Philosophy Weekend: Heidegger on Art

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(A few weeks ago, guest blogger Tim Hawken wrote about Immanuel Kant's aesthetic theory. Here's his second Philosophy Weekend piece, on a related subject. Hawken lives in Australia and is the author of 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'.)

You arrive at a contemporary art show with a friend. Excited about the new and interesting things you’ll see, you hurry toward the entry. Out in front there's a stunning installation. It’s a car with pummelled-in sides. Red and white paint is flaking off the doors to reveal rusted panels underneath. The bonnet, however, is flawless blue. The sheen of the paint almost glows with newness. Standing, admiring the work, you say to your friend that perhaps it’s a commentary on America’s motor industry: embattled, but still turning out quality work. The featured artist for the evening emerges from the front door. You’re about to praise his vision, when he smiles sheepishly, indicating the car, “perhaps if I sell some pieces tonight, I’ll be able to fix it up a bit more. It’s still just a heap of junk right now. I’d better get it out of the way before anyone else arrives.” Taking his keys out of his pocket, he jumps in, struggles to start it and rumbles off to the car park.

Embarrassed, you look down to your feet. So, that wasn’t art? Just a few moments ago you were sure it was brilliant. Does it stop being art now that the ‘artist’ called it junk? Or is it still art because you made it so in your mind? Your friend shakes her head at you and walks inside. The question you want to yell after her chokes on your tongue: What makes art, ‘art’ anyway?

This is a question that philosophers have struggled to answer for a long time. As art has gone from the beauty of the renaissance to the emotion of impressionism, the abstraction of cubism, and the power of political propaganda, the idea of what art can be has changed along with it. But there has to be some fundamental characteristic that all art can rest upon. Doesn’t there? One person who seriously examined this question was the German philosopher and professor Martin Heidegger. In an essay called The Origin Of The Work Of Art, Heidegger explored the essence of where art comes from and what it means to us. Rather than take a more aesthetic view, made popular by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Heidegger chooses to expose how he believes a great work of art:

... opens up a world and at the same time sets this world back again on earth, which itself only thus emerges as native ground.

What Heidegger means by this is not self-evident. In fact, Heidegger's philosophy often seems to be intentionally obscure. Nevertheless I will do my best to clarify what is being posed here, because the theory raises some interesting questions about the possibility of an all-encompassing idea of art.

Before we delve into this larger theory, it’s important to know what Heidegger means when he uses the terms ‘world’ and ‘earth’. The idea of ‘world’ is best displayed in The Origin of the Work of Art when Heidegger speaks of a painting by Van Gogh, which depicts some shoes. For Heidegger, the painting isn’t simply a representation of a pair of footwear. Rather:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind ... This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman.

Many would say that Heidegger is reading a lot into a painting of some shoes, and they’d probably be right. However, that is beside the point. What he tries to explain here is that rather than just being a portrait of ‘equipment’, the painting captures a moment in time. It gives off associations of a certain person, their culture and their place in life. In this way: “Towering up within itself, the work opens up a world and keeps it abidingly in force.” A piece of art is therefore an entire miniature world. Sandra Lee Bartky has summed it up well in the following way:

Heidegger’s use of the term “world” carries with it the sense not only of ‘life-world’ but of ‘historical epoch’ as well, with the suggestion that the life-world is an historical structure.

It is worth noting that this concept takes into account that the ‘world’ is forever changing. At any given time there is an era where the ideas, cultures, people and physical manifestation of the environment can all be taken to be the world. However, as epochs end and these elements change, a new world is created in a sense. So, in Heidegger’s idea of art, the artist captures a snap shot of the ‘world’ at any given moment. Once the work is removed from the context in which it was created, it can expose and recreate that past world for those who view it.

