This piece is quite substantially revised from its original appearance on this blog several months ago. Though I replaced the original with this revision, I doubt that many readers have had occasion to go back to it.
The concepts of aesthetically progressive or reactionary art, of avant-garde or rearguard art, depend upon a teleological idea of history that derives from Hegel and has been mostly fully developed in relation to the arts by the art critic Clement Greenberg and by the philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto, who writes, in very Hegelian terms, that “it is possible to read twentieth-century art as the collective quest for the essence and nature of art” (“Approaching the End of Art,” The State of the Art 204). I would like to offer a brief sketch of the history of this teleological notion of the history of art, in order to better illuminate what such terms as “progressive” or “avant-garde” art might mean for us today, especially given that, as Adorno points out, “the concept of progress is less directly applicable to art than it is to technical forces of production” (Aesthetic Theory 296). This is in no way intended as a comprehensive survey, nor do I necessarily endorse the positions laid out here. I present them for consideration, as an historical perspective is often missing in discussions of the avant-garde. This discussion also raises the point made by Dana Arnold "that setting up the idea of artistic progress...implies that there is an end" to the history of art, an implication whose ramifications and consequences are worth considering.
In Hegel’s theory of history, outlined in his Introduction to the Theory of History, published in 1832, the course of history is the progress of Spirit (Geist) coming to consciousness of itself as Spirit, of consciousness coming to awareness of itself as consciousness. History is the self-realization of Spirit. Freedom is Spirit’s essence, and its goal is the complete realization of freedom, which Hegel defines as full self-consciousness: Spirit’s unique capacity both to know and to be what it knows, to be simultaneously the object and the subject of knowledge. Every civilization represents Spirit’s partial self-knowledge, and each civilization is superseded as Spirit moves on to a fuller self-realization. Though I will be using the term Spirit throughout this piece, in keeping with the standard translations, Geist can also be rendered as Mind, or even as Consciousness.
In his Philosophy of Fine Art (published posthumously from lecture notes in 1835), Hegel works out this historical theory in terms of the arts. The history of art is the history of Spirit’s search for material embodiment, seeking out forms that can physically manifest its inner tensions and resolutions. As Danto writes, “The story of art is the story of art’s role in the grand history of the spirit” ("Approaching the End of Art," The State of the Art 211).
In symbolic art, Spirit is only half-expressed, attempting to assert itself against its antithesis, matter, and finding expression in architectural forms like the Egyptian pyramids. At this stage, Spirit has not found a proper or adequate relationship to matter, is still unable to fully shape what Hegel calls “the purely material substance of nature.” Thus, the relationship between object and meaning, matter and Spirit, is abstract and arbitrary. Spirit overflows and cannot be contained within its material embodiment.
In classical art, in Charles Altieri’s summation, “the emphasis shifts to celebrating the integration of spirit with sensuous matter,” the consecration of the sensuous, which we see in the idealized yet meticulously realistic figures of classical Greek sculpture, in which the body is raised up to the level of the sacred while still remaining wholly body. In classical art we find the perfect balance between idea and embodiment, content and form, Spirit and matter: as Hegel writes, “It is, in fact, the free and adequate embodiment of the idea in the shape which…is uniquely appropriate to the idea itself.”
Finally, in romantic art, art becomes its own medium, the expression of Spirit in art itself, not merely in the objects represented in art. Just as symbolic art is exemplified by architecture and classical art by sculpture, Romantic art is exemplified by painting, music, and poetry, in ascending order of freedom, idealization, and self-realization. Poetry is the highest art form, for its sensuousness is created by the mind, not by its materials. “In this way romantic art must be regarded as art transcending itself…in the form of itself.”
In symbolic art, Spirit both overflows and is overwhelmed by matter. In classical art, Spirit finds its perfect embodiment in matter. In romantic art, Spirit triumphs over and withdraws from matter, moving from the external to the inner world. (Thus symbolic art and romantic art mirror one another: in each case there is a disproportion between Spirit and matter.) In Hegel’s system, at this point art is superseded by philosophy, in which Spirit achieves its full and final articulation as Idea. So for Hegel, the history of art ends in the nineteenth century—not coincidentally, with the advent of his own philosophy. “According to Hegel, art was once the adequate mode of expression for spirit but has since ceased to be so” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 297). But the end of the history of art is not the end of art. In Hegel’s words, “One may well hope that art will continue to advance and perfect itself, but its form has ceased to be the highest need of the spirit.”
