The End of Art

Arthur C. Danto

»Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life and has rather been transfered into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.«1 This is the most forceful of Hegel's many formulations of what we may designate his End-of-art thesis, and it appears very near the beginning of the published version of his Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik, delivered for the fourth and last time in winter-semester 1828, at the University of Berlin. The thesis is so intricately woven into the texture of Hegel's discourse, that it must be regarded as a central and indeed a structural feature of his philosophy of art rather than a critical obiter dictum concerning the art of his time. And it addresses what other philosophers have said about art as much as art itself.
Of course, art will go on being made. There will be art after the end of art. »Art can be used as a fleeting play, affording recreation and entertainment, decorating our surroundings, giving pleasantness to the externals of our life and making other objects stand out by artistic adornment«.2 In this sense art will play any number of roles in what Hegel terms the »objective mind« of society – the system of meanings and practices that constitute the form of existence its members lead. But when he advanced his thesis, Hegel was not speaking of art in terms of objective mind. »The universal need for art … is man's rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his consciousness as an object in which he recognizes again his self3 This is art's highest vocation to which alone any notion of an end of art can truly apply. Hegel's thesis was consistent with art continuing to be made.
In the epilogue to his lecture Vom Urspung des Kunstwerkes Heidegger wrote: »The judgement that Hegel passes in these statements cannot be evaded by pointing out that since his lectures … we have seen many new art works and art movements arise. Hegel did not mean to deny that possibility. The question remains: Is art still an essential and necessary way in which truth is happening, while being decisive for our historical existence, or has art lost this character?«4 Not only that it is too early to strictly verify Hegel's thesis, it did not make a prediction as to the future of art. The thesis primarily concerns not art but our relationship to it. The human progress in self-understanding also means that we can never again relate to art in a way »that it afforded that satisfaction of spiritual needs which earlier ages and nations sought in it«.5 For us art is merely an object of intellectual consideration, and this not for the purpose of producing art again, but of knowing philosophically what art is.«6
Indeed, aesthetic preoccupation with taste testifies to the fact that former relations to art has been superseded. »Taste is directed only to the external surface on which feelings play. So-called good taste takes fright at all the deeper effects of art and is silent when externalities and incidentals vanish.«7 Art is now an object for philosophical study and analysis, but no longer satisfies by itself the deepest needs of the mind. We have outgrown art, so to speak.
If there were going to be a moment when art regained its earlier purpose, it would not be owned to any particular art which came about but because we ourselves might have reverted to an earlier condition. We would not even be able to say that the concerned kind of art were »an essential and necessary way in which truth is happening«. The end of art is reached precisely with that situation: the moment we can question art in terms of being »decisive for our historical existence«, the answer is clear. Otherwise, that is, as long as art does represent truth, no one would wonder whether it does. We cannot undo the history of mind, which has brought us here.
In his notion of mind – different from spirit, which the English language tends to offer instead – Hegel was very close to Descartes, who attempted to prove that he was, essentially and necessarily, a thinking being, ens cogitans. He differed from his predecessors in his maintaining that the activity of thinking implies having a history. In consequence, the various phases of history are also phases of thought expressed as art – »born of the mind and born again«.8 Art, being a product of thought, is still limited by its sensuous means. Hegel's thesis proclaims our liberation from the necessity of finding sensuous equivalents. Thinking has risen above that – limited and limiting – capability of art, and we find, what the mind offers as the more evolved mode, only in philosophy.
Hegel distinguishes three modes of thought: subjective, objective and absolute mind. Subjective mind corresponds to cognitive operations; objective mind is manifested for example in works of art, in political institutions, moral codes, even forms of family life. It is in the perspective of this – defined – objectivity that any theory of art has to be credible, and that the natural subjectivity of the artist is constrained by the structures of the art world. Art becomes a matter of the absolute, when it turns into »one way of bringing to our minds … the deepest interests of mankind and the most comprehensive truths«.9 And it is a superseded moment of absolute mind that art has come to an end.
Art will no doubt »intersperse with its pleasing forms everything from the warpaint of savages to the splendor of temples with all their riches of adornment«10 But trammeled by its dependence upon sensuous means, art is incapable of showing mind to itself. Religion clearly failed to register this limitation, since it recruited art as a way of giving ideas vivid and graphic images: »The advent of art, in a religion still in the bonds of sensuous externality, shows that such religion is on the decline. At the very time it seems to give religion the supreme glorification, expression and brilliancy, it has lifted religion over its limitation …«11 Only, it is now that philosophy has lifted thought over art's inherent limitation. »The spirit of our world today, particularly of our religion, and the development of our reason appears as beyond the stage at which art is the supreme mode of our knowledge of the absolute. The peculiar nature of artistic production and of works of art no longer fills our highest need. We got beyond venerating works of art as divine, and of worshiping them as such. The impression they make is of a more reflective kind, and what they arouse in us needs a higher touchstone and a different test. Thought and reflection have spread their wings above the highest arts.«12