This idea is very important in the context of Heidegger’s broader philosophy. In what many describe in his masterwork Being and Time, Heidegger proposes that people cannot be separated from their historical context: The time in which we live makes us who we are. You can’t be a Knight of Camelot in 21st Century USA, for example. We are a product of our environment. To use the technical terms, there is an “existing reality”, which is man and all of the entities which exist in his ‘world’. There is also “the being of existing reality”, which is how we view these entities in relation to each other. This brings meaning to how we understand and experience the world at any given time. So, in this way we can to draw a link from ‘being’ to Heidegger’s idea of ‘world’. We can also see similarities in Heidegger’s ‘existence’ to his version of ‘earth’, which I will elaborate on now.

Heidegger begins The Origin of the Work of Art by trying to form an idea of where art comes from. The obvious answer, he says, is that art comes from artists. However, how are we do know what an artist is? For most, it’s somebody who creates art. Of course neither of these definitions actually hold weight, because they rely on each other for reference - there is a circular relationship. While many philosophers might reject this kind of roundabout thinking, Heidegger embraces it as part of the “feast of thought”. He is setting up a way to discard certain definitions in favor of others; Heidegger is searching for the best starting point to build his case from the ‘earth’ up, so to speak. What Heidegger (eventually) comes to after much rambling, is that all art has a ‘thingly’ element to it.

There is something stony in a work of architecture, wooden in a carving, colored in a painting, spoken in a linguistic work, sonorous in a musical composition.

In other words there is some kind of ‘stuff’ that makes up these artworks. Of course the argument can be made that a hammer, or a car are also ‘things’ made up of ‘stuff’. However, here Heidegger makes a distinction; cars and the like are equipment because they have a specific purpose to be used, where ‘mere things’ do not.

Thus the piece of equipment is a half thing, because it is characterized by thingliness, and yet it is something more; at the same time it is half at work and yet something less, because lacking the self-sufficiency of art work.

Heidegger then continues in painful detail to break down what makes a thing a ‘thing’, but still he can’t get to it completely.

A stone presses downward and manifests its heaviness. But while this heaviness exerts an opposing pressure upon us it denies us any penetration into it. If we attempt such a penetration by breaking open the rock, it still does not display in its fragments anything inward that has been disclosed. The stone has instantly withdrawn again into the same dull pressure and bulk of its fragments.

What Heidegger is saying is that the ‘thingly’ element of objects, like rocks, either ‘disintegrates’ when we try to explain it philosophically, or returns to us in an unrecognizable form. That is to say the ‘earth’, which makes up these things, becomes a thing to us again, as say a hammer, a tree, or a rock: The earth is self-concealing. Therefore, we come to understand Heidegger’s ‘earth’ as something, which makes up everything around us and gives our reality a context for us to sort our place in the world, by gaining reference from its physicality. However, we can never see this ‘earth’ for what it is, except in the special instance of when it is presented in an artwork, because:

The work moves the earth itself into the open of a world and keeps it there. The work lets earth be an earth.

So, we only see ‘earth’ in art because it as set against a ‘world’ - there is a tension evident between the two. Heidegger explains how this tension is exposed in artworks by speaking about a Greek temple as a piece of monumental art. Initially Heidegger elaborates in flowery prose how the temple sets up a religious world, by displaying a god through its pillars. After establishing this, he then draws our attention to the earthly element of the temple:

Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the mystery of that rock’s clumsy yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, yet first brings to light the light of the day, the breath of the sky, the darkness of the night. The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air ... The Greeks early called this emerging and rising in itself and in all things phusis. It clears and illuminates, also, that on which and in which man bases his dwelling. We call this ground the earth.

So, because we see the temple as an art-thing, and also experience the ‘world’ it creates, this highlights to us that it is made from something. The rocks that may have been concealed from our attention before, because they used to be mixed in with nature, are now something else all together. They are at one with the temple, but still we know they are rocks. They shine out at us. Their true nature is revealed in the tension between the rocks trying to be a temple but remaining rooted as ‘earth.’ Because of this evident strife between ‘world’ and ‘earth’ we gain insight into how we stand against this structure and how nature stands against it as well. It is an ultimate grounding reference point to make sense of our being! It is the same when we see a statue: we see the world of its subject when we see the folds of the cloth of her robes. Yet, we cannot escape the fact that those folds are actually made from stone. Because we see both ‘world’ and ‘earth’ existing together in an artwork, we can see the underlying reality, which it exposes – That the ‘world’ shown in art is connected with our own world. We are rooted to a native earth, which connects us to the emotions, cultures and lives of everyone else who has lived before us.

