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Heidegger -- The Origin of the Work of Art

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Thomas Mulherin

on 14 November 2013

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Transcript of Heidegger -- The Origin of the Work of Art

Martin Heidegger
"The Origin of
the Work of Art"

Important issues:
Art as Truth

Thing and Work
"...that from which and by which something is what it is and as it is" (650)
"...what something is, as it is" (650)
So, to ask about the origin of the work of art is to ask about how the work of art becomes that work of art.
Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886)
The Artist?
The Artwork?
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait (1889)
"In themselves and in their interrelations artist and artwork /are/ each of them by virtue of a third thing which is prior to both, namely that which also gives artist and work of art their names--art" (650).
Art is a tricky concept:
What is art?
Shall we abstract a definition from all of these instances?
"But how are we to be certain that we are indeed basing such an examination on artworks if we do not know beforehand what art is?" (651)
Shall we derive art's essence then, from higher concepts?
"For such a derivation, too, already has in view the definitions that must suffice to establish that what we in advance take to be an artwork is one in fact" (651).
"In order to discover the essence of art that actually prevails in the work, let us go to the actual work and ask the work what and how it is" (651).
Thingly Character
"If we consider the works in their untouched actuality and do not deceive ourselves, the result is that the works are as naturally present as are things" (651).
Shouldn't we be approaching artworks as they are approached by those who appreciate and understand them? They don't seem to see artworks as things.
Even here, in aesthetic experience, there is something "thingly" (652):
Either in the properties of the artwork...
"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" (652).
Or in its medium.
"The thingly element is so irremovably present in the artwork that we are compelled rather to say that the architectural work is in stone, the carving is in wood, the painting is in color, the linguistic work in speech, the musical composition in sound" (652).
Objection! (2)
But this thingly element isn't the artwork, so we can safely ignore it.
"Presumably it becomes superfluous and confusing to inquire into this feature, since the artwork is something else over and above the thingly element. This something else in the work constitutes its artistic nature" (652).
Even if this allegorical (or symbolic) conception of art is right, it is by the thingly aspects of the artwork that the allegory or symbolization happens.
We have no choice but to figure out what a thing is, if we are to understand what art is.
"Our aim is to arrive at the immediate and full actuality of the work of art, for only in this way shall we discover actual art also within it. Hence we must first bring to view the thingly element of the work. To this end it is necessary that we should know with sufficient clarity what a thing it. Only then can we say whether the artwork is a thing, but a thing to which something else adheres; only then can we decide whether the work is at bottom something else and not a thing at all" (652-653).
What is a thing?
Are things whatever appears?
But some things don't appear.
And sometimes 'thing' means "whatever is not simply nothing" (653).
And this, finally, is too broad: there is much that is not nothing and is not a thing.
"And beside, we hesitate to call God a thing. In the same way we hesitate to consider the peasant in the field, the stoker at the boiler, the teacher in the school as things. A man is not a thing. ...We hesitate even to call the deer in the forest clearing, the beetle in the grass, the blade of grass a thing" (653).
Where does this leave us?
Our initial inclination was right: we return to "a stone, a clod of earth, a piece of wood" as our exemplars of things (654).
Call these "mere things."
"We thus see ourselves brought back from the widest domain, within which everything is a thing ..., including even the highest and last things, to the narrow precinct of mere things. 'Mere' here means, first, the pure thing, which is simply a thing and nothing more; but then, at the same time, it means that which is only a thing, in an almost pejorative sense" (654).
Three interpretations of "the thingness of the thing" (654)
1. as substance bearing properties
2. as the unity of a sensory manifold, i.e. a representation
3. as formed matter
This corresponds to our "natural outlook on things" (655), and is even reflected in our way of speaking about them.
But why think that this is right, i.e. that speech tracks the nature of things?
"Nevertheless, we must ask: Is the structure of a simple propositional statement (the combination of subject and predicate) the mirror image of the structure of the thing (of the union of substance with accidents? Or could it be that even the structure of the thing as thus envisaged is a projection of the framework of the sentence?" (655)
Moreover, doesn't this view apply to things beyond mere things?
"But in addition this thing-concept (the thing as bearer of its characteristics) holds not only of the mere thing in its proper sense, but also of any being whatsoever. Hence it cannot be used to set apart thingly beings from non-thingly beings" (656).
This avoids the violence of the previous conception.