Hegel writes that “Poetry is…the universal art of the mind, which has become essentially free, and which is not fettered in its realization to an externally sensuous material, but which is creatively active in the space and time belonging to the inner world of ideas and emotion. Yet it is precisely in this its highest phase, that art terminates, by transcending itself: it is just here that it deserts the medium of harmonious presentation of mind in sensuous shape and passes from the poetry of imaginative idea into the prose of thought.” That is to say, as Spirit abandons the external world for the inner world, it also abandons the realm of sensuous embodiment, which art represents, for the realm of abstract thought, represented by philosophy.
Given the current debates regarding avant-garde, post-avant, or progressive poetry, it’s interesting to note that for Hegel poetry is the most progressive of the arts. Indeed it’s the end of art, both its culmination and its conclusion. Architecture is less ideal than sculpture, which is less ideal than painting, which is less ideal than music (which doesn’t represent objects but sheer temporal order), which is less ideal than poetry, which eschews physical sensuousness for mental, virtual sensuousness. Thus poetry is the most philosophical of the arts. Since philosophy, dealing as it does with pure concept, is in turn more ideal than poetry, it then succeeds and supersedes poetry. This list represents both temporal succession and synchronic distinction: the movement of Spirit is continually from embodiment to articulation.
For Clement Greenberg, the modern history of visual art is constituted by each medium’s search for what is intrinsic and essential to it and each medium’s discarding of all that is extrinsic and inessential, in particular whatever is shared by other media. “It seems to be a law of modernism—thus one that applies to almost all art that remains truly alive in our time—that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized…. And it is understood, I hope, that conventions are overhauled, not for revolutionary effect, but in order to maintain the irreplaceability and renew the vitality of art in the face of a society bent in principle on rationalizing everything. It is understood, too, that the devolution of tradition cannot take place except in the presence of tradition” (“‘American-Type’ Painting,” Art and Culture 208-209).
Interestingly, Greenberg sees the history of literature, in this sense, as having ended before that of painting: “This process of self-purification appears to have come to a halt in literature simply because the latter has fewer conventions to eliminate before arriving at those essential to it (op. cit. 208). It is not clear to me what Greenberg refers to here, but literature ill-fits this model of the reduction of the medium to its essence. The possibility that progress in literature has ended earlier than in other artistic media is grounded in the limitations of such a process in the literary field, and in the field of language as such. Those limits were reached early in the twentieth century, in such experiments as Dadaist and zaum sound poetry and concrete poetry.
Language, the medium of literature, has no essence: it exists as and in relation, liminality, it is all betweenness. Language is neither marks on a writing surface nor sounds in the air, in the ear; nor is it pure thought or feeling. It is the interaction and interrelation between these states. To what essence would literature reduce itself, when it can be said that everything about language is extraneous? Language can abandon neither sense and reference (not the same thing) nor physical presence and still remain language. This presents an insurmountable obstacle to progress in literature as Greenberg defines it.
The history of modern art is also the story of the shedding of what is conventionally called subject matter, the elimination of representation: “Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself” (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,"
Art and Culture 6).
The history of modern painting is the story of the abandonment of sculptural effects (just as modern sculpture abandons pictorial effects) and of the illusion of three-dimensional space. The painting reduces itself to the flat picture plane. For Greenberg this reduction is also an expansion: “The picture plane as a whole imitates visual experience as a whole; rather, the picture plane as a total object represents space as a total object” (“On the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting,” Art and Culture 173). This process culminates in abstract expressionism and color field painting, in which the paint literally sinks into and becomes one with the surface of the canvas. After these come pop art and conceptual art, which for Greenberg are simply not part of the history of art at all.
Greenberg’s most succinct and comprehensive summation of this view of the history of modern art is to be found in his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” in which he writes that “What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself.”
Though Greenberg does not discuss Hegel, this is a clearly Hegelian notion: the history of art is the history of art coming to consciousness of its essence as art, and of each medium coming to consciousness of its essence as a medium. It is the history of art’s progressive self-consciousness and self-awareness.
The philosopher and art critic Arthur C. Danto has further developed this Hegelian model. Whereas for Greenberg the history of modern art is the story of each medium discovering and reducing itself to its essence, for Danto that history is the story of the pursuit of the smallest distinction between art and life, the zero degree of difference. For Danto, this zero degree was reached with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box, which posed the question of why one object is art when objects identical to it are not.