* * * * *

The criticism of Heidegger’s view of art is that it largely ignores earlier ideas of aesthetics being intrinsically tied to art. In fact, Heidegger rejected aesthetic reasoning as having anything to do with art. However, he didn’t want to be ‘anti-aesthetic’ either, since that would entangle him in the logic of aesthetics. He tried to be devoid of aesthetic influence all together (though, in his professional life, he completely failed to throw off the influence of Germany's Nazi party, to which he enthusiastically belonged).

This may be too narrow a view. There is much to be gleaned from Kant’s idea of aesthetics being a subjective judgment of taste (see my earlier Philosophy Weekend piece, What is Beauty?). We cannot ignore that a beautiful form can also be shown to be an attribute of art. That isn’t to say that aesthetics has it right either, however, to completely ignore it cuts short all that art can be.

I would also say the portrayal of a ‘world’ isn’t always clearly evident in every work of art either. Even in Van Gogh’s painting, Heidegger draws a long bow when it comes to teasing out the ‘world’ he sees inside it. Many believe they are actually just paintings of his own shoes. And what about music? If you listen to a piece of music, particularly one without lyrics, is a whole world evident in its make-up? I would think such a claim would be abstract at best and absurd at worst. Therefore, to say that the origin of art works lies in a tension between earth and world is somewhat misleading; there is too much that has to be read into it. This is inline with many philosophers’ criticisms of Heidegger in general: that he often seems to be obscurantist on purpose.

So to summarize, throughout The Origin of the Work of Art Martin Heidegger puts forth that all art derives from its ability to display a tension between ‘world’ and ‘earth’. In ‘world’ Heidegger means a snapshot of life, including its all-pervading cultures, at any one time and place in history. When saying ‘earth’, Heidegger is talking about the self-concealing but ever present stuff, which makes up every thing around us and provides a reference point for our reality. By exposing the tension between these two key factors of existence, art works can reveal underlying truths about how things really are. While there is much to be admired in Heidegger’s theory of art, he is often much too abstract in his explanations. Further, his definition appears to be a little too narrow to explain all things that we might deem as art.

So, where does this leave our car from the beginning? Does it open up a world? And is it exposing the earth to us? If you take Heidegger’s view, it can’t be art, just equipment. Only a representation of the car can expose the materials it is made from as ‘earth.’ I’m not sure that this can always be the case, but I can be sure that you need to be careful when pronouncing just any everyday object ‘art’. You never know when an artist is hidden around the corner, ready to expose the truth: that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: What is the Meaning of Scientology?. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Two Videos.
16 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Heidegger on Art"

by TKG on

This is the story of Victoria's heart/You might think it's stupid but I still think it's art -- R. Miller

I think Readymades are art -- R. Mutt

Even a urinal? -- R. T. Fishel

Only in a loo, not the Louvre -- R. Knott

...i don't know, i think defining art from the outside in is tough, nazi or not. it cannot be seperated from the initial sensory impulse. only the creator of it can justify and validate. even thoughts can be art. an audience of one or two. expression of the art, or the created medium, is performance, corruption inevitable. art critics with taste, i like. and taste is another matter...

by Levi Asher on

Though I've never been a Heidegger fan (Nazi or not, as hypcollector says, he's not really my kind of philosophical writer) I do like the way Tim Hawken explains him, and I like the idea that -- to put this into my own words -- much of the appeal of art is not in the aesthetic experience, but rather in our understanding of the difficulty of creating an aesthetic experience, an awareness that we are earthbound (that life is not naturally artistic) but that we have the power to achieve art. This is why we value imperfection and accident and spontaneity so much in art, I think.

