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VON HILDEBRAND, Dietrich. Aesthetics.

VON HILDEBRAND, Dietrich. Aesthetics, 2 volumes. Volume 1 translated by Brian McNeil and edited by John F. Crosby. Steubenville, Ohio: Hildebrand Project, 2016. xxxvii + 470 pp. Paper, $20.00. Volume 2 translated by Brian McNeil, John F. Crosby, and John Henry Crosby, and edited by John F. Crosby and John Henry Crosby. Steubenville, Ohio: Hildebrand Project, 2018. xxx + 574 pp. Paper, $20.00--Von Hildebrand's Aesthetics, recently translated into English and published by the Hildebrand Project, is a monumental work applying the phenomenological approach and a Christian and classical focus to the field of aesthetics. It is important both as a contribution to philosophical aesthetics, and for understanding the philosophy and inner life of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the son of a prominent neoclassical sculptor (Adolf von Hildebrand), and a great lover of the arts in the classical tradition. It was the last major work that he wrote on a subject close to his heart, and he did not live to see its publication.

His intention in the work is to be attentive to the essence of beauty in all its breadth, distinguishing its various forms, both in nature and in the fine arts, as he explains in the introduction: "We ask the ancient Platonic question: ti esti, 'What is it?', with reference to the essence of beauty, to the basic forms of beauty, and to the whole realm of the beautiful." Von Hildebrand's approach is also marked by an attitude of wonder and reverence before the mystery of the dimensions of beauty, and is to be commended for the way it fosters the growth of a similar attitude in the reader.

The work is divided into two volumes, the first of which is a philosophical investigation of beauty. Here he argues for the objectivity of beauty; the distinction between metaphysical and artistic beauty; the distinction between the various aesthetic values and their antitheses; the interrelationship of truth, moral goodness, and beauty; and the importance of beauty for the good life. Since a phenomenological approach must be grounded in concrete experience, the second volume examines the fine arts and discusses many masterpieces of Western culture. It is divided into five parts that treat architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, and music. His analysis here should be of interest not only to philosophers but also to artists.

Von Hildebrand's analysis of beauty is situated in the context of his theory of values. He understands value not as a subjective aspect of being, as it might sound at first, but as an objective aspect of things according to which they are intuitively grasped as endowed with importance and not merely neutral. Aesthetic values are a family of values centering on beauty, but they also include other aspects, such as the comic or elegant; they are distinct from other families, such as moral, intellectual, ontological, or technical values. Although moral and intellectual values are proper only to rational beings, beauty transcends all the categories and is found in all the grades of being.

A consequence of the breadth of beauty is the fact that other values, such as moral, spiritual, ontological, and personal values, each have a beauty of their own. Von Hildebrand refers to this with the term "metaphysical beauty," which he understands as the splendor, reflection, or irradiation of other values. Similarly, he speaks of a metaphysical ugliness that emanates from the disvalues, such as sin, opposed to the positive values that radiate beauty.

Metaphysical beauty is distinguished from the beauty that is contained directly in visible and audible being, whether in nature or art. When this sensible beauty manifests the beauty of spiritual realities, then he speaks of "beauty of the second power." These three types of beauty-metaphysical beauty, sensible beauty, and sensible beauty of the second power--are the principal structural categories of von Hildebrand's Aesthetics, and he analyzes how they interact with one another. For example, what makes a work of art transcend the level of being that is sensibly pleasing (beauty of the first power) and rise to represent the depths of the human spirit (beauty of the second power)? He sees the very existence of sensible beauty that expresses the spirit as one of the key problems of aesthetics, and he speaks of it as a "quasi-sacramental" reality. How is it that a combination of musical notes or colors on a canvas can so rise above their own ontological reality to communicate the beauty that moves the heart and points to God?

Furthermore, how does metaphysical beauty interact with the artistic beauty of the first or second power? In many works of art metaphysical and artistic beauty combine, for the artwork depicts subject matter that is metaphysically beautiful, such as heroic moral action or conversion, as in Manzoni's The Bethrothed. In such cases, however, the artistic beauty is not merely the beauty of the noble actions portrayed, but an artistic transposition of it through the sensible media of the arts. Conversely, von Hildebrand highlights the opposite phenomena in which great works of art represent subjects that are evil, as in Macbeth, or banal. How is it that the intrinsic ugliness of such subjects does not mar the beauty of the artwork but often enhances it? Although mysterious, an answer is hinted at through the notion of artistic transposition by which the metaphysical ugliness of the subject matter is used artistically by way of contrast to highlight the beauty to which it is opposed.

In the treatises on the imitative arts--sculpture, painting, and literature--von Hildebrand treats the difficult and controversial question of imitation or representation. Two themes stand out. First, von Hildebrand insists that artistic imitation always involves an artistic transposition by which reality is reconfigured in the work of art. Artistic imitation is no mechanical reproduction but always goes beyond faithful representation, seeking to draw forth "the mysteries that already lie hidden in the nature of what is depicted." Hence he shows little interest in photography or film as artistic genres. Artistic representation is nevertheless presupposed as a primary means through which the artist seeks to attain beauty of the second power, in which spiritual values are communicated through the physical and sensible representation. For this reason von Hildebrand shows little sympathy for twentieth-century artists and movements that have disparaged the notion of artistic imitation.

In treating architecture and the applied arts, von Hildebrand laments the excessively practical and mechanized spirit of contemporary Western civilization and emphasizes the organic nature of beauty and its importance in everyday life, which he regards as crucial both for the development of the personality and for achieving happiness on the individual and social planes. He also has interesting discussions of the antitheses of artistic beauty, such as sentimentality, triviality, and kitsch.

Von Hildebrand also discusses, especially in the second volume, the mysterious fact that works of art often seem to transcend their creator. He frequently cites Plato's Ion in seeing the artist as a seer. As beauty of the second power is elevated above its bearer, so the artist can be elevated above his own personality and character, so that truth and God can speak through him. Von Hildebrand connects this with one of the major themes of the Aesthetics, which is that the great work of art is not simply a reflection of the artist's subjectivity but is mysteriously "about the glory of the cosmos and, ultimately, about God's infinite beauty."--Lawrence Feingold, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary
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Author:Feingold, Lawrence
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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