The Origin of the Work of Art

22 February 2007




Origin means that through which something is what it is. This has an Aristotelian meaning. The notion of cause. From which or by something is what it is - by what it is we mean the essence of something. Thus when we ask about the origin of the work of art we are asking about is 'essential source'. Usually when we think about the origin or source of a work of art (WA) we think of the author or the artist - we can link this to the idea of the dependent beauty in Kant - the intentions of the author or artist - we ask the question why was this WA of made and we think of the reasons that the artist might have had, or the social conditions of that production - what world the artist came from. But when we think about it a bit more we might ask what comes first the WA or the artist, since without the WA would the artist be an artist at all, or with the book, would the author be an author. Again this is a bit like Kant's idea of final causality in CJ, since it is the end that defines the beginning or the effect the cause.


The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist.


This is really a reworking of efficient and final causality in Aristotle.


But there is third thing that without this reciprocal relation would not exist at all, and that is what we call art.


Think of the description of seeing in The Republic - without the visible there would not be sight and the seen, but the visible is not the same kind of being as the other two - it is neither in sight nor in the seen, rather it is presence of the light which makes their relation possible.


Aren't we moving in a circle here - what art is to found in the WA, but the WA is only art because of art itself. If we are going to define art from specific examples, then what lets us say this example is art and this one isn't unless we already know what art is. Even if we going to pick out characteristics, then how do we know which ones to pick out in advance?



But why should we be scared of the circle. It is logic that says that circles of reasoning make an argument invalid, but in this case the circular relation between the definition of art and the WA might be the only way that we can go. So the only way to find out what art is, is to actually examine a work of art and see what we see there. WA are all around us, pictures, buildings, music scores and books. If we don't first of all presuppose what art is, we can say that what these things are is precisely that, things and even the refined aesthetic experience cannot deny that - picture are made from canvas, paint and wood; buildings from stone and wood; books from paper and ink, and so too music scores.


Is this a sly reference to Kant's theory that our aesthetic experience is completely indifferent to the existence of the object. But without the thing like quality of WA, there would be nothing to experience at all. Kant would



say that it is a matter of attitude towards the object; that is, I bracket its real existence and only relate to its representation. In a certain sense, we might want to say that Heidegger wants to return to the truth of the object.



But what do we mean by 'thing' when we speak about the WA and what is a thing after all?


When we ask about the thing, what we are asking about is its being. What does it mean to be a thing. We are asking about how a thing is. There is difference between asking how a thing is, from what a thing is. When I ask about what, I am thinking about a list of properties. When I ask how, I am thinking does a thing exist different, with all its properties, from other kinds of beings - we might conclude that there are not other kinds of being, such that every being is a thing, but we would still have to ask how things are.


So what do we mean by a thing. H. give a list of examples - jug, stone, clod of earth, and so on (and even things that don't exist or are not perceived directly are things - like the world as a whole, or God). We like Socrates might ask that we don't want a list of examples, but a definition, which makes this list of examples a list of the same thing or type of being.



The first definition we get is a thing is everything that is not nothing. So in this sense we might call the WA a thing. But isn't our definition of thing so broad that we end up with everything being a thing, and aren't we hesitant to call God a thing for example and still less do we think that human beings are just things: 'A man is not a thing'.


We are more likely to call object things such as hammers and shoes, and even these are not mere things such as natural objects.


Interesting parallel here between this distinction between man-made things and natural things, and Kant's dependent and free beauty. What is decisive to both is the idea that human beings are not the same as other beings in the world.


Thus we go from the definition of thing as being - thus everything, to a restricted notion of thing as mere thing, which means natural things, where 'mere' has a pejorative meaning.



What then do we mean by 'thing' is this restrictive sense? H argues that there are 3 meanings of thing in Western philosophy.


  1. The things is that to which or on which properties adhere - this is the Greek notion of hypokeimenon. H says that we can't separate this notion of thing from the Greek experience of Being as presence.


  1. This Greek idea of the thing is translated into Latin - substance and accidents - but no translation is a mere translation. In this case what is lost in the translation is the original Greek experience which gave some authenticity to the Greek definition of the thing. This relation between substance and accidents appears to correspond to our natural way of experience things - philosophy, despite its peculiar vocabulary that can always be learnt, just seems to be speaking what everyone experience anyway. The idea of substance is translated again into subject, and then accidents into predicate and we have the normal logical judgement S is p and thus there seems to be a perfect mirror between language and experience.