I’m not sure why Duchamp’s readymades, most famously his 1917 Fountain, didn’t pose exactly this same question, or how, as an actual urinal exhibited in an art gallery, it failed to embody the zero degree of difference between art and non-art. Danto acknowledges this in The Abuse of Beauty, in which he writes that “there is a metaphysical question in distinguishing between Fountain and the urinal it consisted of, not altogether different from distinguishing between a person and his or her body” (12). In Beyond the Brillo Box, Danto writes that “Dada believed itself a form of artistic freedom but in fact was merely a style” (9), but doesn’t explain what he means. Perhaps the difference is that Duchamp took an actual utilitarian object from the quotidian world and placed it within the frame of art, thus both asking us to look at this mundane object as art and asking us to question what art is and what can count as art. Warhol, on the other hand, produced an aesthetic object that is indistinguishable from the utilitarian object in the quotidian world: he made something that one might call a perfect simulacrum. Duchamp’s urinal really was the object; Warhol’s Brillo box was an artwork identical to the object.
However, Danto notes in The Abuse of Beauty that Warhol’s Brillo Box was in fact not identical to the object, but only a copy, though he doesn’t seem to recognize the ways in which this fact undermines his argument. Warhol’s Brillo Box was made of painted plywood, whereas industrially produced Brillo boxes are made of printed corrugated cardboard. Danto writes that Warhol’s Brillo Box “looked enough like the commercial cartons in which Brillo pads were packed that a photograph of one would look entirely like a photograph of the other” (23-24). But this does not mean that the objects themselves looked entirely like one another, only that, hypothetically, representations of them would (and not even that they actually did or do)—a very different thing. I have not seen Warhol’s Brillo boxes in person, but I doubt that a close visual inspection would find them identical to commercial Brillo boxes. And sight is not the only sense. The texture, the smell, and even the sound of the boxes when tapped or thumped would be different. So in fact, they are not identical, not indiscernible, at all.
Danto shows himself to be a true Hegelian when he asserts that at this point, the occasion of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box exhibit of 1964, “the history of art attained that point where it had to turn into its own philosophy. It had gone, as art, as far as it could go. In turning into philosophy, art had come to an end. From now on progress could only be enacted on a level of abstract self-consciousness of the kind which philosophy alone must consist in…. Painting does not stop when it ends like this. But it enters what I like to term its post-historical period” (“Approaching the End of Art,” The State of the Art 216).
In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno, writing also from an explicitly Hegelian position, makes an argument that proleptically rebukes Danto’s: “a consistently rational and elaborated work, because of its absolute autonomy, would tend to level the distinction between art and empirical being, assimilating itself to commodities without directly imitating them. It would be indistinguishable from perfectly functional creations except in one respect: it would have no purpose, and that would speak against it” (310). Contrary to Danto’s assertion, the art object indistinguishable from the empirical object would be inferior to the utilitarian object, because it would have no function, while simultaneously it would have lost or given up art’s purposive purposelessness. That would be the end of art in a wholly negative sense. The artwork would simply become a failed, because useless, commodity.
For Danto, the history of art is over, which is a kind of liberation: one is no longer a prisoner of progress as either an artist or a spectator. The end of art history means, among others, that it is now possible to practice and appreciate a wide and eclectic range of art practices, that all the artistic modes, genres, and techniques of the past are now fully available to the contemporary artist, since he or she need no longer be ruled by concern over his or her contribution to or place within the forward march of artistic history. It means that the artist is free, that everything and anything can be admitted into the realm of art. In Danto’s summation,
“this means returning art to the serving of largely human [and/or individual] ends…. It is no mean thing for art that it should now be an enhancement of human life. And it was in its capacity as such an enhancement that Hegel supposed that art would go on even after it had come to an end. It is only that he did not suppose happiness to be the highest vocation to which a spiritual existence is summoned. For him, the highest vocation is self-knowledge, and this he felt was to be achieved by philosophy. Art went as far as it can in this direction, toward philosophy, in the present century. This is what he would have meant by saying [that] art reaches its end. The comparison with philosophy is not intended as invidious. Philosophy too comes to an end, but unlike art it really must stop when it reaches its end, for there is nothing for it to do when it has fulfilled its task” (“Approaching the End of Art,” The State of the Art 217, 218).
For Wittgenstein, contrarily, philosophy’s task after the end of philosophy (which of course ends with him) is to enrich, clarify, and enlighten human life, the same task that Hegel and Danto assign to art after its demise. Progress is never straighforward.
Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Christian Lenhardt. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Danto, Arthur C. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2003.
_____________.Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992.
_____________. The State of the Art. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987.
Frascina, Francis, and Charles Harrison, Eds. Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1982.
Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1961.
I’d like to thank my partner, Robert Philen, for his insights, which have much improved and enriched this piece.