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Theses on Hegel's Aesthetics and the Photography

Ulus Baker

A rough draft for doctoral thesis.

It could be interesting to note that the birth of photography, invented as the "héliographe" of Nicéphore Niepce coincides with the death of the Great German philosopher Hegel., to whom we owe an interesting foundational thesis on the history of arts and aesthetics. This thesis is a little bizarre and ambiguous, in spite of its Hegelian clarity, and it is the continuation of the entire Hegelian system of philosophy. Hegel declares that the age of art has been achieved, this is the end, and we have now to enter into the age of aesthetics. Already in his Phanomenologie des Geistes, he develops his theses on this "end of art", which corresponds to the dialectical achievement of history. Since everything is, according to Hegel, the achievement of self-consciousness, always in three formal stages, or rather the dialectical self-development of the Idea, so is the case of the art. Certainly there is a "history of art" which is elevated at a philosophical certitude in Hegel, and this development is both historical and evolutionary. Although we are here quite distant from Hegel's dialectical conventions, there seems that there is a historically important question about "modernity" which should pass through the bizarre and idealistic assertions of Hegel. This is the very ambiguous nature of everything "modern", as Hegel declares that now "it is time to..."

The evolution of the universe, for Hegel, is the panlogical paradigm which should be assumed to govern history. The evolution of arts is also part of this panlogic history, and obeys to the same dialectical roots as history in general. However, art is unlike thinking or philosophy, since it is developed through the particular, not the universal. As Kant would say, though art is disinterested, it is still obeying to the general rules of historical development.

And what is this historical development? Hegel invokes the earliest form of art, the "symbolical" stage of art, when the disinterestedness was not yet fully developed. Art and religion largely coincided, and a divine giantism prevailed (Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples...) Or everything was reduced to ornamental, symbolic figurations --the small, traditional artisanship, as in the Indian, Chinese, Arab Orient, but also in Europe. Hegel's reasons can easily be understood since the major and dominant branchs of art in this first epoch were architecture and sculpture. According to Hegel, architecture and sculpture with their three-dimensional, "topographic" allure is closer to the Nature (alienated in the Nature, in the extension and matter) and though they posses gigantic formations like pyramids, they obey to the rules of symbolic ornamentations. Thus, the ornament and its symbolic repetition constitutes only a façade, a superficiality and is part of tradition, rather than reasoning. According to Hegel's formula, this is a stage when self-consciousness is religious, closed onto itself, and functioning through a formal self-realization of consciousness as merged with nature (alienation).

Then comes the second stage, dominated by painting: one can see how one of the three dimensions has gone, and painting is basically two-dimensional. Other branches too tend to develop, but fundamentally under the guidance of painting, from Middle Ages up to the Renaissance and the Baroque. This two-dimensionality means that the role of consciousness increases, since an abstraction and an avoidance of pure symbolism occurs. It is certainly more difficult to "understand" a picture than a sculpture, and even the knowledge of symbols has been transformed: later, Johann Huizinga will describe how there was a late medival struggle between the Church and popular religion of the masses, the later endangering the authority of the Church not by their lack of faith, but their overdose of faith into images and icons. It was as if the religion was "crystallized into images", and this was nothing but the waning of the middle ages.

To return to Hegel's aesthetics, the third and last stage comes when music and poetry dominate: this is certainly the Romantic epoch, when the intimate friends of Hegel the Philosopher were poets like Goethe, Hölderlin and Lessing, and great musicians like Mozart and Beethoven. The consciousness or the Spirit functioning through the "particular" is here in its highest possible level and power. Music is not "dimensional", it is fully abstract, disinterested and pure. And in poetry, everything is reduced to pure consciousness, to the language in which peoples and individuals are born. This is the ultimate stage of the art, almost its "end" or "telos". One could even say that this was nothing more than Hegel's courtesy to his poet friends.

