A new book by Robert Pippin, a specialist in European philosophy at the University of Chicago, makes a strong case for the continued relevance of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel on questions concerning the philosophical significance of artistic modernism.
It is perhaps one of the ironies of intellectual history that Hegel (1770-1831), one of the 19th century's greatest philosophers, would pronounce art at an end just before things got really interesting. Hegel delivered his monumental Lectures on Aesthetics for the last time in Berlin in 1828-29, a little over 30 years before what many identify as the start of modern painting. "Considered in its highest vocation," Hegel said, "[art] is and remains for us a thing of the past."
Hegel certainly did not think that the production of artworks would come to a halt. Rather, he held that having been eclipsed by religion and philosophy in turn, art had ceased to be the major way in which European societies come to understand themselves. The irony of this position is redoubled by the fact that Hegel did so much to transform philosophy from unhistorical speculation into a discourse for examining the historical uniqueness of the present. How could Hegel have failed to pick up on what was building all around him, namely the challenges to the old idea of art that would eventually culminate in what has come to be known as modernism? Should one conclude from art's subsequent developments that Hegel's aesthetics are irremediably flawed? Or is there something worth preserving in this massive edifice?
Pippin's latest book, After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (University of Chicago Press, 2014), argues for Hegel's significance for conversations regarding the theoretical foundations of art. It does this by showing that a sympathetic presentation of Hegel's thought is capable of accounting for the directions taken by painting after Hegel's death, in particular some of the most famous canvases by Manet and Cézanne, and by placing Hegel in dialogue with contemporary art historians T. J. Clark and Michael Fried on how to understand these canvases.
A large portion of Pippin's work is devoted to preserving the complicated but worthwhile hermeneutics that Hegel produced, while toning down some of the philosopher's more sweeping historical claims. And while many of these discussions will be of interest primarily to specialists in philosophy, these arguments allow Pippin to outline an interpretive model that may be fruitful for art historians, critics and curators. Opposing the formalist tendencies at work in art history and contemporary criticism, Pippin favors a more expansive idea of meaning, one open to considerations regarding how works of art express a given period's sharable, public, and historically conditioned norms and values, including those from outside of the domain of art.
With respect to the famous claim about the end of art, Pippin argues that it is "overstated." He would prefer to understand Hegel as anticipating what, for Pippin, seems definitive about modernism, namely that the "crisis" of value that occurred in the 19th century means that the purpose, role and direction of art can no longer be taken for granted, but needs instead to be addressed by art itself. As Pippin explains, in Hegel's day, many thinkers placed "enormous historical and civilizational hope on fine art." Hegel's provocative thesis can, in part, be understood as an effort to cool some of these enthusiasms. In this regard, it seems that Hegel's project may be relevant for us today, a period in which many theorists have come to see art as essential to political transformation or at least responsible for correcting the faulty representations that we construct of ourselves and others. This reconstruction of Hegel's thought may thus prompt a conversation about what we can rightly expect from art.