This is not a good time for symbols. It’s neither a good time for symbolic aesthetics, or different artistic symbolisms, and neither, in general, for the areas that, since antiquity, have been characterized by its dominant presence. Although there is some small resistance, what seems certain is that, as in the words by Gadamer, «a characteristic feature of the time we are living is the poverty of symbols».. Such misery is not only due to the disappearance - or, what’s even worse, the banalization - of myths, mysteries and mysticisms of a varied kind, not even to the end of the romantic-idealistic theories founded in the connection between the sensitive and the supra-sensitive. Generally, the poverty of symbols is due to the fact that today image, message and spectacle prevail over any form of transcendence. As José Luís Villacañas affirms: «figures are no longer symbols of anything, and in the cases they are, they are only symbols of themselves». If we take into account, in the first place, that every symbol is based on a reference to something occult, that is, that it always presupposes a certain metaphysical and religious connection between the visible and the invisible, and, in second place, that the context in which it reached its maximum splendour - the romantic theory of the symbol - , has a clear religious and metaphysical origin, it is understandable why the symbol is seen today as a thing of the past. But, evidently, this was not always the case.
The mythical-religious need for the symbol follows the power of evocation and suggestion generated by the indetermination of its meaning. It is, in fact, a tensional evocation, ambiguous, that on one hand is linked to the sensitive and, on the other, shows that such a beyond is never completely accessible. All forms of religious cult refer to this sensitive manifestation and invisible meaning, to the dialectics of presence / absence, to the need of transcending ourselves, but never without being able to, not even wanting to, reach the end. Those are the characteristics that explain the religious sense of the symbol and its aesthetic derivation: «the symbolic and, in particular, the symbolic in the art, rests on an insoluble game of opposites, of exposure and occultation», writes Gadamer. It thus becomes comprehensible that the symbol has been one of the great protagonists in romantic aesthetics; such protagonism has had multiple readings and interpretations, not always well received.
It is Goethe, without a doubt, who rescues the symbol out of the forgetfulness and the secondary place it occupied in relation to the allegory and other images, turning it into a fundamental aesthetic figure. Before Goethe, Kant, perhaps even without wanting it, had already begun its recovery. In fact, in paragraph 59 of the Critic of Judgement, «About the beauty as the symbol for morality», Kant understands the symbolic representation as indirect expression of an idea that acquires, in this manner, operativity and meaning. Beauty would act as symbol of an ethics – which would be irrepresentable, as the good ideal entity that it is – by projecting on it not a larger knowledge, but the allusion to its superior and worthier value. Goethe, though, if he accepted the representability of the idea, granting such mission to the symbol, he no longer needs, like Kant, the ineludible activity of the Self.
To Goethe, the symbol is «a concentrated image in the mirror of the spirit, and, nevertheless, identical to the object»; therefore, true symbolism would be that «in which the particular represents the general, not as a dream or a shadow, but as living, instantaneous, evidence of the unfathomable». The famous expression by Goethe, «everything is symbol», should be read in this context of a balanced relationship between objects and ideas. The unbalance, the subject's exaltation and the apotheosis of the spirit that constitute some of the fundamental characteristics of the romantic theory of the symbol, were never accepted by Goethe. And this is the origin of his ironic allusion to dreams and shadows.
The romantic and idealistic aesthetics, however, don't sustain a homogeneous and common interpretation of the symbol in general. Differently of Goethe, Schiller doesn't grant any symbolism to nature, considering it, just as Kant, a result of operations by the subject.
Actually, for Schiller, as for Friedrich Schlegel or Schelling, art is all symbolic, because only as such can it artistically represent the absolute and the transcendent. Romantic aesthetics, however, didn't conceive the symbol only according to such ideas of integrity and agreement between form and idea. Friedrich Creuzer, for instance, believes the «oscillation and indifference between form and essence are intrinsic in the symbol», so it acquires all its power through characteristics like ambiguity, uncertainty or the indecision of its meaning. Hegel, influenced by Creuzer, will assume these connotations for the symbol, understanding it as something previous to the adaptation between form and content, which was only fully accomplished in Classic Greece.