Doesn't Kant still think of the WA in a propositional way, even though the representation is now referred only to the subject and not the object?



But H wants to the relation between experience and language around. Is it language that is accurately reflecting experience, or is experience a projection of language? In other words does propositional language make us see reality in a certain way, that we wouldn't see without it? But could we transpose propositional thought into the thing if the thing wasn't there in the first place?



Rather than saying one is the reflection of the other - we have to see that they have a common source and thus we would have to see that this idea of thing bearing properties, or attributes is not as fundamental as we first might think. It has only become fundamental because it has become familiar through repetition, and its common source, has been forgotten which once people thought strange and alien and made them think.


One clue that the concept of thing is not as fundamental as we might think for understanding the being of things, is that as a language and experience it covers everything, and not just what we might think of as things. We seemed to have ended up were we started with a general definition of thing that covers every being and therefore does not really tell us what a thing is or isn't.


We feel that the thought concept of thing has done violence to the thing and does not really respond to what the things, is the real quality and experience of things. This makes us want to give up thinking altogether, but what if the feeling were actually, in this case, more intelligent than the thought concept, more 'intelligently perceptive' as H puts it.


How can we be more responsive to the being of the thing without doing violence to it.





First of all we have to let the thing appear to us as thing without us presupposing what a thing is


This is a classic phenomenological move for H as describe in Being and Time. Our method should be led by how things show themselves as themselves and not how we think they should, or mediate by some philosophical or scientific model or paradigm.


The first way we encounter things is not through the thought concept of philosophy, but through our bodies - that is to say, sensations. But even this is immediately thought  - i.e. sensations are interpreted as unity of manifold - thus I experience hardness, colour, noise, and also these sensations are then unified in the experience of an object (here H is obviously referring to Kant). But is true to say that I experience sensations first of all, and then I construct them into an object?


In what sense is H for or against sensations? I would want to say that is some sense he wants to redeem sensations, but not in the form of the intellectualist tradition represented by Kant, where sensations are meaningless without the addition of concepts.


I don't, H says experience a throng of sensations and then a object, rather I immediately hear the car outside of my window - my sensations are already meaningful from a phenomenological viewpoint. 'Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves.' To hear sensations we actually have to stop relating to things - that is we have to abstract ourselves from them in our experience, such as in philosophical examples or in the laboratory.


In seems that in sensation we are trying to get as close to the thing as we possibly can, but actually it doesn't get us close to them at all - in fact it virtually removes us from them altogether, because sensations are abstractions of thought - we do not experience them at all



Is there a third interpretation of thing we is more loyal to our experience of it, which doesn't push it off like the thought concept, or have it too close like sensations?


The third idea of the thing is formed matter. This notion is applicable equally to natural things and utensils. Doesn't this distinction allow us for the first time to really answer why the WA is also a thing? The thing quality of the work of art is its matter. What it is made of and which the artist forms in order to produce the WA.


However, just because this distinction is so well used within aesthetics does not mean by rights that it is the correct one. Moreover this distinction is now used for everything. It has, H argues, become 'hackneyed'. If form is linked to the rational and the logical, and matter to the irrational and illogical, then this distinction is tied into subject and


predicate, and we again return to a propositional language which takes over everything.


We have to ask ourselves where this distinction has its origin in the mere thing or the WA? What does it mean to think of the thing in terms of matter and form? We might say that form is the 'arrangement of matter' and its selection - we would not make a jug out of a matter that was porous. This relation between for and matter, their 'interfusion' H calls it, is determined in advance by their use. This use is neither assigned in advance or floats above it as an end (in other words Heidegger wants to avoid using a Aristotelian language here).


Usefulness is the way in which this being appears to us - it is something that is added on on top of the mere thing and the interfusion of the matter and form is itself something that is given through this usefulness.


Something useful is something produced and it is something produced for a purpose. Matter and form are therefore related to equipment, and equipment is to be understood in terms of use. For this reason, they cannot be the original source for the meaning of things



Matter and form, however, is the is the most immediate understanding of beings because it what is most closely related to human beings. For things are understood as formed matter through the production of human beings  - it is human beings that form matter, that give to its shape and purpose and because equipment is intermediate between WA and thing, it can be the means by which all things can be understood.


