Hegel's Art History and the Critique of Modernity / Art of the Modern Age: Philosophy of Art from Kant to Heidegger
Gilmore, Jonathan, The Art Bulletin
Hegel's Art History and the Critique Of Modernity
Trans. Caroline Dobson Saltzwedel Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 288 pp.; 66 b/w ills. $64.95
Art of the Modern Age: Philosophy of Art from Kant to Heidegger
Trans. Steven Rendall
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. 352 pp. $31.95
The tradition of grand theoretical speculation about art-defined by questions such as why art has a history, how beauty relates to morality, and how art reveals deep features of existence unavailable to ordinary rational inquiry-has fallen on metaphysically lean times. Initially, this predominantly German philosophical tradition (identified mainly with Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) helped an emerging discipline of art history distinguish itself from general historical, belletrist, and antiquarian writings. Now, however, such philosophical forms of inquiry, except as the subjects of historiography, have been largely expelled from the scholarly field of art history, dismissed for reasons both of metaphysical afflatus and the scholarly prejudices engendered by certain notions of genius, cultural homogeneity, and intertwined narratives of artistic progress and political freedom. Until the past decade, the resulting vacuum was filled by theories of interpretation and meaning that on their face and in operation could not have appeared more different to art historians than those "deep" metaphysical investigations they replaced. But seen from the vantage point of the ongoing philosophical tradition outside of art history, many such theories, particularly those drawn from semiotics and poststructuralism, turned out to be perhaps only the latest moves in a dialectic-against Kant and Hegel, yes, but also (like the 19th-century critics of idealism such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, and Karl Marx) still within their wake.
These two books, one by an art historian (Beat Wyss), the other by a philosopher of art (Jean-Marie Schaeffer), interrogate that philosophical tradition in both its original premises and its contemporary incarnations. Each offers a diagnosis of current-day thought about the arts as deeply beholden to the speculative tradition, and each charges that this survival of speculative thought amounts to a corruption in our understanding of the arts.
Although Wyss's book is substantially a treatment of Hegel's aesthetics, he is ultimately less concerned with the philosopher's particular theory than the "mentality of modern times" (p. xii) it most thoroughly exemplifies, what Wyss identifies as the assumption that history allows a kind of movement toward perfection, that the historical development of art exemplifies a narrativelike unfolding in which reaching a certain goal is the implicit rationale of the self-perfecting process all along. This was, of course, Hegel's view of the historical process as being essentially the story of Spirit's arriving at a consciousness of itself through being embodied in a dialectical development of human institutions and cultural expression. It was a view, of course, that survived in much Marxist and Frankfurt School political critique. Yet it is hard to see where in the "mentality" of modern time-if we are speaking of the contemporary moment-- such a belief can still be found. In academic contexts, a suspicion of "grand narratives" is so often ritually invoked that it is hard to see what room is left for any faith in a history driven forward by an engine of grand metaphysics. Wyss allows that his book-published in 1985 and only now translated from German-might be seen as something of a former soixante-huitard's self-criticism. But Wyss's work is no postmodern diagnosis of modernism's triumphalism; he sees postmodernism as guilty of the modernist conviction it claims to disavow. Rather, his text is an attempt to "rescue images from concepts" (p. xi), to undo the subordination of art to philosophical theory that Wyss charges is not only Hegel's legacy but also a defining feature of modernism itself. …