ALBERTO SIANI | Morte dell’arte, libertà del soggetto: Attualità di Hegel | ETS 2017


By Paul A. Kottman

Alberto Siani’s Morte dell’arte, libertà del soggetto comprises seven interesting, diverse essays around themes in Hegel studies that have gained particular prominence over the past thirty years or so—stemming largely from North American discussions around the problem of ‘modernity’, crystallised in Robert Pippin’s classic books Hegel’s Idealism (1989) and Modernism as Philosophical Problem (1991) and anticipated in works like Stanley Rosen’s Hermeneutics as Politics (Rosen 1987). Rosen’s book was probably the first to show how ‘post-modernity’, which regarded itself as an attack on the Enlightenment, only made sense within a treatment of Enlightenment thinking; and Pippin extended this critique of post-modernity with his influential readings of various defences of ‘modernity’ (Blumenberg, Arendt, Löwith, Rorty) as a kind of agon with Hegel, above all.

As is well-known, Pippin’s reading of Hegel as the ‘philosopher of modernity’ has exerted enormous influence over the reception of Hegel in the English-speaking world, and increasingly on discussions of Hegel in Germany, France and Italy as well. So, although Siani does not treat Pippin’s work in much detail, in a way, he does not have to. The resonance in Siani’s book of the thematic issues in North-American inspired ‘post-metaphysical’ Hegel studies will be recognisable to anyone familiar with recurrent themes in Pippin’s work, especially his ‘Kantian’ reading of Hegel, his treatment of our ‘erotic’ relation to knowledge, his writings on aesthetics, or his discussion of Heidegger’s relation to Hegel at the end of After the Beautiful (Pippin 2014)—and above all Pippin’s ‘reanimation’ of Hegel as philosophical lodestar for anyone interested in thinking about modernity.

Mining this rich vein, Siani’s opening essay—on Kantian judgement and the modern subject—sets the stage; followed by essays on ‘knowing, love of knowing and the ends of philosophy’, Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics, and religion and art in Heidegger and Hölderlin, among other entries. Throughout, Siani’s avowed aims are to “reactualise Hegelian thought” around “the theme of modernity”, and to rethink modernity by appropriating Hegel’s thought in a self-aware and convincing way (p. 12).

For the most part, this leads Siani (like Pippin) to take ‘freedom’ as the central theme in Hegel, and each of the seven essays orbits around the question of how best to understand freedom “concretely” (p. 13) as the self-actualisation of a “subjectivity” achieved in modern forms of social life, and rationally reconstructed in Hegel’s philosophy. Siani’s expositions of Hegel are solid and direct on this score. For instance:

There is no other truth beyond that which the subject—each subject—can know, so long as it is disposed to the work of the concept, its difficulties and contradictions […]. (p. 54)

Similarly, each chapter leads to similarly ‘Hegelian’ formulations, showing how they help us defend or explain or give legitimacy to modernity’s fundamental political, aesthetic and ethical self-interpretations.

Siani’s contributions are interesting as well for the ways in which they explore the implications and possibilities of advancing a certain reading of Hegel as the philosopher of modernity—above all, the fact that Siani focuses, as a kind of leitmotif, on Hegel’s famous thesis that art in its highest vocation is a thing of the past. Of course, Hegel himself never spoke of the ‘death’ of art—and Siani does not offer an extended reading of Hegel’s ‘pastness of art’s highest vocation’ thesis in the context of his book. But Siani does offer some valuable meditations on the “falling to pieces of art”—the “partiality” of contemporary art (p. 103)—as a chance to rethink the role art places in rendering the contemporary world sensuously intelligible. Like Pippin (2014) or Briony Fer (1997), Siani sees in modern art an indication that Hegel did anticipate fundamental features of the development of artistic practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And like Pippin, especially, Siani sees modern art as “according with the modern world’s need for self-mediation” in sensuous form (p. 103).

At times, Siani seems closer to Hegel than to Pippin—since Pippin finally disagrees with Hegel’s claim about art’s loss of vocation—for instance, when Siani claims that “art’s gaze is now partial and subjective” (p. 103). But he finally moves closer to Pippin than to Hegel, in arguing that art’s contemporary partiality “must be integrated into a reflexive mediation through which they can lead the individual to a more complex and universal vision of the world” (p. 103).

