The Origin of the Work of Art

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The Origin of the Work of Art is the title of an article by German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger drafted the text between 1935 and 1937, reworking it for publication in 1950 and again in 1960. Heidegger based his article on a series of lectures he had previously delivered in Zurich and Frankfurt during the 1930s, first on the essence of the work of art and then on the question of the meaning of a "thing," marking the philosopher's first lectures on the notion of art.


[edit] Content

In his article, Heidegger explains the essence of art in terms of the concepts of being and truth. He argues that art is not only a way of expressing the element of truth in a culture, but the means of creating it, providing a springboard from which "that which is" can be revealed. Works of art are not merely representations of the way things are, but actually produce a community's shared understanding. Each time a new artwork is added to any culture, the meaning of what it is to exist is inherently changed.

Heidegger begins his essay with the question of what is the source of a work of art. The artwork and the artist, he explains, exist in a dynamic where each appears a provider of the other--"Neither is without the other. Nevertheless, neither is the sole support of the other." Art, a concept separate from both work and creator, thus exists as the source for them both. Rather than control lying with the artist, art becomes a force that uses the creator for arts' own purposes. Likewise, the resulting work must be considered in the context of the world in which it exists, not that of its artist. In discovering the essence, however, the problem of the hermeneutic circle arises. In sum, the hermeneutic circle raises the paradox that, in any work, without understanding the whole, you can’t fully comprehend the individual parts, but without understanding the parts, you cannot comprehend the whole. Applied to art and artwork, we find that without knowledge of the essence of art, we cannot grasp the essence of the artwork, but without knowledge of the artwork, we cannot find the essence of art. Heidegger concludes that to take hold of this circle you either have to define the essence of art or of the artwork, and, as the artwork is simpler, we should start there.

Artworks, Heidegger contends, are things, a definition that raises the question of the meaning of a "thing." As this concept is so broad, he narrows down the definition to "mere things," meaning inanimate objects. He then chooses to examine a pair of shoes painted by Vincent Van Gogh, looking to the work to establish a distinction between artwork and other "things." This was actually typical of Heidegger as he often chose to study shoes and shoe maker shops as an example for the analysis of a culture. Heidegger explains the viewer's responsibility to consider the variety of questions about the shoes, asking not only about form and matter—what are the shoes made of?—but bestowing the piece with life by asking of purpose—what are the shoes for?

Next, Heidegger writes of art's ability to set up an active struggle between "Earth" and "World." "World," represents the essence of Being, the sum of all that is ready-to-hand for one being. So a family unit could be a world, or a career path could be a world, or even a large community or nation. "Earth", meaning something more along the lines of objective "existence", instead represents nature, and all that is outside the ready-to-hand, and importantly, that which the ready-to-hand cannot make intelligible. Both are necessary components for an artwork to function, each serving unique purposes. The artwork is inherently an object of "world", as it creates a world of its own; it opens up for us other worlds and cultures, such as worlds from the past like the ancient greek or medieval worlds, or different social worlds, like the world of the peasant, or of the aristocrat. however the very nature of art itself appeals to "Earth", as a function of art is to highlight the natural materials used to create it, such as the colors of the paint, the density of the language, or the texture of the stone. In this way, "World" is revealing the unintelligibility of "Earth", and so admits its dependance on the natural "Earth". It can be seen that here a struggle ensues, as for "Earth" to become "World", it must be stripped of its unintelligible nature, yet "World", and the culture it perpetuates, requires the natural materials. The existence of truth is a product of this struggle--the process of art--taking place within the artwork.

Heidegger uses the example of a Greek temple to illustrate his conception of world and earth. Such works as the temple help in capturing this essence of art as they go through a transition from artworks to art objects depending on the status of their world. Once the culture has changed, the temple no longer is able to actively engage with its surroundings and becomes passive—an art object. He holds that a working artwork is crucial to a community and so must be able to be understood. Yet, as soon as meaning is pinned down and the work no longer offers resistance to rationalization, the engagement is over and it is no longer active. While the notion appears contradictory, Heidegger is the first to admit that he was confronting a riddle—one that he did not intend to answer as much as to describe in regard to the meaning of art.

[edit] Influence and criticism

A main influence on Heidegger's conception of art was Friedrich Nietzsche. In Nietzsche's Will to Power, Heidegger struggled with his notions about the dynamic of truth and art. Nietzsche contends that art is superior to truth, something Heidegger eventually disagrees with not because of the ordered relationship Nietzsche puts forth but with the philosopher's definition of truth itself, one he claims is overly traditional. Heidegger, instead, questioned traditional artistic methods. His criticism of museums, for instance, has been widely noted. Critics of Heidegger claim that he employs circuitous arguments and often avoids logical reasoning under the ploy that this is better for finding truth. (In fact, Heidegger is employing a revised version of the phenomenological method; see the hermeneutic circle). Meyer Schapiro claims that the Van Gogh boots represented are not really peasant boots but those of Van Gogh himself, a detail that would negate Heidegger's reading of the importance of the shoes' purpose inferred from the visual. (Problems with both Heidegger and Schapiro's reading are discussed at length in Jacques Derrida's Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing ['Pointure'] See also Babich (2006)). Yet, his notions about art have made a relevant contribution to discussions on artistic truth. For example, Gadamer uses a lot of Heidegger's work in his book Truth and Method.

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] Primary literature

  • Heidegger, Martin. Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Translation of Holzwege (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1950), volume 5 in Heidegger's Gesamtausgabe.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings. 2nd edn., ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper Collins, 1993).

[edit] Secondary literature

  • Babich, Babette E. "The Work of Art and the Museum: Heidegger, Schapiro, Gadamer," in Babich, 'Words In Blood, Like Flowers. Philosophy and Poetry, Music and Eros in Hoelderlin, Nietzsche and Heidegger' (SUNY Press, 2006)
  • Bruin, John. “Heidegger and the World of the Work of Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 50, No. 1. (Winter, 1992): 55-56.
  • Dahlstrom, Daniel O. “Heidegger’s Artworld.” Martin Heidegger: Politics, Art, and Technology. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1995.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing ['Pointure']. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington & Ian McLeod, Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1987.
  • Guignon, Charles. The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Haar, Michel. “Critical Remarks on the Heideggarian reading of Nietzsche.” Critical Heidegger. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Inwood, Michael. A Heidegger Dictionary. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999.
  • Pöggeler, Otto.”Heidegger on Art.” Martin Heidegger: Politics, Art, and Technology. New York: Holmes
  • González Ruibal, Alfredo. “Heideggerian Technematology.” All Things Archaeological. Archaeolog, November 25th, 2005.
  • Stulberg, Robert B. “Heidegger and the Origin of the Work of Art: An Explication.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 32, No.2. (Winter, 1973): 257-265.
  • Van Buren, John. The Young Heidegger. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994

[edit] See also

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