Hegel divides his “science” of aesthetics into three sections. The first concerns the idea of the beauty of art or what he calls “the Ideal.” He stresses that the idea of beauty in art is not the Idea as such, which would be studied by metaphysics and which, I suspect. would be much like a Platonic Idea. He speaks of the Idea of beauty in art rather as one which is “shaped forward into reality” and is immediately unified with this reality. Whereas the Idea itself is “absolute truth” the Idea of beauty in art is both individual reality and reality destined to embody the Idea. This implies a demand that the Idea and its configuration in reality should be adequate to each other. When the Idea is shaped in this way it is the Ideal. He urges us not to confuse the Ideal with the notion of precisely representing the Idea in a shape. This would confuse truth of the Ideal with “mere correctness,” i.e. correct expression of the meaning of the Idea in the shape. For contents can be represented adequately without having the artistic beauty of the Ideal. In comparison with such an Ideal, that (overly precise) representation may appear defective. So defectiveness in art is not just due to lack: defectiveness of form sometimes results from defectiveness of content. The Chinese, Indian and Egyptian religion and art is defective in this way: they never get their god images “beyond formlessness or a bad and untrue definiteness of form.” Their mythological ideas therefore fail to achieve true beauty. The reason is that the ideas are “indeterminate, or determined badly.” [By contrast, Kant believes that the aesthetic ideas of an artistic genius are indeterminate.] They do “not consist of the content which is absolute in itself.” In one of my favorite sentences he writes: “Works of art are all the more excellent in expressing true beauty, the deeper is the inner truth of their content and thought.” (148) It may well be that this is true regardless of his own interpretation of it. He contrasts this approach to art against that which stresses imitative accuracy, in which skill is able to imitate “natural forms as they exist.” There may even be an “abandonment and distortion of natural formations” in the art which is based on “intentional alteration” coming out of the artist’s own mind. This passage seems to foretell the possibility of modern art with all of its distortions. It follows that some art may be imperfect even though it is technically good in its “specific sphere.” It is simply defective “in comparison with the concept of art itself and the Ideal.” [This is somewhat similar to Kant’s idea of merely academic art that is not informed by genius.] In the highest art, of course, Idea and presentation are in accord with one another. The Idea also “must be determined in and through itself as a concrete totality” which would give it the principle of its being. This principle is made particular in external appearance. The Christians may represent God in human form because the Christian God [in Jesus Christ?] is known “in himself as spirit.” If the Idea is determinate/concrete then this makes particularization possible. In other cases, as in other religions, the determinacy may be imposed from outside and the shape is thus merely external to the abstract Idea. So “the truly concrete Idea [as in the Christian case] alone produces its true configuration” and thus the Ideal.
The next stage in the argument concerns the development of the ideal into particular forms of the beauty of art. He writes that “because the Idea is in this way a concrete unity, this unity can enter the art-consciousness only through the unfolding and then the reconciliation of the particularizations of the Idea.” This development allows artistic beauty to acquire “a totality of particular stages and forms.” That is, artistic beauty evolves through the totality made up by the Symbolic, Classical and Romantic stages. These forms are different ways “of grasping the Idea as content” i.e. “different relations of meaning and shape.”
The Symbolic. Here the Idea is “in its indeterminacy and obscurity” or bad determinacy. Since it is indeterminate it does not have enough individuality for the Ideal. It is too abstract and one-sided and this means it is “defective and arbitrary.” So it is merely searching to portray the Idea and does not truly present it. It is “struggling and striving.” In the symbolic form the Idea has its shape in “natural sensuous material.” But it is imposed on perceived natural objects in an external way. They are to be interpreted as if the Idea were present in them. This kind of art, [for example, an Assyrian representation of a lion] can only give an abstract idea of, for example the lion’s strength. But since this relation is abstract we are conscious of the fact that the Idea is foreign to the natural phenomena. The Idea then “seeks itself” in them “in their unrest and extravagance.” It “exaggerates natural shapes” and “staggers round in them, it bubbles and ferments in them, does violence to them, distorts and stretches them unnaturally” and tries to elevate them by way of “diffuseness, immensity, and splendor.” There is a contrast and incompatibility between the Idea, as here indeterminate, and the natural objects as determinate. The Idea then takes a negative relation to the objective world and is taken as sublime, above all of these non-corresponding shapes. The natural phenomena are seen as incompatible with their non-mundane meanings. This is found in the pantheism of the East which either “ascribes absolute meaning to even the most worthless objects” or “violently coerces the phenomena to express its view” and then becomes “bizarre, grotesque, and tasteless.” A third alternative is that it turns the abstract freedom of the one substance or God against all phenomena “as being null and evanescent.” [Perhaps this refers to Zen.] In all of this the Idea and shape remain incompatible.