It must be clear from this barest of outlines that Hegel's End-of-art thesis is systematically connected with his own work and rather accidentally connected with the official history of art. He saw art as a staging area in the epic of self-knowledge, and having served in that transitional function, art may lapse back into entertainment and ornamentation, as important as it is in the enhancement of human life. This thesis is the defining idea of his theory of art, and this theory is the heart of his entire system. He could hardly have based his theory of art on an empirical study of art practices, as those studies would have not yielded any clue to art as a phase of absolute mind.
There are deep differences between Hegel's thesis and its variations, come up in the late twentieth century, when it really suggests a summary statement of the actual condition of art.13 Today it is not enunciated as corollary to a philosophical system which presents the absolute mind within its own totality. Philosophy in our times seems to be reduced to a question mark, and its recent history an agony of self-critique. And of course, the intellectual context in which the end of art may currently be addressed is different.
In the first part of his lectures Hegel speaks of the end of the romantic form of art, referring particularly to a set of concepts that defined – especially German – poetry. This romantic concept – if not ideology – held that art is superior to philosophy. So, Hegel's thesis translates into the end of Romanticism in general. »It was proposed that the real religion, the truth and the absolute was to be found in art, and that art towered above philosophy because it was not abstract but contained the idea in the real world, presenting it to concrete contemplation and feeling.«14 Any of Hegel's auditors in 1828 would have heard a characteristic thought of Friedrich Schelling and his invidious comparison between philosophy and art. »Philosophy as philosophy can never be universally valid. Absolute objectivity is given to art alone. If art is deprived of objectivity, one may say, it ceases to be what it is and becomes philosophy; give objectivity to philosophy and it becomes art. Philosophy, to be sure, reaches the highest level, but it brings only a fragment of man to this point, namely to a knowledge of the highest of all. And in this rests the eternal difference and the miracle of art.«15
This, Hegel seems to have insinuated, may have been true at certain stages of history; in his own time it was not anymore. Each of the three stages of art – according to his system: symbolic, classical, romantic – implies different kinds of relationship between art, in its particular form, and its meaning. It is symbolic when it is to be defined as an affinity; it is classical when there is identity; romantic, if any reference to a certain mentality – if not just the artist's subjectivity – explains the meaning of a work. This differentiation itself seemed to become irrelevant: »For artists today, bondage to a particular subject matter and to a mode of portrayal … are something past, and art has become a free instrument in relation to any material.«16
It is astonishing that Hegel saw the end of art in what has since turned out to be total pluralism, although he did foresee a main characteristic of what defines the art world today, where »there is no material that stands in and for itself above this relativity«, and any material can be art »if it does not contradict the formal law of simply being beautiful and capable of artistic treatment«.17 The artist, to paraphrase Marx, can do symbolic art in the morning, classical art at noon, romantic art in the afternoon – and the philosophy of art in the evening.
But it is in the same consequence that artists are no longer the cultural heroes, in a sense almost defining Romanticism itself; and Hegel gives a distinct outline of the further consequence. »The sole thought which philosophy brings to the treatment of history is the simple concept of reason: that reason is the law of the world and that therefore, in world history, things have come about rationally.«18
Instead, the romantic conception of art – and of genius – proved irresistible; it flourished in Wagner and Nietzsche, in the Futurists and the Abstract Expressionists, and it continued to extend its attraction on Adorno. Only late in the twentieth century, through enacting – in concrete artistic practice – the freedom Hegel anticipated, his theory of art has again taken its place at the center of discussion.

1 Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Edited by T.M. Knox, Oxford 1975, p.10.
2 Ibid., p. 7.
3 Ibid., p. 31.
4 Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art, »Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger«, Edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, New York 1964, p. 700.
5 Hegel, op. cit., p. 10.
6 Ibid., p. 11.
7 Ibid., p. 34.
8 Ibid., p. 2.
9 Ibid., p. 7.
10 Ibid., p. 3.
11 Hegel's Philosophy of Mind. Part Three of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Science, Edited by Klaus Brinkmann and Daniel O. Dahlstrom, Oxford 1971, p. 296.
12 Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Edited by T.M. Knox, Oxford 1975, p.10.
13 Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art?, Chicago 1987.
14 Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Edited by T.M. Knox, Oxford 1975, p. 625.
15 Friedrich Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, Charlottesville 1978, p. 374.
16 Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Edited by T.M. Knox, Oxford 1975, p. 605.
17 Ibid.
18 G.W.F. Hegel, Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History, New York 1953, p. 11.