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Reflections upon works of art occupy a prominent place in Heidegger's writings from the 1930s onward. Heidegger's deep appreciation of and sustained interest in art manifested itself in the substantial space that he devoted in his essays and lectures to circumspect engagement with works of art. The poems of Holderlin and Angelus Silesius, Greek temples and vases, and the paintings of Van Gogh are among the many artworks that served as catalysts for Heidegger's thought. Indeed, the centrality of questions concerning art in Heidegger's philosophical investigations is indisputable.

And yet, despite the ubiquity of artworks in Heidegger's writings, the exact significance of art for Heidegger's path of thought is by no means easily discerned. In the epilogue to `The Origin of the Work of Art' Heidegger himself affirms that the preceding `reflections are concerned with the riddle of art, the riddle that art itself is. They are far from claiming to solve that riddle' (OWA 79).(1) The intent to which Heidegger develops his interrogations of artworks often only emerges slowly, and with great effort on the part of the reader. Nor does the vast quantity of commentary that has accumulated concerning Heidegger and art necessarily shed much illumination upon Heidegger's valuation of the work of art. Indeed, the sometimes baffling array of exegeses offered in the secondary literature can leave one more perplexed concerning Heidegger's view of art than when one started. Often isolated passages from Heidegger's writings on art are used to reconstruct a Heideggerian response to some traditional point of controversy within the philosophy of art. Such undertakings usually fail to consider the larger philosophical context in which Heidegger's remarks upon artworks are made, and in the process badly distort Heidegger's views.(2) On the other hand, there are a number of commentaries that offer excellent analyses of the place of art in Heidegger's thought and its relation to the history of philosophical discourse upon art, but that are exceedingly technical in nature, presupposing a familiarity with Heidegger's philosophy that makes them inaccessible to all but those already within the inner circles of Heideggerian scholarship.(3) Thus, in this paper I will attempt to steer a middle course between these two extremes, providing a reading of Heidegger's interpretation of art that is as simple and as precise as is possible given the difficulty of Heidegger's writings, and one that also situates Heidegger's treatment of art in relation to the entirety of his philosophical enterprise. In the first section of the paper I will show that Heidegger's reflections upon art do not belong within the province of aesthetics or the philosophy of art. Rather, they must be understood in terms of Heidegger's rejection of both the traditional division of philosophy into unique domains of research and, more poignantly, the aesthetic approach to art. In the second part of the paper I will turn from Heidegger's negative appraisal of the typical philosophical assessment of art to his own positive estimation of the work of art and its philosophical and cultural significance.

Although a number of Heidegger's philosophical meditations take their point of departure from a consideration of an individual work of art, Heidegger's most extended and comprehensive treatment of the work of art occurs in the essay `The Origin of the Work of Art', published in the Holzwege (Forest Trails) volume. As such, the interpretation of Heidegger's account of art offered below is garnered in large part from that essay. Nonetheless, it is extremely important to read this essay in conjunction with a number of Heidegger's other works. In particular, Heidegger's first lecture course on Nietzsche, `The Will to Power as Art', delivered during the same period as which the Holzwege essay was being composed, provides some crucial clues for deciphering the import of Heidegger's treatment of the work of art.(4) Likewise, another essay from the 1930s contained in the Holzwege volume, `The Age of the World Picture', supplements Heidegger's treatment of art in `The Origin of the Work of Art' in some important ways. Other works from various points in Heidegger's career will also be brought in as necessary to accurately explicate Heidegger's claims concerning the nature of art. Therefore, while the interpretation of Heidegger's conception of art that I will now turn to focuses primarily upon `The Origin of the Work of Art', it will always be done so with an eye toward its basis in the deeper unity that pervades Heidegger's philosophical corpus.


Abiding by the habitual norms of philosophical discourse, one would approach Heidegger's Holzwege essay as a work in aesthetics or the philosophy of art. In which case, we would seek to find within Heidegger's meditations upon the work of art responses to such customary aesthetic issues as the nature of aesthetic experience, the cognitive status of art, or the formal criteria for distinguishing works of art from other forms of human expression. And it is certainly true that a number of commentators have taken this route, fabricating a uniquely Heideggerian philosophy of art, or juxtaposing Heidegger's reflections with traditional aesthetic theories in order to demonstrate how they can supplement and enrich those speculations. However, before even directly considering Heidegger's statements concerning art in `The Origin of the Work of Art' we should be extremely wary of such tactics. There are two primary reasons to avoid such an approach to Heidegger's consideration of art from the outset. The first involves Heidegger's fundamental conception of the task of philosophy itself, while the second turns on Heidegger's more specific rejection of the aesthetic approach to art. I will treat each point of contention in turn.

Despite the diversity of issues and figures in philosophy that Heidegger's thought traversed, and despite the shifts of emphasis that took place in his own thinking over time, there is nevertheless a more profound leitmotif that encompasses all of Heidegger's philosophical efforts. That is, Heidegger's entire philosophical oeuvre is unified by the centrality of the Seinsfrage, the question of the meaning of Being that Heidegger always took to be the central question of philosophy.(5) Already in Being and Time Heidegger's critique of the philosophical tradition took place in terms of an attempt to raise anew the question of the meaning of Being (BT 21), which he asserted to be the fundamental question of philosophy (BT 29, 50). While since antiquity philosophers had simply presupposed the givenness of the various realms of entities accessible to human cognition, Heidegger sought to enquire into the grounds of our accessibility to entities, how it is possible for them to show up for us at all. He thus defined Being as `that which determines entities as entities (BT 25).' And this, Heidegger discovered, consists in the intelligibility embodied in the shared social and historical practices that allow various sorts of entities (tools, persons, institutions, numbers, etc.) to show up as significant for us in our concerned everyday comportment.

