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.

One Response to “Hegel’s Philosophy of Art as Historically Functioning”

  1. Clyde McGeary March 1, 2015 at 6:09 am #

    You should include a few good examples of what you know about Hegle’s theory. For example, aspects of aesthetic quality in in various dynasties of China.

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