Thursday, September 13, 2012

Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

For the beauty of art is the beauty that is born--born again, that is--of the mind...

As old as Hegel's Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics is, and as outdated as it may seem, it remains relevant because it seeks to answer a question that few have tried to answer: What makes art beautiful?  Or, if the word "beautiful" is too laden with modern connotations, what makes good art?

The modern response, of course, is that the question is rigged, and that art is too subjective a phenomenon to submit its value to objective inquiry.  Hegel, too, recognizes that the question is inextricably bound with the question what is art, but is unencumbered by our anxiety about he very nature of art.

Hegel's model is roughly this: Art draws from the sensuous (that is, perceivable by sight and sound) world, but also "liberates man from his sensuous condition."  A painting of an apple, for example, relies on our sensual perception of an apple, but it cannot be eaten, only contemplated.  Such contemplation actually leads away from mere sensing and consuming and toward the "absolute," the grand meaning of all things.  In doing this, man also contemplates himself, who is a manifestation of this "absolute."  The trippiest part is that Hegel, since he describes man as a part of this absolute, actually brings the absolute to a fuller consciousness of itself--that is, brings God to a fuller consciousness of himself.

Okay, maybe that didn't make too much sense, but there's a lot of nuance involved and it's not really an argument that can be encapsulated.  I only half understand it myself.

Though Hegel is extremely influential, no one probably believes this now.  Most of us simply don't have the capacity to believe in an "absolute," or at least one that operates that way.  But there are parts of this model that strike me as being perceptive and true, especially the idea that in looking at a painting (or reading a poem, or listening to a song) we are really looking at ourselves.

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