Monday, April 11, 2011

Speight, Allen. Review of Benjamin Rutter, HEGEL ON THE MODERN ARTS. NDPR (April 2011).

Rutter, Benjamin.  Hegel on the Modern Arts.  Cambridge: CUP, 2010.

Hegel's aesthetics has, especially since Henrich and Danto, often been viewed as heralding the "end of art." Those who have taken pains to look more carefully at the text of Hegel's Lectures on Fine Arts have rightly pointed out that Hegel's claims seem to be more precise than this -- that Hegel does not in fact declare the "end of art" in the sense of its death but rather insists that (in T. M. Knox's translation) "the form of art has ceased to be the supreme need of the spirit." The modern aesthetic issue of concern for an Hegelian then, presumably, is not a matter of art's ceasing to exist (although Hegel does sometimes make it sound as though he might think this is not an impossibility -- as for example, when he huffs that with the German poet Jean Paul "art actually ends"), but whether art can matter any longer for those of us who inhabit a modern, rationalistic and bourgeois age.

But those who have attempted to rescue a Hegel whose aesthetics might still be philosophically relevant for at least some of the significant developments in art and literature since his death in 1831 have not always taken up the broader philosophical question about how and why art can still matter (or even -- as is the bolder claim of this book -- be indispensable) for Hegel. And Hegel's defenders as well as his critics have also had the further limitation of resting their claims about what Hegel actually said in his lectures on what remains to this day an unclear textual basis. The most widely used published English version of Hegel's lectures on aesthetics is Knox's two-volume Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, but Knox relied on an edition prepared by Hegel's student H. G. Hotho, and contemporary scholars have been at pains to use the existing transcriptions of those lectures in an effort to pare off the authentic words of Hegel himself from the accretions of his disciple.

English-speaking philosophers interested in Hegel's various Berlin lecture series on topics in the philosophy of spirit have had access for years to good translations of the various Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, thanks to the editorial work of Jaeschke, Hodgson, and others, but there exists to this day no such opportunity for those interested in Hegel's aesthetics. (The situation is in fact worse than this, since not even all of the aesthetics lecture series transcripts have been published yet in German.)

One of the best features of Benjamin Rutter's new book on Hegel's aesthetics is that he has taken care to examine the development of Hegel's views about modern art over the series of lectures Hegel gave on the topic during the 1820s. The conclusions Rutter draws based on his textual work with the German transcripts of the lectures -- that Hegel, for example, was more pessimistic about art's role in modern life in the early part of that decade but tended to soften his views in the final lecture series -- are, moreover, importantly situated in the context of a fine-grained account of Hegel's treatment of various achievements within the artistic genres that he thought mattered most in modernity (certain forms of lyric poetry and Dutch genre painting, especially). . . .


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