George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel spoke of beauty as the Ideal, the Idea in its spirituality and universality given determinative form: the immediate unity of Concept immediately present in sensuous appearance (Hegel, 1974-1975). He understood beauty to be inseparable from truth and goodness, all of them related to the Ideal. But the Ideal as beauty requires sensuous appearance, whereas the Ideal as truth is realized in thought.
This distinction leads to one of Hegel’s most remarkable claims, found in the Critique of Judgment but largely underdeveloped there, directly relevant to the history of ideas of art and beauty; for he claims that art no longer expresses the highest realization of Spirit, that Romantic art emphasized the subjectivity of Spirit, unbalancing the unity of the Ideal. A century later, Martin Heidegger powerfully expressed Hegel’s thought as a question: ‘Is art still an essential and necessary way in which that truth happens which is decisive for our historical existence, or is art no longer of this character?’ (Heidegger, 1971). Is beauty still an expression of the highest ideals of human historical life? The answer suggested to many artists and philosophers today, after the development of modern art and philosophical aesthetics, is that it is not. Heidegger’s own answers is that ‘Beauty is one way in which truth occurs as unconcealedness’ (ibid). He preserves the historical affinity of beauty with truth, though not with good. More to the point, Heidegger wonders whether a world shaped by modern technology–far from the ideality of Spirit–might make beauty no longer relevant. Such a possibility belongs to what Heidegger calls the forgetting of Being, under the pressure of the picture of the modern world shaped by instrumentality and measure, oblivious to both the endless possibilities in Being and the historicality of their realization.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous response in The Birth of Tragedy to Hegel’s claim concerning the end of art was that ‘art represents the highest task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life’ (1968). Nietzsche’s insistence that Greek tragedy was originally both Apollonian and Dionysian associated the Apollonian with order, perfection, appearance, and light, the Dionysian with rapture, frenzy, intoxication, and terror, closer to the sublime. Tragedy requires both. By a certain symmetry, as Nietzsche later understood the Apollonian to include a frenzy for order, beauty may be understood to include rapture and frenzy, to include the excesses of the sublime. The distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian art, beauty and sublimity, can then be understood to collapse, bring beauty back to infinity as excess, beyond measure.