While we will return to a fuller exposition of Heidegger's conception of Being and its bearings upon his understanding of art later, it is important to see for the moment that Heidegger's investigations into any particular type of entity, whether it be an artwork or a cultural artefact, are always carried out in relation to the Seinsfrage and the original source of their disclosure. As such, from early on in his career Heidegger rejected the usual partitioning of philosophy into distinct subdisciplines. Such a practice reflects a naive acceptance of beings as they are already accessible to our understanding and works to further cover over the more fundamental issue concerning the source of their accessibility, what Heidegger calls their mode of Being. Heidegger reaffirms this priority of the Seinsfrage in even stronger terms in his Nietzsche lecture where he states that `in philosophy the Being of beings is to be thought' (N 35). Somewhat later, in `The Letter on Humanism', Heidegger explicitly repudiates the compartmentalization of philosophy into discrete spheres of enquiry.(6) From beginning to end, Heidegger's thinking revolved around this one basic question of the meaning of Being.(7) Thus, to interpret the Holzwege essay as a work in the philosophy of art would be to betray Heidegger's own conception of the nature of his philosophical project. When Heidegger investigates art he does not do so to determine its characteristics as a specific and isolated region of human experience, but as a possible clue to decipher the meaning of Being. That this holds true for `The Origin of the Work of Art' is confirmed by Heidegger in his 1967 Addendum to the essay in which he states that it `deliberately yet tacitly moves on the path of the question of Being. Reflection on what art may be is completely and decidedly determined only in regard to the question of Being' (OWA 86). We shall thus find that Heidegger's treatment of the work of art in the Holzwege essay is developed decisively in terms of the Seinsfrage.

More important, however, than Heidegger's general repudiation of the traditional partitioning of philosophy into distinct domains of research is his specific critique of the aesthetic approach to art.(8) Heidegger's rejection of aesthetics as a means of investigation into the work of art is closely tied to his critique of Western metaphysics and, in particular, its latest incarnation, modern subjectivism. Indeed, in `The Age of the World Picture' he lists `the event of art's moving into the purview of aesthetics' (AWP 116) as one of the essential phenomena of the modern period. In order to understand Heidegger's claims concerning aesthetics and its treatment of art, it is necessary to provide a brief sketch of Heidegger's reading of the history of Western metaphysics. Heidegger claims that since almost from its inception the Western interpretation of beings has been dominated by a substance ontology. That is, entities or things are taken to be self-subsisting and independently existing objects that stand over and above detached, observing subjects. As the basic building blocks of the universe, substances are interpreted as the only things that exist in their own right and all other phenomena are interpreted in terms of their causal interaction. Oddly enough, as Heidegger points out in `The Age of the World Picture',(9) this extreme objectivism that founds the ancient and medieval experience of beings sets the necessary stage for the subjectivism that marks the modern era. For at the threshold of modernity Descartes merely accepted that reality must be conceived of primarily in terms of independently existing substances which are only causally related, and took the natural step in asserting that if this is so, then we can never really be assured of the real nature of such substances or things-in-themselves as we only have access to their causal effects (sensory experiences) upon us. Only our own perceptions, the effects that said objects have on our faculties, are immune from doubt. The ancient supposition that entities are to be viewed with detachment as independently subsisting objects corresponds essentially with the modern claim that only our subjective experiences are indubitable and thus the only secured region for philosophical enquiry.(10)

Now of course from early on Heidegger devoted his energies to repudiating this picture of reality and its effects upon Western metaphysics. In Being and Time he convincingly argued that in our everyday involvement in practical affairs entities are not encountered as objects existing independently of our concerns, that is as vorhanden or (present-to-hand), but first and foremost are disclosed as zuhanden or (ready-to-hand) for the various skilful tasks that we perform. The intelligibility that accrues to entities in virtue of such simple day-to-day blind coping simply cannot be explained in terms of a substance ontology.(11) Likewise, our involvement with entities does not primarily consist in a detached viewing in which we consciously represent them, but in an absorbed involvement in which we make use of, without consciously noticing, things in light of the tasks at hand. Heidegger called the interpretive understanding of things embodied in such historical and cultural practices an understanding of Being, and the embedded entity that gained access to other entities in virtue of such a background of shared social practices Dasein, which roughly refers to the fundamental structure of the human way of being. While Heidegger was later to accent the unified cultural and historical interpretation of entities more and more, and the individual Dasein and its practical comportment with entities less and less, the idea that the source of intelligibility of entities is founded in a set of cultural and historical practices that we are socialized into was an insight that Heidegger never abandoned.

