Heidegger & Art

by Thomas Cummins

in architecture, art, books, philosophy, photography

Van Gogh painting of boots Heidegger wrote aboutIn his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art,’ Heidegger noticed that all artworks have a thingly character to them. But it is also obvious that art is something more than simply just a thing. Heidegger insists that artworks are different from useful equipment-type objects because artworks “in setting up a world, sets forth the earth.” In his attempt to find the essence of being, Heidegger focused on clarifying language and uses terms, such as earth and world, in an idiosyncratic manner that often tend to be much more complex than their typical, everyday usage. The earth and world are intricate terms in Heidegger’s vocabulary but, basically, the world refers roughly to the history of mankind, while the earth represents what we normally refer to as nature. Accordingly, these two realms are forever conflicted in essential strife.

Works of art have a special place in this strife between the earth and world because art belongs to both of these realms simultaneously. Art is not like the rock or plants of the earth but it is also not exactly like the “equpiment-type” things associated with the world. Art is a crossroads where the earth and world share a symbiotic relationship and “When art works disclose entities, they bring the meeting of earth and world to our attention.” To demonstrate this point, Heidegger uses a Greek temple and Van Gogh’s painting of shoes as his main examples. The world is obviously manifested in the temple as the focal point of Greek culture but the order established in the temple also works to accentuate the rockiness of the earth underneath and “the temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air.” A tension arises in this stife between the earth and world which works in the sense that, over a certain period of time, a new perspective can be eventually achieved. It is precisely through time how this “work” transforms our meanings accordingly. In the case of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, it is as if the non-usefulness associated with art forces one to contemplate – Why would someone focus so much time and effort on a pair of dirty-old peasants shoes and raise them to the platform of art? We come to realize, in our contemplation, the actual being of shoes and how “the equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman.” Art is a continual creation for the artist and also the viewer. Gauguin, Van Gogh’s roommate, described this process similarly when he wrote “Art is an abstraction; extract it from nature while dreaming in front of it.” Art enacts essential strife or, in other words, the happening of truth at work. In Hediegger’s words – “In the artwork, the truth of beings has set itself to work. Art is truth setting itself to work.” Consequently, Heidegger has completely redefined art and he tells us “The setting-into-work of truth thrusts up the awesome and at the same time thrusts down the ordinary.” This actually sounds a lot like Van Gogh’s own words when he stated his objective for art to “exagerrate the essential and leave the obvious vague.”

Heidegger, however, did have problems with the history of aesthetics which he refers to as a specialized form of thinking on art and the artist. Heidegger writes “The way in which aesthetics views the artwork from the outset is dominated by the traditional interpretation of beings.” By this, Heidegger intends that artworks have traditionally been viewed only as mere things for consumption and as trophies which demonstrate man’s mastery over nature. Focused solely on the thingly aspect of art, aesthetics has managed to completely disregard the work-character of art which brings about truth. Heidegger tells us “The essence of art would be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work. But until now art presumably has had to do with the beautiful and beauty, and not with truth.” Accordingly, aesthetics has been primarily concerned with beauty while truth has been mistakenly relegated to logic. Heidegger claims that it is the artist, and not the scientist, that actually shows us the truth. Following Nietzche’s lead, Heidegger inverts the hierarchy established by Plato and he, therefore, effectively places art at the pinnacle as the beacon from which the rest of his philosophy would follow.

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