Dr W Large


Heidegger's Philosophy of Art

11 March 2007



Photocopy extra material.




The context of this essay is Hegel's celebrated thesis that great art is dead. This is a positive thesis for Hegel since history must progress and art cannot have the world disclosing function that it had for the Greeks.



Like Hegel, H too believes that the work of art reveals an historical world, though he replaces the absolute with being and describes the revealing functions as the happening of truth.


What established the greatness of a work of art is its reception by a people - they see it as an expression of their history and culture.



Like Hegel, H too accepts that there is no longer great art, precisely because art is no longer received in this way - received in the way that it was, for example, by the Greeks


What marks the destruction of great art is aesthetics, which is distinguished from logic and ethics - aesthetics is the science of feeling (think of Kant) - art no longer becomes an expression of a community's historical essence, but a private feeling that only has the form of universality.



What we have 'abandoned' is the 'ethical conception of art' that art can tells us the way that we ought to live.


The criterion of the aesthetic is the beautiful, which is distinguished from the crafts - works of art must have 'aesthetic appeal', whose heart is the Kantian notion of disinterestedness. What is central to this notion is the idea of decontextualisation. I precisely separate the object from my world.



All then that is left of the object, when it is separated from all my practical and intellectual interests, is its formal qualities.


Where are these separated objects pleasurable? Because in removing them from our world, we remove them from our emotions of hope, fear and anxiety. This is why Schopenhauer believed that art released one from human suffering.



But why does this aesthetic notion of art lead to the death of great art? Because art becomes relaxation, entertainment, escapes the cares and woes of existence - we like art because it passes the time, we don't have to think.


We enjoy the aesthetic state because it is a form of stress relief, a moment of lyric stasis in the midst of busyness, a holiday from the anxious world of willing and working.


Great art answers to a great need. It is not merely an expression of an individuals need to escape life, but answers to a historical destiny of a people - think of how Sophocles' plays answer to the question of how one should live, and that theatre was a public festival for the Greeks.


Art today has become part of lifestyle - it is part of glossy Sunday magazines and design - it is part of the fashion industry (think of the prints of Van Gogh on people's walls).



Even for those who are interested in art, we might say that this is an option for them, and not an absolute need.


Moreover, art now is a specialised occupation that is part of only a expert part of the population - there is no social art today - art that unities and expresses the historical



essence of a people - for the Greeks, art was a social activity - there art reflected who they were - and in fact was part this historical essence building - such is the power of the Greek tragedies.



There is a deeper way in which art dies for H rather than just its transformation into the culture industry and that is the link to metaphysics, which is the believe that the only true understanding of the world is through reason, through predications, statements, assertions and beliefs.


Why does metaphysics lead to aestheticization? Take the example of the logical positivists. Having reduced truth to science, they are lead to the problem of how they can take ethics seriously since ethical statements cannot be reduced to truth statements that are empirically testable - nonetheless, ethics is a serious part of human experience - they have to reduce ethics to feelings as various theories of emotivism state - they aestheticize ethics. If we have such a rigid view of truth, then art can no longer have any truth.



In positivism, art has no truth. It is just about feelings.


Where H differs from H is that great art has died once and for all, and there can never be great art again. This is because he rejects that history has a teleology, that is going in one direction only and has laws - who knows what will happen in history.



Moreover for H, great art is something that we need, rather than something we should be happy has disappeared, because only through art can we grasp our own historical being. Our job is to think what this great art might be, especially against all the metaphysical conceptions of art, which in fact is to go back to a Pre-Socratic conception of art, which they might have had, if they ever thought the need to theorise about art, which they didn't - this is why H's essay is called an 'origin' - it is about getting back to something, a vision before Socrates and Plato and the birth of metaphysics.



Thus when H talks about the origin of the work of art, he is not interested in the artist, who is only the causal origin, but the nature of art itself - since without art the artist would not exist. H's question is therefore a traditional one - what do we mean by art. Where he differs, is he does not look for the essence of the art in the artist, who the spectator, but in the art work itself. The initial definition of art is that it is the 'happening of truth'



It is important to note also, however, that the happening of truth is not simply tied to the work of art (Political events are also seen as the happening of truth - Young calls them 'charismatic events').



