“The system of logic is the realm of shadows…” —G.W.F. Hegel
…sorting through what is contemporary art involves the obvious questions about what is contemporary? what is art? & what about that combination intrigues us into thinking about art, enough to make, view, write & read about it? Even more difficulty arises with any attempt to try define what is artistic about art that’s made today? For Dieter Roelstraete it is distracting to think of the problem in these ways, since culture is not very good at defining itself “…(so [culture is] being part of something that is ultimately unknowable: not knowing what we’re doing) …” (WCA/185) And by extension we are not accustomed to contemporary art defining itself & this is “…probably a bad thing.” (WCA/185)
Roelstraete agrees with Alain Badiou that we can be hostile to “truth procedures” (WCA/186) Such procedures are the result of a “culture-technology-management-sexuality system” (WCA/186) which is a force of market/commercial values. Each of these terms is said to obliterate the key terms of art, science, politics & love respectively. It’s difficult to discern how deeply Badiou (or Roelstraete) agree that these terms are really ‘obliterating’ the others. One has to seriously ask: ‘is the term culture replacing the term art? or does the term management replace the term politics?’ All eight terms seem to continue to retain enough validity on their own, yet, what is of importance is the core of Badiou’s idea which is about truth obliteration. With this said, Roelstaete does look for a possible historical precedence for Badiou’s thought that places art above above all “…other realms of human activity (even in the singularly humanizing force in all this activity)…” (WCA/186) This assumed primary placement of art has its roots in high German idealism & we’ll later show that although art is of great importance (for G.W.F. Hegel’s spirit) it is not the highest.
Roelstraete playfully thinks that there are three moments of philosophical history that are also great moments in the history of art. He toys with the idea of making a movie inspired by these moments. We have the first scene set in the city Athens around the time of the trial of Socrates with Plato et al. Next, we have the second scene set in the city of Jena, Germany in the time of G.W.F. Hegel, Novalis, F.W.J. Schelling, Friedrich Schiller & with Friedrich Schleiermacher ‘only passing through’ (Immanuel Kant doesn’t immediately get mentioned as playing a part in this scene, although for some reason, this scene will only consist of Kant & Hegel). A third scene will be set during WWII in Brentwood Los Angeles, USA, with Theodor Adorno, Sergei Eisenstein (playing tennis with Charlie Chaplin) & Arnold Schoenberg. Then a possible forth scene would be where Plato, Hegel, & Adorno all meet at the conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s Soho studio in the New York of the 1970’s. Don’t let these scenes perplex you into thinking we’ll be entertained by all of them, since we’ll only be taken to Jena in 1806. The enticing idea that Roelstraete could make of movie of just this one scene in Jena, would be a heroic effort & well worth it, only if it could honestly avoid being boring as hell.
So, the one moment is in Jena, 1806 & this is presented by Roelstraete as a “high watermark in the history of philosophy [& in] the history of art” (WCA/187) This is “the world spirit’s finest hour” (WCA/187) Roelstraete succinctly tells us that “German idealism…needed conceptualization…” (WCA/188) We know that Hegel was certainly pushing for the notion (concept) of spirit & as we’re told by Roelstraete that in Hegel’s Aesthetics Hegel didn’t really engage the cutting edge art/ists of his day (J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, Jacques-Louis David & others). Kant too, supposedly doesn’t talk about specific artists in his “Critique of Judgment”. We’ll quickly say here that both Hegel & Kant were covering pure aesthetics ‘philosophically’ & that Hegel does extensively engage all the specific disciplines of art making (as his voluble lectures on aesthetics run into many volumes) including historical references to ancient, romantic, religious & symbolic art in general, his sins of omission can be forgiven. But the true nature of Roelstraete’s complaint has to do with this omission not as an oversight, instead the omission implies (for Roelstraete) that Kant & Hegel’s aesthetics were more-or-less a perfunctory afterthought, put in only to complete their philosophical projects, rather than for a love of art. A surprising & improvable claim, but not too alarming given that it’s Hegel & Kant who planted the hierarchies in the first place.
