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Art and life in ancient Egypt
Art and life in ancient Egypt

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3.1 The views of G.W.F. Hegel

The early nineteenth-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel lectured on the philosophy of art during the 1820s. His arguments have been profoundly influential on the subsequent development of the history of art. In the late twentieth century they also increasingly became the butt of criticism aiming to redress the frequent bias of Western art history against the art of the rest of the world: a tendency on the part of Western historians and critics to use the Western canon of art as a yardstick with which to judge the value of all art worldwide.

It goes without saying that Hegel’s thought is complex and nuanced. These four brief quotations are intended to offer only a glimpse of his philosophical position and a slightly more accessible fragment of his discussion, following on from that basic position, of the art of ancient Egypt.

Hegel divided the history of world art into three phases: Symbolic (by which he meant a range of non-Western or pre-Greek arts); Classical (the art of classical Greece and Rome); Romantic (the Christian art of the modern period, i.e the Renaissance and after). It has been above all this progressivist model of the development of artistic styles that has underpinned the traditional assumption, widespread in the West, of the superiority of Western art over the art of other cultures.

Activity 4 The views of G.W.F. Hegel

Read through the quotations and then put the substance of Hegel’s reservations about Egyptian art into your own words.

The Idea of the Beauty of Art or the Ideal We must ... recall again that the Idea as the beauty of art is not the Idea as such ... but the Idea as shaped forward into reality ... There is here expressed the demand that the Idea and its configuration as a concrete reality shall be made completely adequate to one another. Taken thus, the Idea as reality, shaped in accordance with the Concept of the Idea, is the Ideal.

In this regard it may be remarked ... that the defectiveness of a work of art is not always to be regarded as due to the artist’s lack of skill; on the contrary, defectiveness of form results from defectiveness of content. So for example, the Chinese, Indians and Egyptians, in their artistic shapes, images of gods, and idols, never get beyond formlessness or a bad and untrue definiteness of form. They could not master true beauty because their mythological ideas, the content and thought of their works of art, were still indeterminate, or determined badly, and so did not consist of the content which is absolute in itself ... Only in the highest art are Idea and presentation truly in conformity with one another, in the sense that the shape given to the Idea is in itself the absolutely true shape, because the content of the Idea which that shape expresses is itself the true and genuine content.

(pp. 73–5)

When we first enter the world of the old-Persian, Indian, Egyptian shapes and productions, our footing is not really secure; we feel that we are wandering amongst problems; in themselves alone these productions say nothing to us; they do not please us or satisfy us by their immediate appearance, but by themselves as they encourage us to advance beyond them to their meaning which is something wider and deeper than they are.

In such incongruity between meaning and the immediate artistic expression, how much is to be ascribed to the deficiency of art, the turbidity of imagination itself and its lack of ideas? Or how much of it has the character it has because the clearer and more accurate configuration was incapable by itself of expressing the deeper meaning, and because the fantastic and grotesque is just used instead on behalf of a more far-reaching idea?

(pp. 308–9)

In Egypt, on the whole, almost every shape is a symbol and hieroglyph not signifying itself but hinting at another thing with which it has affinity and therefore relationship ... Especially remarkable are those colossal statues of Memnon which, resting in themselves, motionless, the arms glued to the body, the feet firmly fixed together, numb, stiff and lifeless, are set up facing the sun in order to await its ray to touch them and give them soul and sound ... Taken as symbols, the meaning to be ascribed to these colossi is that they do not have the spiritual soul freely in themselves and therefore, instead of being able to draw animation from within, from what bears proportion and beauty in itself, they require for it light from without ... The inner life of the human form is still dumb in Egypt.

[In certain other Egyptian works, figures of Osiris] the human bodily form acquires a different formation and therefore already reveals the struggle to rise upward to the inner and spiritual life; but this effort here attains its proper aim, the freedom of spirit in itself, in only a defective way. The shapes remain colossal, serious, petrified; legs without freedom and serene distinctness, arms and head closely and firmly affixed to the rest of the body, without grace and living movement. The art of cutting the arms and feet free and giving movement to the body is ascribed to Daedalus first of all.

(pp. 357–60)

The works of Egyptian art in their mysterious symbolism are therefore riddles ... As a symbol for this proper meaning of the Egyptian spirit we may mention the Sphinx. It is, as it were, the symbol of the symbolic itself ... Out of the dull strength and power of the animal the human spirit tries to push itself forward, without coming to a perfect portrayal of its own freedom and animated shape, because it must still remain confused and associated with what is other than itself.

(pp. 360–1)

Source: G.W.F. Hegel (1975 [1835]) Hegel’s Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art( trans. T. M. Knox in two volumes), Clarendon Press, Oxford.


It is perhaps best to grasp what he is not saying. The features of Egyptian art which he does not like, its massiveness, its stasis, its general lack of animation, are not being ascribed to a lack of technical skill on the part of the artists.

Hegel relates the formal features of works of art to the underlying thought which they are striving to express. For Hegel, in common with virtually all educated Europeans of his day, the definitive emergence of human consciousness into a condition of freedom, occurred in classical Greece (and subsequently bonded with Christianity into a fully-fledged modern self-consciousness). This is something which ancient Egypt, with its political absolutism and animistic polytheism, lacked (‘it always remains repugnant to us to see animals, dogs and cats, instead of what is truly spiritual, regarded as sacred’ (p. 357)).

The criterion for a genuine, successful, work of art is the fusion of its form with the idea it expresses. For Hegel the achieved technical freedom of Greek sculpture (signified by Daedalus), expresses the freedom of the human spirit manifest for the first time in Greek society. By contrast, the lack of an organic relation between the form and the idea expressed, the merely external linking of artistic form to a general idea through a relation of ‘symbolisation’, expresses the lack of freedom in oriental despotisms; expresses at bottom, that is, an earlier or lower phase of human development. For Hegel, this condition of the Symbolic remains the condition of ‘almost the whole of Eastern art’ (p. 308). Although Hegel describes developmental phases within Symbolic art (placing Egypt ahead of, for example, ancient India (p. 320)), and also implies development within Egyptian art itself (for example in the third quoatation above), nonetheless for him the art of ancient Egypt remains locked within the first phase of the developmental triad Symbolic/Classical/Romantic.

Hegel was an innovator in even considering the art of non-Western cultures in his over-arching account of the development of art, but the fact remains that he assigns them an inferior position within that schema. Fundamentally, it is this legacy that makes Hegel relevant to a discussion of art in a period of globalisation, when perhaps for the first time, the prospect of a global art history that does not discriminate between the art of different societies, beckons.