Hegel on Art

Beauty, for Hegel, is the mediation between the sensible and the rational. In other words, you need both elements to be able to call something beautiful. Beauty is the rational rendered sensible. This embodiment can happen in three different ways: symbolic art, classical art, and romantic art.

Symbolic Art

Symbolic art is the least adequate form. The sensible merely symbolizes rational content, without transforming it. A lion symbolizes courage, a bird the soul, and a temple the presence of God. The sensible object refers beyond itself to something which is basically mysterious.

The art that is particularly appropriate to this level is architecture (although it can be practiced at all levels). It is the first art, and is the result of necessity. At first it served to bring us into society. The height of architecture was the temple -- the attempt to reach to the infinite. It did not, however, make it past the finite.

Architecture exists, of course, well past the ancient times, but its potential for showing spirit is limited. Early on in Egypt, there was an attempt to represent in architecture, with the Sphinx. However, there was a move back to function with the pyramids. The pyramids have mathematical precision on the outside, and inside there is mystical significance. The Egyptians needed their buildings to have mystery and awe. The Caves of Mithras in Persia give us something like this as well the interior is the "spiritual".

In Greece there was a move forward, according to Hegel. Reason and mathematical precision were important, but they were not there to provoke mystery and awe, but to communicate clarity. In fact, sometimes the demands of clarity come in conflict with the demands of mathematics, and then, clarity wins out. The columns of the Parthenon, for instance, are tapered. They deviate from mathematics, but they contribute to a unity of the building. The problem for Greece is that this clarity eventually runs its course. The unity of the cosmos gives way to the tranquillity of the person. So, we end up with the Stoics, who are chiefly concerned with personal tranquillity, and this is a bridge to Rome (Stoicism is an important philosophy there).

In Rome precision is no longer a virtue; rather, comfort is. The buildings were not there to communicate clarity, or for that matter mystery, but now power. So, mundane values are represented, rather than celestial ones. In fact, what for the Greeks would have been central to the structure of the building, in Rome becomes mere quotations. The Arch of Titus, for instance, has merely decorative columns. They quote Greece, without being intrinsic to the building. Same with the Colosseum.

By the Christian era there is the need to express the spirit. Early on the Christians draw on pagan elements, but over time this gets "purified". Matter needed to reflect the infinite in both the exterior and interior. This meant that great size and height was needed. Hence, the development of Gothic architecture. Hegel considers it the highest plane of architecture as an art form. It directs the mind to a higher reality. Indeed, technical advances such as the flying buttresses solve the problem of how to put large windows in what would have been supporting walls. Pointed and vaulted ceilings add to the sense of height, as opposed to the Romanesque arch, which was round. Gothic architecture stresses height wherever possible everything reaches to infinity.

To Hegel, this kind of architecture is evidence of a more advanced mind, not just in its technical ability, but in the way it reflects on the infinite. This kind of architecture is only possible with a philosophical and religious system such as Christianity. It is more advanced than the Greek ideal. For the Greeks, the emphasis was on the perfection within humanity; for the Christians, only God is perfect, and we are struggling and suffering. Gothic architecture represents the striving upwards, rather than the sense that the rational world is already before us.

But in the final analysis even Gothic architecture is limited. Architecture can never be as important for art as the contents which it encloses. It cannot give us insight into living beings themselves. These limitations were realized all the way back to the Egyptians, and were realized in other cultures. This is why other art forms develop.

Classical Art

Classical art is better, in that it gives expression to the rational content. The statue of the human body does not point to something beyond it, but means to represent the beauty of the body. A temple makes us think of the God, but is not the God.

The art that is appropriate to this level is Sculpture (although again it is practiced at all levels). In architecture, the stone simply makes the house of the god; in sculpture, it is formed into the shape of the god. So, it is not a mindless symbol, but a unified expression. The height of sculpture is the Greek age.

Sculpture is in a way a natural extension of architecture. The physical material used is often similar. Hegel's view of sculpture in Egypt or India is that the lack of a clearly developed philosophy prevented them from producing sculpture that had a clear and distinct subject matter. But by the time of Greece, there is a sufficiently clear philosophy that could produce a clear subject matter. The Greeks could represent divinity, and not just by using size. The key was to use the human body. It is a unique combination of stuff that most fully actualizes spirit in the world.