I'm glad i read (and published) this piece by Tim -- explains a Heidegger idea better to me, I'm sure, than Heidegger would have.

by Mike Covey on

To me, the essential brilliance of Heidegger is his explication of the Greek concept physis or existence. Things like a flower: germinate - grow to reproductive age - reproduce - then wither. It’s a workable description of the reason for being for all animate things. At or around reproductive age, the flower (and/or human) blooms - in all its glory or attractiveness or fascinative capacity (as Sartre would say). After that, creatures nurture their offspring, but that’s pretty much the extent of their reason to be; at least to those without self-reflective consciousness (like Republicans and other lower life forms).

by Mike Covey on

I was talking to my sister about the great art renaissance in Denver (you should go there) and she said - yeah, if that’s your interest. Like, if art is “your thing” like golf or crossword puzzles. And I said no no no, art is “our thing.” It is the highest form of expression we humans have. So in that way, art and philosophy are the same thing. Philosophy the intellectual description of why and what for we are; and art the symbol of that same idea. Like Barishnikov dancing with Gelsey Kirkland, or Sasha Cohen skating with Evgeny Plushenko - showing us the best of what people can do. So too perhaps with Vermeer in painting, or Michelangelo in sculpture. And with us as writers. Either we write art, or waste people’s time.

by mtmynd1 on

I'm in agreement with Mike Covey when he writes "art and philosophy are the same thing.." That was my immediate conclusion while reading T. Hawken's piece. The art of expressing what one thinks about the world thru words or imaging is the same inspired route we take, leaving behind a record of our times to a future generation. Art in all it's forms, especially visual art (paintings), the written word (poems, philosophies, religions) and architecture are the only remains of our distant past that is uncovered thru archeological digs. If it wasn't for art who would we be..? We are the results of our creations and the abilities to use our creativity to leave behind a record of what we were to our progeny as every generation before us has done. Those who were unable to create left us nothing to build upon.

Very well-written article by Tim Harken. But let’s not assign obfuscation solely to Heidegger. I’m guessing he wrote in German, so if it’s hard to read in English, maybe that’s the translator.

In grad school I got hold of an Aeschylus that was amazingly simple and fun reading - not the tedious translations I’d read before. Translating is considered an art form in their world, and some are great, some ain't.

And a question for Tim “the being of existing reality” sounds exactly like Sartre’s idea of “facticity.” So who’s borrowing from whom? Cuz I always attribute that to Sartre, but if he got it from Heidegger (or if they both got it from Hegel) I’d rather credit the source.

Finally, you mention the other great idea in Heidegger (to me), that of “the ground.” E.g., why do you go to the store? Cuz I’m hungry and I want to stay alive. Why do you want to stay alive? Heidegger pushes every argument to the basis, “the ground.” Which I find essential in life.

by Mike Covey on

Enter the Tate Modern in London see junk cars and other junk & realize the artist is parodying us for our junky lives and junky world. But aint art just to parody crass-isity. Warhol done did that summarizing 3 hunert year of American dream as a can of instant soup. It isn’t art just to show us up, show us wot were not. Art is to show us what we can be. I mention in book review at The Guardian, ant art in the form of great tower sculpture. Perhaps finds its way to Empire State Buildings in a few millennia, or perhaps we never realize ant tower is far above what we could ever do but to stand back & admire it. Gelsey Kirkland so graceful, training decades to jump like a deer jumping barb wire fence. But if you see deer jump fence every night in Devil’s Nest Nebraska….. then you don’t really need Kirkland. Do you?

by Tim H on

Hi Mike,

Good pick up on the link between Sartre and Heidegger's ideas of 'facticity' and 'the being of existing reality'.

There is crossover for the ideas, however, they're not exactly the same. For me Sartre was more about how we react to our facticity as a focus, that we always have choice in that (the basis for his existentialism). Heidegger's idea of being and time revolves around the idea that history makes us who we are and seperating entities from the 'reality' that surrounds us. To be honest, I'm not totally sure who first came up with the idea. Perhaps they were both influenced by someone else! Foucault has some great points on this as well. Although he certainly was influenced by these two predecessors.

