Hegel’s Lectures on the Aesthetics represents a detailed explanation of art by delineating its possibilities and limitations. It separates the realization of art into three types and describes the processes by which each is achieved, though he gives no delineation of the times at which these periods begin and end. In explaining these processes, Hegel comes to the conclusion that the expression of each form of art must be relegated to the past, as art is ever evolving and its ultimate expression is seen as unattainable.
He demonstrates this unattainability via the explanations of the Symbolic, Classic, and Romantic art forms and the way in which each progressively transforms into the next. The explanation of these three art forms as well as an application of these ideas to individual works of these genres will provide a better understanding of Hegel’s belief in certain aspects of art as being expressions of the past. The symbolic form of art, as described by Hegel, denotes the very beginning in which art first became known to man.
It is a historical form of art that begins the era of aesthetics, and as the earliest form of art it represents all aesthetic creations that existed in this earliest epoch. Symbolism might therefore be considered the initial means through which man has been prompted to create art. Hegel offers a definition of the symbol as an object of the senses whose meaning is to be taken in a broader and more general sense than the object itself presents. He gives the example of the lion, which to man represents bravery. Therefore, the lion becomes a symbol for bravery, though the lion is many more things apart from being brave.
The symbol, however, unlike other signs (such as letters of the alphabet) has something of its meaning within its constitution, so that the lion’s representation of bravery is not an arbitrary understanding. Rather, the lion’s connection with bravery is a natural one—lions are brave, though bravery might not describe their entire constitution. Works of art that are purely symbolic in nature do tend to be represented in the earliest forms of art—the art of the very distant past. It is some of the oldest forms of art best represent the distinctly symbolic form in the way that Hegel describes it.
One example of this is found in the scenes depicted in the Royal Standard of Ur (2600 B. C. E. ). This consists of a series of Sumerian (Mesopotamian) artistic creations presumed to be taken from the sound box of an ancient lyre or harp. They depict images of royalty or chivalry in ways that remove their objects’ depth and flattens them to represent merely one characteristic of themselves. Therefore, a king at the time of peace becomes a symbol of feasting and passive revelry, while a mounted cavalier becomes the symbol of fearlessness and warfare. As Hegel explains, this art represents one of the earliest forms being created about 2600 B.
C. E. At this time of the past, the artist (and art itself) appears to be mainly concerned with the symbolic representation of an idea or quality. The titles given to each panel, such as “Scenes of War” and “Scenes of Peace” demonstrates too the intention of the artist to depict a merely symbolic quality using a concrete object. Hegel describes such works of Egypt, Persia, and India as having “nothing serious” about them. He continues: “Like the stories’ of children, they are a simple play of the imagination, which is pleased with accidental and particular associations” (1886).
This can certainly be said to be true of the Sumerian details, which depict the gluttonous kings lost in their sensuality and demonstrate them as having nothing to recommend them beyond that quality. It is indeed true that the subject has been reduced to the quality itself, and seems a frivolous, shallow, and above all early attempt at art. The fact that this example of symbolic art has been found in abundance during such ancient periods supports Hegel’s idea that such is a thing of the past. Other art pieces from this period demonstrate Hegel’s ideas on symbolic art. One example from the art of Persia, The Achaemenid Bull (500 B.
C. E) from the palace of Darius or another named The Head of a Ruler (2100-2000 B. C. E) are both representative of Hegelian symbolism in the preciseness with which they refer to the qualities of fierceness and leadership. However, it must be noted that ths quality is represented more completely in the Achaemenid Bull, which was done approximately 500 B. C. E. This seems to contradict Hegel’s idea of symbolism being expressed most completely in the oldest forms of art, because though the Head of a Ruler was created much earlier, it seems to depict less of the symbolism of ruling.
In fact, had the picture not been titled in that way it might have been impossible to distinguish this ruler from an ordinary man. A possible explanation for this lies in a statement made concerning the transitional period for this type of art. Hegel writes, “The termination of this epoch is the disappearance of the symbol, which takes place by the reflective separation of the two terms, the idea being clearly conceived; the image, on its side, being perceived as distinct from the idea. From their reconciliation (rapprochement) is born the reflective symbol or comparison, the allegory” (1886).
If The Head of a Ruler is considered loosely allegorical, then in a courtly context it might very well represent a ruler, as it does have a stately quality. However, outside of the courtly context, it might merely represent a handsome and valiant man who, by virtue of his stature, could be likely to have many followers. Despite the perceived discrepancies, it can still be seen how these symbolic forms of art have shown themselves to be generally tied, as Hegel claims, to the distant past during the emergent period of art.
