Hegel's Contested Legacy: Rethinking the Relation between Art History and Philosophy

By Gaiger, Jason | The Art Bulletin, June 2011 | Go to article overview

Hegel's Contested Legacy: Rethinking the Relation between Art History and Philosophy


Gaiger, Jason, The Art Bulletin


It is widely acknowledged that the ideas of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel played a vital role in die formation of the modern discipline of art history and that his attempt to discern underlying structures of meaning in the historical development of art provided an important stimulus for figures such as Mois Riegl, Heinrich WölHlin, and Max Dvorak. However, it is equally widely accepted diat Hegel's own theory of art - including the highly problematic notion of a historically unfolding "world spirit" (Weltgeist) - is bound up with a set of metaphysical commitments that are no longer !enable today. To speak of Hegel's contested legacy is thus to invite the question whether there remains anything to contest in the work of a philosopher whose last public lectures on aesthetics were given in Berlin in 1829. As long ago as 1907 Benedetto Croce published a book with the title Wliat Is Living and What Es Dead in Hegel's Philosophy} In the intervening century numerous efforts have been made to salvage isolated elements that can be put to use within an alternative theoretical framework. Nonetheless, it is scarcely controversial to claim that the challenge to construct a complete system of knowledge, in which the place of art is secured in advance by a "science of logic," no longer comjx-ls convicticìii.2 If speculative idealism has collapsed as a coherent philosophical prefect, it would seem that die Lectures on Aesthetics can be quarried for critical insights concerning particular artworks, and perhaps for more general claims concerning the changing cultural and historical functions of art, without having to engage with the substantive body of ideas through which these insights were generated. On this view, whatever recognition might be accorded to Hegel as one of die "founding fathers" of the discipline, his work belongs to art history's history rather than to its present concerns.3

This assessment of Hegel's significance - typified by Hans Belting's observation that a workable "aesthetics of content" must first be "severed from its dogmatic mooring in Hegel's 'system' " - remains dominant among art historians. ' By contrast, there is an exceptionally vigorous debate taking place among philosophers, for whom the question of Hegel's contemporary relevance has, if anything, gained in impetus over the last two decades. The guiding thread for understanding this new critical approach is to be found in Jürgen Habermas's assertion that Hegel was the first philosopher for whom modernity itself became a philosophical problem.' According to this interpretation, Hegel's relevance to us resides in his recognition that under the specific historical conditions of modernity, that is to say, after the rejection of all merely external claims to authority, be it in the form of religious doctrine or brute political power, reason must find a means of grounding its own claims to rationality without recourse to prior suppositions: the refusal to obey any external authority without examining its warrant or entitlement also extends to reason itself. For Habermas and other contemporary philosophers, Hegel's analysis of the sociality of spirit, or Geist, should be understood as an explanation of how we are both subject to the claims of reason and yet also responsible for instituting the norms and values through which reason becomes active in our lives.6

It is not difficult to see that this reconstruction of Hegel's views also has profound consequences for his theory of art. Rather than reading the lectures on aesthetics as a colorful but improbable set of illustrations to the march of the world spirit, philosophers such as Martin Donougho, Dieter Henrich, Stephen Houlgale, and fern Pinkard have focused on the underlying problem of art's status and function in relation to other forms of knowledge and experience.' In the words of Robert Pippin, perhaps the leading exponent of this approach, Hegel is "the art theorist for whom the link between modernity and an intensifying self-consciousness, both within art production and philosophically, about art itself, is the most important" A reassessment of Hegel's aesthetics is particularly timely in light of the new critical editions of his work that have been published in Germany. …

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