It was, of course, the possibility of such an ‘artistic leading’ that Hegel thought had been foreclosed before he began his lecture course in Berlin. And the reader of Siani’s text might wish to consult an active debate over the meaning and implications of Hegel’s ‘loss of art’s vocation’ thesis—not only in the well-known works of Eva Geulen and Alexander García Düttmann, but also the contributions of Sebastian Gardner and myself to The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics (Gardner 2018; Kottman 2018a, b). The point to be made here, though, is that Siani is surely right to focus on Hegel’s claims about the fate of art as a key to Hegel’s views about the fate of freedom in the modern world, and the kinds of social practices in which freedom can be concretely elaborated. Siani’s sensitivity to these questions makes his book a valuable and important contribution.

Siani’s essay on Heidegger and Hölderlin—’An Artistic Religion for Europe?’—develops this line of thinking with an insightful and original reading of Heidegger on Hölderlin. This essay offers a kind of test case for Siani’s own interpretation of Hegel on art. “Hölderlin’s poetry”, writes Siani, “is not Europe’s destiny, but ‘merely’ a work of art” and thus, contra Heidegger, “philosophy does not culminate in ‘the recognition of the necessity of hearing the world of the poet’” (p. 125). Contra Heidegger—whose ‘romantic’ views on the power of art to institute a world are of course opposed to Hegel’s views on late modern art—Siani argues, in a manner redolent of Gianni Vattimo or Richard Rorty, for a more modest hermeneutic approach to Hölderlin as one poet among many. Most compellingly, Siani identifies in Heidegger’s grandiose, quasi-religious appreciation for Hölderlin the symptoms of the true ‘death of art’:

The philosophical exploitation of art in the sense of an artistic religion is the true death of art. The idea of an artistic religion can inspire artists as a hermeneutic instrument, but it can no longer be valued as the fateful form of our world. (p. 125)

Throughout, it was not clear to me why Siani often conflated the fate of modernity and freedom with ‘Europe’—especially if one means to treat, as Siani does, the contemporary world—nor was it clear to me what Siani meant ‘Europe’ to refer to, exactly. And, as noted, I wondered throughout why he spoke of the ‘death’ of art—a rather un-Hegelian formulation. I also felt the book would have benefitted from situating itself more explicitly in the context of international debates about the importance of Hegel for modern forms of life—debates which now stretch from Germany to Australia to Canada to Argentina, in short, far beyond ‘Europe’. But Siani’s essays are conversation starters, not conversation enders. Anyone interested in the contemporary debates about the importance of Hegel as the thinker of ‘modernity’ will find much worth pondering in Siani’s book.

Invited: 23 October 2017. Received: 8 June 2018.


Fer, B. (1997), On Abstract Art (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Gardner, S. (2018), ‘Art’s Loss of Vocation: Hegel and Philosophical Romanticism’, in P. Kottman & M. Squire (eds), The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics: Hegelian Philosophy and the Perspectives of Art History (Paderborn: Fink), pp. 331–64.

Kottman, P. (2018a), ‘Hegel and Shakespeare on the Pastness of Art’, in P. Kottman & M. Squire (eds), The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics: Hegelian Philosophy and the Perspectives of Art History (/Paderborn: Fink), pp. 263–302.

——— (2018b), ‘Envoi: The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics’, in P. Kottman & M. Squire (eds), The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics: Hegelian Philosophy and the Perspectives of Art History (Paderborn: Fink), pp. 365–82.

Kottman, P. & M. Squire (eds) (2018), The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics: Hegelian Philosophy and the Perspectives of Art History (Paderborn: Fink).

Pippin, R. (1989), Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

——— (1991), Modernism as Philosophical Problem (Oxford: Blackwell). 

——— (2014), After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). 

Rosen, S. (1987), Hermeneutics as Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press).

© Paul A. Kottman, 2018.

Paul Kottman is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the New School for Social Research. He is the author, most recently, of Love as Human Freedom (Stanford UP, 2017) and the co-editor of The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics: Hegelian Philosophy and the Perspectives of Art History (Fink, 2018) as well the editor of The Insistence of Art: Aesthetic Philosophy after Early Modernity (Fordham UP, 2017). Kottman also edits the book series Square One: First Order Questions in the Humanities for Stanford University Press.