Having briefly delimited Heidegger's reading of the history of Western metaphysics and its reliance upon a faulty substance ontology, we can now see Heidegger's rejection of the aesthetic view of art in terms of two themes cogent to this larger story. First, while aesthetics emerged as a separate discipline only in the eighteenth century with Alexander Baumgarten, given Heidegger's reading of the history of metaphysics we should expect that the stage for this transformation was set long before. And indeed in `The Will to Power as Art' Heidegger begins his discussion of the history of aesthetics by noting that the word aesthetics was formed in the same manner as were those of logic and ethics: `aiesthetike episteme: knowledge of human behavior with regard to senses, sensation, and feeling, and knowledge of how these are determined' (N 78). Aesthetics, Heidegger goes on, is thus concerned with how objects determine a subject's feelings. As such, Heidegger claims `the artwork is posited as the "object" for a "subject"; definitive for aesthetic consideration is the subject-object relation, indeed as a relation of feeling' (N 78). Not surprisingly, aesthetics presupposes the substance ontology that is characteristic of Western metaphysics. Accepting that our involvement with entities must be conceived in terms of self-subsisting objects and their causal interaction upon our subjective faculties, aesthetics merely results from the further stipulation that such objects determine us in various manners. Aesthetics then takes its domain as the realm of sensation or feeling and confines itself to examining the manner by which such feelings are conveyed through the mediation of the object. Notice how closely the formation of aesthetics conforms to the larger picture of the history of metaphysics that Heidegger has given. First, the artwork itself is taken as being an independently subsisting object standing over and against the experiencing subject. Their interaction is then conceived of causally, in terms of the ability of the object to cause some sort of sensuous experiences in the subject. Again, as the object in-itself remains veiled from human cognition, aesthetics naturally turns itself over completely to an examination of the experiencing subject.(12) In the process, the work of art itself is rendered superfluous.

In order to reawaken the question of art, Heidegger wishes to turn our attention back to the work of art itself in order to see if this founding determination of the artwork as an object can truly capture its mode of Being. As Heidegger remarks in the `The Origin of the Work of Art', the usual interpretation of the work of art as an object corresponds `with the destiny in accordance with which Western thought has hitherto thought the Being of beings' (OWA 32). As we have said, this means that the artwork is seen above all as an object, `a thing to which something else adheres' (OWA 20), its aesthetic qualities merely added on, or the result of its causal interaction with experiencing subjects. In an effort to clarify the nature of the work of art, Heidegger insists that we must enquire into the usual conceptions of the thing in order to see if they can really capture the reality that is the work of art. We must ask if the alleged substantive element of the work can really be understood in terms of the usual interpretations of the thingness of the thing.

In the Holzwege essay Heidegger examines the three most prominent, influential, and interrelated interpretations of the thingness of the thing in Western philosophy. These are: the thing conceived as a substance with its attributes, as the unity of the manifold of sense-perceptions, and as formed matter. The first approach is closest to the substance ontology that we demarcated earlier, taking the thingness of the thing to consist in the self-persisting substance that underlies the various accidents that accrue to it. While Heidegger's remarks upon this reading of the thing are sparse in the Holzwege essay, it should be obvious to us by now why Heidegger thinks that this interpretation does not capture the reality of the thing. The idea, once again, is that we never encounter the thing apart from the effects that it has upon us, and thus the substance in-itself remains an unknown substratum posited by the intellect. Such a conception of the thing, as it is outside the realm of our experience, does nothing to explain the intelligibility of entities that we encounter in our everyday affairs. The second interpretation follows from the first in a manner that should also be familiar to us now. Failing to arrive at the underlying substance, this view of the thing merely reverts to our private experiences and defines the thing as a construct of discrete sense impression. Again, Heidegger's treatment of this interpretation is brief in `The Origin of the Work of Art', but can be easily reconstructed in light of his other writings. Basically, Heidegger's critique of this version stems from a phenomenological examination of our actual experience. If we simply describe our lived experience of things, apart from any philosophical theory, we find that we never encounter the alleged sense impressions that things are supposed to be constructed out of. What we discover is that what is given in actual acts of perception is not some posited sense impressions, but the things themselves. As Heidegger says `we hear the door shut in the house and never hear acoustical sensations' (OWA 26). Summarizing his critiques of the first two conceptions of the thing, Heidegger states `whereas the first interpretation keeps the thing at arm's length from us, as it were, and sets it too far off, the second makes it press too hard upon us. In both interpretations the thing vanishes' (OWA 26). Neither of the first two interpretations can account for the thingness of the thing as we discover it in our everyday experience.

Heidegger develops the third interpretation of the thing, as formed matter, more fully, as he feels that it is the one that has most influenced aesthetics and the philosophy of art. And indeed, what could be more obvious than the idea that 'matter is the substrata and field for the artist's formative action' (OWA 27)? Here, Heidegger's tactic involves an excavation of the origin of the form-matter schema in order to find out if it founds the determination of the thingness of the thing or if it is derivative of another understanding of Being. What Heidegger wants to show is that far from being original, the form-matter interpretation of the thing is itself derived from the mode of Being of equipment.(13) For genealogically we find that discussion of the form of an object has its basis in teleological concepts such as purpose and usefulness that refer us to the ends that an object serves, and thus to human concern. The distinction between form and matter can only arise in regard to our more basic involvement with entities as equipment. It is as equipment that we ordinarily experience entities within our daily, practical tasks, and it is only when the equipment breaks down that we become conscious of it as an object existing independently of our concernful coping. Thus, the interpretation of the thing in terms of form and matter arises only within the purview of our experience of equipment. As Heidegger puts it, on this interpretation `the mere thing is a sort of equipment, albeit equipment denuded of its equipmental being. Thing-being consists in what is then left over' (OWA 30). While we will return to the question of the being of equipment shortly, what is important for our purposes here is to see that this last interpretation of the thing is parasitic upon a previous experience of things as equipment. Far from capturing the fundamental characteristic of beings that the thingness of the thing was supposed to refer us to, this reading itself depends upon a previous disclosure of entities as equipment. All of the three interpretations of the thing that are pervasive in Western thinking have been found inadequate to explain the being of the work of art.