Worst of all, this undermines itself: it makes the thing (allegedly a substance) dependent on the perceiver, and thus does violence to it.
"Yet even before all reflection, attentive dwelling within the sphere of things already tells us that this thing-concept does not hit upon the thingly element of the thing, its independent and self-contained character" (656).
We never experience things as dictated by this conception, though.
"We never really first perceive a throng of sensations, e.g. tones and noises, in the appearance of things--as this thing-concept alleges; rather we hear the storm whispering in the chimney, we hear the three-motored place, we hear the Mercedes in immediate distinction from the Volkswagen" (657).
This is nice because it captures what we had earlier identified as the thingly element of art, i.e. its medium.
But these concepts could apply to anything (pun intended) at all.
"Form and content are the most hackneyed concepts under which anything and everything may be subsumed. ...If, however it is thus with the distinction between matter and form, how then shall we make use of it to lay old of the particular domain of mere things by contrast with all other entities?" (658-659).
Moreover, insofar as form determines matter for a purpose, this concept misses mere things as well.
"Both the formative act and the choice of material--a choice given with the act--and therewith the dominance of the conjunction of matter and form, are all grounded in such usefulness. A being that falls under usefulness is always the product of a process of making. It is made as a piece of equipment for something. As determinations of beings, accordingly, matter and form have their proper place in the essential nature of equipment. This name designates what is produced expressly for employment and use. Matter and form are in no case original determinations of the thingness of the mere thing" (659).
Finally, it isn't clear that the thing remains after equipmentality is stripped away.
"The mere thing is a sort of equipment, albeit equipment denuded of its equipmental being. Thing-being consists in what is then left over. But this remnant is not actually defined in its ontological character. It remains doubtful whether the thingly character comes to view at all in the process of stripping off everything equipmental" (661).
Equipment as Clue
Why is the notion of things as formed matter so plausible? Because equipment is such a central part of our lives.
Indeed, one of the major claims of /Being and Time/ is that our practical engagement with equipment is more fundamental than the scientific contemplation of them. This thought, which undermines the subject-object distinction, is behind Heidegger's earlier rejection of the three different theories of mere things.
To discover what equipment is, we will describe it in its use.
Why description? in order to "...avoid any attempts that again immediately entail the encroachments of the usual interpretations" (663).
Why focus on the use of equipment? Because "the equipmental quality of equipment consists in its use" (663).
"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. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry 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. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself" (664).
Importantly, we don't notice this when we're using these shoes.
Two important concepts here: earth and world. We'll save them for the next section.
"But perhaps it is only in the picture that we notice all this about the shoes. The peasant woman, on the other hand, simply wears them" (664).
Why is this important?
The Work and Truth
The Greek Temple
Concealment and the Earth
Truth and Art
Epilogue & Addendum
"It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people" (670).
"Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so makes the storm itself manifest in its violence" (671).
"The temple's firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air" (671).
"Tree and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their distinctive shapes and thus come to appear as what they are" (671).
All of this can be summarized as "opening up" or "setting up" a world.
Setting up a world, then, might be summarized as establishing a system of norms. More casually, we might say that it's determining the significance of things, i.e. what things can matter to us, and how.
"To e-rect means: to open the right in the sense of a guiding measure, a form in which what is essential gives guidance" (672)
"The temple, in its standing there, first gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves" (671).
Okay. But what is a world? What is it to set a world up?
The notion of a world comes from /Being and Time/, where Heidegger uses it to describe the totality of involvements that human beings have and can have with other human beings and with things.
This might seem like a strange way to think about a world, but we do have this notion in everyday life: think of the "sports world" or the "fashion world," for instance.
NB: The world cannot become an object to us; to be in a world is, precisely to be unaware of that world. One might say that the world (and the equipment in it are) transparent (cf. 673).
There is another concept that goes with Heidegger's notion of a 'world,' i.e. earth. Let's bracket it for a minute and consider...
Theories of truth can be thought of as motivated by language.
Thus, one way of thinking of the correspondence theory of truth (cf. 666 and 678) is as being motivated by a theory where the basic form of language is the assertion or judgment (e.g. "S is P.").
