"UNDERSTANDING THE END OF ART"
(SUMMARY OF THE ARGUMENT)

"A specter is haunting the art world"-the thought that art may have come to its end. This thought is prompted in part by a perceived lack of substance in much of contemporary art production, and in part by the historicist philosophy of Hegel, according to which all cultural phenomena do not only change, but also come into being and cease to exist at a certain point in history.

It is obviously false to say that people do not paint, sculpt, or in other ways create art objects anymore, and it is not likely that they will stop doing so in the imaginable future. The question is: What do theoreticians mean when they say that art may have run its course?

What they mean is that art in an emphatic sense has come to an end-art in its highest capacity or manifestation. Art as mere decoration or art as entertainment may easily continue as long as human beings are around. Art works have had all sorts of utilitarian functions in the long history of art production, but in such capacities they were not considered true art. True art is pure art--art without any external purposes. And it was in this pure form that art embodied "the richest intuitions and ideas that nations posses"(Hegel), and that it has come to an end.

Can this notion of art and its fate be verified by the facts of art history? The history of Western art during the last 700 years or so may serve that purpose. The main steps of the development of art in this time can be indicated as follows:

(1) Art gradually moves its focus from religious contents to the secular interest in the physical world (documented, for example, by the development of landscapes from background to foreground). (2) Art then changes its interest further from faithfully depicting physical reality to the artistic manner of representation (from painting objects to the painting of objects). Art increasingly becomes its own purpose. (3) After the abolition of representation through such movements as Cubism and Abstract art, aesthetic perception becomes the focus of artistic endeavor. The art object as such is abandoned as secondary or superfluous.

The end of art is therefore not something like a defeat, but as a widening of its boundaries to the point where it aestheticizes potentially everything. By increasingly focusing on and exploring its own aesthetic nature, it has prepared the way for looking at the world with the "disinterested interest" that may relieve people from their narrow obsession with utilitarian consumption.

Back to "Understanding the End of Art"

Back to Philosophical Forum