart, in forcing the human being, educated or not, to go through the whole gamut of feelings which the human heart in its inmost and secret recesses can bear, experience, and produce, through what can move and stir the human breast in its depths and manifold possibilities and aspects, and to deliver to feeling and contemplation for its enjoyment whatever the spirit possesses of the essential and lofty in its thinking and in the Idea.[18]

This long but lusciously descriptive sentence of Hegel gives us a good idea of what critics in the Hegelian world should pay attention to as they evaluate works of art. Simply put, Hegel wants us to be able to look at a work of art and, if it is made in our historical epoch, see ourselves in it.

Hegel’s theory tends to leave individuals behind. What is freedom for the group may not be for some individuals, and thus his conception of what art should speak to in each epoch is bound to alienate people who do not understand themselves or their freedom as such. Eldridge points out another fallacy along similar lines, in that Hegel does not account for the fact that “within any culture, conflicts among values remain, and the worth of practices and repertoires remains contested.”[19] In America alone, there are so many demographics and social groups that it would be an impossible task to find a philosophy, religion, or work of art that could express the proper conception of freedom and self-consciousness for everyone.What I suspect might be Hegel’s answer to the problem of excluding certain individuals in his broad-sweeping history is that in the modern era, since art no longer serves its highest vocation and instead serves smaller-scale spiritual interests, it has the opportunity to respond to those who don’t fit within the majority culture. Even so, it seems unfair and inadequate that at some points in history, minorities of any kind seem to be forgotten in Hegel’s framework.


Eldridge, Richard Thomas. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Eldridge, Richard Thomas. “G. W. F. Hegel.” In Aesthetics: The Key Thinkers, edited by Alessandro Giovannelli, 75-85. London: Continuum, 2012.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, T. M. Knox, and Charles Karelis. Hegel’s Introduction to Aesthetics: Being the Introduction to the Berlin Aesthetics Lectures of the 1820s. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

Houlgate, Stephen. Hegel and the Arts. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007.

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