Yet Hegel is rather concerned, when talking about the "end of the history of art" (history, according to Hegel, is ending everywhere, as it is achieved in the Prussian state where Hegel is living, and the age of philosophy starts with Hegel), with a question: in what sense the art, as the realm of the particular, should pass into the universal and the general? When he declares the birth of an age of aesthetics and the end of the history of art, he assumes that the universality will reign from now on, and it is nothing less than a philosophical concept. Hence, philosophy is something beyond art, for the latter has always remained as the realm of the particulars --things, perceptions, singular objects, events etc. It is difficult that art "thinks", since it cannot generalize, universalize. It depicts something particular, and the entirety of the Idea is only revealed in art as a "part". Thus, the "age of aesthetics" to come is not a higher stage of the history of art, but the lower stage of the age of philosophy, declares Hegel. Aesthetics is philosophical, rather than artistic.

Throughout our comment on Hegelian aesthetics, a burning question is always alive. Hegel declares the age of aesthetics, but we are today, almost two hundred years later, in such a historical position that we can questioned what has really happened in this Age of Aesthetics. The subtlety of history has perhaps marked Hegel's death with the invention of photography, a totally new aesthetic experience, and approximately one and half century later, we are watching television. Thus, such questions, to be interpreted from Hegel's perspective would soon arise? Is photography a picture, a sculpture or architecture? A rather strange question haunts the historians of photography: why photography waited for the beginnings of Nineteenth century (1830's) in order to be invented, while the chemical photographic recording was already known by the alchemists just as the camera obscura, which has been used since Middle Ages by the painters.

Theses on Hegel’s Aesthetics: the evolution of “art”... increasing role of “consciousness” and decreasing presence of the “matter” (topographic arts versus abstarction) –Hegel’s last movement: when he declares that there is still something beyond “art”—philosophy... the formula: the age of “art” is closed, we are entering into the age of “aesthetics”...

Hence, we believe that the Hegelian aesthetics and the way in which it terminates the "history of art" to declare the age of aesthetics have something to tell us about the new "technical" materiality of arts. We have already mentioned that photography was born approximately when Hegel was about to die. This means that no one can know what would Hegel say about the age of technical images, determined by the birth of photography, which has developed its own cultural and artistic norms. From photography to the "cinématographe" of Lumière, up to the television-video and digital imaging techniques, everything which pertains to "modern" images (as Hegel himself declares that we enter into the "modern age" only through his philosophical system) belongs to the "age of aesthetics" declared by Hegel. And they are already defined by their "ambiguity" --an image which is fundamentally different from the image of the painter, usually taken by a "hunter" of images and visions, rather than by a painter who chooses his or her mise-en-scène and completely renders it into his or her painting.

--fundamental implication of the Hegelian thesis for the “new materials” of Nineteenth century: photography and cinematography as “ambiguous” materials... the age of aesthetics –up to aestheticism... Hegelian vision criticized: the Kantian Sublime returned... philosophies of Aesthetics –notably in Nineteenth century there emerges an anti-systematic (therefore Anti-Hegelian wisdom of aesthetic philosophies –especially with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard...)

--Baudelaire and “representation”: the Symbols and Signs...Painter of the Modern Life –a commentary... a history of portrait photography... nature morte or Stijlleven... its cultural history, arising from the memento mori .. about the social evolution of the photographic image –no anticipation by Nicéphore Niepce ...

--Against Freud –Gaetan Clérambault –erotomania and photography... again... Tarde and “valeurs-beautés” (theory of “beauty values” in contradistinction to

--the false image... van Meegeren and Vermeer... Melville's "shape-images" against "form-images"...

Zarathustra and the "untruth" --untruth appears in the person of the "truthful man", developing on the line with the politician, homo religiosus, the man of morality and at the last instance, the artist, each of them defined by a degree of untruth. Deleuze insists that only the artist is the most truthful among them, being capable to represent untruth in its ultimate degree: "The artist too, in his turn, is a falsifier, but this is the ultimate degree of power of the false, since he wants the metamorphosis rather than taking the form of the 'true', that of the True and the Good..." (192***)

--Godard's Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle: --Dionysus by Jean Rouch... on the meaning of the term "cinéma-vérité"...

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