Approaching `The Origin of the Work of Art' circuitously from the viewpoint of its relation to traditional aesthetics and the philosophy of art, we have seen that whatever place Heidegger assigns art in his thinking it cannot belong within the parameters of these disciplinary matrices. First, the centrality of the Seinsfrage in Heidegger's thought prohibits us from approaching his reflections on art from any standpoint other than that of the question of Being. Second, Heidegger explicitly rejects the aesthetic approach to art. The aesthetic view of art is firmly entrenched within the subject-object dichotomy that is characteristic of Western metaphysics and prejudices the enquiry into art in terms of its substance ontology and valorizing of subject experience, completely overlooking the artwork itself and its unique mode of Being in the process. Having delimited Heidegger's Destruktion of the customary modes of enquiry into the Being of the work of art, we are now in a position to examine properly Heidegger's own positive interpretation of the artwork and the salutary position it holds in his thinking.


If Heidegger is not examining the work of art in order to provide answers to the traditional questions posed in the philosophy of art, then to what purpose does he raise the question of art? The response to this query is perhaps best broached by returning to Heidegger's treatment of equipment in `The Origin of the Work of Art'. Having shown that the usual interpretation of the thing-being of the work in view of the conceptual categories of form and matter is itself derived from the mode of being of equipment, Heidegger insists that `we shall follow this clue and search first for the equipmental character of equipment' (OWA 32). And as he did in Being and Time, Heidegger here too stresses that to capture the Being of equipment we must steer clear of the traditional conceptual baggage of philosophy and `simply describe some equipment without any philosophical theory' (OWA 32). The essence of equipment can only be disclosed by turning to the manner in which equipment manifests itself in our preconceptual experience. Oddly enough, it is at this point in the essay that Heidegger first turns to an actual work of art, Van Gogh's painting of a pair of shoes. What does Van Gogh's painting show us concerning this pair of shoes, as one of the most simple types of equipment? Heidegger writes:
   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 is protected in the world
   of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment
   itself rises to its resting-within-itself. (OWA 34)

Certainly a perplexing commentary, and furthermore, as Meyer Schapiro has demonstrated, not even accurate as a description of the shoes that Van Gogh in fact painted.(14) What can we possibly make of such a curious entry into the realm of art?

Here we must be mindful lest we allow Heidegger's admittedly difficult and evasive language lead us to mistake his use of Van Gogh's painting as a bit of nostalgic romanticism or pious mysticism. What is the mode of Being of equipment that Heidegger feels the painting allows us to discern? Heidegger terms it reliability. And what does reliability consist in? Here we do well to turn back once again to Being and Time where Heidegger argued that equipment never manifests itself as objects standing over and against us as conscious subjects. Rather, equipment is disclosed as available to us in our concerned coping with the tasks at hand in a cultural and historical world. It is not as an object for our conscious inspection that we discover equipment, but as available for the sake of the job to be completed: the hammer does not appear as a bare thing with various objective properties, but as available for the task of pounding nails for the sake of building a house to shelter our family. As reliable, the equipment remains outside the purview of our conscious consideration, Heidegger's peasant woman `knows all this without noticing or reflecting' (OWA 34). Again, it is only when the hammer breaks that we become cognizant of it as an independent object with qualities that are not relevant to our practical concerns. When functioning as equipment, there are simply things to be done, tasks to be completed, and as reliable the equipment disappears into its use.

We thus cannot understand the mode of Being of equipment by taking a detached, theoretical stand toward individual pieces of equipment. Equipment is disclosed as equipment only within a network of other equipment within the context of the tasks and concerns of our everyday coping. Yet because of this, when we are actually involved with equipment we do not become explicitly aware of its mode of Being, for we are simply absorbed in the task at hand. It is only in the light of the artwork that we come to see the equipment as equipment. By setting forth a simple pair of shoes, not as an object for scientific investigation or as a failed piece of equipment, but simply by bringing forth a piece of equipment in its simple stability, Van Gogh's painting gives us access to its mode of Being, its sure reliability for those whom it serves. The artwork shows forth the world and the earth to which the equipment belongs, two terms that we must now investigate if we are fully to understand Heidegger's treatment of the work of art.