The classical form of art represents for Hegel the transitional merging of the idea (as represented by the earlier symbolic form) with the material aspect of the art itself. This title given to the art, classical, would appear to make it representative of the Greek and Roman aesthetic tradition. This art form represented more perfected form of art in Hegel’s opinion because it demonstrates the true realization of the ideal within the art itself. It represents an almost seamless fusion of the conception within the mind of the artist and the product to which his activity gives form.
Hegel explains this effect in the following statement: “Their task consists in despoiling tradition of everything gross, symbolic, ugly, and deformed, and afterward bringing to light the precise idea which they wish to individualise and to represent under an appropriate form. This form is the human form, and it is not employed here as a simple personification of the acts and accidents of life; it appears as the sole reality which corresponds to the idea” (Hegel, 1886).
In this way, the classical artist is seen as creating a pure form of art that takes the crudeness of symbolism and unites it with the materials of the world to bring to life a new and rich art work. This work does not denote a flat quality, but is filled with the many facets of human nature. Yet this exists in a much less cluttered and adulterated sense than how humans are present in the world. In other words, the virtues, vices or other qualities are purified in this transitional period of the past, and is then given the most appropriate situation (context) in which to demonstrate them.
The art being described by Hegel goes beyond painting and sculpture, and moves also into the area of literature and music. In fact, he relies heavily on the work of Homer to illustrate his points, though his ideas might also be translated to art in its other forms. An archaic Greek Kouros from Cape Sounion (600-590), for instance, does appear to depict stateliness of a godlike creature, yet done in the perfect form of a human being. This supports the Hegel’s idea of perfection occurring in the unity of the ideal symbol (regality) with humanity within a context.
Other forms of Greek sculpture demonstrate this, too—and this corresponds also with Hegel’s idea that “sculpture can represent no spiritual content which does not admit throughout of being adequately presented to perception in bodily form. ” He continues: “Sculpture should place the spirit before us in its bodily form and in immediate unity therewith at rest and in peace” (Hegel, 1886). This is aptly demonstrated by the human forms in which the regal sculpture is presented during Hegel classic (transitional) period of the artistic past. The Charioteer of Delphi (478 B. C.
E) is also a good example of Hegel’s idea that sculpture’s classical epochal form is distinctive in its fusion of idea with (human) form. This sculpture depicts a very dignified looking individual who, being a charioteer would appear to possess the virtues of courage and chivalry that were symbolized by the artists of the past (mentioned above in the section on symbolic art). Also, being located at Delphi, this charioteer seems also to possess a godlike quality. He may even be one of the gods, as Delphi is where Apollo’s temple was located according to Greek tradition, and as it was also where his oracle resided.
Yet despite the high associations, this work is given a form and a context that seems truly real. This supports Hegel’s idea that “In representing human acts as divine acts, [the artists] showed the diverse aspects under which the gods reveal their power” (1886). That is, during that epoch of the past, the elevated qualities of the sculpture dressed in human form resonate with the human being as having possibilities in the real world. Roman art represents the other half of classical art, and Hegel considered this type of art to be well expressed in sculpture.
His idea of sculpture places it in kinship with architecture as being a step up from sculpture, and therefore places architecture further along the epochal spectrum through which art demonstrates its transition. Though this art rarely takes on human form, it creates a context in which humans live and work. Dignity and stateliness continue to be characteristic of this art because of the classical idea that such high things are to be the subject of art. Therefore, the Temple of Portunus (dated at late 2nd to mid-1st century B. C. E. ), Maison Carree (20 B. C. E. ) and Arch of Tiberius (30 B.
C. E. ), for example, display their high porticos and arches that seem to reach out to the heavens. These temples are the home of gods and high-born men frequent its gates. The pillars that support the very high ceilings appear to be so because of the archaic idea of kings and statesmen communing with the gods and being bearers of their essence. The temples and arches serve as contexts in which godlike qualities are also personified—as gods are made to dwell in such a material building, and the men with whom they (supposedly) dwell appear elevated above regular persons.
The classical nature of these works and the way in which they fit into Hegel’s description do classify them as works of a type that is liable to remain in that particular age of the past. Homeric works, such as Odyssey (dated between 800 and 600 B. C. E), also demonstrate this fusion of symbol with material (Fagles, 1996). The men in Homeric tales are imbued with such the dominant traits of warriors. However, they are often more given more attributes than these. Odysseus is depicted as a war hero during the Trojan War, yet also as a father and husband.