But is this to broaden the concept of art work so much that it really does not have anything to do with art any more?


But then we have such a restrictive notion of art that is limited by our definition of art as 'fine art'. Whereas for H, anything is art that has the capacity to make truth happen - and this is in fact the Greek experience.



What does it mean to say that truth happens in an art work. It means that a world is opened up. What is a world?


Heidegger gives us 3 examples of a world




  1. Greek
  1. Medieval
  1. Modern


In the first two we can say that they there were forms of art that expressed the world - the temple, in the Greek world, the cathedral in the medieval one.


Worlds comes and go, and this means that what is considered to be great works of art must also come and go - thus a cathedral now is either just an historical curiosity or something that one gets aesthetic pleasure from, but it does not express a world.



Great works of art can lose their world in two ways  - one in which the world disappears that it once revealed, two that the world is removed from its, because it is placed in a museum and becomes an object - think of the tribal art that has been placed in museums in western cities.



When H comes to explain what the world is, we must notice that he does so poetically  - the world cannot be expressed through representations but only through poetry.



We must think of the world as a kind of space. This space is the happening of truth (H is not thinking of literal notion of space here). Therefore to understand what H means by world, we have to understand what he means by truth - and this notion of truth goes back to Being and Time.



What is at the heart of this notion of truth - is the idea that traditional notion of truth as representation, is in fact dependent on a more fundamental notion of truth, which has disappeared from philosophical view. Truth as disclosure (αληθεια)


Truth as correspondence always presupposes some context or horizon in which a statement could be taken as true or not. Truth statements always take place within a world.


Only when we know what kinds of beings belong to a given domain of discourse do we know what kinds of facts there are to which propositions may or may not correspond


These worlds are divided into historical periods by H (i.e. Greek, Christian, Modern)


The world is the 'background' (usually unnoticed by a culture) that determines how and what people think and say, and what they take to be true.


This is similar to what Foucault would call an event - in fact the H's notion of world and epoch is probably the origin for this idea.



The analogy here is some kind of map, which connects the very aspects of our experience together and which is 'internalised' by every individual of that culture.


To understand a world is to understand what there is for a culture - how or what and why it experiences the world as it does.


A world also expresses an ethics - how one ought to be. In other words, how one ought to live one's life


One can particularly see this in the Greek tragedies, but could one live one's life in terms of Kafka's work - (one might if one thinks of it as Deleuze does - literature is always a politics).




What is specific to H's work is that his ethics is always grounded in an ontology. We only know how to act if we know what it is to be a human being - to live one's life is essentially ontological.


This is the great difference between H and Levinas - ethics is not an ontology for Levinas.



Modern thinking, with its origins in Platonism, separates fact and value. Once this becomes a way of experience becomes a way of expresses a culture rather than just a philosophical theory, then it leads to moral nihilism, because only fact are true, and therefore values are something that we make and therefore are only relative and have no real authority upon us.



The only possibility of a fully authoritative ethics is one that is grounded in ontology and more specifically within a conception of a world, though conception is probably the wrong word here - with the opening of a world. This isn't just a matter of knowledge but also practice - the world orientates or give direction to our lives and how we act.


So for example in a world dominated by technology, human beings just become recourses that can be used up.



Thus to understand the world, is to understand one's place in it.



Knowing what something is, is always knowing the appropriate behaviours - thus knowing something about our world, or not knowing a world as a Greek might say of a barbarian.



A world, therefore, is not a collection of objects, but a ordering of a reality, or an ordering of beings in different regions and this is what gives meaning to our live - it is our ethos, our moral existence.


How then does the work of art make this world visible? It might first be thought that H thinks that art creates worlds (what Young calls a 'Promethean view of art' and which he says Dreyfus does).



