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ArtPrintCritical dictionary

The End of Art

Domingo Hernández Sánchez


The thesis regarding the “end of art” was presented by G. W. F. Hegel, with the purpose of distinguishing the statute of art in the classical age and its function in modernity. In the Modern Age, art would have lost the privileged place it occupied in the Greek and oriental societies, thus becoming a “thing of the past.” Hegel’s idea was increasingly misunderstood, but, besides that, it also acquired new senses. If the avant-gardes appear as a critic to the previous art, the neo-avant-gardes, especially conceptual art, have the sense of a self-conscience, of a reflection of art about itself, which Hegel had also announced. Today, although this idea has been recovered by philosophers such as Arthur Danto, in order to address the end of a progressive history of art, perhaps the best version of the Hegelian thesis is expressed in the difficulties felt by art itself to escape the aestheticism that surrounds us.



Keywords: aesthetic experience; art history; contemporary art

In beginnings of the XIX century, on the occasion of his lessons on Aesthetics
, in Berlin, the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel enunciated the thesis about the “end of art” or, to be more exact, of the “character of the past in art.” In effect, Hegel only mentioned the classic formula of the “end of art” in a literal sense and not its subsequent more confused version – but still more popular – about the “death of art.” Of course the author didn't wish, in way any, to proclaim the self-destruction of art or the annihilation of the artistic practices. Hegel only intended to distinguish between the meaning of art in the modern world and the meaning it had in the Greek and oriental world, contexts where art constituted an immediate model of orientation, intimately united to the myth, to religion and philosophy and, for that reason, fundamental in the political and social cohesion. According to Hegel, it is this characterization of art that would have come to an end.


To Hegel, in the modern age, the scientific and illuminist reason can no longer grant art that value, which was transferred to religion, to science and to philosophy. In that sense, “the supreme determination of art is, in its whole, something that has passed”, given that “the peculiar representation of art no longer has, for us, the immediacy it had in the time of its supreme height.” Thus, “the point of view of a culture where art acquires an essential interest is no longer ours […]; the representation, the reflection or the thought are now preponderant and, because of that, our time is mainly oriented to the reflections and the thought about art.” [1]

Of these ideas arise two main consequences. The first is concerned with the enormous possibilities that are open to art in the future, precisely because it abandons its preponderant role in the social and spiritual life, it becomes possible for the artist to adopt any style and content, in what concerns the themes and their configuration. The second consequence regards the need of a reflection about the place and the condition of art, that is, about the expressive possibilities of the artistic practices and, in general, about the function and the meaning of art after the abandonment of the pedestal it had occupied in Classical Antiquity.

It is important to bear in mind that Hegel presents ideas that appear in the context of their time in a somewhat different form than he enunciates them. That is, he enunciates them philosophically without being their creator. Therefore, the thesis of the “end of art” should be understood in the context of a general awareness about the end of a period, understood in a global manner: crisis of the Old Regime, disillusion about the utopism revolutionary and distrust towards the romantic subjectivism and the already outdated classicism present in the Goethian aetas. Analyzed in this general sense, the Hegelian “end of art” is not far from the statement by Stendhal, in his work Souvenirs d’Égotisme, begun in 1832: “the poetic genius has died, but the genius of suspicion has been born.”

To place the thesis of the “end of art” in this context allows detecting the two roads, the philosophical and the artistic, which it originated in the second half of the XIX century and in the first part of the XX century. On one side, it allows to understand “the end of art” in its relationship with the Nietzschian idea of the “death of God”, with the “overcoming of metaphysics”, proposed by Heidegger, and, in general, with the philosophies of suspicion. On the other hand, it also allows to understand its assimilation by the classic avant-gardes, because the constants allusions to the death of the classic presuppositions would also implicate an ambiguous reception of the Hegelian “end of art”, whether through the dissolution of art in life or in the production, or by the global denial of art, much like Duchamp or Rimbaud.


It could then be affirmed that, in a certain sense and modifying the contexts, the historical avant-gardes would assume the meaning of the “character of the past in art” that Hegel had presented, as well as they would testify, this time in an explicit way, the accumulation of possibilities opened to the artist. It would be necessary to wait until the 1960’s, and mostly until conceptual art, for the “end of the art” to emerge again in the form of a self-conscience and a reflection of art about itself. In several occasions, some have defended that the conceptual art is the meta-language demanded for so long, the neo-avant-garde that the historical avant-gardes had been already announcing when foreseeing their own end and, thus, the thesis of the “end of art” also acquires different meanings.

In 1969, Joseph Kosuth affirmed that “today, to be an artist means to question the nature of art.”[2] Although the idea of Kosuth is presented in a way he designates as the revelation of the tautological meaning of art – the works of art would constitute analytic propositions adding no information about any fact whatsoever, acting as internal comments in the context of art itself –, from the 1980’s, it was recovered by philosopher Arthur Danto, in order to underline the post-historical character of art. [3].

According to Danto, the “end of art” would designate the impossibility of great narratives of artistic historiography, impossibility caused by a moment of aesthetic pluralism and absence of rules. Even more interesting than Danto’s idea, is to understand the thesis of the “end of art” in its contemporary version as a possible return to an aestheticism that dissolves the artistic singularity and overcomes it in a general aestheticization of existence.


One can also find the origin of such an idea in the conceptual art of the sixties. Let us recall, for instance, the ambiguous slogan by the Canadians of the N.E. Thing Company: Art is All Over. [This slogan can be understood as: “art has ended”, but also as: “art is everywhere”.]

In both readings, the result of this slogan deals with the need of art to assume the different aspects of its ends. Adorno affirmed that “art could have as its content its own transitoriness.”[4]

It is in that “transitoriness” that would reside any one of its particular deaths, in an historical, theoretical or practical level, but above all the fact that, as Félix of Azúa affirmed: “in the same way that a human being is not fully human until he conceives and assumes his own death, also Art is assuming its end.” [5]

It is, without a doubt, in this need of assimilating its multiple and open endings that we find the best legacy of the Hegelian thesis of the “end of art.”


[1]G. W. F. Hegel, Filosofia da Arte ou Estética. Verão de 1826, Bilingual edition. Ed. A. Gethmann-Siefert e B. Colleberg-Plotnikov. Translation by Domingo Hernández Sánchez, Madrid, Abada Editores /UAM Ediciones, 2006, pp 61-63.

[2] Joseph Kosuth, «Arte y filosofía, I y II», included in Gregory Battcock (ed.), La Idea como Arte. Documentos sobre el Arte Conceptual. Translation by F. Parcerisas. Barcelona, Gustavo Gili, 1977, p. 66.

[3] See, for example, by Arthur Danto, Después del Fin del Arte. El Arte Contemporáneo y el Linde de la Historia. Trans. E. Neerman. Barcelona. Paidós, 1999.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, Teoría Estética. Trad. F. Riaza. Madrid, Taurus, 1980, p. 12.

[5] Félix de Azúa, «Yo diría que...», Archipiélago, nº 41 (De la Muerte del Arte y otras Artes), 2000, p. 22.


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