His heroism is tempered by his many sensual liaisons with women other than his wife during the period in which he experienced a form of exile from his home. When one thinks of this character, his dominant quality of being a warrior does stand out. Yet he is also known as a human person. This human person is, however, a highborn one—and this makes him characteristic of the classical aesthetic of the past, which demanded that the subject of art be stately and/or royal.
The third type of art, Romantic Art, is found in the more recent past, and is in Hegel’s view imbued with subjectivity. Romantic art transcends the mere objective expression of self that is achieved in classical art, and forces the spirit (that once was symbolic) to free itself again from the confines of the material (Homer, 1886). This freedom becomes expressed in the subjective nature of Romantic art. The architecture of the Royal Chapel at the Palace of Versailles (1698-1710) by the artist Jules Hardouin-Mansart demonstrates this quality.
The pillars are high and stately, yet the halls have a mysterious quality, especially in the use of metallic materials that create a mirror-like effect. These mirrors amplify the classical, symmetrical form that is present in the architecture, as they force the floors to reflect the scenes and images of the ceiling just as the right seems to mirror the left. The mysterious flourish of arches and buttresses demonstrates Hegel’s idea of the artistic spirit of that time existing first to establish the work and then transcending it to add a layer of subjectivity.
Many other romantic works of art demonstrate this as well. Very few can be mentioned here, such as Bath Abbey (rebuilt in the early 1500’s), with its own flourish of arches and semi-asymmetry; Canterbury Cathedral (597), with its arched windows and pointed arches that (though a cathedral) appear mysteriously like entrances to a dungeon; Cathedrale Saint Etienne de Bourges (12th to 13th centuries) with its high doorways and elaborate sculptural dressing; and other paintings of the Romantic/Gothic period of such subjects as the Madonna and the pieta..
Within the Romantic art of this era of the past, Hegel writes, “God is released from the abstractness of unexpanded self-identity, as well as from the simple absorption in a bodily medium, by which sculpture represents Him” (1886). These artistic works do demonstrate this subjective quality that arises as a result of the spirit of the art becoming animated in a way that allows it somehow to superimpose its effulgence onto the material work that it has inspired.
In this way, it expands its capacity to mean. This type of art comes closer to the work of modern times, though it still remains in the past. One discrepancy arises when one considers that architecture on the whole, according to Hegel, leaves room for an expanded meaning as it is not tied down to the human form but incorporates a more spiritual and subjective aspect. This is connected to his idea of art as a romantic expression.
Though the architecture previously described (Temple of Portunus, Maison Carreeand Arch of Tiberius) are from the classic era, they do appear to have some of the characteristics of the Romantic form of art. It seems, therefore, to transcend its own place in the past and to have moved forward to a more recent past in which Romanticism exists. This is a difficult concept to grasp fully, but the non-definite meaning of architecture does demonstrate a wide capacity for subjectivity, as Hegel claims.
Subjectivity is a more modern concept, and Hegel himself places it in the more modern Romantic context. He expresses this idea in the statement, “Now, after architecture has erected the temple, and the hand of sculpture has supplied it with the statue of the God, then, in the third [Romantic] place, this god present to sense is confronted in the spacious halls of his house by the community” (1886). The connection does not seem to be very accurate one since Romantic subjectivity is allowed to enter into classicism.
Yet, if one considers the entrance of subjectivity into the meanings of art as a gradual process, then this classical period, being the middle period, is justified in having some amount of subjectivity within. Symbolism, as depicted by Hegel, is the place at which art began. Though it does enter into modern forms of art, the mere use of a symbol to represent a particular virtue or quality has to be considered a thing of the past. What Hegel describes in his Lectures on the Aesthetics is art in its transforming nature. Art as represented in the symbolic form becomes modified as it grows in its ability to merge idea with the material work.
Gradually, as art has evolved, more and more depth has crept into its subjects. Therefore, the symbols themselves have been alloyed with other representations to make richer and more multifaceted pieces. This becomes manifest in the classical works, that represent a kind of perfection in the way the symbol fuses with the material object. However, the evolution continues as the spirit (or the ideal) disengages itself again from the material and hovers over the Romantic work in a mysterious way that makes the work subjective.
Still, even though Hegel identifies only these three types, it is clear that he considers the dynamic nature of art as making it necessary that each new form of art will eventually become a thing of the past. Art is always changing, he writes: “the wide Pantheon of art is being erected, whose architect and builder is the spirit of beauty as it awakens to self-knowledge, and to complete which the history of the world will need its evolution of ages” (Hegel, 1886).