Hegel & Ingrid

Concertgebouw 1888

Concertgebouw 1888

In this essay I would like to consider a new project in the Concertgebouw called ‘Classics’ and discuss it within a Hegelian framework. This particular series is meant to attract new people such as Henk & Ingrid to the building, who normally wouldn’t come, because as I argued in my previous essay, they seem to be afraid of the unfamiliar. Now the unfamiliar seems not to be doing that good, so the Concertgebouw decided to fall back on the familiar instead. I have already expressed my (mild) contempt for series in the Concertgebouw such as ‘Night of the proms’ with ‘the Bach Choir and Orchestra of the Netherlands’, for this kind of entertainment – as opposed to what Hegel was referring to, that is, art for getting a better understanding of the Self in order to obtain self-knowledge – turned out not to encourage reflection, but rather blur our self-knowledge or distract us from getting anywhere close to it.

It is my belief that the Concertgebouw was not built for serving this purpose, for exposing ‘music for the millions’, but should rather be considered a breeding place for the unfamiliar. I will try to elaborate on some reasons for grounding this claim. Having said that, of course finding solutions for the decreasing number of visitors are crucial, I just don’t think the Concertgebouw should do that by introducing more kitsch than it already has and I will point out why. The focus will be on the program of Classics, where pieces as Ravel’s Bolero and Strauss’ Radetsky March shine in triviality. It is essential to realise however, that Ravel’s Bolero for instance, is not trivial because of the music itself; there is not a single note trivial in this masterpiece! The frequent use of it (for commercials purposes such as movies and every other kind of entertainment) is. But before I go in on the questions and problems raised, how did art ever become trivial?

Since the presentations of Romantic Art, everything seems to have a place. As Hegel puts it:

“every sphere of life, all phenomena, the greatest and the least, the supreme and the trivial, the moral, immoral, and evil” (594, all page numbers in this essay refer to Hegel’s Aesthetics)

So the trivial has a place as well nowadays according to Hegel. How did that become possible and if we take it literally, what could this place be then in our times? I will argue that in any case it is not the Concertgebouw.

Pre-Romantic Movements

According to Hegel art developed in three stages and since the idea of art can only be grasped if we follow and reconstruct the development of the concept, I will briefly discuss the historical and (necessary) sequence of elements. Art developed from the Symbolic form, to the Classical (Greek art) and culminated into the Romantic; in other words, the Christian form of art. The symbolic form is what Hegel calls the beginning of art in pre-Greek society, but he considered it not yet providing the proper content of art, because the Idea is not worked out well here, its meaning is indeterminate, as the form and the content are not in unity:  

“But this striving remained only a quest of the spirit, and therefore, not yet providing the proper content of art” (517)

The disharmony between form and content is overcome in the Classical art form. The meaning of this kind of art is clear and appears in concrete form to the senses, as the meaning of the content is to be form, “because the spiritual was completely drawn through its external appearance.” (517). It is important to realize that the perfection of art reached its peak in the Classical; the spiritual and its external appearance formed the most beautiful unification. Beautiful in the sense that Classical art was the conceptually most adequate representation of the Ideal; the immediate identity of subject and object, unfolded by the spirit:

“[I]n this beautiful unification it idealized the natural and made it into an adequate embodiment of spirit’s own substantial individuality.” (517)

Unbeautiful Christianity

After Classical art nothing could become more beautiful, meaning that Christian art is not beautiful in this context. It is still art, but form and content cannot be unified any longer. This also constitutes an important difference with symbolic art where the content is indeterminate. In Romantic art, it is determinate, but there is more to the content than art can show. To understand this, one could consider the following. Ever since Christianity developed into a prominent religious conviction, God became transcendent as opposed to the Gods in Greek antiquity, who lived amongst the people and where more friendly to visualization in art (beauty in Classical Art) as a consequence. This transcendence separated the Christian God from the world because he was not part of the empirical sphere any longer. According to Hegel this was problematic for art because art was no longer able to understand and give an explanation or representation of the transcendent realm. This is where religion outshadowed art, because it was able to offer a dialectical argument for why God was transcendent: the argument being that God came to the world in the form of Christ and left again to become almighty. Hence, “thought and reflection have spread their wings above fine art” (10), because art could not understand what was going on there due to the complexity of transcendence according to Hegel. An argument was needed now to understand Christianity, or to speak in Hegelian terms, an argument was needed to satisfy our spiritual need for knowledge of the Absolute and precisely this is the reason why art lost its highest status. Hegel refers to this as the end of art in so far as it is not the best intellectual medium any longer for knowledge of the Absolute:

“The peculiar nature of artistic production and of works of art no longer fills our highest need.” (10)

Subjective inwardness and materiality: disharmony once more

The ‘dissolution’ of the Classical ideal appears clearly as dissolution in Romanticism. Hegel emphasizes the complete contingency and externality of the material which artistic activity grasps and shapes in Romanticism. Whereas in Classical art the subjective inner element was related to the external – the material – in a way that this external could be considered the very own shape of the inner itself, now instead it is independent of it; the inwardness withdraws itself into itself so that the material acquires all the freedom to go its own way. The point is that if the subjective inwardness of the artist becomes the essential feature to be represented, the question of which specific material of external actuality and the spiritual world would best embody the heart, becomes arbitrary, in other words a matter of accident or contingency and indeed this is the reason that everything, including the trivial, had a place now. This has implications for Romantic art, which Hegel puts as follows:

“For this reason the romantic inwardness can display itself in all circumstances, and move relentlessly from one thing to another in innumerable situations, states of affairs, relations, errors, and confusions, conflicts and satisfactions, for what is sought and is to count is only its own inner subjective formation, the spirit’s expression and mode of receptivity, and not an objective and absolutely valid subject-matter.” (594)

Once this idea of subjective inwardness came up, the oppositional idea of granting validity to the external world came up as well. Hegel discusses Shakespeare’s plays as an example where he sees alongside the most important interests the most insignificant and incidental ones. In Hamlet the sentries alongside the King’s Court and in other pieces:

“fools, louts, all sorts of everyday vulgarities, taverns, carters, chamber-pots, and fleas (…) in the case of the birth of Christ and the Adoration of the Kings, oxen and asses, the manger and straw must not be left out.” (594)

This meant the collapse of Romantic Art. On one side, there stands the real world in its ‘prosaic objectivity’ and on the other side it is the subjectivity of the artist which can ‘rise to mastery of the whole of reality’ without leaving nothing in its usual context based on his/her subjective opinion, mood, and originality. The religious framework, still significant in Romanticism, as a consequence of the artist’s subjectivity and the lack of faith, is left behind and not taken seriously any longer. The unity between subject and object is not realized in the sensuous sphere. Still, the artist is busy with materiality and therefore bound to the sensuous sphere. He is just no longer dominated by given and determined conditions of content and form, imposed by religion in most cases, but free to do what he wants in both the subject-matter as in the way of presenting it. The consequence however, is that he can never reach stadium of subject-object unity as thinking does. Therefore, his status of artist is not so important anymore and the best way of reconciling with the world now is thinking, not representation (religion) or intuition (art).

Self-reflective times: modern art

Today, whatever we do; we’re doing it ourselves. In Romanticism art had the highest value for reflection and self-understanding, even though the subject was unable to reach the ideal. This is the tragic part of Romantic art: the subject is always longing for something he knows he cannot reach. But this changed with the collapse of Romantic Art. Philosophy would now be the best medium for reflection and self-understanding, as Hegel points out. What is interesting in modern times is the objective/material part of art:

“This material remains for [the artist] the infinite and true element in his own consciousness – a material with which he lives in an original unity as part of his inmost self, while the form in which he exhibits it is for him as artist the final, necessary, and supreme manner of bringing before our contemplation the Absolute and the soul of objects in general.” (603)

So modern art is about objectifying the essence of the artist’s existence and present what he is out of his own supplies. This is the only way the artists’ creations are a result of his individual inner essence, inspired by his material and its presentation, according to Hegel.

I slowly arrive at the subject introduced earlier on, because just as Hegel points out we can’t just simply build a statue as the Greeks did, or paint like they did in the Middle Ages, I believe we can’t just play the same over and over again. Well, we can, but in that case we would not be seriously earnest with the material because we lack the faith. Hegel meant to say we know that religion as such can’t express the inner structure of the world. In my example I think we lack ‘the innermost faith’ of music as such. We know that Ravel’s Bolero has been played so many times that it became a ‘hit’, so we can’t really take it very seriously any longer in present times, and still the Concertgebouw decided to play it some more! This is where triviality comes in; we are not being earnest with the material, with Ravel’s music.

The red carpet

I have shown how triviality developed as a part of art; it was because of the subjective inwardness of the artist that became an essential feature to be represented so that the question of which specific material of external actuality and the spiritual world would become a contingent question. The subjective inner element of Ravel for example was not related to the external in a way that it could be considered the shape of his inner self, it was independent of it as we have seen in the dissolution of the Classical ideal. Thus, the music of Ravel was not trivial itself, but allowed for triviality, which Concertgebouw Classics seems happy in taking advantage of: alongside the most important interests – the music – we see the most insignificant – the red carpet and prosecco.

Unfortunately, we now live in times where the Dutch government is failing in having a proper art policy, mainly because they won’t recognize ‘the universal need for art’ and have a dubious taste, to say the least, themselves (Halbe Zijlstra’s favourite authors: Tom Clancy and Dan Brown). The sad part is that the Concertgebouw contributes to the process of ‘mediocrization’ of our society, because the program of Classics is not about art and its materiality here, about inspiring or enriching, it is about trying to be commercially successful. Precisely because of the inability of making a distinction between prosecco and allegro, it doesn’t seem to me that Henk & Ingrid will be visiting Schubert’s chamber works or a Shostakovich symphony as a result of Classics. So the series is not a solution to the real problem, which is the decline in regular visitors. Playing the Carmen suites or Strauss’ Blue Danube is to serve a commercial purpose only, which is not about the conservation of cultural heritage or stimulation of further and deeper interest in classical music. If people do want to hear this music, it should certainly be possible in places such as Carré or the De La Mar theater for example, where triviality has a place. Again, nothing against this music in the proper context, but here clearly it is not the case and the Concertgebouw should take a stance against this, because as opposed to the theaters just mentioned, art in the Concertgebouw has never been a means to an end, it was about art itself because that’s what it believed in. It was the place where Willem Mengelberg introduced a then quite unpopular Mahler and it still is the place where new music gets exposure and the chance to develop. With Classics on the other hand, art does become a means, the end being commercial success.

The problem is that the Concertgebouw had an excellent reputation up till now, because art has always been strictly separated from commerce. This reputation makes us attract the kind of public that made the existence of the building possible up till present days. The problem with Classics is, apart from it not being profitable at all if we look at the number of tickets sold, that it damages the good reputation, in order to make an extra buck in narrow times. In my humble opinion however, there are possibilities where music still is the most important aspect and where the Concertgebouw does not have to ‘sell out’, such as the Sunday-morning concerts or the modern series (triple A) by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.