notes on the origin of the work of art

March 24, 2011 § 3 Comments

Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ “Nature loves to conceal herself” ―Heraclitus

Let us never cease to take heed of MH’s ethical failures from which little is to be forgiven. To do this while considering the fine balance of his genius as related to his garish shortcomings is no small feat & it yields a pallid moral victory. The malevolent character of MH is an everyday vision of hubristic pressures, an ease of wisdom blinded by power & a primal ignorance found in a man, a man like any other person, who is capable of falling from a cherished enlightenment that we must always quest for in each other & ourselves. For this post we’ll gladly risk a moralizing gesture of occluding the eyes of this man who always wanted to uncover the truth (ἀλήθεια) of Being/Dasein. His explicit undermining of any humanistic ethos (ἔθος) with regard to his public/private/political affiliations, have forever besmirched his legacy, his character, & his brilliance, this should also explain why he will not be given his full name here, it will be abbreviated simply as MH. With all of this painful forwarding said, we’ll have to simultaneously conclude that to throw out his magnificent thoughts with the stupidity of his bigotry, cannot be fair. Please allow this philosophical journey on “The Origin of the Work of Art” with MH, to begin to feel the extent of his extreme capacities, to start to imagine a world set up by a man so utterly flawed & yet, so astoundingly gifted… 

This post was inspired into being by an ongoing philosophical discourse with Mr. Reinaert de V.

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MH (1889-1976)

“Origin of the Work of Art” (noted here as OWA), from: Martin Heidegger / Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell, HarperCollins, 2008.