This assertion is true just in case the object that is referred to by the subject of the statement (S) does have the property indicated by the predicate (P).
What's wrong with this picture?
To assert something (P) about an entity (S) is to understand S as being P; this is, in other words, to provide an interpretation of S.
But note that determining S as P requires a previous encounter with S.
This suggests that the interpretation embodied in assertion rests upon a more fundamental encounter with things. This way of encountering things will have its own characteristic linguistic expression and a correlated notion of truth.
This linguistic behavior is the kind of language that we deploy in our everyday coping.
What's the related notion of truth?
The relevant notion is unconcealment.
"Truth means today and has long meant the agreement or conformity of knowledge with the fact. However, /the fact must show itself to be fact/ if knowledge and the proposition that forms and expresses knowledge are to be able to conform to it; otherwise the fact cannot become binding on the proposition" (678).
"In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting. Thought of in reference to what is, to beings, this clearing is in a greater degree than are beings. The open center is therefore not surrounded by what is; rather, the lighting center itself encircles all that is, like the Nothing which we scarcely know.
That which is can only be, as a being, if it stands
within and stands out within what is lighted in this clearing. Only this clearing grants and guarantees us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are. Thanks to the clearing, beings are unconcealed in certain changing degrees" (679-680).
In short, unconcealment lets beings be encountered as the beings they are. The picture becomes complicated quickly, however: all unconcealment depends on a simultaneous concealment.
There are two kinds of concealment:
The most basic kind of concealment is refusal, i.e. the impossibility of exhaustively characterizing beings.
"Beings refuse themselves to us down to that one and seemingly least feature which we touch upon most readily when we can say no more of beings than that they are" (680).
The other kind of concealment is dissembling, where beings present themselves as other beings.
"But concealment, though of another sort, to be sure, at the same time also occurs in what is lighted. One being places itself in front of another being, the one helps to hide the other, the former obscures the latter, a few obstruct many, one denies all. Here concealment is not simple refusal. Rather, a being appears, but it presents itself as other than it is" (680).
Concealment as refusal is necessary for unconcealment.
This idea is less perplexing than it initially seems; all Heidegger is saying is that for any being to be unconcealed as something requires that other possibilities be denied. Concept deployment is a good example: if concepts are a system of categories that group things according to similarities, other similarities must be rejected as insignificant. But one could always reconceptualize the world according to these similarities. This would be a different mode of unconcealment and a different world as well.
Hence: "Concealment as refusal is not simply and only the limit of knowledge in any given circumstance, but the beginning of the clearing of what is lighted" (680).
NB: Keeping this reciprocal relationship between unconcealment and concealment in mind tells us why Heidegger insists on the neologism 'unconcealment' for 'truth': it's to capture the simultaneity of the two phenomena in one word.
Okay; what is earth, then?
Earth is not to be taken literally. Rather, it's Heidegger's word for the particular refusal that comes with a work's setting up of a certain world. Heidegger calls this process "setting back."
"That into which the work sets itself back and which it causes to come forth in this setting back of itself we called the earth. Earth is that which comes forth and shelters. Earth, irreducibly spontaneous, is effortless and untiring. Upon the earth and in it, historical man grounds his dwelling in the world" (674).
"Setting forth"?
This is meant to indicate that a work doesn't just set up a world and set itself back into the earth. Rather, this setting back, this refusal, is also available as such in the work.
"The earth appears openly cleared as itself only when it is perceived and preserved as that which is by nature undisclosable, that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up. All things of the earth, and the earth itself as a whole, flow together into a reciprocal accord. But this confluence is not a blurring of their outlines. Here there flows the stream, restful within itself, of the setting of bounds, which delimits everything present within its presence. Thus in each of the self-secluding things here is the same not-knowing-of-one-another. The earth is essentially self-secluding. To set forth the earth means to bring it into the Open as the self-secluding" (674).
Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886)
We haven't gotten any closer to the thingly character of the work. But it does seem that we've gotten closer to the workly character of the work.
As work, the work of art is "truth setting itself to work" (666).
"What happens here? What is at work in the work? Van Gogh's painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, /is/ in truth. This entity emerges into the unconcealedness of its being" (665).
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