This is supported by religious belief which tends to see God as a master craftsman and therefore the whole world as something that is made. Of course, this does mean that faith has to be thought in terms of this relation, but there is not doubt that the Aristotelian distinction, once it is linked to Christian faith through the work of Aquinas, receives an even great boost and dominance over our way of thinking about things. Thus even when faith has been lost, nonetheless the productive way of understanding beings generally through the matter form distinction still retains its power.



Thus modern metaphysics still retains the matter form distinction even though the idea of creation in the religious sense has lost its meaning.


How then do we get to the real being of things beyond these 3 determinations? One way is to go back to the idea of the 'mere' thing - which would be stripped both of its use and equipmentality. But just stripping the thing of its use does would not allow is to get back to the thing. All we would be left with is a blank


All three determinations, therefore, do violence to thing. Over the years


they have interfused so now its is virtually impossible to encounter the thing as a thing, equipment as equipment and still less the WA as the WA.



But knowing about these conceptual determinations which do violence against the being of the thing is already an way into the true meaning of that being, since all we have to do at first is not let these conceptual models get in the way of our experience of the thing a thing - to let the thing be as a thing. But this might be the hardest to think, especially when we should think of this 'letting be' as merely indifference.


We seem to meet a resistance from the thing, as soon as we accept that the traditional ways of thinking about the thing do violence to is. Maybe this resistance, however, is the very way in which the thing is as a thing.


We interpret things through equipment and this is because this in the kind of things that our closest to us. This is also why the form matter distinction has such a hold over us, because it relates to things as they are made. But does the form matter distinction really disclose what the being of equipment really is?



H takes the example of one particular kind of equipment (and this example is not without a certain predetermination as we shall see). It is some peasant shoes. How are we to visualise these shoes. H says that we might take the example of Van Gogh's picture of some peasant shoes


This seems a pretty strange example - it seems, in the text, that H just picks this example from thin air, but is it as arbitrary as it seems. Why pick a painting and not a photograph for example, or a technical drawing. Why Van Gogh and not just any old picture. The nonchalance of this example seems rather forced, and this is even before we find out that the picture that H is talking about is not even a picture peasant shoes.


But H says do this picture of the shoes really tells us anything about them. Isn't it just representation of shoes which can be used in different ways.


Thus all we discover is that the equipmental value of things is their use, and we already knew this. But surely if we really want to know what equipment is, rather than looking at them in a picture we have to see them in their use. The shoes really are equipment when the peasant women walks across the field and then to her they are not really visible at all. They disappear, so to speak, in their use.



If we just look at the picture as a representation of shoes then the equipmentality will remain completely invisible to us.




But is the picture just a representation does it not reveal the earth and the world of the peasant women and is this is not something much more than just the representation of a piece of equipment in the abstraction?


This the first time world and earth are mentioned in H's essay but he doesn't really say anything about them at this point - all we know here is that this revealing is not just a representation of something - we can begin to see why now H picked this example, and not just a picture or drawing of peasant shoes - he wants to say that is the power of this painting that reveals something and that is why it arrests our attention.



For the peasant woman the shoes reveal themselves in their reliability. This is how the world and earth are revealed to her. But has this description told us anything about the being of equipment or even more so the being of the WA which is what we are really seeking?


What we have learnt is that the being of equipment is reveals not through a conceptual description, nor even through their use in which they disappear, but through Van Gogh's painting. What it does is reveal the truth of the shoes. But what do we mean by truth in this context? We don't mean propositional truth do we? Rather we mean truth as disclosure, what the Greeks called alētheia. This truth is not a statement about something, which might be true or false, but is an event. Truth is not said about something, rather it happens. There is truth happening in the WA. In the WA, the peasant shoes are 'set to work' - that is they stand forth in their truth - they reveal themselves as what they are.