To prove his claim Roelstraete brings in Andrej Warminski’s intro. to Paul de Man’s “Aesthetic Ideology”. Warminski states that Kant’s aesthetic falls between theoretical & practical reason which has to be “a basis uniting the supersensible that underlies nature & that the concept of freedom contains practically.” (WCA/189) Hegel’s aesthetics for Warminski is a transition between objective spirit & absolute spirit, art is the effort of objective spirit to become absolute spirit, a similar objectivity known to politics & law. Art represents a bridge wherefrom Hegel’s concept of spirit as it is the becoming of absolute spirit needs a grounding, or as Warminski puts it “…to dwell in the prose philosophical thought’s thinking itself absolutely would also turn into a mere ghost if it were not for its having passed through the moment of the aesthetic, its phenomenal appearance in art.” (WCA/190) With this, Warminski & Roelstraete agree that Kant & Hegel’s aesthetics “had-to-be-put-in”. (WCA/190) Roelstraete follows this with the everyday claim “that art simply is the most important thing.” (WCA/190) Thinking of this statement we turn to Hegel’s Introduction to Aesthetics: “…that the beauty of art is higher than nature. The beauty of art is beauty born of the spirit & born again, & the higher the spirit & its productions stand above nature & its phenomena, the higher too is the beauty of art above that of nature.” (HA/2)
What’s of critical note here is that this isn’t the end of the story for Hegel, i.e. that art is above nature, or that art is the ultimate truth for German idealism, at least for Hegel. We’ll remember that in his Phenomenology Hegel’s art does fall within the absolute spirit along with religion & philosophy. Yes, art plays an important role, yet philosophy supersedes the other two forms of absolute spirit & Roelstraete alludes to this when he writes: “German Idealism needed art to become what it became—or rather it needed its conceptualization…” (WCA/188) The reason why this particular statement is of concern has to do with the word ‘conceptualization’. Conceptualization surely can be said to be the effort of bringing concepts to the forefront of thinking & for Hegel the word concept (sometimes translated as notion) is noteworthy when we look to his Logic where he in no uncertain terms says that “The notion [concept] is on the contrary, the principle of all life..” & “The notion…is what contains all earlier categories of thought merged in it. It certainly is a form, but an infinite & creative form, which includes, but at the same time releases from itself, the fullness of all content.” (HL/223) When we look for Hegel writing about art’s less vaunted position, with respect to philosophy’s precedence, we’ll find it in his Introduction to Aesthetics: “But art, far removed…from being the highest form of spirit, acquires its real ratification only in philosophy.” (HA/13)
Roelstraete wants to place art in a confusion with culture, as he’s going with Badiou’s idea that contemporary art is ‘obliterated’ by culture & in this expansion art avoids easily defining itself, since culture seems to have a problem defining itself too. Because Roelstraete introduces us (in a footnote) to Giorgio Agamben’s “A Man Without Content” we’ll look to Agamben’s revealing reference to Hegel’s alleged claim that art is dead (this is aside from Roelstraete’s footnote): “His [Hegel’s] is in no way a simple eulogy, but is rather a mediation on the problem of art at the outer limits of its destiny, when art loosens itself from itself & moves in a pure nothingness, suspended in a kind of diaphanous limbo between no-longer-being & not-yet-being.” (MWC/53) Perhaps this is also what Roelstraete meant with his title “What is Not Contemporary Art” that contemporary art is in a continued refusal to define itself & a constant gesturing to what it’s not. Art, after fulfilling for hundreds of years the aesthetic epiphanies of religious practice, has left this grand placement for us, therefore freeing art to then take on our more personal, psychological, hermetic & conceptual concerns. Back in early nineteenth century Jena, Hegel was already noticing that the religious requirements of art were in steady decline & that spirit can work in freedom from these former constraints. Sure, art can continue to speak to these needs, but can it speak up for itself while avoiding definition? The answer is probably not a yes or a no, since contemporary art, like Hegel, loves its mysteries & its painful obscurities. As art closes itself off from the luxury of ease, we’ll have to, as we’ve noticed, turn to the enlightenment of philosophy to have knowledge this contemporary not-knowing. Thank you G.W.F. Hegel & Mr. Roelstraete.
(MWC) Agamben, Giorgio, “The Man Without Content”, trans. Georgia Albert, Stanford: Stanford U. Press, 1994.
(HL) Hegel, G.W.F., “Hegel’s Logic”, trans. William Wallace, foreword J.N. Findlay, New York: Oxford U. Press, 1975.
(HA) Hegel, G.W.F., “Hegel’s Aesthetics – Lectures on Fine Art, volume I”, trans. T.M. Knox, New York: Oxford U. Press, 1975.