After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism

After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism

by Robert B. Pippin

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ISBN-13: 9780226325583
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/21/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,264,756
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Robert B. Pippin is the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, including Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy and Interanimations, both also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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After the Beautiful

Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07949-3



All effects of art are merely effects of nature for the person who has not attained a perception of art that is free, that is, one that is both passive and active, both swept away and reflective. Such a person behaves merely as a creature of nature and has never really experienced and appreciated art as art.

SCHELLING, Philosophy of Art (trans. Stott)


In the following I deal with a very small fraction of the European and American visual art now more or less commonly identified as "modernist," itself a fraction of the poetry, novels, drama, music, dance, and architecture oft en also so classified. That characterization itself is highly contested, much more so than other periodizations like "medieval" or "baroque" or even "romantic." Even though most commentators would surely agree that much of the self-consciously advanced art made from the mid-nineteenth century on looks and feels and sounds and reads in a way radically, oft en shockingly, different from the entire prior tradition of art, so different that eventually the very distinction between art and non-art came under great pressure, the exact nature of and reasons for such differences are still subjects of intense disagreement. Perhaps the least (but by no means un-) controversial characterization would be simply to say that modernist art is art produced under the pressure of art having become a problem for itself, in a period when the point and significance of art could no longer be taken for granted. It is not just that the art of the immediate past had somehow ceased to compel conviction and so required some sort of renewal, but that the credibility, conviction, and integrity of art itself, especially easel painting now entering the age of the art market, all had to be addressed at a fundamental level in the art itself and could not be ignored.

The point of view adopted here on such a turn of events is Hegelian, understood as an imaginative projection into the future of the position defended in Hegel's lecture courses on fine art in Berlin in the 1820s—projected, that is, into an assessment of pictorial art produced after 1860. This simply means offering an interpretation of the basic terms of Hegel's approach to the nature and significance of art, and what it means for art to have a history, and then arguing for the relevance and fruitfulness of that approach for understanding the startling innovations in painting introduced by Edouard Manet. As we shall see, this will mean presenting and defending Hegel's concept of art, as well as his claim about what is at stake in the historicity of art, without accepting his own conclusions about what follows from such a concept and approach. This discussion will be the task of the next chapter. Besides the admittedly debatable value of such an attempt to time-travel with a philosopher, especially one whose work is self-consciously tied to his own age, this means addressing two other controversial issues. The first is a direct consequence of Hegel's approach: the claim that the achievements of modernist art (my main examples in this book are figures sometimes called, respectively, the grandfather and father of modernism in painting, Manet and Cezanne) should be understood as themselves philosophical achievements of a kind, even though such visual artworks are neither themselves discursive claims nor of philosophical relevance by "containing" or "implying" philosophical assertions. There is something of philosophical importance at stake in pictorial achievements even if they are not—just because they are not—philosophy themselves. That is to say, the claim is not that such artworks are works of philosophy, or philosophy manque, but that they embody a distinct form of aesthetic intelligibility, or an aesthetic way of rendering intelligible and compelling a variety of issues of the deepest importance to philosophy. (That is, they do if these works succeed, a condition that itself raises a number of problems.)

This is not to say that the approach—treating artworks as making ideas available to us that otherwise would not be, rendering matters of concern more intelligible to us in a distinctly sensible-affective way—treats artworks as instances of determinate, and certainly not accumulating, knowledge claims or as evidence or justification for knowledge claims, at least not in the way we understand empirical or mathematical or scientific or, if there are such things, moral or political or philosophical knowledge claims. I want to show that one of Hegel's greatest contributions is to have shown us that, understood as achievements of human self-knowledge, such ways of rendering intelligible do not have the form of these other cognitive claims and have more the form of different sorts of claims about ourselves and others. I mean claims like "I had not thought I would be ashamed of that," "I saw that he would not do it, even though he clearly believed he would," "I was surprised to find that I did not trust him," or "It clearly all mattered to her a great deal more than she could admit to herself." We assume that much of human social existence would not be possible without insights like these, any of which could clearly be false but which do not have a firm or clear status in the strictly epistemological terms of modern philosophy. It is difficult to imagine presenting empirical evidence for such claims or designing experiments to figure out who is good at making them. The logical peculiarities of self-knowledge and the deep link between the form of self-knowledge and knowledge of others' mindedness, and the relevance of both to understanding artworks, will be discussed in the next chapter.