The human form is more than just imitation, for the Greeks. There is no point in just imitating any old body under some conditions we are more like the animals. We ought to represent the Idea. This does not mean that the idea has fully been realized, but it is closer than architecture, at least. And, it is closer than the myths which would have made the gods into animal form. Animals are ambiguous in the natural world, and the same animal can have different associations in different cultures and sometimes even in the same culture. The wolf was a good animal to the Egyptians, but an evil one to the Greeks.

So, human form is significant. It is divinity manifest on earth. But what actions and attributes give divinity to the human form? First, the being that personifies a god must be represented as more than merely mortal. The being represented cannot be ill or suffering. It is a permanent being, ageless. This does not mean that the being is not part of the human world, but rather participates in it while being the very embodiment of its perfections. The being represented also has no defects at all, particularly facial features.

The statue is not made without a consideration of where it will be placed. The statue must be placed where freedom and tranquillity can be realized. So, churches or temples are the best place for statues.

Statues do have limitations, though. They cannot portray the complexity of the emotional life, for instance. Colour isn't commonly used, for instance. There are painted sculptures, but Hegel thinks that that distracts from what sculptures do best, which is to capture form. We want to have captured what is typical or permanent of a person, the kind of thing a biography might capture. So, this is not just idealization, because there is a specific figure in mind. It is that figure at its most typical. The incidental is left beside, the permanent is captured.

It is important again to distinguish Greek sculpture from Egyptian. Egyptians did lots of sculptures, but Hegel argues that they tended to capture the figure in some heroic act. There are rigid conventions that govern representation, and the skill of the artist does not show through at all. There is no attempt at realism; there is always rigidity and lack of expression.

Only with the Greeks does the full realization of the depiction of form come to pass. Hegel is clear about why Greek statue is superior. There are more "natural", flowing curves. The carving of the face tones down animality and emphasizes rationality. The nose is symmetrical and part of the whole, rather than an organ fulfilling a need. The forehead is wide (a feature not found in animals), which signifies wisdom and virtue. The eye, ironically, doesn't add much to the spiritual quality, at least in sculpture, and is rendered naturalistically. Only with painting do eyes become important. The mouth is important. The best work should show the mouth slightly open, without the teeth showing. This is necessary because the mouth "when...we are absorbed in visionless thought...opens slightly and the angles of the mouth are to an appreciable extent inclined downwards." The chin should be full and round this conveys both repose and strength. Too much or too little chin gives the impression of weakness or on the other hand, concern only with the physical. Having the statue standing was also significant "as soon as consciousness begins to awaken, man wrests himself from the animal chains of the earth, and stands straight in free independence." Any other position suggests subordination, dependence, or animality. Hegel didn't approve of nudes, thinking this convention to be used only of lower beings. When the sculptor is dealing with the highest of values, Hegel thinks he clothes the figures, reducing the physicality.

The sculpture sometimes incorporates external objects to give identity to the subject. So, Zeus is often accompanied by an eagle, Venus by a hare, Juno by a peacock, etc. These are not all that reliable, though, since the same object or animal can be associated with several gods.

There are limits to sculpture, though. For the Greeks, the demands of representing infinite gods in finite form were more than the sculptures could bear. The result, Hegel thinks, was that the sculptures ended up having melancholic characteristics. They seem aloof, even arrogant, but it is supposed to be disinterest. But the statues still cannot communicate all that is associated with godhood. The result is that the statues lose their place as the highest art form. And, sculpture becomes humanized, so that over time they depict actual actions, and there are even group sculptures.

Christian sculpture is minor it is usually embellishment for architecture. The only sculptor that Hegel gives any credit to is Michaelangelo, who he thought combined a classical form with a romantic imagination (see next section, for romantics). However, this doesn't get very far, and we need to move to the next stage of art romantic art.