[The symbolic mode of art insofar as it is associated both with the sublime and with the indeterminate seems to be set up as an attack on Kant who understood the aesthetic ideas as indeterminate and as sublime. It is as though Hegel believed that Kant’s idea of fine art and the artist genius is stuck at the first stage of art.]
The Classical. Here, the double defect of symbolic art is “extinguished.” The defects are (1) Idea is presented as indeterminate “or determined abstractly” and (2) meaning and shape have a defective correspondence which is “purely abstract.” Classical art is “the free and adequate embodiment of the Idea in the shape peculiarly appropriate to the Idea..” Both shape and Idea are in harmony. Thus it gives us a vision of the completed Ideal actualized. This is not a purely formal correspondence between content and configuration. If it were, then “every portrayal of nature” for example of every flower or scene as content would be classical. The content of classical art is the concrete Idea in the sense of concretely spiritual. The spiritual is the inner self. So what, in nature, “belongs to the spiritual in and for itself”? “The original Concept” [i.e. God?] “invented the shape for concrete spirit.” That is, God created the world with the idea in mind of correspondence of spirit and natural shape. Now the “subjective Concept,” i.e., in this case, the spirit of art has found the shape “and made it…appropriate to free individual spirituality.” The Idea, as spiritual and individually determinate, assumes this shape, i.e. the human form. Some have seen [such] anthropomorphism as degrading the spiritual but since the goal of art is to bring the spiritual before our eyes in a sensuous manner it must anthropomorphize “since spirit appears sensuously in a satisfying way only in [this] body.” Physiology [biology] thus insists that life develops necessarily to the human form as the only one appropriate to spirit. [Maybe in his time, not in our own!] The form of the human body in this regard counts only as the natural shape of spirit. Because of this it is not affected by the “deficiency of the purely sensuous” or from the fact that our “phenomenal world” is merely contingent and finite. Spirituality as content “must be of such a kind that it can express itself completely in the natural human form” and not tower above it. So, spirit is determined here as “particular and human” and not as purely absolute and eternal, since it can only express itself in the latter sense as spirituality. But this is a defect in classical art and this defect brings about its dissolution and “transition to a higher form.”
The Romantic. The romantic form cancels the unification of Idea and reality found in the classical and “reverts” in a “higher way” to the opposition of these two sides as found in symbolic art. [This is also found in Nietzsche’s later idea of the conflicted marriage of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Indeed, Nietzsche’s account is similar to Hegel’s: the Dionysian (especially the pre-Greek Dionysian) representing the symbolic, the Apollonian representing the Classical, and the tragic synthesis of the two representing a return to the Dionysian by way of the Apollonian.] Oddly, Hegel holds that it is Classical art that achieves the “pinnacle” of what art can achieve, and that whatever is defective in it is what is defective in art itself, i.e. that art takes spirit as its subject matter and yet can only give it in sensuously concrete form. In blending the spiritual and the sensuous it fails to represent the true nature of spirit which is “the infinite subjectivity of the Idea.” As “absolute inwardness,” the Idea cannot freely “shape itself outwardly” in a bodily form. The romantic form then goes beyond the classical. This content is what Christianity asserts of God as a spirit in contrast to the Greek religion exemplified in classical art. The unity of the divine nature and the human in classical art is “only immediate and implicit” and is manifested sensuously. It is because the Greek god is naively intuited that it is in human shape. Hegel contrasts the Greek god, which is individual and particular in substance and power with [the Christian] which possesses oneness “as inward subjective knowledge.” The content of Classical art is knowledge of implicit unity that can be perfectly presented in bodily shape. But once this is elevated into self-conscious knowledge we come to the tremendous, even “infinite,” difference between, for example, man and animal. Unlike the animal, man is not confined to the implicit and immediate but becomes conscious of his animal functions and lifts them into self-conscious science. Because he knows he is an animal, he ceases to be an animal and knows himself as spirit. So the unity of divine and human nature “is raised from an immediate to a known unity” and the truth is no longer the spiritual in the body but “the inwardness of self-consciousness.” Christianity brings God before our imagination as “absolute in spirit” and thus no longer particular. It “retreats from the sensuousness of imagination into spiritual inwardness,” and thus, this, and not the body, is the medium of truth’s content. The unity of the divine and human is “only by spiritual knowing and in spirit.” So this new content is freed from immediate and sensuous existence which is now seen as negative. So, romantic art is “self-transcendence of art” but “in the form of art itself.”