This is admittedly a somewhat obscure modality of intelligibility. As I shall try to sketch below, it has its origins in Kant's revolutionary explorations into the claims of beauty in aesthetic experience. Kant treated such experience as involving primarily a kind of pleasure, but not mere empirical pleasure, and he suggested a unique sort of intelligibility in the appreciation of the beautiful that involved our conceptual capacities, but not by way of the straightforward application of a concept, and so not available for expression in a standard assertoric judgment, and thereby not available for the conceptual role semantics (a concept is a "predicate of possible judgments") that Kant introduced in the first Critique. This meant that the content of such experience had to be described as somewhat indeterminate—but only somewhat, not completely, so that the question of the sort of determinacy it did possess, and the significance of such a possibility, quickly became the hottest of topics among the post-Kantian romantics and idealists. This was especially so when the uniqueness of such an experience suggested a model of discrimination and a kind of normative claim on or appeal to others that other thinkers took to be also relevant to moral experience, the nature of sociopolitical unity, and the most important dimensions of self-knowledge.

And not just in these domains. When Kant realized that the uniquely determinate experience of the beautiful could not be understood as a mere, reactive empirical pleasure, nor the result of standard concept application, the general question—where then are we in the critical system?—opened the door to any number of questions, including reconsidering the question of the general possibility of conceptual content. Kant's unusual answer was that in an aesthetic experience we were in some state of reflective play, but this meant not merely being "carried along" by pleasant sensations but in some way reflectively attentive in such free play (even if just possibly alert to its significance), although again without the application of a concept of significance. If reflective judgments (the name he gave such aesthetic judgments) had such unusual features but could be further shown to be inseparable from ordinary determining (concept-applying) judgments, then even a precisely worked-out inferentialist account of conceptual content could not formalize or even methodologically render "explicit" the rules for such inferences.

This heightened significance was certainly true of the way Hegel treated art's significance. (It is also a prelude to Hegel's own speculative logic, where he claims constantly to be differentiating his approach from the fixed, formalizable, stable, self-standing notions of "the understanding" and to be proposing a more dynamic, fluid, "animated" account of conceptual interrelation, and so conceptual content.) In its full Hegelian glory, the official formulation of the approach is that art embodies a distinct mode of the intelligibility of the "Absolute."

Now, Hegel and his generation used that forbidding term as easily and unproblematically as contemporary philosophers might use terms like "modularity," "possible worlds," "the ontological difference," "rigid designators," or "ideal speech situation," but it has obviously ceased to be a current term of art in the way these are. It has something to do with what Kant called knowledge of "the unconditioned." Anything we know is known under various assumptions and by presupposing other epistemic commitments, and, Kant claimed, the question of how we might discharge those commitments and know unconditionally or absolutely is one that naturally arises for "reason." It has something to do with what is presupposed as counting for "reality" in our attempt to render the world intelligible (and so what is excluded as unreal). In this sense, one can say that philosophy began when "nature" (physis) was taken as "absolute," all there really was, real in a way that custom or nomos (and so in a way that the object of religious belief) was not. Or we could say that for Platonists, the ideas were the Absolute, or perhaps the Idea of the Good, just as for Scholastic philosophers, the Absolute was God, pure actuality. For Descartes, at one level, the Absolute was the thinking subject (whose criterion of clarity and distinctness defined what could be said to be known as real), and at another level the Absolute had an unusual triadic structure, given his three substances—extension, thinking, and God—an unsustainable claim, as Spinoza tried to show, whose own "Absolute" was the famous monistic substance, Deus sive natura. For the early Wittgenstein, one could say that the Absolute was "all that is the case." The Absolute, in other words, is at issue wherever philosophy is at issue. (Quine and Sellars, say, do not want to write books about "reality, as it seems to me." They want to show us, of what is, that it is; and of what is not, that it is not. Full stop.)

Hegel especially has in mind a way of understanding ourselves, without an "antinomy" or contradiction, both as natural bodies in space and time and as reason-responsive thinking and acting agents, who resolve what to believe and what to do in a way for which they are responsible, in his language both as Natur and as Geist. (The common translation of Hegel's Geist is "spirit," but since that misleadingly suggests immaterial substances, or even ghosts, from now on I shall leave it untranslated, hoping that the context of the discussion makes clear what it means.) This is the issue that structures his entire Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, his most comprehensive picture of his systematic philosophy. When the intelligibility of this unity is expressed in its full, logical form ("the absolute idea" in a "logic of the concept"), Hegel makes clearer what underlies the basic duality. He says that "the absolute idea"

is the sole subject matter and content of philosophy. Since it contains all determinateness within it, and its essential nature is a return to itself through its self-determination or particularization, it has various shapes and the business of philosophy is to cognize it in these. Nature and Geist are in general different modes of presenting its existence, art and religion its different modes of apprehending itself and giving itself adequate existence. Philosophy has the same content and the same end as art and religion; but it is the highest mode of apprehending the absolute Idea, because its mode is the highest mode, the Notion [Begriff]. (1969, 824, my emphasis)

