G. W. F. Hegel makes some very contradictory statements in his Lectures on Aesthetics, some true and some erroneous. Andrew Sola, writing for The Literary Encyclopedia, 2004, records that Hegel places art at the same level of importance as religion and philosophy and believes it must be studied as “patiently and laboriously as theology and philosophy are studied” (1). Hegel also rejects the two conventional approaches to studying art, empirically and “the study of the beautiful” (2), developing instead his own method, which he calls the dialectic method. He denies the belief that art is deceptive and opines that art is higher than nature, both thoughts in opposition to commonly held beliefs about art. Hegel does not believe that “art has a purpose outside of itself” (7), such as purifying and preparing humanity’s passions for “moral perfection”(7) and providing instructions on attaining said moral perfection; instead claiming that art has no purpose outside of itself. He finds meaning in art as a mediator between the inner and outer lives of the artists and their audiences. Hegel, recognizing the three stages of art – Symbolic, Classical, and Romantic – and implies that the latter are ‘higher’ than those that came before. He also places art into a hierarchy based on form. However, while Hegel makes some very good points, he is mistaken in these final regards. Art, as a mediator between the inner and outer realities of life, has no hierarchy.
There is no escaping the fact that art is a mediator, a crucial concept to Hegel’s dialectic approach to studying art. He first recognizes “the classical philosophical opposition between the inner and the outer” (Sola 4), believing that art brings reconciliation to them. He then defends this stance against the commonly held belief that art is less ‘real’ than the outer reality it represents, by writing, “Genuine reality is only to be found beyond the immediacy of feeling and of external objects” (qtd. in Sola 4). Hegel believes, quite rightly, that even when nature (an ‘outer’ reality) is the subject of art, it must first pass through the artist’s mind (the ‘inner’ reality) in order to strip away the “arbitrary, chaotic, and contingent details” and “gain its universal or spiritual qualities,” (5) thus qualifying it as ‘art.’ When art, which “relies on the representation of natural forms of transitory emotions and of sensual stimulations,” (4) passes through the mind of the artist, it acts as a mediator, bridging the gap between the inner and the outer.
Unfortunately, it is on the subject of hierarchy in art that Hegel becomes entangled in his own arguments. Hegel mistakenly assumes that art has a hierarchy. He places architecture and sculpture at the bottom, because they are bound by ‘matter’ as the other arts are not. Following architecture and sculpture, he places painting and music, as they are not bound by the physical – if it can be imagined it can be put to paint brush and canvas or set to music. At the top, or “apex,” Hegel places poetry, stating, “Poetry is the universal art of mind which has become free of its own nature, and which is not tied to find its realization in external sensuous matter” (qtd. in Sola 10). However, if art’s purpose is to bridge the gap between the inner and outer realities of life, as Hegel argues, than any form of art which does so serves its purpose, whether it be a soaring, epic poem which causes the reader to ponder the mystery of god, or the lofty architecture of a cathedral which draws the viewer’s eye upward into contemplation of god’s greatness. Poetry requires not only simple literacy but also literacy in poetry in order to communicate to the audience (Hegel considers it crucial that art be made available to others (Sola 6)) while other forms of art do not require the same level of literacy. Art, in its many forms, has no hierarchy for any form can communicate the artist’s reconciliation of the inner and outer.
Hegel again comes into conflict with himself in regard to the three stages of art: Symbolic, corresponding to pantheistic religions and subjective thought, Classical, corresponding to Greek polytheism and objective thought, and Romantic, corresponding to Christian monotheism and dialectic thought (Sola 7). He wrongly implies that each is higher than that which came before. Sola records, referring to art of the symbolic stage which grants natural objects symbolic meaning, that Hegel considers Eastern art to be “still ‘primitive’ in this respect” (7) calling it “bizarre, grotesque and tasteless” (qtd. in Sola 8). In saying such, he contradicts his own belief that “the world always is as it ought to be in any given moment” (7) and that art’s purpose is to reveal the truth of the moment. As previously mentioned, Hegel believes that genuine reality is found through art. In pejoratively labeling Eastern art as “tasteless,” “grotesque,” and “bizarre,” he implies that this is not happening. The Eastern artist views her natural world, which according to Hegel “always is as it ought to be,” passes it through her mind, and produces art (bridging the gap between the inner and outer), which fulfills its function – the “representation and revelation” of said reconciliation (qtd. in Sola 7). Since art has no other purpose, so long as it is representing and revealing the struggle and bridging of the inner and outer realities, no one can place one stage above another as Hegel does.
Hegel presents numerous ideas and thoughts in his lecture on aesthetics. He correctly recognizes the antithesis between the physical outer world and the universal or spiritual inner world. He correctly sees that art is not meant to have a purpose beyond revealing the artist’s interpretation of the world. However, he incorrectly places art into an unnatural hierarchy, working against his own arguments. There is much we can learn from Hegel about art and the meaning it brings to our world but we must remain aware of his erroneously decided hierarchy.
Sola, Andrews. “Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 2004 ed.