[It is hard for me to see the advantage of this move since it is hard to know just what spiritual inwardness is. Instead of abandoning the sensuous imaginative element it might be better to simply see Hegel’s move as a stance that allows us to find a greater depth in works by, e.g. Rembrandt, than in those by the great Greek sculptors. Self-consciousness or “knowing thyself” goes back as an ideal to the Greeks, especially to Socrates. So it is nothing original. Moreover, contra Hegel, I think there is something else to Christianity of value to aesthetics, perhaps what is caught more by Tolstoy, with his emphasis on empathy and love. I don’t think we can get the inwardness of Christianity just through a Platonic-like self-consciousness connected with rejection of the sensuous. If we follow Nietzsche, instead, we have the capacity to combine the sensuous, the imaginative and “saying yes to life” as will to power. In my view Nietzsche’s philosophy overcomes the limitations of Hegel’s when it comes to aesthetics, religion, and even self-consciousness since it engages in a true dialectic. Hegel is just dressing up Plato by putting it all in a setting of historical development.]
Hegel then uses language like “free concrete spirituality” to describe the romantic. [Incidentally, his romantic stage has little to do with the period now called “the Romantic period.” This more common definition of “Romantic” is associated mainly with art of the early 19th century but sometimes with the late 19th century. Thus it is associated with Hegel’s own time. Hegel seems not to have been much interested in the art or music of the decades in which he was writing, although his closeness to Goethe is well known.]
Now, art “cannot work for sensuous intuition.” [In a sense one can say that art becomes non-aesthetic. But I think that this is neither possible nor advised.] Art must “work for the inwardness which coalesces with its objects simply as if with itself.” Words like “feeling” and “emotion” come out. This spiritual feeling “strives for freedom in itself.” Hegel also speaks of “the inner world” as the content of the romantic and of “depth of feeling.” One thinks of the ways in which works by some artists, for instance Raphael and Rembrandt, seem to represent or exhibit a deep inner world of feeling.
Let’s say that exhibiting such a world of feeling is important, that what the Classical world lost was the ways in which humans have existential angst, deep love, and other deep and conflicted feelings. Setting aside the religious idea, we seem once again to move in the direction of Nietzsche. To see this inwardness as a “triumph over the external” is to treat it like the Platonic soul that leaves the cave: but the notion of “inwardness” implies not looking to the Forms but looking to one’s private life of intense emotions. Both Hegel and Plato would agree, however, that “what is apparent to the senses …sinks into worthlessness.” And that is a problem they share.
Hegel concludes his discussion of the Romantic by observing that, since the Romantic needs an external medium for its expression, and since spirituality has “withdrawn into itself,” the “sensuous externality of shape” comes back, as it was there in symbolic art. It is treated as “inessential and transient.” The individual, i.e. “the subjective finite spirit,” is also treated as inessential. Thus in drama, individuality of plot and character become unimportant. Instead imagination is freed to represent what is present “exactly as it is.” This is in contrast to how it distorted the world under the symbolic mode. The external medium of art now has its home “in the heart” and not in the external world. It finds “reconciliation with itself” in chance, accident, grief and even crime.” [One thinks of Dostoyevsky here, in which a path to the spiritual is found by way of a reaction to crime. Or perhaps Hegel is pointing forward to the novelistic realism of Zola. The use of the word “crime” here is a great mystery.] So, as in the symbolic, the separation of Idea and shape come back except that here the Idea is no longer deficient. Rather, it is “perfected in itself as spirit and heart.” This is why it cannot adequately be united with the external. [But I think this is exactly wrong with a painter like Rembrandt or Vermeer.] In the end, then, the Ideal is transcended “as the true Idea of beauty.