We are seeking the thingly character of the work of art. We have discovered that the ways that we think about things actually does violence to them rather than reveal them as they are. The predominate way of thinking about things, formed matter, does not even come from the being of things themselves but from equipment. This means that we have ask ourselves what equipment itself is. What we discovered is that is the WA which reveals the truth of equipment, where truth is an event of a disclosure or revealing. Thus we suddenly saw what is at work in the WA: the disclosure of the way of being of beings. Thus we realise that to attempt to understand the work of art as thing is in fact a mistake. In taking the WA of a thing, we end up interpreting it as a piece of equipment that has an aesthetic value added on top of it.



The WA is no more a piece of equipment than a mere thing is. It's way of being is something quite different. What we have realised is that if we are going to understand what a thing is, what a piece of equipment is and what a WA is, then we have to do so through their different ways of being. It is not that we deny the thingly quality of the WA, but it must be understand from within its way of being, and not through 'pseudo-




concepts' that come from the history of philosophy, or through the other ways of being of equipment and mere things.


Art reveals being of beings in its own way. This means that truth happens in the work of art. The next question we have to ask ourselves, therefore, is what is the happening of truth?


The Work and Truth



The work of art needs to stand on its own, be autonomous - but even the artist stands in this relationship to the work of art. Thus in relation to the art work, the artist himself is nothing - he is banished from it. 'The artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work.'


What do we say about art that is hanging in museums, whose images we can see in magazines, or which we can hang on our rooms - are these works of art? Are they autonomous, or do they belong to the 'art industry'. In all of this industry, with its curators, critics and experts, is the work of art itself encountered as art.


What happens is that these works of art are torn from their 'native sphere'. In being placed in a collection or published again they no longer belong to their own world. This is even the case if we visit the place in which the art was originally created (like the cathedral) - the world in which it had its place, no longer exists.


We need art that addresses our world, not art of the past.


This disappearance of a world cannot be undone. This is why it is always strange looking at art of the past - they exist only a relics of an age that we can no longer understand or appreciate - or even beyond that - the world that this art disclosed no longer exists - it only communicates to our world from the outside.



They have become something that is traditional and conservative - something that experts and critics can argue over and debate. They are not art, but simply objects.


What is the difference between a work and an object. This is what is so difficult for us to see. First of all the work belongs to the world that it reveals or discloses in the way that the object is separated and distanced from it - the object has become inert and lifeless in some way - it does not speak to us anymore. In the work, as H described in the picture by Van Gogh, truth happens.


Let us now think of the happening of truth outside of representational art. Let us think of it in terms of a Greek temple. The temple reveals the world of an 'historical people'.





The temple stands - its stands against the sky and the weather, it stands against the rock and the earth upon which it rests - it discloses the world in this standing against. In the great sweep of the river of time in which all civilisations will disappear it announces the meaning of a world for a people - it unifies and gives expression to that world. This emerging and giving form, the Greeks called physis. This illuminates that on which all human beings dwell, which is earth. Earth here is understood matter or the astronomical planet - it that from which the gathering disclosing power of art rises up from and also falls back into. It is that which 'shelters' the meaning of art.


Thus there are two tendencies of the work of art. It is that which discloses the world, and at the same sets this disclosing against the earth. - World and earth are the two opposite tendencies of the work of art, its rhythm and pace.


The earth is what is dark in the work of art - every work has something that is dark in it - it is the background from which the truth happens and falls back into - don't experience this darkness as a lack of meaning, but as the possibility.


We have to reverse the order between the art work and reality


It is this reversal that is so peculiar and strange in Heidegger's account - it is also what influences Blanchot.


Thus the temple isn't a representation of reality that was already there - it is what gives to reality, if we can use this word, its meaning, sense and wholeness. Without the temple, there would be no world. 'The temple, in its standing there, first gives, to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves.'


This opening, H adds, continues as long as the work works - when it becomes a object in a museum, then it ceases to have this power of revelation and unification of a world - it ceases to be image of a work - art expresses the unity of a world, this is what is a work of art does - it makes truth happen, it produces the truth.



The work therefore 'sets up a world', but we still haven't got any closer to what we mean by a world.


The world is not a collection of things or object that are ready to hand or present to hand. Nor is it a representation that we add to these collections of things. Rather than a noun, the world is a verb 'the world worlds'. It is not something that we perceive, and it cannot be seen. The worlding of the world belongs to our being, to what is authentic and inauthentic about our being. Stones, plants and animals do not have




world, but we do - the world of the peasant woman that is revealed in Van Gogh's painting. Even the death of God belongs to a world.