Romantic Art

Romantic art embodies the Christian ideals of the freedom and infinite value of the individual. Romantic art takes us to the realm of subjectivity and self-consciousness. The rational form of earlier art is retained, but there is also an attempt to represent the spirit. Romantic art is more complex than symbolic, and more free than classical. The limitations of both are recognized, and as the Greeks realized beauty resides in the spirit and refers to a things essence, not its matter. So the romantic artist finds ways to represent the tension between the ideal part and the animal part. Struggle becomes important. This becomes clear through the Christian story, in which god becomes human. The Greeks could never have a divine that truly understands the finite. But the Christian story has this element as part of it. Each individual substance partakes of divinity. That means that the artist tries to convey the finiteness and concreteness of human existence, but also the impression of profundity and understanding. Abstractions will not do. Individuality has to be combined with universality. But individuality cannot take over entirely, or the divinity is lost. So, the human ability to love is important to portray. In fact, the portrayal of love becomes one of the central differences between earlier art and Christian art. While it is central, it is extremely difficult to bring into being. How do you show an inner emotion with outward appearances? There is no necessary connection between the two the same emotion can give rise to many expressions. Hegel thinks, though, that within every culture there are some physical features that are twken to signify wisdom, foresight, love, or whatever.

The romantic artist must deal with the spiritually uplifting aspects of Christianity. In part, this meant dealing with honour, which Hegel saw as being unique to the Christian (particularly mediaeval) period. Not even the Greeks had this. But honour is actually a perversion of Christian love, as it is a concern for the self, and the resulting vulnerability that comes from that. Also, it does not have the ethical base honour is defined in terms of itself, rather than the essential rightness or wrongness of an action. A man of honour can do terrible things. Likewise, mediaeval notions of love are also a perversion of Christian love. Mediaeval love does not have the ethical basis. It is also not spiritual (which is what Hegel thinks rules out most Greek discussions of love they still have some element of the physical). After honour and love, fidelity is the third mediaeval notion that Hegel thinks is inadequate for a true Christian view of art. Fidelity implies a lack of equality, for Hegel. In fact, Hegel argues that fidelity actually leads to a lack of trust. You are faithful because of the form of life, not because of some interior compulsion.

So, the goal is to get beyond these things.

The art appropriate to the romantic level is painting, music, and poetry, again practised at all levels to a certain degree. These forms are more "ideal". Painting reduced three dimensions to two, and as such space is rendered "more inward" and subjective. A further step to this is music. It abandons space altogether, as well as sight and touch. Finally, poetry is the height of subjectivity, for it substitutes words for thoughts. It is here that the mind has become free, and no longer needs external sensible material. It best fulfills the best that art can be -- the revelation of the eternal and divine in sensible form.


We need to go back to sculpture, and its successes and failures. Sculpture was the first real step toward representing the idea in concrete form architecture alludes to the idea, but does not represent it. But it cannot represent human personality. It cannot represent motion, nor can it deal very well with conflict.

Painting can do these things. In reducing the three dimensional world to two dimensions, the artist is freed from the limitations of the material world. The painter can deal with emotions, yet Hegel thinks that Plato was wrong to think that the painter is just an imitator. The painter doesn't deal with all emotions. He captures the one moment of transcendence amidst all the other fleeting emotions we have.

Now, not all painting did this. Egyptian painting, Hegel argues, did not capture the emotion of the mother-child relationship when Isis is portrayed with Horus on her knee. Byzantine art is an improvement, but it follows the Greek tradition in painting of stiffness and lifelessness. There is no psychological presence.

With Italian art there is the beginning of warmth and spirituality. Giotto finally is able to minimize the influence of the Byzantine. Despite this, Giotto doesn't go far enough in this for Hegel. The development of individuality continues with painters like Fra Angelico, but finally comes to its highest peak with Da Vinci, Raphael, Correggio, and Titian. Giotto had tried to fuse emotion with formalism, but Da Vinci and Raphael perfect it. Raphael also manages to unite the highest feelings of religion with a complete knowledge and respect for the natural world, along with an insight for the beauty of the antique.

