Friday, October 31, 2008

Hegel on Dutch Painters

Hegel speaks of Dutch painters as being able to produce works that display a “pure shining and appearing of objects as something produced by the spirit which transforms in its inmost being the external and sensuous side of” such material as “velvet, metallic luster, light, horses, servants, old women, peasants blowing smoke from cutty pipes, the glitter of wine in a transparent glass, chaps in dirty jackets playing with old cards.” I take it that he means that the external sensuous side of these objects becomes transformed when represented in the work of art. But also he suggests that the objects themselves have a “pure shining and appearing” which is then actualized by the artist. For, in the list, the first four items shine already, as can also be said for the glitter of wine. Even the smoke of pipes in these paintings is typically represented as luminous. Hegel of course is not here commending us to aesthetic experience of these things which we “scarcely bother about in our daily life” but rather to their replacements in works of art where we see only colors and surface. However he also says that “we get the same impression which reality affords,” which seems to imply reference back to the ordinary objects. Hegel is no hero of everyday aesthetics when he says: “In contrast to the prosaic reality confronting us, this pure appearance produced by the spirit is therefore the marvel of ideality.” He thinks that this marvel of ideality even mocks external nature. For he thinks it is really hard to produce a beautiful effect in metal, whereas imagination, which is the material of art, is quite easy to work with, as here, one simply draws from inner being. Strange that he does not consider how paintings are made out of paint! What he refers to as the “existent and fleeting appearance of nature” is there in the external world (the world as we experience it), but it is also “generated afresh” when represented by the artist. The paradox here involves a temporary erasure of the distinction between the subjective and the objective.

Once again drawing on materials that sparkle and shine as the opening items of the list, Hegel observes that “precious stones, gold, plants, animals, etc., have in themselves only this bounded existence” i.e. an existence which requires hard work to bring to luminous presence? The artist, Hegel asserts, steals material from nature, and then “freely disgorges” this accumulated treasure. The imagination collects that which sparkles and shines, treasure-like, but is able to do more with it. A paradox ensues: art “furnishes us with the things themselves", but it does so "out of the inner life of mind.” One wonders how it can give us something "out" of something that is quite contrary to the thing given. He says that art confines our interest to ideal appearances of these objects which can serve for contemplation, and in doing this “art exalts these otherwise worthless objects.” In fact, although its content is “insignificant” art is able to fix these objects and make them “ends in themselves.” And then we attend to things we would otherwise not notice, presumably both in the painting and in the world.

Art also, Hegel observes, manages to fix certain aspects of everyday life that are also of note, e.g. “a quickly vanishing smile, a sudden roguish expression in the mouth, a glance, a fleeting ray of light…” (In this case, the luminous element comes at the end of the list.) Art fixes these things, and yet why fix them unless we have an interest in nature itself? And what if that interest is in the very temporariness of these natural phenomena? Hegel speaks of this activity as art conquering nature, although it is not clear in what sense this is a conquest. He wants to keep the luminous subject-matter in second place to art and so he says that “it is not the subject-matter which principally makes a claim on us but the satisfaction which comes from what the spirit has produced.” The spirit of the artist has produced (in all its freedom) a certain satisfaction based on this rather lowly subject-matter the fleeting nature of which it has captured, has conquered. Indeed he sees artistic making as more than conquering: it is the "extinction" of the sensuous external material. And yet everything he has said prior to this indicates that it is more a matter of bringing that sensuous material to life, or manifesting its inner nature.

Returning to the Dutch painters, we find that they actualize their own present “once more through art.” When we understand their art we must understand it in terms of their history, their will to freedom, and even their “painstaking as well as cleanly and neat well-being” and especially their joy in having achieved this, which is “the general content of their pictures.” So perhaps then the sparkle and shine of Dutch painting is not just the work of a free-floating imagination, but something situated historically, which, after all, is what we should expect of Hegel. Rembrandt’s Night Watch, he thinks, is “fired” by this “sense of vigorous nationality.” That is, the luminosity of the painting exists because the Dutch spirit is infused into it. So the Dutch spirit, which is everyday, is brought back into the painting through the spirit of the artist. But how is this the annihilation of the everyday? It is, in particular, the feeling of "freedom and gaity” which he takes to animate Dutch genre scenes, and also, once again, the life of the Dutch portrayed. He calls this feeling a “spiritual cheerfulness in a justified pleasure.”

All of this gets quite mystical when he says much the same thing about Murillo’s beggar boys and then indicates that in them also “shines forth…[a] complete absence of care and concern” that is comparable to that of the Dervish (known today for the whirling Dervishes). There is a mystical element in everyday life when it achieves what he finds in the representation of these boys as exhibiting “the full feeling of their well being and delight in life.” He sees them as like Olympian gods in that "they do nothing" (which makes them really more like Taoists, a philosophy Hegel had recently enountered), and Nietzschean ("they are people all of one piece without any surliness or discontent" from whom anything may come!). How odd it seems when he says that this freedom is “what the Concept of the Ideal requires.”

Earlier in the book Hegel says that man is “for himself” insofar as he “represents himself to himself” and that, only insofar as he does this, is he spirit. In addition to doing this theoretically, i.e. inwardly, man also does this through practical activity since he feels compelled to produce himself in what is presented to him externally and to recognize himself in that. He does this by “altering external things” in such as way as to impress upon them his inner being. After he does this, he then finds his own characteristics there. In doing this he strips the external world “of its inflexible foreignness.” Now this is what we tend to mean by the phrase “expressing oneself.” The example he gives is of a child who throws stones into water and then marvels at the circles he has produced. The example is interesting since the child has not shaped those circles and they are certainly not in themselves an expression of the child’s inner nature. What must be happening here is that the child perceives the circles as beautiful and as also a reflection of his internal essence, although manifested in nature. The point is phenomenological. Hegel thinks of this as a preliminary expression of human need which is eventually manifested in “that mode of self-production in external things which is present in the work of art.”

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