by Conor Jedam
This paper is concerned with Martin Heidegger’s account of art, truth, and their relation to each other within his ontology. Firstly, I will outline Heidegger’s aim of describing the function of the artwork through phenomenology rather than describing subjective aesthetic experience. I then cover his analysis of artworks which reveals them as “truth of beings setting itself to work,”[i] insofar as they disclose the particular Being of beings through the necessary conflict between world and earth. With reference to Vincent van Gogh’s painting of shoes and of the Greek temple, I then provide a criticism of Heidegger’s account, arguing instead that the coming forth of world in art discloses some truth of the viewer’s Being.
In his work, Heidegger rejects the subject/object dichotomy apparent in modern aesthetics which supposes humans as isolated subjects, distinct from the objects around them.[ii] This subjectivism, for Heidegger, neglects to acknowledge what he sees as our primary way of Being. Instead of seeing a clear distinction between self and world, Heidegger suggests that we are immersed in the world as participants.[iii] As such, in “The Origin of the Work of Art” he demotes the notion that the artwork is an expression of the artist or that artworks form the basis for a spectator’s aesthetic experience.[iv] In fact, he states not only that artist and artwork are mutually constitutive, but that art itself pre-exists both.[v] Instead, Heidegger is interested in the way art reveals truth.
In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger’s task is to get to the heart of what it means for something to be considered an artwork. He begins by acknowledging the thingness of art objects, insofar as they conform to the preeminent conceptions of things as “bearer of traits, as the unity of a manifold of sensation, as formed matter.”[vi] However, he finds these conceptions insufficient in their ability to describe the artwork fully, particularly as they reflect the subject/object distinction which he rejects.[vii] To accept this characterisation is to encounter things only insofar as we, as subjects, observe them. There is some elusive aspect to artworks that this subjective perspective fails to account for.[viii] At this point, Heidegger appeals to the notion that our Being within the world is constituted in our interaction with equipment. He claims that, in our thought, we are particularly disposed to relate to equipment because it comes into existence through human creation and is our primary way of interfacing with the world.[ix] However, in order to get at art’s elusive quality, examination of the equipment itself is insufficient. The equipmental quality of equipment is such that it is only truly what it is when in use.[x] Furthermore, insofar as it is reliable, equipment becomes invisible when it is in use.[xi] For example, so long as a guitar is fully functioning, the guitarist is unaware of their instrument, perhaps feeling only that it is an extension of their body. It is only when a string snaps and the guitar’s usefulness diminishes that the player becomes aware of the guitar. It is because of this vanishing that Heidegger chooses to analyse equipment through the painting of a peasant’s shoes by Vincent van Gogh.
In this famous example, Heidegger describes van Gogh’s painting as revealing some truth about the world in which the shoes belong. Despite its plain representation of shoes sitting at rest, Heidegger thinks that through the painting we become aware of the rich and complex world of the shoes. We learn of the “toilsome tread of the worker” and the “dampness and richness of the soil”[xii] upon which the peasant treads. He goes so far as to say that in the painting’s communication with us we are temporarily transported to the world in which the shoes belong.[xiii] Through this process of discovery, which is made available through the artwork, the truth of the shoes’ Being is revealed.[xiv] This account reveals, for Heidegger, the answer to his question concerning what is at work in the artwork, which he calls, “the disclosure of the particular being in its Being, the happening of the truth.”[xv]
So, as the above example shows, despite the artwork’s thingly character, it performs the function of setting up a world, and in doing so, discloses some truth with regard to Being. Furthermore, this function is unique insofar as the artwork manifests the possibility of understanding the Being of the shoes in a way that is concealed by the nature of the actual shoes. It is not that the artwork’s thingly nature, the fact that it is made up of wood, canvas, pigment and so on, disappears as it does in equipment. Rather, the artwork’s material existence, the aspect of it which relates to earth, operates in a necessary conflict with world’s disclosure of Being.[xvi] Earth and world press into each other, with world necessarily grounded in earth, while earth in turn shelters world.[xvii] Through world, the nature of the shoes’ Being is revealed in the artwork, but earth is that which resists this opening up. Earth’s nature is such that in the work it comes forth and conceals world. This unbreakable unity, referred to as “essential strife,”[xviii] is the reason that no interpretation of an artwork can ever completely capture the artwork itself. Just as world works within the artwork to reveal itself, earth performs its self-concealment, forever remaining elusive.[xix] Heidegger provides the example of the Greek temple to further demonstrate art as truth of beings setting itself to work.
When Heidegger invokes the example of the Greek temple, he describes it as bringing forth world in a way which contrasts with van Gogh’s painting. It is not just that we are transported temporarily through the artwork into the world portrayed and thus come to learn about a particular being’s Being, as in the case of the shoes. Rather, in the case of the temple, the world manifested is that of the culture which produced and used it. In writing that “the temple, in its standing there, first gives things their look and to men their outlook on themselves,”[xx] Heidegger shows how the temple, at one time, informed the world and guided the participatory agents within it.[xxi] While not representational, it held up to the population those things which they valued and saw as meaningful. So, as the painting of the peasant’s shoes reveals the world of the peasant as it exists through the frame, the temple plays a role in manifesting the actual, cultural world of Ancient Greece.
Heidegger’s phenomenological account of experiencing the painting and the temple emphasise different aspects of the truth of beings setting itself to work. When presenting the example of the painting, he seems to suggest a journey from one’s own world through to another in which the peasant’s shoes realise their Being. The viewer seems to sink into the work. In the case of the temple, however, Heidegger shows how the work describes the world of which it is a product, and which it produces. The work seems to bring something to the viewer. It is true, in either case, that the artwork is an occasion for the disclosure of the Being of beings.
