The End of Art Theory

By Rosenstein, Leon | Humanitas, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The End of Art Theory


Rosenstein, Leon, Humanitas


"In aesthetics ... one can argue more and better than in any other subject."

Anatole France (1)

A Mildly Polemical Preface

It needs finally to be said, in paraphrase and in extension of Hegel, that art theory on the side of its highest possibilities is a thing of the past. How did this come about? How did art theory come to its demise?

Things die off in various ways: they wear out, they dissipate into triviality, they self-destruct, they no longer have any raison d'etre. Postmortem analysis of art theory will reveal that at the turn of the millennium it has succumbed to all four of these.

Hegel's premature obituary concerns art, of course, and not art theory. (2) The precise and complete quote reads:

Art no longer affords that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it, and found in it.... Consequently the conditions of our present time are not favorable to art.... In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place. (3)

As to the manner and cause of art's end, Hegel adds: "it is precisely at this its highest stage that art terminates, by transcending itself; it is just here that it deserts the medium of harmonious presentation of mind in sensuous shape and passes from the poetry of imaginative ideas to the prose of thought." (4) In the present age Hegel claims that "the form of art has ceased to be the supreme need of the spirit," (5) because art as a vehicle of the evolution of Spirit is now no longer competent to bear its load, that this task is now the burden and right of pure thought, of philosophy (indeed, of Hegel).

Hegel was wrong about the art of his own "now" (roughly the 1820s when he composed his lectures on art which were posthumously published after his death in 1831). We all know (or well believe) that art--even great art, on the side of its highest possibilities--was being produced then and has been produced since. But perhaps it was just his timing that was off. Thus, while his obituary for art may have been premature, that error does not entail that in principle the basic assumption on which it rests, namely that of its possibility, is false. Surely it is possible that at some time art might die.

In fact, I think he may have been right on two counts--(1) that art can demise, on the side of its highest possibilities (after all, other modes of human endeavor have disappeared), and (2) that upon and through its death, art is destined to be transformed or subsumed (aufgehoben) into philosophy. Historically, I would argue further (but not here) that art's time probably came several decades ago. What I do intend to show, however, is that art theory's time has now arrived.

Arthur Danto and his followers and critics have made much of some of the foregoing--that art might be dead and that it has been (to use Danto's term) "philosophically disenfranchised." (6) The implication is that philosophy has overtaken (more properly "taken over") art, in the same fashion as a greater power subsumes a weaker. Danto also, like Hegel, seems to think that the disenfranchisement (if not quite a necessary event) is a good thing--for art and for philosophy.

While I would agree that philosophy has supplanted art, I would view the process in the other direction and reach a different appraisal. It is, rather, that philosophy has been artistically coopted, that art has (perhaps from the ennui of exhaustion, perhaps in a crisis of despair, perhaps as an emetic from constipation) attempted to transform itself into philosophy, which has become the mere handmaiden (or the "evil confidante with bad advice") of art. …

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