As we have seen, Heidegger thinks that Van Gogh's painting sets forth the mode of Being of the equipment it portrays. The Being of the entities so disclosed consists in the world to which they belong and the earth from which they emerge. Now the concept of world was present in Heidegger's philosophy since Being and Time. In `The Origin of the Work of Art', Heidegger reaffirms its status, stating that:
   world is never an object that stands before us and can be seen. World is
   the ever non-objective to which we are subject as long as the paths of
   birth and death, blessing and curse keep us transported into Being. (OWA

The world does not refer to the physical body on which we dwell, or to the sum of the objects to be found in the universe. Rather, Heidegger's use of the term is much closer to another colloquial usage familiar to us all, as when we speak of the `business world' or the `world of entertainment'. Expanding on this sense of the word, Heidegger uses world to refer to the referential framework of practices that give entities their significance. The world is not an object, but the context of involvement that allows entities to appear as significant for us in various ways, just as being involved in business practices provides a holistic background context in which various kinds of things come to light as significant for the business person.

While the concept of world is familiar to readers of Being and Time, the concept of earth that first appears in the Holzwege essay represents a new development in Heidegger's philosophical vocabulary. If the world is what gives us access to entities, what discloses beings as significant within a historical setting, then earth is that which `remains undisclosed and unexplained ... by nature undisclosable' (OWA 47). While earth is new piece of terminology for Heidegger, it nonetheless still has its roots in the fundamental ontology of Being and Time.(15) For while there Heidegger stressed the world that grants an understanding of Being, that gives things their intelligibility, he also noted that every such understanding of Being granted in a world also represents a concealment of beings. In revealing entities through our involvement in one set of historical and cultural practices, we also close off other possibilities for encountering entities, just as by analogy being involved in the world of business allows the businessperson to access things in one way, say as potentially profitable, while closing off other ways of seeing them, say as having a spiritual value. Every understanding of Being embodies both aspects of unconcealment and concealment. As Heidegger puts in `The Origin of the Work of Art':
   thanks to this clearing [opened by a world], beings are unconcealed in
   certain changing degrees. And yet a being can be concealed, too, only
   within the sphere of what is lighted. Each being we encounter and which
   encounters us keeps to this curious opposition of presence in that it
   always withholds itself at the same time in a concealedness. (OWA 53)

The Being of entities disclosed in the artwork consists in a world, the context of involvement provided by a set of historical practices that grants entities their intelligibility, and the earth, representing the concealment of beings that every unconcealment brings with it, those aspects of entities that remain hidden from our purview in any world disclosure.

We have still not clearly shown how it is that the work of art discloses the world and earth. The use of a painting might lead one to suspect that it is through representation that the work of art achieves this, by simply showing some entity in the context of the world in which it is normally encountered. Yet Heidegger explicitly denies that it is only representational works that can function in this disclosive manner, and his discussion of a Greek temple, which portrays nothing, may provide some further help in understanding how the work of art works to bring forth the world and earth in their reciprocal conditioning. Heidegger remarks that:
   the building encloses the figure of the god ... and gathers around itself
   the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster
   and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape
   of destiny for human being. (OWA 41--42)

The temple pictures nothing, and yet by standing forth above the dwellings of the Greek citizen it provides the focus for all of their daily pursuits. The world of the ancient Greeks was a world of deities and heroes, gods and mortals, and the temple unifies this understanding of Being in serving as a central point of reference for all of their activities. It is a concrete symbol for the relation that they have to the soil and the heavens. Hubert Dreyfus notes that the work of art thus acts as
   a cultural paradigm [that] collects the scattered practices of a group,
   unifies them into coherent possibilities for action, and holds them up to
   the people who can then act and relate to each other in terms of that

The lives of Greek citizens, their birth and death, strife and struggle, are organized around the solid existence of the temple that stands before them giving `things their look and to men their outlook on themselves' (OWA 43). Likewise the medieval icon acted as a tangible focal point for the world in which the life of the peasant was carried out. Even contemporary works such as Warhol's reproductions of commercial products can be seen in terms of their ability to display in a concrete manner the world in which the modern industrial consumer dwells, and the sense bestowed upon entities in that world.

Thus, while in everyday practical circumspection we encounter entities without being explicitly aware of them or the background practices that provide the source of their intelligibility, the work of art brings that world into focus by highlighting central features of those practices and the `look' things have in virtue of them. But while the work of art brings forth the world in which we dwell, it just as importantly sets forth the earth and `lets the earth be the earth' (OWA 46). As we have mentioned, the earth refers to that which remains concealed in any given world, those aspects of things that every particular way of revealing conceals. How does the artwork allow the earth, that which resists every disclosure, to be brought into the open? There are really two means that Heidegger discusses by which the work of art is able to show the earth as earth, and we will touch upon them both.

The first way concerns the work of art's relation to its material. Heidegger notes that in our use of equipment:
   the material is all the better and more suitable the less it resists
   perishing in the equipmental being of the equipment. By contrast the
   temple-work, in setting up a world, does not cause the material to
   disappear, but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and
   to come into the Open of the work's world. (OWA 46)

Now we should not take Heidegger to be reverting here to the conception of matter that he earlier rejected. The material aspect of the work that Heidegger is referring to is not the independent matter that is the slate for our formative design, but rather that which resists every effort to master it, which escapes every effort to penetrate into it. Unlike scientific cognition that attempts to determine completely the object, great works of art do not try to master completely their material. Rather, they let the material shine forth in all of its mystery as that which resists being subsumed under our rationalizations. Indeed, the reason that great works are open to endless interpretation is that they carry within them this aspect; they refuse to yield fully to our intent. While equipment is better precisely to the extent that it completely yields to the task, the work of art also displays the elements of impenetrability, the world disclosed does not fully master the earth from which it springs forth.

