Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hegel and the Ideal in Art

The scene in African Queen where Humphrey Bogart has to get back into the water knowing about the leeches came to mind recently. I saw the picture of his reluctant face the other day when I picked up Hegel again for the second half of my reading assignment. Hegel's prose is often dense and difficult to understand, I don't usually agree with it when I do understand it, and much of it I don't enjoy reading. (No two of those reactions necessarily go together.) But I hold my determination to read to the end because so much of the academic work I read refers to Hegel.

In my last post, I called Potok's The Book of Lights a book about everything. Hegel certainly intended for his philosophical writings to cover everything. In various places, he addresses being and nothingness, God, man, mind and matter, logic, ethics, politics, economics, psychology, world history, art, religion, and philosophy. Stephen Houlgate's Hegel Reader for Blackwell Press admirably brings together pertinent excerpts from each of his works and, as hard as parts of it are to read, shows that Hegel saw his philosophy as a unified system that explained Everything.

I could certainly be wrong about this, but it occurred to me the other day that I don't know of anyone who has adopted Hegelian ethics as a way of life. Marx famously adopted (and adapted) Hegel's view of history as unfolding in a determined order. Houlgate mentions many other famous thinkers who have drawn inspiration from Hegel's logic, theology, psychology, and aesthetics. And from my training as a music theorist, I know that Moritz Hauptman applied Hegel's philosophy of Becoming to musical structure. But I don't know of anyone who has decided to live as a Hegelian, and that lack stands as an indictment against Hegel, because his work is supposed to hang together as one coherent system. Apparently it does not.

So when I say that recently I have read some things in Hegel that I liked, I'm not saying that his system suddenly looks more plausible. An unaimed weapon sometimes hits its mark, and a stopped clock is right twice a day. The first passage that captured my interest concerns the Ideal in art. Art should reveal the Ideal, Hegel says, and the Ideal is serene. The Ideal has no need for change or agitation. The best art then depicts joy and peace. Dissonance, sorrow, and ugliness have their place, but they must be presented in a spirit of "joyful submission." "Shrieking," he says. "whether of grief or of mirth, is not music at all. Even in suffering, the sweet tone of lament must sound through the griefs and alleviate them, so that it seems to us worth while so to suffer as to understand this lament."

This view makes some sense to me. I certainly prefer singing to shrieking, and I find laments the most satisfying or comforting when they convey an element of sweetness and understanding. But sometimes music full of shouting is right for the moment, and sometimes a bitter lesson must be swallowed. I scolded the schools in a recent post for teaching only authors such as Fitzgerald and Crane. I only meant to suggest that curricula balance these books with others of a different outlook. My complaint certainly doesn't extend to these authors themselves or their works. The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, and Death of a Salesman are beautiful works of art for all of their message of despair. They may be about loss, death, and "the horror," yet this literature, too, has its serenity in its form, in its honesty, in its appeal to an audience for sympathy. Schoenberg's unrelieved dissonance reveals a deep truth in its use of music to express the anguished heart.

Now I think that bad art exists. Its fault could come from unskilled mishandling of the artist's original intentions, from an intention to portray a dangerous ethic, from a dishonest misrepresentation of the human condition, or (and we've all been there) simply from a shallow vision not ultimately worth the time of the audience. But can one make art that is entirely ugly? Does bad art -- bad in any of the four ways just suggested -- truly have no value at all? Humans don't make art ex nihilo. Are not the materials beautiful because provided by the Creator? Is not the simplest, most unskilled human action in itself wondrous to behold? We certainly think so in the case of our own children. It seems to me that the Ideal can be found in a poem, song, or painting despite the least skill or the worst of intentions. Perhaps it's just that some art conveys the Ideal without demanding so much charity and searching on the part of the audience.

I have no answers for the flip side of this question, but it intrigues me. Can beautiful art exist without any element of pain? Even art intended to direct its human audience to the contemplation of the Divine must speak to that human audience, and those humans live in pain. They live in need of being directed to the Divine because their lives are far from Ideal. So it seems that even the happiest art, if it is to be good and honest, must have dissonances and conflicts to resolve. The reason Barney the Dinosaur was so hard for me to watch as a parent was that the kids on the show were always happy and kind (and that Barney had no elbows).

And yet what will music be like in Heaven? Will "those wounds" truly be "yet visible above" in the city where God promises no sorrow or pain? Will the music of the Blessed Realm still reflect separation, sorrow, and sin? Will it be beautiful without the element of pain that beauty requires here? Will it be less than beautiful? None of these three scenarios makes sense to me. I ponder such things, but I also know that the physics of the new heaven and earth may be so new that dissonance will be completely different or even impossible.

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