I am interested in what we can get from the writings of classical authors like Hegel given how different we are from them, and how different our world is. This is a matter of taking their ideas as symbols or metaphors for something they never intended, but something which is important to us. It might be that their ideas bear a structural similarity to what is important to us. So, Hegel says that the purpose of art is to express the Absolute idea, which I take to mean (in this broader sense of “mean”) something like this: that there is a spiritual aspect of our existence (not one that requires a special spiritual realm or special spiritual beings) and that this aspect (as when we are moved by the inner spirit of something) does involve a striving towards self-understanding (at least in part), that art (or at least really good art) participates in this, and that there is a kind of development or progress here (although we, or at least I, cannot go along with the idea of an absolute development or a final goal that may be finally achieved.) The Hegelian idea that the content of a work of art must be concrete to reveal truth is easy enough to interpret in this way: it is simply that the content of art should not be too abstract. If it is too abstract it will fail to give us the kind of truth we are looking for here, a truth that is significant for us concrete, living, breathing, human minds….a truth that matches us and our lives in a meaningful way. So, on this view, purely abstract notions have no real business being the subject matter of art, or better yet, even when we try to make purely abstract art, the content of that is still the concrete aspects of life that are being expressed.
Although Hegel is clearly just ethnocentric which he sees the Chinese, Hindu and Egyptian art as “vicious and false” he does capture something in the notion that there is a stage in the development of an art form in which both the form and the content are crude (think of the early Beatles) and things are indeterminate but at the same time powerful, perhaps powerful partly in their very crudeness. The early symbolic stage of an art style is full of potential and high in energy, but short on refinement. It is symbolic since the symbols are obvious: they have to be read. (Later stages are still symbolic but not in the sense that there is a one-to-one reading of symbols, but in a more pervasive way in which a new world is set up that symbolizes our world as a whole.) The content is refined as the form is refined (e.g. through what Hegel called the classical and romantic stages), as can be seen in the increasingly sophisticated lyrics in Beatles songs.
I would go further to argue (and I wouldn’t be the first one to do so) that the notion of dialectic is still relevant to art, e.g. that it makes sense to speak of a movement in art as forming a thesis, another as forming its antithesis, and a third as involving a synthesis that opposes the second by going back in some ways to the first. Although Hegel sees this sequence as eventually ending, it makes more sense to see it as unending, each synthesis becoming a new thesis, or perhaps simply by being replaced by a new thesis which itself starts the story again at the symbolic stage. Of course this means that Hegel failed to explain this last transition.