The Birth of the Subject as the Death of Art

It is virtually unquestioned that the essence of art lies in the expression of the self. To give a dangerously vague definition of this doctrine: Art is the taking of something inner by way of some medium and rendering it external. It’d be fair to say that this is a watered-down and popular version of expressionism, which is a doctrine that ‘stresses the artist’s emotional attitude toward himself and the world,’ (H.W. Janson, History of Art, p. 666). This doctrine may have its origin in Kant, for whom aesthetic judgement of taste cannot be subsumed under any universal law or generalization, which seems to kick off the ‘turn to the subject’ in aesthetics – that is, post-Kant, aesthetics is primarily concerned with the inner state of the subject. This isn’t too far from romanticism – indeed, expressionism and romanticism are in some cases so similar it can be difficult to distinguish them:

It will be intially difficult to state clearly the difference between Expressionism as a theory of art and Romanticism as a theory of art. Instead of stipulating a difference that might seem arbitrary, we will simply explore the Theory of Expressionism as a more recent version of the essential element of Romanticism: expression of vital emotion. (David Fenner, Introducing Aesthetics, p. 52)

For our purposes here, the term ‘subjective’ will cover this essential element of the expression of inner emotions in a subject. It was just this term that Hegel spent most of his lectures on aesthetics arguing against, for the stark reason that this turn towards the subjective led to the death and end of art for the modern world.

Hegel’s theory of art is a profoundly historicist theory. Works of art are the sensible appearing of the Idea in world history: in this sense art is ‘objective’. While limited to the sensuous, art is able to grasp, if only in a limited sense, the absolute. This is, indeed, its very vocation, and it is just this vocation that Hegel sees the world as outgrowing, or transcending. Put another way, mankind has moved past the stage where we can relate to art as our ancestors did. This, in a nutshell, is the core of Hegel’s theory of the death of art: it is not an empirical theory about any given work of art but a theory of man’s relation to art, which, for Hegel, is primarily a spiritual relation. Hegel saw in classical Greek culture the height and perfection of art, not in the sense of perfected technique but rather because of the Greeks religion:

For Hegel, art essentially revolves around the ideal of beauty, which consists in the perfect unity of form and content, the appearance of the idea in sensual form. Like Winckelmann, Hegel held that this ideal had been perfectly realized in classical Greek art. The Greeks were able to attain this ideal, Hegel explains, chiefly because of their religion. There was no gulf between the ideal and its sensual form in Greek art because Greek religion was fundamentally anthropomorphic (XIII, 102, 111/72,79). Since the Greeks conceived of divinity in human form, they could express the divine perfectly through the human body. (Frederick Beiser, Hegel, p. 302)

It is clear that, on this account, art is far from expressing the inner state of the subject. In its perfected form, art perfectly manifests the Idea, as much it can be expressed through a sensuous medium. This is the height of art, and all art since classical Greek art is a slow descent. There is a hint here as to why Hegel argued so strongly against the Romantics: for Hegel, classicism was the height of art, whereas Romanticism is a thoroughly anti-classical idea. Also implicit in Hegel’s account of the Greeks is the idea that art has a thoroughly religious vocation. It is crucial to note here that what allows the Greek artist to not fall into the trap of the subjective is what I’ll call the sociality of art: whereas the Romantic artist is an individual who seeks to critique and overthrow the historical trappings of his culture (thus alienating him from his culture), the Greek artist is thoroughly  un-alienated:

When we examine Hegel’s argument more closely, however, it becomes clear that the problem with modern culture is not its rationalism as such, but the effect such rationalism has had on the artist. Since rationalism demands that the individual always think critically and independently, it alienates him or her from the community. Rather than identifying with its customs, laws and religion,the modern individual constantly questions them, accepting and rejecting them strictly according to whether they satisfy the demands of his or her own conscience and reason. The happy harmony between the individual and society, which was the pre-condition for art in the classical age, has been destroyed in modern society. Since the Greek artist was not alienated from the religion and culture of his people, he became their spokesman, indeed their priest (XIV, 25–6, 232/437, 603). While the content of classical art was given to the artist by the culture and religion of his people, the modern artist must create his or her content, so that it has only an individual significance. (p. 305)

We can see here a broad pattern for the death of art: if art is an objective vocation concerned with the manifestation of the Idea in history, then for art to take a subjective turn is for art to be unable to fulfill this vocation. Interestingly, the Romantic artist for Hegel is also an arch-rationalist, and as the quote above shows, rationalism is arch-villain in Hegel’s aesthetics. It is just this rationalism that contributes to man’s outgrowing of art. It should be noted, however, that the subjective doesn’t disappear entirely from art in Hegel (just as the individual doesn’t disappear entirely). The artist is  subject, albeit one constrained by a vocation external to him. Danto notes that this vocation is, again, a decidedly religious one:

Art becomes a matter of Absolute Spirit when, whatever other roles it may play, it offers, like religion and philosophy, “one way of bringing to our minds and expressing the Divine, the deepest interests of mankind and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit.” (Hegel’s End of Art Thesis)

And it is just this vocation that is rendered impossible by the rationalism of the modern world, exemplified by the modern artist – to paraphrase Hegel, who worships the gods of the greeks anymore? The rational and critical spirit of the modern world renders null and void the vocation of art as expressing the divine, and no attempt to return to an era like the Greeks would be possible:

The spirit of our world today, or more particularly, of our religion and the development of our reason, appears as beyond the stage at which art is the supreme mode of our knowledge of the Absolute. The peculiar nature of artistic production and of works of art no longer fills our highest need. We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine and worshiping them, The impression they make is of a more reflective kind, and what they arouse in us needs a higher touchstone and a different test. Thought and reflection have spread their wings above fine arts. (Hegel, Aesthetics, p. 10)

Mankind has, in other words, outgrown art, as it were. For Hegel this is a necessary death though one still worthy of lament. In the drama of self-knowledge, the perfection of art is just one act:

He saw Art as, so to speak,a staging area in the epic of self-knowledge. Having served that transitional but momentous service, art may now lapse back into the entertainment and ornamentation so important in the enhancement of human life. (Danto, Hegel’s End of Arth Thesis, p. 5)

It is, then, the birth of the subject and the expression of the subjective that heralds the death of art as the objective. The rationalism of the modern world renders art dead. To be sure, works of art (and even great works of art) will continue to be produced, and Hegel holds out hope that perhaps in some future era there will be a renaissance of the fine arts. But mankind has grown up since the Greeks – who believe in the gods of the Greeks? – and in doing so has brought an end to art as a revealer of the divine to the mind.



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