Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Eva Geulen, The End of Art. Readings in a Rumour after Hegel. Translated by James McFarland. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
Originally published in German under the title Das Ende der Kunst: Lesarten eines Gerüchts nach Hegel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2002.

Victor Kocay

The objective of this well documented work, parts of which have been previously published in the form of articles, is to trace the development of the discourse on the end of art, a discourse that begins more or less with Hegel’s thesis on the end of art and which continues through the 19th and 20th centuries to become a well-known aspect of the discourse on art of Modernity. In successive chapters devoted to specific thinkers, Guelen attempts to elucidate “certain decisive stations in this figure of thought after Hegel” (p. 6). After a preliminary chapter – perhaps the most interesting – that establishes the notion of the end of art as a discourse of Modernity, Guelen traces this discourse through the work of Hegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Adorno and Heidegger. She ends with a study of a poem by Hölderlin, a study that she presents as an “alternative beginning” to the discourse on the end of art (p. 8).

The notion of the end of art implies a chronology and a chronology implies a beginning, whether real or imagined. Philosophically, it is therefore understandable that Guelen seeks the “beginning” of the thesis of the end of art in the definitive and well-known form that Hegel gave it. The discourse on the notion of the end of art implies, however, a linguistic form, a text that must be analyzed and interpreted in order that the discourse itself make sense. The notion of the end of art is therefore only comprehensible in the form that different thinkers have given to it, or in the manner in which they have made reference to it. In her attempt to trace different stations in the figure of the end of art, Guelen both analyses and interprets the canonical works that she has chosen to study. This may seem like a trivial distinction to make, but in light of the final chapter – an interpretation of Hölderlin’s poem “Stimme des Volks” – it is important for the overall development of the work.

In her chapter on Hegel, Guelen attempts to exploit what to her mind, are ambiguities in Hegel’s theory of the history of art. She notes particularly difficulties in the transition in Hegel from symbolic to classical art forms. Drawing on the work of Paul de Mann and Jean-Luc Nancy, among others, she claims that Hegel’s “classical art was always already more modern than many ultramoderns today are willing to admit” (p. 31). She makes this claim because, to her mind, Hegel discovers the “modern possibility of establishing traditions” (p. 39). By classifying art forms in a new way, Hegel was able to transcend traditional boundaries and thereby discover new boundaries and new traditions. Consequently, the “true problem that Hegel has bequeathed to all post-Hegelian reflections on art is not the end of artistic production but the end of the possibility of a reflection on art or aesthetics that does not involve the end of art” (p. 86).

It is perhaps surprising that Guelen has included Nietzsche in her choice of authors because, as she says, Nietzsche’s thought “critically excludes the end”. His notion of an eternal return in fact makes the end of art impossible. Art and artworks become rather objects of interpretation and are themselves interpretations. But this can be seen as a response to Hegel’s notion of the end of art. Likewise, Benjamin’s artwork essay, which remains close to Nietzsche, “intends neither an end of art nor an end to its ending” (p. 65-66), such that the “difference between a (dialectical) end and an endless ending is no longer available” (p. 74). In Benjamin the relation between antiquity and modernity is allegorical: everything that comes into being is vulnerable because only what is new can grow old (p. 74). In Adorno, as well, the notion of the end of art withdraws into an “allegorical distance” (p. 111). However, with the study of Adorno, Guelen’s method changes somewhat. As she states, it is necessary to first interpret Adorno’s works in light of the “irritating effects of Adorno’s version of the end of art” (p. 91). She posits on the one hand that Adorno has incompatible positions on the end of art (p. 95), but states also that in Adorno, “art does not have an end, for it is perpetual crisis” (p. 97). Heidegger, on the other hand, is more concerned with the question of Being than with aesthetics. Aesthetics belongs to the western tradition of metaphysics, according to Heidegger, and must, therefore, be overcome. As Guelen states, with Heidegger, “the question of the end of art has been explicitly transformed into the question of the possibility of ending aesthetics” (p. 118). According to Guelen, Heidegger in fact discovers the possibility of an understanding of art that resists just those services to which the text would like to bind it (p. 132). Art displaces and dislocates because it is itself displaced and without a proper place. For Heidegger, the poet Hölderlin testifies to another beginning of immeasurable possibilities (p. 119). This is because Hölderlin’s text “insists on interpretation” (p. 147). It is the poet who has interpreted history and his place in history by means of the poem that he has created. It is at this point that philosophy and interpretation converge, as it were, in the “unlocalizability of art in the discourse of its end” (p.132). This is a tradition discovered by Hegel and grounded in his version of the notion of the end of art.

In The End of Art, Guelen follows the discourse on the end of art in and through what can be considered canonical philosophical works. Philosophy and interpretation seem to collide here on several occasions. With respect to her studies of Adorno and Heidegger especially, Guelen must first give an interpretation of the philosophers’ positions before the text in question can be related to the discourse on the end of art. The need for interpretation is thus common to philosophy and to art. In fact, the phrase “the end of art” can be construed in many different ways and can mean different things depending on the interpretation given. It is important to note that Guelen’s work ends with an interpretation of a poem and not with a philosophical discourse. Interpretative discourse seems here to have displaced philosophical discourse in the traditional sense of the word. Although difficult to read in places for stylistic reasons, and because it presupposes a thorough knowledge of the particular essays considered, this is an interesting work both from the perspective of content and of form. The discourse on the end of art has been prevalent in modern aesthetics, and interpretative discourses have opened new vistas for philosophical pursuit. Given that art forms continue to flourish, however, as do interpretations of art works and the founding of new movements, Guelen’s concluding remarks would seem to be entirely predictable. She writes that the discourse on the end of art “can be renounced or absolutized, celebrated or mourned, only until the next end. In the meantime, what remains is to go on” (p. 153).


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