To question the origin of the work of art is to look for its essence, its ontology. The essence could, in a traditional sense be said to emanate from the artist. But for MH, the artwork is where the work manifests itself as art. The art cannot be said to be entirely found in the artist, or just the art as an object, instead from the art, from the created work of art after the artist’s hand has created it & put it forth as art to be appreciated on its own terms as revealing truth (ἀλήθεια). This means that we’ll be going to the artwork & not the artist to define the origin of a work of art. The origin of the work of art is where the essence of the art comes together. This is not just an encounter with a thing as we usually think of it. What the work of art is can be known through its work & the creative work therefore can be said to be its essence. This is where we’ll start to observe MH’s hermeneutical-circle, an investigative circle. MH confronts this questioning with “To enter upon this path is the strength of thought, to continue on it is the feast of thought, assuming thinking is a craft.” (OWA/144) So, it’s an unnamed & enhanced return to “to the things themselves” the dictum Husserl (MH’s mentor/teacher) was famous for. Thus, MH’s enhancement is decidedly beyond Husserl & becomes a phenomenological hermeneutic ontology of the art, of the art object, of the experience of the art, the uncovering of the ‘work-being’ of the art object. “…the result is that the works are naturally present as things.” (145/OWA) However we typically see art as more than a mere ‘thing’, it is more than what we constitute as a mere thing, it moves beyond being just a thing. This requires MH to define a thing, looking into this exceptional thing we call art & how it responds to what we call work. From this framework we’ll have to start with the thing. “…our aim is to discover the thing-being (thingness) of the thing.” (146/OWA) Anyway, the art object is often a thing. Then, let us inquire as to its thingness to differ from other things, such as equipment. “On the whole the word ‘thing’ here designates whatever is not simply nothing.” (147/OWA) For MH people are not simply things & other living beings are not just things. A distinction can be made between things that are made & those which are not. A utensil is not a thing in the same way as a useless rock is a thing. For MH three interpretations are how, by tradition we consider a thing: 1: a bearer of properties 2: unity of perceptions/actions 3: a composite of form & matter. A thing as MH writes, is not just an accumulation of characteristics, properties & traits, although we normally see things in this way. MH says that “We speak of this connection of the core of things.” (149/OWA) The question remains open as to whether or not this is the only way in which we observe & experience things. MH pushes us to question whether a thing is to be defined strictly as only a propositional structure: this is a thing & the traits that can be proposed of that object as a thing. Commonly we see a thing as something that can be ‘predicated’. We have already mentioned that this process of questioning, indeed very close to a bracketing, the epoché, or the phenomenological reduction, as Husserl would have it, of the thing to find & look for its thingly qualities this too is closely linked to Husserl’s epoché: Husserl’s letting go of the ‘natural attitude’ by which something/anything is given though the ‘intentionality’ of consciousness, thereby a search for the essence/s of the experience. All of Husserl’s so-called ‘idealism’ & along with his hard-won terms, have been arrogantly dropped by MH, but the overall phenomenological bones are still in place, whether MH wanted to admit to this or not. So perhaps, a thing is closer to matter (hyle/ὕλη), & form (morphe/μορφῇ), resulting in its outer appearance (eidos/εἶδος). Hyle: matter, physical characteristics that compromise color, density, sensual qualities of the thing. Morphe: form, how matter is brought together. Eidos: outward appearance, a synthesis of matter & form related to the man-made & to natural things as they appear. This way of observing a thing can be applied to a clump of earth &/or a tool. Once MH establishes that the question of observing, or seeking into the art object, a question of its thingness starts with qualities & therefore an issue of finding the art in the context of form & matter. As we openly regard the thing as not totally the complete being of the thing, we can see an obfuscation of a ‘natural’ way of observing the thing, this easily obscures the way the object is considered. A tradition can obscure the concealed truth of things. MH even proposes that rational thought is not the only way we apprehend a thing. For example, we’ll allow a mood or a feeling to have an efficacious access to the thing. The attempt is a clearing away to see the thing under inquiry as closed & seeing this closure as what needs to be opened up to be revealed. We must be aware that the thing cannot be said to be the mere sum of our sensual impressions of it. Form, matter & appearance are not the only ways to access the work of art. Form appears to impose itself into/onto matter, specifically in the case of a utensil, tool, man-made object. Heidegger explains that an average way of looking at form & matter has to do with usefulness & that matter follows the formal sense planned for the the thing. A selection of matter follows the form the thing will be useful for, hence a way to regard useful things.”A being that falls under usefulness is always the product of a process of making. It is made as a piece of equipment for something.” then followed by “Matter & form are in no case original determinations of the thingness of a mere thing.” (154/OWA) We can then differentiate between usefulness of pieces of equipment & the work of art. While at the same time recognizing that the tool is something more than a mere thing, as something by which it is useful to perform a job, said more directly: a thing to be useful, used. “As determinations of beings, accordingly matter & form, have the proper place in the essential nature of equipment.” (154/OWA) Our Being is different from the being of a thing, if MH’s project is said to be an ontology, then his project here is looking into the being of a work of art & concernfully placing it within what we can understand of our own Being (Dasein rarely gets mention in the essay, yet, it has a clear relationship to the way the art work is considered here & a way of ‘Being-in-the-world’). It is through a determination of the thing aside from its basic form & matter that MH wants to demonstrate, this perception shows how we commonly view things, namely as a question of usefulness. We’ll see with MH that this will be insufficient with regard to the work of art. At the same time we’ll choose to see it as a means & a necessary step, by which to begin to consider the work of art. A formal step from where to expand upon a meaning. Art is a “self-sufficient presencing” (154/OWA), unlike the gathered useful qualities of a tool. “…only one element is needful: to keep at a distance all the preconceptions & assaults [shades of getting rid of Husserl’s natural attitude] of the above modes of thought, to leave the thing to rest in its own self…” (157/OWA) “We ought to turn toward the being, think about it with regard to it’s being…[to] let it rest itself in its very essence” (157/OWA) The being of the thing is locked into how we understand our own Being. A being is made present to Being. MH then speaks of all the frustrations we’ve had in describing & getting close to a definition of the thingly qualities of the thing, to then remind us that this recalcitrance of the thing to be understood, should also be how we regard the thing as that which cannot be fully revealed. This is a key feature of its thingly qualities as dis/closed. “…then we shouldn’t force our way to its thingly character.” (157/OWA)