I don't want to pretend to be an expert in this, but I think the topic would make a great essay and may look into it further, at the very least to satisfy my own curiosity.

As an aside...can you remember which translation of Aeschylus you had? The Oresteia is one of my favourite set of Greek plays and am always looking for a fresh perspective on it.

Tim, I'll look for the Aeschylus, but to find anything in my house aint gonna be easy. But on that note, I found what little I've read of Heidegger to be easy reading, like Nietzsche. And Aristotle near impossible. While other folk've told me Aristotle was clear & simple to them. But as Mr. Asher would say, can we all agree that Kierkegaard is obtuse to the nth degree?

by Levi Asher on

Even Asher himself will agree that Kierkegaard's writings are obtuse ... but obtuse in the good way.

by Mike Covey on

What kills me & planet earth is that these brilliant articles of great importance garner 20 comments; while some idiot writes about nothing on fbook or msn and gets a thousand responses. That's sick. Planet, we have to do better than that. And yeah...we can.

by Tim H on

Aristotle's work on Posterior Analytics is one of the toughest things I've had to read, Mike. So you're not alone.

by Brian on

"If you listen to a piece of music, particularly one without lyrics, is a whole world evident in its make-up? I would think such a claim would be abstract at best and absurd at worst."

You really believe this? Music is given being in-the-world and through-the-world, so if it has any effects or power, it must be reflected as such, both for the creator and any listener, if any. Music might not have an apparent semiotic structure (though it also can) but it can certainly be narrative, romantic, etc whether or not it has lyrics.

I agree that Heidegger's most original contribution to an aesthetic philosophy is his denial of aesthetics-as-art. Even if you can't pinpoint the difference, I think it's easy to experience something starkly different in aesthetics of clothing, or advertising, or a cup of yogurt with a nice graphic design than you would with art.

Art often announces itself, speaks itself into being through an intersubjective experience that stands apart from the world and creates a world, (or an "event" according to Badiou), which is much different than Kant's subjective signifiers of taste that constitute aesthetics.

As for the obscurantist discussion, well.... believe it or not his aesthetic philosophy, particularly "On the Origin" is actually an example of his most accessible writing. I got into Heidegger through this piece by researching his influence on Terrence Malick. Malick taught Heidegger at Harvard, and I think the philosophy is readily available in "The Tree of Life", a movie that I absolutely romance.....

(Oh and I wrote a piece about it, not suggesting that my writing's all too hot but the primary sources are good I think. Needed to flesh out the idea of "spirit" more, which was unclearly harkening back to Hegel.

by Carolina on

I really love Heidegger's philosophy because is very original in both terms. I think The Origin of the work of art one of the most difficult things to read because is hermetic and refers all the time to other elements of his philosophy that isnt in this text.To understand it we might read his criticism to the conceps of what he call metaphysics, also to understand why he writes in that way. I see a large influence of the presocratic philosophy in him and Aristotle too. To me, Heideigger is criticising the metaphysic way that we concieve the bein when treating as an ent. So, he created a sistem that cannot work of the corrent terms that we are used to, the sistem that we intelectually addequate the thins to a teory to assume his true and to respond objectfully to the world.This is the difficulty that we might felt in his texts.So we have to incurse with him in this philosophy of art like a movement, a moment that Heraclito says to us.I also agree with the idea o word as historical passage, but like a time.Ive never read this text in this form, thank you for this contribution.In the relation to the earth, to me, he is turning back to the greek sense of the term.I think he perceive the art like a espace that the true can come and not a theory that tells us what is art or not.But in a way, I think he can dialogue with the art of all the periods, also de contemporary art, beause he sees not the form, object, beauty or sensibility- the legacy os philosophy of art- but a event that art can shows...and hide.....Sorry if is not undestandible...Im learning the way, great text. show me to put in some concepts to think.

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