G.W.F. Hegel
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Selections from
Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art


Development of the Ideal in the Special Forms Of Art

In the first part of this work we have had under consideration the realisation of the idea of the beautiful as constituting the ideal in art, however numerous may be the different phases under which the conception of the ideal is presented to our view, all these determinations are only related to the work of art considered in a general way.

Now, the idea of the beautiful as the absolute idea contains a totality of distinct elements, or of essential moments, which as such, must manifest themselves outwardly and become realised. Thus are produced what we may call, in general, the Special Forms of Art.

These must be considered as the development of those ideas which the conception of the ideal contains within it, and which art brings to light. Thus its development is not accomplished by virtue of an external activity, but by the specific force inherent in the idea itself so that the Idea, which develops itself in a totality of particular forms, is what the world of art presents us.

In the second place, if the forms of art find their principle in the idea which they manifest, this, on the contrary, is truly the idea only when it is realised in its appropriate forms. Thus, to each particular stage which art traverses in its development, there is immediately joined a real form. It is, then, indifferent whether we consider the progress as shown in the development of the idea, or in that of the forms which realise it, since these two terms are closely united, the one to the other, and since the perfecting of the idea as matter appears no less clearly than does the perfecting of form.

Hence, imperfection of the artistic form betrays itself also as imperfection of idea. If, then, at the origin of art, we encounter forms which, compared with the true ideal, are inadequate to it, this is not to be understood in the sense in which we are accustomed to say of works of art that they are defective, because they express nothing, or are incapable of attaining to the idea which they ought to express. The idea of each epoch always finds its appropriate and adequate form, and these are what we designate as the special forms of art. The imperfection or the perfection can consist only in the degree of relative truth which belongs to the idea itself; for the matter must first be true, and developed in itself before it can find a perfectly appropriate form.

We have, in this respect, three principal forms to consider:

1. The first is the Symbolic Form. Here the idea seeks its true expression in art without finding it; because, being still abstract and indefinite, it cannot create an external manifestation which conforms to its real essence. It finds itself in the presence of the phenomena of nature and of the events of human life, as if confronted by a foreign world. Thus it exhausts itself in useless efforts to produce a complete expression of conceptions vague and ill defined; it perverts and falsifies the forms of the real world which it seizes in arbitrary relations. Instead of combining and identifying, of blending totally the form and the idea, it arrives only at a superficial and abstract agreement between them. These two terms, thus brought into connection, manifest their disproportion and heterogeneity.

2. But the idea, in virtue of its very nature, cannot remain thus in abstraction and indetermination. As the principle of free activity, it seizes itself in its reality as spirit. The spirit, then, as free subject, is determined by and for itself, and in thus determining itself it finds in its own essence its appropriate outward form. This unity, this perfect harmony between the idea and its external manifestation, constitutes the second form of art — the Classic Form.

Here art has attained its perfection, in so far as there is reached a perfect harmony between the idea as spiritual individuality, and the form as sensuous and corporeal reality. All hostility between the two elements has disappeared, in order to give place to a perfect harmony.

3. Nevertheless, spirit cannot rest with this form, which is not its complete realisation. To reach this perfect realisation, spirit must pass beyond the classic form, must arrive at a spirituality, which, returning upon itself, descends into the depths of its own inmost nature in the classic form, indeed, not withstanding its generality, spirit reveals itself with a Special determinate character; it does not escape from the finite. Its external form, as a form altogether visible, is limited. The matter, the idea itself, because there is perfect fusion, must present the same character. Only the finite spirit is able to unite itself with external manifestation so as to form an indissoluble unity.

When the idea of beauty seizes itself as absolute or infinite Spirit, it also at the same time discovers itself to be no longer completely realised in the forms of the external world; it is only in the internal world of consciousness that it finds, as spirit, its true unity. It breaks up then this unity which forms the basis of Classical Art; it abandons the external world in order to take refuge within itself. This is what furnishes the type of the Romantic Form. Sensuous representation, with its images borrowed from the external world, no longer sufficing to express free spirituality, the form becomes foreign and indifferent to the idea. So that Romantic Art thus reproduces the separation of matter and form, but from the side opposite to that from which this separation takes place in Symbolic Art.

As a summary of the foregoing, we may say that Symbolic Art seeks this perfect unity of the idea with the external form; Classic Art finds it, for the senses and the imagination, in the representation of spiritual individuality; Romantic Art transcends it in its infinite spirituality, which rises above the visible world.

Part I: Of the Symbolic Form of Art

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