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MH resolves to consider the work of art now by way of stepping up to a precise view of equipment as he questions out from there. “The equipmental quality of equipment consists in its usefulness.” (159/OWA) “The equipmental being of equipment, reliability, keeps gathered within itself all things according to their manner & extent. The usefulness of equipment is nevertheless only the essential consequence of reliability.” (160/OWA) The equipment MH chooses to look at is a pair of shoes depicted in a Van Gogh’s painting. Ostensibly a pair of woman’s peasant shoes. A quick Google search locates the painting hanging in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, this painting is with a short statement that the shoes were purchased from a Parisian flea-market & in fact, worn by Van Gogh in the rain before they were painted. We’ll give MH the benefit-of-the-doubt here & assume that he chose to overlook this tiny point (or, he just didn’t know about it). Anyhow, there are at least five to six paintings of Van Gogh’s that depict shoes, so there is no solid proof which painting MH refers to in this instance. From here MH mentions two central concepts with which he’ll devise to speak of art in general: ‘earth & world’. We’ll examine these in more detail later. “This equipment belongs to the earth, & it it protected in the world of the peasant woman.” (160/OWA) It is through the equipmental nature (being) of the equipment that the woman is said to walk & work the earth, in her world. The equipmental qualities can be looked as as potential, as potentiality. How we discern reliability depends on the usefulness of the thing & just as well, things can be said to fall out of reliability. MH illustrates that all this talk about the equipmental, as it relates to the shoes, demonstrates that if we step back, we’ll be forced to recognize that it was the painting that brought us to this equipment in the fist place.  Roughly, a tool, a piece of equipment is ‘present-to-hand’ when we consider it, & it is ‘ready to hand’ when it’s a means to an end. The shoes are usefully ‘ready-to-hand’ to protect the feet, typically they are not considered things of contemplation & when they are, their being is ‘present-to-hand’ for us “The artwork lets us know what shoes are in truth.” (161/OWA) The suggestion (again) that we wouldn’t be rendering all these nice thoughts of it, if it were not for the painting that’s ‘present-at-hand’ to take us there, thus a disclosing of truth as unconcealment: aletheia (ἀλήθεια, see: B&T Div. 1, §44 “Dasien, Disclosedness & Truth”). “In the work of art the truth of Beings has set itself to work.” (162/OWA) We can surmise that when MH seeks to find the essence of this artwork within the depiction of a pair of shoes, this is not only a depiction of things at random, but a depiction of the thing’s essence, this is a basic goal of phenomenology, a search for the essence of a thing, Being &c. The work of art is not a piece of equipment, it cannot be used as such, therefore it must be regarded as: a work of truth (ἀλήθεια).

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Next, we find Heidegger exploring & looking for the art in the artwork. While at the same time, not allowing the overall thingly qualities of the artwork to obstruct any view of the ‘work-being’ (the beingness of the work, let’s say) that’s concealed by the thing. MH has to push the artist aside & then look to the artwork as it presents itself as art, then to be found in the “work-being” (165/OWA) How can we access truth (ἀλήθεια) through this ‘work-being’ of art? Heidegger chooses to switch from Van Gogh to the ‘work-being’ of a non-representational work of art: an ancient greek temple, not as a leftover ruin, but as it was built to be used, in its time, as a temple of worship. This is where we move back to the concepts: earth & world. “The early Greeks called…emerging & arising in itself & in all things physis [φύσις][…] We call this ground earth.” (168/OWA) This term of his: earth, we’ll associate with the Heraclitus fragment 123: “Nature loves to conceal herself” (Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ ). It was with great effort to understand that in other texts MH states that physis (φύσις) is an equivalent to unconcealment (ἀλήθεια). If we look to the last few paragraphs of a paper MH wrote on Aristotle’s physis (PDF), we find a mention of the Heraclitus fragment where the interpretation is quite simple. If earth is said to be closed & physis (φύσις) is said to be open, then wouldn’t we who seek to open have to confront that which is naturally closed? To open something, to reveal something, vividly implies that something must be closed to begin with. Earth is physis (φύσις), as it is closed, & its being is to be unconcealed with Being. The temple then is said to open a world of what & how it is to set up a place of worship, for the community of people who use the temple. The temple is used as the truth (ἀλήθεια) of what the temple will be for them. The work that sets up the physical temple within the world, sets up a world by which the reality of worship can take place. Setting up means more than erecting a building. MH suggests this to mean a ‘consecrating, an invocation’. “Praise belongs to dedication as doing honor to the dignity & splendor of the god” (169/OWA) The truth of the work-being of the temple corresponds to how it is created/built on earth. Let us see MH’s world as essentially the structural parts of the way we are in the world as our world. A nice group of online seminars given at Harvard by Sean Dorrance Kelly, names the the structural parts of MH’s world to be defined as: rules/goals/equipment, primarily how the world is intelligible to Being. To this MH wants to say that we are ‘worlded’ by the world. We are living in a specific context. MH might’ve placed this as our ‘facticity’ our ‘throwness’, broadly meaning our particular/factical lived world as it’s placed/thrown in a specific time & place. As we’ve noted with respect to the way equipment is ‘ready-to-hand’ the utility of the temple obscures the way we experience the thing as present in the fullest sense of the word. Within a work of art this equipmental way of seeing the thing is questioned & can almost be reversed. Whenever we look at an artwork, walk into a building, hear a song, or write a poem, we should be letting go of experiencing these things as equipment to preform a task & look to find what the object reveals about itself. Not that we can’t do this with a tool, but the tool was not set up to be regarded in this way, yes, it’s designed to look good & desirable, but it just doesn’t operate as a work of art, even in the best examples. The work of art that sets up a world uses the raw material of the earth (φύσις). The earth (φύσις) is set up by the artist to be observed in the world, as seen through the lens of our world, maybe as MH says, the work is ‘worlded’ in the world. Remember to bear in mind that MH wants us to consider the earth as concealed. As much as we can draw up meaning & truth (ἀλήθεια) into our world from the earth, there are still aspects of the earth (φύσις) (that we are still using & otherwise) that will always remain closed. There is always something new to be found about the earth (φύσις) & her things. Art then would be a way of using the materiality & mysteries of the earth to understand & try to comprehend our world, grounding our place in the world. Our world seeks to reveal the secrets of the earth (φύσις) to find a way of living, to steward her precious resources & to seek preserve what cannot be lost, & to save what cannot be replaced. “As self-opening it [the world] cannot endure anything closed.” (174/OWA) Being automatically reveals that which is closed, whether what it finds is destructive is another story (see ‘enframing’ in MH’s “The Question Concerning Technology”). We hate that the earth (φύσις) doesn’t readily open up to us & we seek this opening (primordially) via our logos (λόγος). MH doesn’t mention this in the essay, let us make the logos (λόγος) leap ourselves.