If the work of art's relation to its material, to its source, is crucial for allowing us to see the earth as earth, so too is its status as a creation. Again, it is important to avoid slipping back into our usual preconceptions concerning art when dealing with Heidegger's discussion of this aspect of creation that belongs to the work. Heidegger is not interested in the work of art as the product of an isolated subject who attempts to convey his or her subjective experience to others. He does not take creation `as the self-sovereign subject's performance of genius' (OWA 76). Rather, what is important for Heidegger is that the artwork exhibits itself as something that has been created. Thus, Heidegger thinks that creation consists in `causing something to emerge as a thing that has been brought forth' (OWA 69). In its serviceability, equipment vanishes into its use and the means to which it is put; it becomes inconspicuous. But the work of art shows itself, and shows itself precisely as something that has been created, as something that has come to presence historically. Thus, in calling attention to its produced nature, the work of art displays the world that emerges from it as also being historical and contingent, and in a essential struggle with the earth that opposes any totalization.

Given the ability of the work to display the world and earth and their interdependence, Heidegger goes on to claim that `what is at disclosure is at work in the work: the disclosure of the particular being in its being, the happening of truth ... art is truth setting itself to work' (OWA 39-39). While ordinarily truth is conceived of in terms of a correspondence between knowledge and facts or propositions and events, Heidegger calls such truth a derivative kind of truth. For before we can ascertain the conformity between our knowledge and the facts, the propositions and the events they refer to, the entities that they concern must first have been disclosed for our experience. It is only on the basis of ontological truth, the unconcealedness of beings in their mode of Being, that propositional truth concerning the correctness of our judgements is possible. Thus, for Heidegger primal truth is `aletheia, the unconcealedness of beings' (OWA 51). Which means that truth is also both historical and contains within itself an essential untruth. Historical, because every disclosure of beings takes place within a specific social and temporal setting. Every happening of truth as aletheia carries with it an untruth, because as we have seen, every disclosure of beings in one manner entails a concealment of other possible ways in which they might be revealed: `this denial, in the form of a double concealment, belongs to the nature of truth as unconcealedness' (OWA 54). Thus, by setting forth the world in which entities are disclosed and the earth that resists such disclosure in an essential struggle, the work of art gives us access to the original nature of truth. Art is one of the ways in which beings are unconcealed in their Being. Therefore, the work of the artwork cannot, as the tradition would have it, be thought apart from the happening of truth, for as Heidegger concludes, `beauty is one way in which truth occurs as unconcealedness' (OWA 56).(17)

Having developed the ontological significance of the work of art in Heidegger's philosophy, as one of the `essential ways ... in which truth happens' (OWA 55), we must now turn to a second feature of Heidegger's treatment of the work of art. This concerns what Heidegger refers to as the `saving power' of art in the age of technology. While Heidegger, as we have said, argued that our understanding of Being was embodied in a set of cultural and historical practices that grants entities their intelligibility in our everyday involvement, he also came to assert that each era of Western history could be characterized by a particular, overarching characterization of entities that imbues all of the specific practices that are publicly available. Thus for Heidegger the Greeks marvelled at things as objects of beauty that came to presence in their own fruition; people in the medieval era understood all beings fundamentally as creations of God's will and as marked indelibly with his presence; and, most importantly, the persuasive modern understanding of Being takes entities as resources for our manipulation and control.(18)

In `The Question Concerning Technology' Heidegger argues that we should not, as so many do, conceive of the era of technology and its dangers in terms of the greater mechanization of our world and the instrumental application of technology to all sectors of human affairs. Indeed, somewhat cryptically, Heidegger asserts that `the essence of technology is by no means anything technological' (QCT 4). Technology is for Heidegger above all `a way of revealing' (QCT 12). What is truly decisive for the technological age is the manner in which things are revealed to us within it, the understanding of Being that it bestows upon us. For in the technological world all entities are revealed as Bestand, a standing-reserve, `everything is ordered to stand by ... so that it may be on call for a further ordering' (QCT 17). In `The Age of the World Picture' Heidegger had spoken of this understanding of Being in terms of a Ge-stall, an enframing, of all entities standing over and against us as a reservoir for our ever greater mobilization. In this technological age everything is seen as 'resources' at our disposal, to be efficiently utilized.

The danger of the technological age is not, as we might first suspect, that the understanding of Being that it embodies is simply inaccurate. Nor can the solution, for Heidegger, consist in a simple rejection of this all-persuasive experience of beings that governs our thoughts and actions. First, as the technological understanding of Being is a manner of revealing beings it happens in the domain of truth: `technology comes to presence in the realm where revealing and unconcealment take place, where aletheia, truth, happens' (QCT 13). As with every revealing, the technological one contains both its truth and its untruth, and we cannot simply dismiss it as a faulty picture of reality. Nor can we, for Heidegger, simply do away with it, for it belongs to our Geshick, our destiny. For Heidegger an understanding of Being is not something within our control, it is something bestowed upon us, something which we are socialized into in virtue of belonging to a particular cultural and historical world.(19)