I must, however, question whether the truth of beings setting itself to work in artworks reveals something about the Being of beings or something about the Being of the viewer. While the world of the shoes, as described by Heidegger, is quite a reasonable place for them to belong, it does not seem necessary that they belong in such a world. Surely it would be the case that another viewer of the same work would have an entirely different world disclosed to them, which suits the shoes just as well. Is it really that those shoes belong to a peasant woman, or that they are really damp from the soil of the grain field? Heidegger seems to suggest that this detail comes forth to the viewer, from the artwork, but I wish to explore another possibility, namely that the viewer projects their own bias in their experience of the artwork.
It seems to me that in Heidegger’s phenomenological account of Van Gogh’s painting, the world that is disclosed is a reflection of, and is projected by, his own perspective and bias as a viewer. This is to say that one’s prior knowledge, belief systems, and characteristics of one’s identity such as sex, gender, race and class, inform the world that is disclosed in one’s experience of the artwork. Meyer Schapiro argues that Heidegger’s world of the shoes is based on his “social outlook with its heavy pathos of the primordial and earthy,”[xxii] and this is projected in his experience of the painting. In support of this argument, Schapiro explains that the shoes depicted in the painting were in fact van Gogh’s own, not for use in the field, but perhaps for walking around town.[xxiii] Suddenly, the world which was disclosed speaks not of the Being of the shoes, but of Heidegger’s Being as a viewer. In other words, it reveals to Heidegger something about himself that he did not see before. Of course, the same must hold true for the example of the Greek temple. While less obvious than in the case of the painting, I argue that the world apparent to the viewer which relates to the temple must, at least partially, be a product of factors like one’s prior knowledge and expectations. Indeed, this seems unavoidable considering that the world to which the temple belonged does not exist anymore, and can only be reconstructed by us through imagination and theory. However, I do recognise that in making these claims I am perhaps reinstating the subject/object division apparent in modern aesthetics that Heidegger was trying to subvert. To suggest that the meaningful relation between the viewer and the artwork is a product of the viewer’s experience of the artwork as an object, as I have done, could be charged with this same kind of subjectivism.
In this paper, I have provided a representation of Heidegger’s case for the work of art as the truth of beings setting itself to work. By approaching the problem of art from a phenomenological angle, Heidegger works in contrast with the modern aesthetic tradition which operates within the subject/object distinction. As a result, he is concerned not with aesthetic experience, but with what constitutes an artwork. I track his path through the thingly aspect of the art object to an understanding of equipment. Through his examples, we see how Heidegger elevates art by making the claim that art’s function is to reveal the truth of Being, through the disclosure of the conflict between earth and world. I have argued, however, that the worlds presented to the viewer of artworks do not perform “the disclosure of the particular being in its Being,”[xxiv] but rather are a reflection of the viewer’s own perspective and bias.
Conor is currently an undergraduate student completing a Bachelor of Arts with an Extended Major in Philosophy at the University of Queensland. So far, his particular interests have drawn him to environmental philosophy, aesthetics and feminist philosophy. He has also studied sound production and is passionate about popular music of the 20th century and the electric guitar. He drinks his coffee black.
[i] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper Books, 1977), 165.
[ii] Charles B. Guignon, Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 85.
[iii] Guignon, Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge, 86.
[iv] Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Ontology of Art,” in A Companion to Heidegger, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 407.
[v] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 149.
[vi] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 160.
[vii] Robert Bernasconi, “Heidegger, Martin,” in A Companion to Aesthetics, ed. Stephen Davies, Kathleen Marie Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, and David E. Cooper (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 321.
[viii] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 161.
[ix] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 161-162.
[x] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 161.
[xi] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 162-163.
[xii] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 163.
[xiii] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 164.
[xiv] S. L. Bartky, “Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art,” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, ed. T. Sheehan (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1981), 357.
[xv] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 165.
[xvi] Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, ed. Charles B. Guignon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 356.
[xvii] Bartky, “Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art,” 363.
[xviii] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 173.
[xix] David A. White, “World and Earth in Heidegger’s Aesthetics,” Philosophy Today 12, no. 4 (Winter 1968): 283.
[xx] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 169.
[xxi] Dreyfus, “Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics,” 353.
[xxii] Meyer Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object —A Note on Heidegger and van Gogh,” in The Reach of Mind: Essays in Memory of Kurt Goldstein, ed. Marianne L. Simmel (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 1968), 206.
[xxiii] Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object —A Note on Heidegger and van Gogh,” 205.
[xxiv] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 165.
Bartky, S. L. “Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art.” In Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, edited by T. Sheehan, 353-371. Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1981.
Bernasconi, Robert. “Heidegger, Martin.” In A Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Stephen Davies, Kathleen Marie Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, and David E. Cooper, 321-324. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Dreyfus, Hubert L. “Heidegger’s Ontology of Art.” In A Companion to Heidegger, edited by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall, 407-419. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Dreyfus, Hubert L. “Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics.” In The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, edited by Charles B. Guignon, 345-372. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Guignon, Charles B. Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, 143-187. San Francisco: Harper Books, 1977.
Schapiro, Meyer. “The Still Life as a Personal Object —A Note on Heidegger and van Gogh.” In The Reach of Mind: Essays in Memory of Kurt Goldstein, edited by Marianne L. Simmel, 203-209. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 1968.
White, David A. “World and Earth in Heidegger’s Aesthetics.” Philosophy Today 12, no. 4 (Winter 1968): 282-286.
Featured image: Painting by Vincent van Gogh, 1886