The work is what makes space, or frees up space, for a world.


If we think of the work of art as setting up a world, how can we now make sense of its materiality? In normal tools the materiality of the thing disappears in its use. I do notice the matter of the hammer when I am hammering in the nail. On the contrary, for the work of art, the materiality of the object, comes to the fore in the opening of a world. The weight and size and massiveness of the temple which is more that just the perceptual properties of the stone. It thrusts up out of the earth.


The materiality of the work, which the work both sets forward and falls make into is the earth. Setting forth here means that the work of art bring the earth out into the open, it lets it be.


Our then does the earth reveal itself. It does not make itself present. Rather it shows itself by not revealing itself.



This is what H means when he says that the difference between the sculptor and the mason, is that the former does not use the stone up - in art something of the materiality of the art work resists being used up by us - and it is this resistance that is revealed. It is not being used up which allows the matter of art, the colour, tone, and word, to shine forth as colour, tone, and word, rather than being a means for something else in which it disappears in use - the work of art calls attention to matter but no so as to make matter a thought or idea (this would be cognition), but to allow it to show itself as matter.


To be sure, the poet also uses the word - not, however, like ordinary speakers and writers who to use them up, but rather in such a way that the word only now becomes and remains truly a word.


The autonomy of the work of art lies in this relation between world and earth in the work of art. The world is the history of a people, the earth what shelters this is vision and what conceals itself. They are different from one another, but always in relation to one another. But we should not think of this in a Hegelian sense as the 'empty unity of opposites'. The world rests on the earth and wants to reveal it, whereas the earth always resists this disclosure and manifestation.


This relation to earth and world H calls strife.



Strife should not be seen in a negative way as dispute and destruction. Rather it is in relation to one another that each assert what they are,



but in so doing, they each carry one another beyond themselves. Thus the earth cannot appear as earth without the world, and the world cannot set itself against something without the earth.


The work of art is the place or site in which this strife between world and earth is 'instigated'. Not so as to bring world and earth into agreement, but so this strife can occur and be intensified.


Only know can we begin to see what it means to say that truth happens in the work of art.


What do we mean by 'truth'. Here we have to go back to the original Greek experience of truth which is alētheia, because it is not propositional truth that we are speaking about - it is truth as revealing and disclosing. Truth as unconcealment.



This isn't just about taking refuge in etymology and changing one idea of truth with another. It is through this etymology (the chapter in the Heidegger book on etymology) that we are reminding ourselves of our everyday experience of truth but which itself has be concealed because of all the definitions of truth that we have learnt - that truth is about statements and propositions and not an experience, what H calls 'correctness'.


Representation does not determine unconcealedness but the other way round, its is unconcealedness that determines representation, because if our world was not revealed in some way, we could not say anything correct about it at all. Beings have to be there for us to say anything about them at all.



To understand how truth happens, we first of all have to understand what unconcealedness is. Things are - this means that they stand in Being. We need to distinguish between the beings and the 'light' in which beings stand - the open - such that they are there for us. This light is itself is not a being - but the opening through which things are visible and present to us - the presencing of what is present.


Without this illumination things would not be present - this light grants things to us - allows us to have a relation to them - this presencing is what H mean by Being, and why Being is different from beings - the temptation is always to translate Being back into a thing  - God, matter and so on - Being is not a thing, it is not noun, but a verb - the presencing of the present - presencing as opposed to the present.


Just as much, however, as being can be unconcealed in this region, also it can be concealed - truth as an event, rather than as representation or




mere correctness (2 + 2 = 4) is the movement of both concealing and unconcealing. What is concealed isn't outside the sphere of presencing, but is within it - it belongs to the intelligible.


Can there be an outside which is even outside this play between the unconcealed and the concealed? Is this Blanchot's question?


Thus everything that we meet both presents and conceals itself within this openness.


H tells us that this concealing must be thought of in two ways:


  1. Things conceal themselves to the extent that they only reveal what they are in what we say about them, but saying everything about them in some way we still feel, and always feel, that there is more to be said. This refusal should not be experience negatively - i.e. in terms of propositional thought, but as the revealing of presencing, since concealment belongs to this as much as unconcealment.
  1. Things conceal other things - one being place itself in front of other beings, such that we cannot see the other beings any more. 'One denies all'. This concealment is negative and we might call it 'dissembling' since one being presents itself as the truth of all other beings - this is path of metaphysics and the forgetting of Being, the presencing of the present.