The danger, then, is not the technological understanding of being itself but the possibility that this understanding will come to have such a grip upon us that every other possibility will be blocked off forever. Heidegger writes in `The Question Concerning Technology':
   Since destining at any given time starts man on a way of revealing, man,
   thus under way, is continually approaching the brink of the possibility of
   pursuing and pushing forward nothing but what is revealed in ordering, and
   of deriving all of his standards on that basis.... Where this ordering
   holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing.... Where
   Enframing holds sway, regulating and securing of the standing-reserve mark
   all revealing. They no longer even let their own fundamental characteristic
   appear, namely, this revealing as such. (QCT 26, 27)

The danger really then consists in two elements. The first is that because the technological understanding of Being has gained such an all-persuasive hold, across cultures and sectors of human affairs, there is the possibility that we will be so swept away in this single manner of revealing as to cut off for good the possibility of future ways of revealing. Second, there is the danger that in our absorption in the practices that embody this mode of concealing we will completely cover over its character as a revealing. That is, just as he was in Being and Time, Heidegger is concerned that in our everyday dealings with entities we will become so focused on the beings revealed as to forget the question of the meaning of Being.

It should be apparent by now why Heidegger thus attributes a saving power to the work of art in the era of technology. The artwork allows us to discern the understanding of Being given in the world and to see it as a manner of revealing, a contingent one in constant struggle with the earth from which it springs. In the artwork the world is revealed as world, and thus the mode of revealing that sways in the technological age is seen as a manner of revealing, and not simply taken as the nature of reality. The work of art can as such open a new stand within us, giving rise to a fuller awareness of the understanding of Being in which we dwell. Indeed, art functions for Heidegger as one of the few, fundamental ways in which we can become cognizant of the way beings are revealed, of the very meaning of Being. Which is why Heidegger wondered if just perhaps, `could it be that revealing lays claim to the arts most primally, so that they for their part may expressly foster the growth of the saving power, may awaken and found anew our look into that which grants and our trust in it' (QCT 35)?


Having delimited the nature of Heidegger's meditations upon the work of art we have found that art occupies a prominent place in his thought both because of its ontological significance and due to its saving role in the technological age. As a fundamental way in which beings are revealed, and indeed in which the structure of revealing as such is disclosed, the work of art has an ontological status that cannot be grasped with the usual categories given in substance ontologies. Heidegger insists that we must examine the work of art on its own terms if we are to discern its paradigmatic function for our cultural practices. The work of art can also open a new stance within us by revealing the essence of the understanding of Being that underlies the technological era. This allows us to engage in the everyday practices that embody this understanding while remaining aware of their contingency. More importantly, by encountering the work of art as a work we remain receptive to future bestowals of Being that would allow us to understand the beings we encounter in new ways.

Certainly, Heidegger's exploration of art is not free from difficulty. Nor have I attempted to investigate every aspect of Heidegger's view of the work of art. I have merely tried to delineate some of its central features, and, in particular, to trace out the nature of the relationship between Heidegger's view of art and some of the other major themes of this thought. By deliberately limiting the scope of this work I have thus left open a number of questions that might be raised concerning Heidegger's treatment of art. For instance, the view that the work of art discloses the world of a historical people and its relationship to the earth seems to apply at best to a very limited range of what are normally considered artworks. While it is true that Heidegger remarks in `The Origin of the Work of Art' that he is only dealing with `great art' (OWA 40), it is still by no means easy to see what status lesser works of art could have for Heidegger, or how we are to distinguish between great and ordinary art. Heidegger's sketchy remarks on the production and reception of the artwork do not seem wholly satisfactory to me either. While I agree with Heidegger's critique of the subjectivist treatment of art that attempts to grasp the work completely in terms of the artist's intentions and experiences, I nonetheless think more needs to be said concerning the function of producing art within a cultural context. Likewise, at times Heidegger's view of the artwork seems to treat the recipient as wholly passive, an approach that masks what I would claim is a more reciprocal relationship between the viewer and the work. However, I will leave such queries open for further consideration to be made on the basis established here. For whatever difficulties there might be with Heidegger's treatment of art, it is, I hope to have shown, undeniable that Heidegger poses a number of important questions concerning our habitual philosophical conceptualizations of art, and presents a unique framework in which to ask anew the question of art.(20)

(1) References to Heidegger's writings within the body of the text will be given using the following abbreviations: OWA, `The Origin of the Work of Art,' in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971); AWP, `The Age of the World Picture,' in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); QCT, `The Question Concerning Technology,' in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); BT, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962); N, Nietzsche, vol. I: The Will to Power as Art, trans. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

(2) Examples of writers that attribute an aesthetics to Heidegger or try to situate his discussions of art in relation to more traditional issues in the philosophy of art include: Joseph J. Kockelmans, Heidegger on Art and Art Works (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1985); Sandra Lee Bartky, `Heidegger's Philosophy of Art', in Thomas Sheehan (ed.), Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1981); William S. Hemrick, `Heidegger and the Objectivity of Aesthetic Truth', The Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 5 (1971), pp. 120-130; and Wayne D. Owens, `Heidegger's Philosophy of Art', British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 29 (1989), pp. 128-139.

(3) Some excellent examples of the latter that have aided my own understanding of the place of art in Heidegger's thinking include: Andreas Grossmann, `Hegel, Heidegger, and the Question of Art Today', Research in Phenomenology, vol. 20 (1990), pp. 112-135; Hans-Georg Gadamer, `The Truth of the Work of Art', in Heidegger's Ways, trans. John Stanley (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 128-139; and Otto Poggler, `Heidegger on Art', in Karsten Harries and Chrisoph Jamne (eds), Martin Heidegger: Politics, Art, and Technology (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1994), pp. 106-124.