If we think that artworks create world, then it is difficult to see why H chose the temple as an example, since it is clear that the temples comes from this world, and took many centuries to develop. One might say, then, that the theology preceded the actually temple (and for the most cases always does).



How then are we to understand the priority of the work of art? Poetically. That is it presents our world for the first time as that which has become covered over by familiarity and habit. It is a matter of experience the world for the first time.



The other reason that we cannot interpret H's argument as Promethean is that it contradicts the notion of world in Being and Time. World is inseparable from 'fallenness' - we always find ourselves already in a world, we do not create worlds from anew. For the most part this world is not visible to us - we just live in it, but it is literature and other forms of art that make it visible


Quote from the Basic Problems - Poetry, creative writing, is nothing but the elementary emergence into words, the becoming uncovered, of existence as being in the world.'




It is this notion of revealing the equipment world (the everyday world of use) which is made visible by art - in Being and Time it is the words of the philosophy which make this possible, but there is also a sense that the use world vanishes as soon as we speak of it - art now makes it possible that the world as world becomes visible, but it is not visible in a propositional way.



What creates worlds is language. Names do not just label what already exists, rather names are creative - language names worlds means that language creates worlds - this is the original function of language, prior to and more important than, propositional language (it is what Wittgenstein means when he says that language is the limit of my world).



This original power of language, H calls poetry - poetry in its essential meaning is what 'projects' a world. Language is what 'integrates words things and actions' and is this integration that we call a world.



If the work of art  makes visible the world, then we have to ask ourselves 2 questions


  1. Why is the world normally obscured
  1. How does the work of art make the world visible.


The world is not an object - what concerns me are the objects that are use and I know, not the 'framework' in which these are situated. In everyday use the world is not visible, and in theoretical knowing, I look over the world completely.



Everyday life 'camouflages' or conceals what is essential to our existence.


This is why philosophers have a sense that what everyone takes to essential isn't, and the common sense people take philosopher to absurd and day dreamers - though there is a sense that the ordinary people are threatened by the philosophy and think that the do know something- the execution of Socrates.


In Being and Time [BT], it is when ordinary things break down that this ordinary world, and the networks and connections between things that make it possible, suddenly becomes visible - does the work of art work in the same way as I kind of break and interruption of the everyday world (this is why people see the work of art as difficult).



How does the work of art make the world visible - by setting it forward, but exhibiting it (in the way that is an exhibition and object on display is made visible)


But the artwork does not just represent the world - in exhibiting it, it 'honours' and celebrates it. It is for this reason that I introduces the next term -earth.



To understand what Heidegger mean by earth, we have to go back to his account of truth, since it is the happening of the truth which defines what H means by the work.


It belongs to the nature of truth that is always both concealment and unconcealment - thus one perspective always forecloses another - something cannot be revealed both in terms of theoretical physics and at the same time as object of everyday use - one truth always covers up another truth.


But world isn't just one horizon of truth, it is the horizon of every horizon - it is the place in which truths happen. Thus the world revealing character of our world always means that another way of experiencing the world is going to be closed off. This


belongs to very nature of the world. This is why, we come into contact with another world, we realise that we can never quite understand it or assimilate it without destroying its very essence.



What remains unintelligible in our intelligibility (and what must do so), is what H calls earth.


This distinction between world and earth is similar to Nietzsche's distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian.



We forget this dark side of truth, because we exist within the intelligible, the familiar. As soon as the world is revealed to us, therefore, the dark side must also be, because this is what the world sets itself against in setting itself up. This is what the art work reminds us of - because in the art work the earth 'rise through' - the art work makes visible the 'strife' between the world and the earth.



This other side of the truth is what H means the holy, which is synonymous for Young to the sublime and the awesome.



Everything that is holy or sublime (in the sense of mystery) is what resists calculative thinking.



Already in the tradition art is given such status (think about Kant) because it is beyond conceptual reason - it exceeds our horizon of intelligibility. The work of art makes present this unintelligibility - lets its stand, without at, at the same time,