Both forms of concealment exist in the presencing of the present - we should not see the unconcealment of truth, the light, as a stage in which everything is illuminated, as though it were a picture or photograph, rather darkness belongs to the light as much as the light does. Truth happens, but in this truth, there is both light and shade.


We thing that are at home in the world - everything is familiar and usable, but art reminds us that darkness also belongs to our experience of the world, that mystery is always a part of our experience - that thing resist us, are always more than what we say about them. 'At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary'. This is what the work of art has to remind us. This means that untruth belongs originally to truth.



As refusal, concealing is the background on which the open sets itself, as dissembling, it is the constant possibility of error. The event of truth, its essence, therefore is the strife between world and earth. We should not simply understand the world as the light, and the earth as the dark - rather we need to think them together as part of what is called a decision, and it belongs to the essence of any decision that there is always what it cannot master - this not being able to master, is not the opposite of a decision, for without it, there would be decision at all. It is only in conflict with one another that world and earth are at all.


But how does truth happen as this strife between world and earth? One


way that it happens is through the work of art. Truth happens in the work of art. This does not mean that the work of art represents something.



Rather than correct representation, we need to think of art as revelation. Thus Van Gogh's picture is great because it reveals the world and the earth of the peasant shoes. And this revelation is what we mean by beauty.


Though we now know how a work of art works - it is the happening of truth, we still don't know what the thingly nature of the work of art is, which is how we started this discussion. In fact, in speaking about the work of art as the happening of truth, it appears that this aspect, that the work of art is something produced and made, has completely disappeared.



The happening of truth is in the work. Thus we have to go back to what the work is as thing - how the work is produced or effected. That we say that the work of art has been worked, something produced, means that it has come from an artist.



This means that the work of art cannot be understood simply in terms of itself, but must be thought of in relation to the artist.


We have to ask ourselves, therefore, what is the difference between creation of the work of art and the mere production of a thing? Isn't the procedure the same, whether we are speaker of a carpenter or a painter? Thus for Greeks they use the same word to describe them both techne.



But this comparison is superficial, because whatever the Greeks meant by techne they do not mean what we mean by production. What techne meant for the Greek was knowing in the broadest sense of the word, which is related to truth as presencing - aletheia. To produce something for the Greeks is to bring it forth, to make it present.


To create therefore is make truth happen in a work - but does truth require a work in order to happen. Is there a strange attraction between truth and the work of art?


We should not think of truth simply as intelligibility - un-truth belongs to truth. There is always a concealing that belongs to truth. For truth to happen require that the openness is seized, and for this openness to remain open, for the world to reveal itself, there is always has to be some being which does this work. There is no truth in itself, the truth emerges out of the darkness through a particular being, and in this case a particular work of art.



The express opening of world therefore always requires something in order for it to happen and this something is always a work of art.



It belongs essentially to the work of art that it is created, but this does not mean that we are talking about great artists.  Rather what matters is that the unconcealment of being happens in the great work of art. The work is, and truth happens in it.


This is the difference between the work of art and equipment - the work of art calls attention to itself as something in which truth happens, whereas the piece of equipment disappears in its use and that it is is just a common place - the existence of the work of art, on the contrary, is something special and peculiar.


That the work is, is the solitariness of the work of art - that stands out for itself and calls attention to itself as something singular. The more singular a piece of work is, the more it breaks with the ordinary and thus opens up the meaning of the world.



All art is poetry, if we understand poetry as the happening of truth which breaks with our involvement with things. Poetry here is meant in the widest sense as the happening of truth and not just poetry in the limited sense as verse.



This means thinking about language in a different way, not just as communication but as the opening of being what H calls 'projective saying', which brings what is both sayable and unsayable into the light.



Only in this saying do the other arts take place - in other words only because language reveals the world, do the other arts happen.


Also the preserving of the work of art is poetry - only because we can separate ourselves from the everyday world, can we engage with works of art as revealing the truth of the world.



Art is an origin because it is a distinctive way in which truth is revealed and in this truth a historical people come to understand themselves.