Art as Self-Origination in Winckelmann and Hegel

Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 27 (1):129-150 (2006)
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Eighteenth-century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) shared with Hegel a profound admiration for the art and culture of ancient Greece. Both viewed ancient Greece as, in some sense, an ideal to which the modern world might aspire—a pinnacle of spiritual perfection and originality that contemporary civilization might, through an understanding of ancient Greek culture, one day equal or surpass. This rather competitive form of nostalgia suggests a paradoxical demand to produce an original and higher state of culture through the imitation of another. In Hegel’s writings, this paradox goes beyond the relation of the modern world to the ancient world—he exposes the same paradox in ancient Greece’s relation to its own predecessors. The solution to the latter paradox—the possibility of the realization of ancient Greece as an original and self-contained civilization despite its cultural debts—would also, then, be the key to repeating the success of the ancient world in the modern, the overcoming of modern Europe’s cultural debt to the ancient world. The present essay examines how this paradox is revealed and resolved in the writings of Winckelmann and Hegel, and shows how this strategy of culture production—as imputed to the ancient world and aspired to in the modern—simultaneously attempts to justify and conceal a self-deceptive practice of cultural and political conquest. My focus will be on the two writers’ interpretations of ancient Greek art since, as I will suggest, their solution to the paradox of culture production turns out to be modeled upon the role of ancient Greek art in the invention and actualization of a cultural ideal of beauty, unity, and self-containment.
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