The chief virtue of romantic painting, however, is in its subject matter. While the mediaeval painter had lots of religious images at his disposal, the problem was still the one of how to represent God. So, the Christ figure becomes more suitable for painters. But how to paint Christ? He was not just a wise man, so you had to use more than the devices of portraying wisdom. You had to capture it in the face just using a halo wasn't good enough.

Other religious subjects were of interest to the artist as well. Praying was important in mediaeval painting as well; the romantic artist had to find ways of portraying the expression of the supplicant that was unambiguous.

Other subject matter than religious was used as well, but it couldn't be just anything. Even if it was of something from everyday existence, the moment had to be chosen in which people were acting according to some ideal. The painting can't make us think of practical matters, because then we are not having an aesthetic emotion. Art must avoid practicality, by which Hegel means that art must draw us toward the ideal.

Another common subject matter was portrait painting. Again, the Renaissance, which is the beginning of romanticism in art, represents a move forward from mediaeval treatments of portraits. The romantic artist gives us a picture of the inner personality of the subject. Titian is a good example of this for Hegel. Durer also does this well. The problem is to avoid imitating the superficial personality that the subject might project as a mask in society. No amiable little smiles, which suggests a kind of insipid sweetness.

Technique is important, and particularly the use of colour. If an artist cannot use colour well, Hegel thinks he will not be a great artist. So, Raphael and Durer are good examples, because they not only have the control of line, but also colour. Colour bears an indefinite number of meanings. Along with the use of colour, colour harmony is important. A truly great painting uses an ordered system of colour. If a painting did not include the four cardinal colours, blue, yellow, red, and green, Hegel thought it couldn't be a very successful painting.

Hegel thinks that as the romantic age wanes, art moves toward secular subjects. This signifies the deterioration of painting. Ultimately, we get not only bad subjects, but bad technique as well.


Music, of course, has been around the whole time, but music picks up where painting leaves off for Hegel. This is because we have another move. Sculpture to painting was a move from three to two dimensions. Painting to music is a move from two dimensions to one that of time. Music captures inner emotions better than painting. Painting only gives us the obvious emotions; music gives us all the shadings of emotion. Music ignores imagery, and this means that the universal is able to be expressed better. Hegel thinks that music does not have anything but aesthetic appeal it does not have the chance of being "corrupted" by practical concerns the way painting does.

Furthermore, music is immediate. We express emotion audibly, and this can be captured in music much more easily than painting. There are similarities between the two, and analogies as well, in "colour", in symmetry, harmony, etc.

The fact that music takes place in time instead of space is important for Hegel. This requires greater mental presence, if only in the form of memory, and as such involves the listener in ways that painting does not involve the viewer. And since consciousness itself evolves in time rather than in space, it more closely matches our own minds. Furthermore, music makes us aware of time in a way that we are not usually aware of it, through rhythm. It signifies a set of Nows that we live.

Through dissonances and resolutions, music is able to signify the tensions and triumphs of the human spirit and of religion.

Music is also something not found at all in nature. The materials of sculpture and painting are found there, but music is an entirely human creation. Nature produces lots of noises, but it is never organized musically (Hegel argues).

So what is the limit of music? Music only gives us an abstract feeling of unity, without any specific content. Only poetry will give both the emotion and the content.


Poetry represents the ultimate stage of art. Painting gives a kind of unity, but the greatness of humanity only appears in action and painting isn't very good at portraying action. Music gives the emotion, but it only vaguely points to a particular content. Poetry gives both the unity of subject and emotion, action and intention, individual and universal, mundane and sacred. Poetry has everything that every other art form has, and raises it all to the level of the self-conscious.

The important kinds of poetry for Hegel are epic poetry, in which an ideal objective action is depicted while the poet remains in the background; lyrical poetry, in which the poet's own feelings and desires permeate the actions that are being described; and dramatic poetry, which combines both.

It should be noted that, ultimately Hegel thinks that even romantic art runs its course. It can no longer deliver the elevated forms, or the meeting of spirit and body. So, art reverts to its former preoccupations, and becomes less concerned with the Idea. Art runs into a wall that only true religion can deliver it from, and religion itself runs into a wall that only philosophy can deliver it from.