These two lines – that are in the origin of the romantic theories, despite the differences between them – the first, rooted in Kant, more linked to cogniscitive elements, and the second, closer to Goethe and his pantheism, according to which “everything refers to everything”, also explain the two separate directions symbolic theories will take on later. The cogniscitive element is clearly present in Ernst Cassirer, to whom every symbolic form – knowledge, art, myth, language... – doesn't refer to an absent signification, but on the contrary: «their content is purely and simply dissolved in the function of meaning». They are forms of making worlds, as Goodman will say later, who doesn't hide the coincidence of perspective with Cassirer in certain points. If Cassirer privileges this cogniscitive model, Gadamer, in turn, will use hermeneutics as a perfectly appropriate place for the development of the significant power of the symbol that, moreover, doesn't hide its romantic origin: «the universal expression by Goethe, “everything is symbol”, [...] contains the most inclusive formalization of the hermeneutical thought », Gadamer will write.
Both Gadamer and Cassirer are clear representatives of the type of aesthetics usually designated as cognitive, and thus, once again, we should not find the problems the symbol is facing today strange: its ideal place was occupied in the romantic aesthetics, from where it derived to the cognitive aesthetics, but both are lacking today a kind of artistic form that assumes them. It is therefore not surprising the defeat of the symbol under the force of the allegory, which, since its recovery by Walter Benjamin, is trying a sweet revenge over the romantic misfortunes, amid an artistic practice, the contemporary, much more suitable to its interests.
This is the cause of the special characteristics of those who ought to be the last remainders of the symbolic aesthetics. One of them would be Nelson Goodman's analytic aesthetics, who uses the symbol to know if something is or isn’t an artistic object: «an object is only turned into a work of art when somehow it works as a symbol», writes Goodman.. The second aesthetics that grants today a relevant role to the symbol is the philosophy of limit by Eugênio Trías, who, based on Kant, Schelling and Goethe, understands that «any work of art, whether musical, architectonic, pictorial, sculptural or literary, constitutes a symbolic hieroglyph, exposed in a sensitive way, of aesthetic ideas».
In any case, it becomes complicated to find an appropriate place for the symbol in contemporary aesthetics. If we choose the analytic version, we verify aesthetics seems to forget the works, being devoted to know if an object is artistic or not; if, on the contrary, we assume Trías’s view, it seems we step back from the more recent artistic practices and surrender to a nostalgia for a lost integrity.
Perhaps the best place for the symbol, although this can seem paradoxical, is not found in itself, but in the characteristics that define it..
Symptoms as ambiguity or uncertainty affect the art of today generally, not only in the place that it occupies but also in the indecision of many of its works.
In this perspective, to remember that such ambiguity doesn't have to necessarily implicate pejorative connotations, can be considered as a nice legacy left by the romantic theories about the symbol.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, «Imagen y gesto», incluído em Hans-Georg Gadamer, Estética y hermenéutica, translation by A. Gómez Ramos, introduction by A. Gabilondo, Madrid, Tecnos, 1996, p. 245.
José Luis Villacañas, «El símbolo en Kant: comentarios sobre un indicio», included in: Diego Romero de Solís, Juan Bosco Díaz-Urmeneta, Jorge López Lloret, Antonio Molina Flores (editores), Símbolos estéticos, Sevilha, Universidade de Sevilha, 2001, p. 29.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, «El simbolismo en el arte», icluded in Hans-Georg Gadamer, La actualidad de lo bello. El arte como juego, símbolo y fiesta, Translation by A. Gómez Ramos, introduction by R. Argullol. Barcelona, Paidós, 1991, p. 87.
Johann W. Goethe, «Sobre el simbolismo», in Javier Arnaldo (ed.), Fragmentos para una teoría romántica del arte, Madrid, Tecnos, 1987, p. 171, and Johann W. Goethe, «Máximas sobre arte y artistas», ibid., p. 173.
Friedrich Creuzer, Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, besonders der Griechen, Leipzig und Darmstadt, Carl Wilhelm Leske, 1822, § 30, p. 24.
About the notion of symbol in Hegel and his relation with Creuzer, confront my study «Símbolo y metáfora en la estética de Hegel», included in Hernández Sánchez, D., La ironía estética. Estética romántica y arte moderno. Salamanca, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2002, pp. 33-61.