(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.