The Design of History

Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) was one of the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century. Among the fathers of Idealism, he applied inventively the logical method of dialectic to investigate history and its phenomena. According to the philosopher, the world develops through the contrast of opposite factors which operate in it. The core agent in Hegel’s system is the Geist (Spirit), a force striving for self-knowledge. There are several Geists, each of them expressing the ethos of a specific individual, institution, or historical period. Above these particular entities, Hegel places the Absolute Spirit, the very Spirit of the World which is made manifest through philosophy, religion, and art. Therefore, art becomes a medium of expression for the metaphysical forces supporting the world and allows men to investigate the nature of the Spirit itself.

Hyena Stomp – Frank Stella – 1962

According to Hegel, art and its historical development are influenced by three factors. First, the Spirit, whose aim is self-knowledge, to be reached through artistic expression. Second, the Idea, a divine feature which influences art in conformity with the nature of God. Third, the physical reality. In this way, art is the product of a conflict between transcendental and physical forces acting through nature. The result and the degree of its perfection depend on the harmony between these components. Starting from these premises, Hegel investigates the history of the visual arts from Antiquity to his own days. Having defined art as transcendental in its origins, the philosopher can thus use it to speculate about the human nature and the design of history as a unitary phenomenon.

Variation II – Frank Stella – 1970

.The history of art is the history of self-discovery of the Spirit through sensuous forms. Pre-classical art (Hegel delves into the case of Ancient Egypt) is influenced by what the philosopher calls a “symbolical” mentality, which struggles to accept the forms of the Idea in their material expression. This results in exaggerated, distorted shapes, the fruit of a difficult integration between the transcendental and physical dimensions. This struggle ends with classical art when the Greek mentality, based on the figuration of the gods as visible, human-like beings, reconciles Idea and materiality. In a cyclical development, the struggle returns in “Romantic” art (in fact, Hegel uses this term to indicate the entirety of Christian art). In the same way as the body of Christ is mortified and ridiculed on the Cross, so the religious world cannot find material expression through harmonic beauty anymore. The ending point of this process of rising and decline is the Protestant Reformation when representation stops being a medium to reach the divine. This leads to the end of art as a form of transcendental expression.

Harran II – Frank Stella – 1967

Hegel and his thought have always exercised a deep fascination on art historians. The potential of his system lies in the way it can be used to read reality in its entirety. Presenting all phenomena as deeply interconnected, Hegel allows the scholar to speculate on the mutual relation between different spheres, using the characteristic aura of each historical period as binding material. In fact, Hegel does not consider the critical connotations of a specific age as critical a posteriori concepts, devised by intellectuals to unify rationally a variety of independent factors. Rather, he sees these as underlying characteristics of a given time, which can be understood through the agency of the Zeitgeist. While this idea is tempting in the way it presents reality as a rational unitary system, we should always remember the necessity of isolating single characters and events, recognising the role of individuality in the development of the broader design of history.


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Hyena Stomp

Variation II

Harran II

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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