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“The opposition of the world & earth is strife.” (174/OWA) “Setting up a world & setting forth the earth, the world accomplishes this strife.” (175/OWA) The work-being in the work of art is located in the strife. This is being together with the products of the earth’s closure & the insistent openness of the world. Keep in mind that we need to see truth as open & closed at the same time, as art (on very general terms) is seeking to open the closed. The idea of strife must include the artistic struggle to bring about this fusion of earth & world as work-being. The art making process is an “instigation” (176/OWA), the strife of work-being. With MH we’ll now set about to question truth (ἀλήθεια) looking more in depth than earlier discussed (in this post). “Truth is the essence of the true.” (176/OWA) We need to learn & hold tightly onto the concept of aletheia (ἀλήθεια) to comprehend Heidegger in this essay & with its many references in “Being & Time, The Question Concerning Technology, On the Essence of Truth”, & in other MH texts. MH returns again & again to a way of thinking about truth (ἀλήθεια), with the masterful attempt to dislodge it from an everyday definition. This definition is normally where the locus of truth is in confirmation with the knowledge with a thing or a concept, a proposition, & a series of things we can say about the thing. This is basically moving deeper then a propositional statement about the thing. Of course, the everyday way of understanding truth cannot be done away with, but this way is not as primary as MH wants us to conceive of alethieia (ἀλήθεια). As we’ve noted aletheia (ἀλήθεια) is unconcealment, a revealing, a disclosure, it’s before logos (λόγος), before the apophansis (απόφανσις) of Husserl, & even before we can say anything about our apprehension of the phenomena. MH proposes that the phenomena of unconcealing is already there to be revealed by us (or not, depending). We have to be open to that which is revealed, attending to it, striving, perhaps in the mode of discovery as phenomenologically opened. MH quickly thrusts us in the clearing. “The clearing in which beings stand is in itself at the same time concealment.” (178/OWA) As much as anything can reveal itself in the clearing, there will be concealment. “Truth, is in its essence un-truth.” (179/OWA) Certain aspects of a being have to be concealed, mistaken, overlooked, misinterpreted, so that the truth (ἀλήθεια) that’s sought for & can be brought forth. MH’s clearing must be a recognition of aletheia (ἀλήθεια) as that which has not yet been opened. It is not as if Van Gogh’s shoes conform to one kind of perfect assertion that is then painted as the ultimate truth, but that for MH, Van Gogh’s shoes, a Greek temple, & a work of poetry, all are about dis/closure & never in the same way a piece of equipment is. One noteworthy effect of this unconcealing of truth (ἀλήθεια) has to do with beauty: “Beauty is one way in which truth occurs as unconcealment.” (181/OWA) MH wants to ask for the difference between work & creation. The question has arisen about the thinglyness of the the art & its insufficient way to completely experience the artwork. As we turn to the work, we’ll need to see this work as creation, to be sure, a combination of work & creation. A piece of equipment is worked into being, therefore a work of art is created into being. The bringing forth of the artwork is to be looked at through the term ‘techne’ (τέχνη). “The word techne denotes […] a mode of knowing.” (184/OWA) Techne (τέχνη) is not to be understood as out-right making, or manufacturing, rather a bringing forth. So in MH’s way of saying it, a work of art is bringing forth a world. Just the thought of techne (τέχνη) as creation is a valuable enough insight that’s easily lost today. “…to create is to let something emerge as a thing that has been brought forth. The work’s becoming of a work in a way in which truth becomes & happens.” (185/OWA) The techne (τέχνη) of the artist brings forth aletheia (ἀλήθεια) into the world by means of a physis (φύσις) as the upwelling into a thesis (θέσεις). When aletheia (ἀλήθεια) has been disclosed & set forth this by MH’s standards it is an ‘establishment’, as that which has not been seen before. “Truth establishes itself in the work.” (187/OWA) MH asks again what the createdness of the work contains, other than & including all of the above. Compared to strife the new term he brings out