Sunday, January 14, 2007

The highest vocation is self-knowledge; Art went as far as it can in this direction

What Is Progressive Art? Reginald Shepherd
The concepts of aesthetically progressive or reactionary art, of avant-garde or rearguard art, depend upon a teleological idea of history that derives from Hegel and has been mostly fully developed in relation to the arts by the art critic Clement Greenberg and by the philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto, who writes, in very Hegelian terms, that “it is possible to read twentieth-century art as the collective quest for the essence and nature of art” (“Approaching the End of Art”). I would like to offer a brief sketch of the history of this teleological notion of the history of art, in order to better illuminate what such terms as “progressive” or “avant-garde” art might mean for us today. This is in no way intended as a comprehensive survey, nor do I necessarily endorse the positions laid out here. I present them for consideration, as an historical perspective is often missing in discussions of the avant-garde.1
In Hegel’s theory of history, outlined in his Introduction to the Theory of History, published in 1832, the course of history is the progress of Spirit (Geist) coming to consciousness of itself as Spirit, of consciousness coming to awareness of itself as consciousness. History is the self-realization of Spirit. Freedom is Spirit’s essence, and its goal is the complete realization of freedom, which Hegel defines as full self-consciousness: Spirit’s unique capacity both to know and to be what it knows, to be simultaneously the object and the subject of knowledge. Every civilization represents Spirit’s partial self-knowledge, and each civilization is superseded as Spirit moves on to a fuller self-realization. Though I will be using the term Spirit throughout this piece, in keeping with the standard translations, Geist can also be rendered as Mind, or even as Consciousness.
In his Philosophy of Fine Art (published posthumously from lecture notes in 1835), Hegel works out this historical theory in terms of the arts. The history of art is the history of Spirit’s search for material embodiment, seeking out forms that can physically manifest its inner tensions and resolutions. As Danto writes, “The story of art is the story of art’s role in the grand history of the spirit.”...
For Clement Greenberg, the modern history of visual art is constituted by each medium’s search for what is intrinsic and essential to it and each medium’s discarding of all that is extrinsic and inessential, in particular whatever is shared by other media. “It seems to be a law of modernism—thus one that applies to almost all art that remains truly alive in our time—that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized…. And it is understood, I hope, that conventions are overhauled, not for revolutionary effect, but in order to maintain the irreplaceability and renew the vitality of art in the face of a society bent in principle on rationalizing everything. It is understood, too, that the devolution of tradition cannot take place except in the presence of tradition” (“‘American-Type’ Painting”). Interestingly, Greenberg sees the history of literature, in this sense, as having ended before that of painting: “This process of self-purification appears to have come to a halt in literature simply because the latter has fewer conventions to eliminate before arriving at those essential to it (“‘American-Type’ Painting”)...
The philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto has further developed this Hegelian model. Whereas for Greenberg the history of modern art is the story of each medium discovering and reducing itself to its essence, for Danto that history is the story of the pursuit of the smallest distinction between art and life, the zero degree of difference. For Danto, this zero degree was reached with Andy Warhol’s Brillo box, which posed the question of why one object is art when objects identical to it are not...
In Danto’s summation,“this means returning art to the serving of largely human [and/or individual] ends…. It is no mean thing for art that it should now be an enhancement of human life. And it was in its capacity as such an enhancement that Hegel supposed that art would go on even after it had come to an end. It is only that he did not suppose happiness to be the highest vocation to which a spiritual existence is summoned. For him, the highest vocation is self-knowledge, and this he felt was to be achieved by philosophy. Art went as far as it can in this direction, toward philosophy, in the present century. This is what he would have meant by saying [that] art reaches its end. The comparison with philosophy is not intended as invidious. Philosophy too comes to an end, but unlike art it really must stop when it reaches its end, for there is nothing for it to do when it has fulfilled its task” (“Approaching the End of Art”)....Posted by Reginald Shepherd at 4:21 PM Saturday, January 13, 2007

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