Understanding the various relations between what Hegel calls the absolute-universal, absolute knowledge, the absolute, the absolute idea, and absolute spirit would require several independent studies. But if we just take our bearings from the basic structure of the Encyclopedia—Logic-Nature-Geist—or postulate that there is a logical position possible on, a conceptual clarification of, the compatibility of Nature and Geist, we shall have enough for this account of Hegel's Lectures on Fine Art.

Likewise, we should pause briefly and note the audacity of the claim itself, that "Philosophy has the same content and the same end as art and religion." For much of its premodern history, philosophy understood itself, when considered in the context of art, religion, or politics, as in a sometimes deadly competition with such other claimants to truth. The philosophical (or "Socratic") claim was that there were better and worse ways to live, and the best of all was not the life of a statesman or a life of piety or the life of a poet but the life of the philosopher. Other ways of life were inferior. This way of thinking has faded with the assumption of pluralism, the incommensurable plurality of lives that an individual might live, but the issue resurfaces periodically, especially when religious believers attack a secular society as not at all neutral about the good but promoting a way of life hostile to their own commitments— hence the renewed attention to "political theology" in the postwar years (or when a philosopher like Schelling insists that only in art could the Absolute be known). This is all obviously a very long story; but it is useful to remind ourselves how radically reconciliationist Hegel's claim about "same content" is, and how controversial it is if we focus attention just on that.

This comprehension of that "same content"—the achievement of which is understood to be the realization of human freedom—is understood by Hegel as a comprehensive form of Geist's self-knowledge, where Geist is understood as a collective subject, a communal or common like-mindedness inheriting the aspirations of a distinct artistic, religious, and philosophical tradition and as finally fulfilling those aspirations (a Hegelian claim I shall dispute below). And since such self-knowledge requires above all else understanding how Geist can be both a natural being and a reason-responsive thinker and agent, such a comprehensive self-knowledge must involve a way of understanding the most difficult issue of all: how Geist can have such a natural and spiritual or free status at the same time. According to Hegel, art is an aff ective-sensible modality of such self-knowledge, playing its role together with, but categorically distinct from, the "representational" vocabulary of religion and the conceptual articulation, or "logic," of philosophy. It would be too crude to say that this means that art gives us to understand, first, what "it feels like" to occupy, at various stages, such an unreconciled status and then what it is to "live out" some achieved status that is, as Hegel says, more and more "reconciled with itself." But this crude characterization would be very roughly on the right track if we realize that this affective-sensible self-understanding is also a distinct mode of insight (in the unique way suggested above that self-knowledge and intuitive knowledge of others' mindedness are insights), that such a mode is not merely sensually "reactive," and that this means that its content or meaning can be articulated in a way that is both philosophically and historically sensitive.

And right away, even at such a general, very abstract level of summary, controversy immediately erupts since Hegel is well known for apparently having claimed that, while for most of the history of human beings (understood as Geist) art was a necessary, complementary mode of Absolute Knowledge like this, in the modern period now coming into view, it no longer was, and had become a "thing of the past." In chapter 2, I present an interpretation of Hegel's aesthetics and this claim about the pastness of art, all hopefully in a way true to the spirit of Hegel's basic position about the nature of art, even while abandoning his "end of art's significance" idea, and try to show that his approach is still of relevance to the new form of art that began with Manet and that Hegel could not have anticipated. What should be immediately suggestive, however, is that, although overstated, Hegel's "pastness of art" claim lands him very close to, if not directly in, the historical situation—the crisis—of modernist art, having to confront, rather than simply assume, its continuing possibility and importance. That is, Hegel was lecturing on art just before the treatment of art began shifting from "aesthetics" to the "philosophy of art" (i.e., from the sensible appreciation of beauty to art's interrogation of its own nature and possibility), in large part because of Hegel and his German brethren; just before the appreciation of art began shifting from a reliance on taste (and tasteful assessments of quality) to "criticism," with its focus on meaning and interpretation; and just before art itself simply began to look (and read and sound) radically different from art of the past.

Excerpted from After the Beautiful by ROBERT B. PIPPIN. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1    Introduction
2    Philosophy and Painting: Hegel and Manet
3    Politics and Ontology: Clark and Fried
4    Art and Truth: Heidegger and Hegel
5    Concluding Remarks


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