is ‘rift’. This rift is locked in with stife to be described as “…the intimacy with which opponents belong to each other.” (188/OWA) The rift is a kind of exposure of tension, an essential tension of earth & world. The tension too of physis (φύσις) & techne (τέχνη). So as the thing is what the artwork cannot do without, the work of the artwork is to be thought of as creation & as techne (τέχνη). Once truth (ἀλήθεια) is brought forth out into the open, declared & established a precedent has been set. “Creation is such a bringing forth.” (187/OWA) This bringing forth embodies & could incite a new truth (ἀλήθεια) that could be about controversy & to be taken to provocative ends by artistic means. The strife that exposes a rift is named a ‘figure’ by MH, the placement of the figure is a an enframing. This enframing term is extensively fleshed out in the essay “The Question Concerning Technology”. Enframing is the urge & destining of man to bring a technology out that additionally distances itself from basic necessity, a promethean effort ripe with potential & not without inherently dangerous pitfalls. As dangerous as this emframing urge can be, MH still sees its capacity as having the ability to save itself from itself. Emframing is a (post) modern dilemma, a perennial crisis & our eternal foe. For MH, art is never only a craft & the createdness that’s been made evident is obviously to be differentiated from  equipment. If we didn’t have enough terms to juggle around, MH has more fascinating concepts of note: ‘willing & preserving’. “willing is the sober unclosedness of that existential self transcendence which exposes itself to the openess of Beings as it is set into the work.” (192/OWA) This has to imply the essential openness & willingness of the art expert, the gallery owner, the concert goer &c., who keeps the artwork ‘alive’, who can be entirely open to the work & who can have the openness of her own Being, since MH presents this willing openness as in-fact an ecstatic openness to Being as described in Being & Time. Read this way, it should be implied that this openness could be the philosopher’s willingness to unconceal the artwork’s being, as kept going in the realm of Being. To the term preserving MH states that: “preserving the work as knowing, is a sober standing-within the awesomeness of the truth that is happening in the work.” (192/OWA) The willing & preserving are both critical to a seeking & a maintaining of truth (ἀλήθεια). This too can be how we have an age-old willingness & desire to keep a preservation of knowledge & to the pursuit of understanding itself. “Knowing as having seen is a Being resolved, it is standing within the strife that the work is fitted with its rift. (193/OWA) The work itself, in a world (possibly depending how its truth (ἀλήθεια) is revealed to an audience) determines whether it’ll be preserved. As we keep repeating, the upsurgence of earth (φύσις) in a work of art in a world, is much more than its thingly qualities, it’s more than just work & for these reasons, it can, in the very best instances, inspire a willing preservation. MH quotes Albrecht Dürer: “For in truth, art lies hidden within nature; he who can wrest it from her has it.” (195/OWA) This wresting is equated with the rift to bring, let’s say, to wrestle an essential opposition forth. A wrestling forth that exposes what has been concealed, a drawing out of closure. The enigma of earth’s hiding, as manifest in the art’s worlding. Not only does the truth that is “set-into” (196/OWA) the work, bring out its own need to be preserved as an artwork, it also is an enactment of this preservation itself, it too is a reserve of truth (ἀλήθεια). “…art is the creative preserving of truth in the work…” (196/OWA) Truth (ἀλήθεια) doesn’t just emerge out of nowhere & it is subject to its own thrown facticiy, its own specific placement in the world & its history. For MH poetry arises out of the fundament of earth (φύσις) from a language, a poeisis (ποίηση), a foundational expression: “If all art is in essence poetry then the arts of architecture, painting, sculpture & music must be traced back to poeisis.” (199/OWA) Poetry is a founding of truth. Poetry is “bestowing, grounding, & beginning.” (199/OWA) “Art lets truth originate.” (202/OWA)

Aurelio Madrid

ANAXIFORMINGES!” ―Ezra Pound, Canto IV

mh hutMH’s hut on ‘Death Mountain’. Photo: Patrick Lakey 2005. See Leland de la Duranaye’s fine article.

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