(4) The first Nietzsche course was given during the winter semester 1936-1937, whereas `The Origin of The Work of Art' was first written in 1935, and was revised by Heidegger in 1936 as the Nietzsche course was in session.

(5) Of course, the later Heidegger came to reject the label philosophy altogether and referred to his efforts as a thinking that was outside the scope of more traditional philosophical enquiries. However, this has more to do with his increasing awareness of the extent to which all previous philosophy had been determined by a faulty conception of Being than with any fundamental change upon his part concerning the matter for thought, whether it is called philosophy or not. Heidegger himself remarks in the 1953 `Author's Preface to the Seventh German Edition' of Being and Time that `the road it has taken remains even today a necessary one'.

(6) See Martin Heidegger, `Letter on Humanism', trans. Frank Capuzzi, in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 208 and 239.

(7) For a more thorough treatment of the place of the question of Being in Heidegger's thought, see Dorothea Frede, `The Question of Being: Heidegger's Project', in Charles Guignon (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 42-69.

(8) That Heidegger's investigations of art during this time turned upon a rejection of the aesthetic viewpoint is also confirmed by the title of his 1935-1936 colloquium with Kurt Bauch on `Overcoming Aesthetics in the Question of Art', which, unfortunately, we have no record of.

(9) See, for instance, p. 128 where Heidegger speaks of `the necessary interplay between subjectivism and objectivism'.

(10) This, for Heidegger, cumulates in the phenomenology of his own teacher, Edmund Husserl, who explicitly took mental contents as the only proper objects for philosophical investigation. Thus, although Heidegger called his method in Being and Time phenomenological, this should not be confused with the orthodox phenomenology of Husserl. Indeed, Hubert Dreyfus argues in Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992) `that Being and Time could be understood as a systematic critique of Husserl's phenomenology' (ix).

(11) This is not to say that Heidegger rejects that things are the way they are when we treat them as subsisting objects. That is to say, Heidegger is not arguing that scientific investigation of the world, which embodies this view of beings, cannot discover real properties of objects that are independent of human projection. Heidegger's point is simply that the significance that things have in virtue of our everyday involvement in the world cannot be fully explained in terms of such an ontology. Thus, one can be a Heideggerian and yet remain a realist about the independent existence of entities and their individual characteristics. A similar argument is made by Theodore Schatzki in `Early Heidegger on Being, the Clearing, and Realism', in Hubert Dreyfus and Harrison Hall (eds), Heidegger: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 81-98.

(12) Of course, the decisive point in this development is customarily traced to Kant's Critique of Judgment.

(13) Thus, Heidegger's reasoning here is similar to his argument in Being and Time that it is as equipment that we first encounter things and that other modes of understanding arise out of, and are parasitic upon, this fundamental experience of beings.

(14) In `The Still Life as a Personal Object--A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh', in Marianne Simmel (ed.), The Reach of Mind (New York: Springer Verlag, 1968), pp. 203-210, Schapiro points out that the shoes that Van Gogh actually painted were his own. However, as we will see, this fact in itself does not, contrary to what Schapiro thinks, invalidate Heidegger's treatment of the painting, for on Heidegger's view it is not the intention of the artist or the representational referent that determines the value of the work of art.

(15) See Joseph P. Fell, `The Familiar and the Strange: On the limits of Praxis in the Early Heidegger', in Hubert Dreyfus and Harrison Hall (eds), Heidegger: A Critical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 65-80, which points out that while Heidegger maintained that we either encounter entities as ready-to-hand or present-to-hand in Being and Time, he was also careful to point out that things had an `otherly' aspect to them that thwarted all of our attempts to penetrate them, whether practically or theoretically.

(16) Hubert Dreyfus, `Heidegger on the Connection Between Nihilism, Art, Technology and Politics', in Charles Guignon (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 298.

(17) Therefore, Heidegger does not merely reverse the ancient opposition between truth and art, as Nietzsche did, but he shows how art is essentially within the domain of truth. Indeed, for Heidegger the kind of truth that art participates in is more fundamental than truth as ordinarily conceived.

(18) Certainly there is present in Heidegger's reading of the history of Being what John Caputo terms a `dangerous mythologizing' tendency, in which Heidegger privileged an original Greek granting of Being and then read all subsequent history in terms of a progressive degeneration. However, one need not buy into the mythologizing elements of Heidegger's thought in order to accept his much more plausible claim that certain cultures and ages do embody specific interpretations of beings in their paradigmatic practices that can be diagnosed and contrasted with our modes of understanding.

(19) Thus, despite Heidegger's own valorization of the Greeks, he was well aware that we could not recoup their understanding of beings. Even in `The Origin of the Work of Art' he writes that we cannot retrieve the world of the Greek temple or the medieval cathedral, `the world of the work that stands there has perished' (41).

(20) I would especially like to thank Dr. Jacqueline Marina who provided numerous helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper.

Daniel E. Palmer, Department of Philosophy, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47970, USA. Email:
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Author:Palmer, Daniel E.
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998

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