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Art and Transcendence in German Thought

Ömer B. Albayrak


Philosophy, Philosophy of Art

Alfa, 192 pp

English sample translation and English synopsis available

Maybe one of the best ways to find an answer to the question of what can be said about art today is still to reinterpret 18th and 19th-century German thought. The period in question contains extremely rich and surprising content, from the idealist movement and the romantics, the heirs of Kant's philosophical revolution in Germany, to Baumgarten, the founder of aesthetics.

In this remarkable book, Ömer B. Albayrak explores the discourse of 19th-century German aesthetic thought and draws connections to its contemporary relevance in the context of a significant issue of our time: the culture war. Originating from the 19th-century clashes between the modern state and the church, this term and its associated phenomenon have regained popularity, manifesting on a global scale.

The author's philosophical reflections lead to a multitude of questions as they indulge in the delight of the author's lucid and nuanced prose:

What do art have in common with morality and religion? Can art be a way of relating to transcendence? How can artistic activity, which has been reshaped in the modern capitalist world, function for the people of this world to establish a relationship with transcendence?


I think we can call your book a philosophical study of a phenomenon that emerged in German thought from the 18th to the 19th century, and then in modern Europe. This phenomenon is that art in the modern world is a candidate to fulfil the function of religion in the pre-modern world, and in time to replace religion. In your book, you question the thoughts of the German philosophers of this period (Kant, Schiller, German Romantics, Hegel and Heidegger). What was your most important motivation and concern when you started writing this book?

After I finished my PhD, I wanted to focus on the early period German romantic philosophy. At first, I was planning to write a book on romantics, but when I went further with my readings during the pandemic, I decided that I did not want to write another dry, academic book on romanticism. The theme of the book emerged on its own during my readings and I thought that I had found a topic where I could bring philosophical reflection, historical material and political context together.

With a quote from Goethe, you explain the German thought's approach to art as follows:

‘By looking at the work of art, the true art lover will feel that he must pull himself together from his fragmented life, that he must raise his existence to a higher level by living with the work, by constantly contemplating it.’

The transformation of art into an intellectual activity of this kind, a ‘mental pleasure’, as you call it, meant the end of art for Hegel, contrary to other philosophers, because according to him, art lost its former spiritual function, began to fail to respond to people's spiritual needs, and turned into an intellectual performance. Can we say that for Hegel, art reached its limit when man began to see himself as an agent? How do you interpret this difference and his point of view?

As Heine, a student of Hegel, said, ‘Every period of time is a sphinx which throws itself into the abyss as soon as its riddle has been solved’. For Hegel, as soon as human societies gain consciousness of themselves and of the conditions of their existence, they are already well beyond their actual existence. Art has undergone the same fate and the Romantic philosophy was the consciousness of this transsubstantiation of art. In this context, we can easily say that the Romantics, Friedrich Schlegel especially, and Hegel agreed about this turning point, but whereas Schlegel saw in there a possibility for a new mythology, Hegel claimed that this is exactly what was impossible at that point. What Hegel says about the romantic arts in his Lectures on Aesthetics describes perfectly the activity that we call today ‘conceptual art’ or ‘contemporary art’. I think Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is a Hegelian intervention to this romantic idea.

You say that today mass culture has replaced the lost spiritual function. You state that transcendence is no longer in religious structures but in culture, that there has been a transition from ‘the art of the idea to the art of the relic’ and you raise the following question: ‘In a world where the common spirit is disintegrating, is it unthinkable that this disintegration itself is a spirit?’ Is this what you mean by culture wars?

I think culture war is just an aspect of what is happening in today’s world. After the status quo of the ‘cold war’ has ended, the ruling principle of the world seems to be not attraction and unity, but repulsion and conflict between hegemonic Powers. It is impossible for society’s transcendent aspect to be immune to this chaotic process. The fact that religious ideologies have come on the scene once again makes this whole situation more complex and interesting at the same time.

Do you think the key notion that best explains the change in philosophers' approach to art in modern European thought is the notion of the beautiful, the sacred or the sublime?

There may be more than one answer according to the philosopher and the period in question. One thing is sure, and that is what I wanted to show in the book, although philosophers thought these concepts separately at first, their reflections showed them that they were not as unrelated as they all thought and in the end, they saw that they had to think them in their intimate connection.

Has beauty necessarily and always been something beyond the necessary?

As the Turkish proverb says, ‘zorla güzellik olmaz’, force does not bring about beauty. It was Friedrich Schiller who produced the theory of this relation between freedom and beauty, but it is common to all philosophers discussed in the book that beauty becomes only possible when we go beyond the necessary and the instrumental. Heidegger’s and Adorno’s insistence on the importance of art in this sense exceeds the limits of aesthetics and turns it into a political matter, whereas philosophers of the previous century dealt with it only in ethical terms.

Have there been similar studies in German and English literature (in fact, we can also talk about international literature, but for a book like this, we can focus on these two regions) and what do you think is the most important feature of this book that differs from them?

I wish I had read Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God before I finished writing my book so that I could place it in a broader context, especially concerning the concept of culture. The German Romantic literature has given me the insight that made it possible for me to write this book. I want to see my book under the rubric of ‘critical theory’ and it has been this vein of philosophy from Kant to Adorno that has formed my intellectual journey so far. Another source of inspiration was Mircea Eliade, of course. But I wanted to deal with the topic not in terms of religion but in terms of transcendence and its relation to art. I believe this framework is what makes this book different.

Was there anything you learned during the writing and research process that surprised you, perhaps changed the course, or changed your approach in some way?

The most fascinating part of the process was to see how German people and thinkers have faced the problems we have been dealing with for the last century. The second point that I should point out is the feeling of sincerity and acuteness that one finds in the texts of those thinkers. They were very well aware of their serious problems in the modern world and every sentence makes you feel that it was not just an academic or intellectual curiosity for them, but a matter of utmost actuality and importance.

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