Monday, March 10, 2014

Hegel on Art and Nature

I am just going to talk about Hegel's aesthetics as it is presented in the selection The Philosophy of Fine Art found in Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of the Art ed. Goldblatt and Brown (410-414).   (This is from the Osmaston translation of 1975).   Coming to Hegel from reading Kant last week we note certain things.  He is giving us a kind of definition of art by talking about "current conceptions of a work of art."  In doing so, he mentions three "determinations" of art.  All three are ones that Kant would disapprove of to some extent.  For example, his claim that "a work of art is no product of Nature" goes against the idea that the work of fine art is a product of genius in which nature works through the genius.  Second, whereas Hegel stresses that a work of art is in a sensuous medium, Kant has little interest in this dimension of art.  (Does he even mention the senses when talking about fine art?).  Third, Hegel stresses that art has "an end bound up with it," and here Kant's response would be, at best, ambiguous.  He would stress the importance of the imagination and its free play, and, although he would insist that each work of art must follow certain rules, he would probably restrict the notion of "end" to the mechanical arts.   Fine art must be beautiful, and hence we should focus not on its end but on its look of purposiveness.  Nonetheless, Kant would agree with Hegel that overemphasis on rules would produce "something formally regular and mechanical" (Hegel).  Kant stresses that the genius artist creates something that goes beyond such rules.

One of the most controversial ideas in Hegel's aesthetics is the notion that landscape painting has a "higher rank" than actual landscapes.  This view would certainly be rejected by virtually all of our contemporary aestheticians of nature.  Hegel's thinking comes from the notion that art originates in the human spirit and that works of art have a certain animation which comes from their having been processed through the human spirit:  "a work of art is only truly such in so far as originating in the human spirit, it continues to belong to the soil from which it sprang."  As he also puts it, the work of art has "received the baptism of the mind and soul of man." (411)  The animation of art appears at first to be a mere show on the surface of art, with something dead (for example dead wood) beneath.  But what makes art fine art is not its merely external existence but the way it lives in the creating and in the perceiving mind.  Partly this process (by which it is processed through the mind of man) allows it to achieve greater purity and clarity.  I know of two traditions that hold a similar view today.  The Japanese believe that the Japanese garden as a work of art captures the essence of nature, purifies it.  Similarly, the Chinese philosopher Li might hold something similar, based on his humanistic Marxist perspective.  

What to make of this?  As we experience art based on nature we do discover that it is abstracted and that the intention behind it is usually (or at least quite often) to create something essential.  What is it for a human to confront nature except by way of the mediation of certain concepts?  The aestheticians of nature set up a certain idea of seeing nature as nature and appreciating it wholly in this way.  And yet we cannot escape our humanness.  If we perceive nature through scientific concepts we still perceive it through human concepts.  We cannot perceive nature as nature.  Nature, as Li observes, is humanized for us.  Great works of landscape art, such as those of Cezanne attempt to get at nature qua nature by way of exploring the phenomenology of human perception of nature.  Cezanne's paintings clearly fit the bill of what Hegel is talking about.  To go further, along these lines, the attempt to capture something essential is not a scientific attempt (in science, "essence" means something different) but existential in the sense that the essential is what animates the object for us.  Nature is then transformed into something for which there can be an I-Thou relation.  Intimacy comes from the illusion that arises from the animation of nature, that in turn coming from the special kind of abstraction of nature that is carried out by the artist (whether landscape artist or naturalist with a visionary bent, as I will discuss below.)

What we really admire in art is not mere imitation, as Hegel observes, but something more like a confrontation between the deepest parts of ourselves and the object portrayed.  Part of growth in appreciation of art is in recognizing that mere imitation of nature (pictorial realism) is not sufficient in itself to hold our admiration.  Of course the idea that fine art is the result of the processing through the human spirit and going beyond mere imitation is also closely connected with Hegel's notion that it involves a revelation of truth.  This is a truth that is not reducible to truth of science or even philosophical truth:  rather this truth is specifically tied to medium.  This is the autonomy of art, that art possesses its final aim in itself,  that it represents its own self-revelation. 

Of course we can animate natural landscapes too, as when we compose them in the way that Santayana and Allen Carlson recommend.  In the very act of perception we can bring nature alive for us.  Great naturalists like Muir and Leopold do this, and can do this for us through their nature writing.  But it is important that their nature writing is a kind of art.  So, it is not so much that landscape painting is of higher rank than actual landscapes but actual landscapes need the mediation of deeply human medium-based interaction to actualize both their essences, and this can be done through great painting or great nature writing, or through other means.    

Although this selection is structured according to the three "determinations" of art it could also be seen as discussing several possible definitions of art.  The definition of art as imitation is rejected in part by arguing that we do not need a duplicate of nature (which would be superfluous) and that if art tries to do this it must fail.  The pleasure we get from imitation is at best the kind of pleasure we would get from rather pointless refined skills like being able to throw lentils through small holes at a distance.  A more common definition of art is that it expresses personal emotion.  Hegel attacks this by arguing that personal emotions (feelings) form an undefined obscure region of spiritual life, that they are obscure because they are personal, and that they are abstract in that they do not give us any knowledge of the subject-matter.  Hegel also rejects the view that the essence of art should be to serve moral ends or to be useful in some other way.  Instead, he stresses the autonomy of art.  The essence of art is not to be found in its relation to something else.  The goal of art is not outside the realm of art.  Its function then is "to reveal truth" and specifically, to do so "under the mode of art's sensuous or material configuration."  What sort of truth?  The truth revealed is not a scientific truth in our sense of "scientific" or a historical truth in our sense of "historical" but it is scientific and historical in Hegel's sense.  Art differs from science (in our sense) in that science does not refer to its sensuous or material aspect.  Art, unlike science, involves a reconciliation of the two aspects of reality, the material and the spiritual, which themselves exist as an antithesis which is resolved in art.  So, art comes to understand itself (and hence reveal truth) when it comes to understand itself as synthesizing the spiritual and the material, as it does for example in landscape painting where the materials used by the artist take on spiritual qualities by being processed through the mind of the artist.  Art's self-revelation is just an aspect however of the self-revelation of human culture in general or, to put it more dramatically, the Absolute's coming to understand itself.  

Hegel interestingly sees philosophy as working in tandem with art on this point, philosophy of course taking priority, so that philosophy first overcomes the opposition between spirit and nature and thereby grasps its own nature, and then also the nature of nature and of art. So as the science of philosophy is reawakened in Hegel's own writings, so too the science of art (aesthetics) which indeed depends on the philosophical awakening. 

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