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Julian Young, Heidegger's Philosophy of Art.

Julian Young, Heidegger's Philosophy of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 179.

This book is probably the best comprehensive treatment of Heidegger's philosophy of art currently available in English. A little over a third of the volume deals with the most widely read and discussed of Heidegger's texts concerning art, the 1936 essay, "The Origin of the Work of Art." (1) The remaining hundred pages or so then go beyond that familiar territory into many other sources, including Heidegger's lectures on Holderlin and Nietzsche, his later essays on poetry and language, and his occasional remarks concerning actual paintings and musical and architectural works. Readers who don't already know will be interested to learn that Heidegger's comments on contemporary works of art frequently belie his own usual sweeping dismissal of modern art as so much smoothly manipulated technological product. Though he remained preoccupied with what Holderlin called "the flight of the gods" in modernity and the spiritual "darkening of the world" in the age of technology, Heidegger also expressed admiration for the paintings of Van Gogh, Braque, Klee, and Cezanne, the music of Stravinsky and Carl Orff, the poetry of Rilke, Trakl, Paul Celan, Rene Char, and Stefan George, and the architecture of Le Corbusier.

Such a discrepancy might simply indicate that Heidegger's focused judgments were more discerning than his grand, at times grandiose, pronouncements. But Young argues instead that the inconsistency is evidence of an evolution in Heidegger's thinking away from a narrowly conceived "Greek paradigm," which Young thinks needlessly constrained and distorted the argument of "Origin," toward a broader, more embracing view of art as disclosing a kind of divine radiance over and beyond the "strife" of earth and world; the glowing light of the beautiful, not just the obscurity of the sublime; in Nietzschean language, Apollonian harmony as well as Dionysian discord.

Heidegger's early view, it seems to me, was not as narrow or implausible as Young suggests, and I think the contrast he draws between Heidegger's earlier and later views, while genuine, is more emphatic than substantive. Heidegger widened and deepened his thinking about art in later years, to be sure, but I am not convinced that he ever entirely abandoned the central argument of "Origin," namely, that art is defined by a kind of conflict or tension among elements, between clarity and opacity, norm and anomaly, intelligibility and unintelligibility.

Young's discussion of "Origin" in chapter 1 is thorough and penetrating. He gets off to the right start by identifying the rather conventional philosophical character of Heidegger's question concerning the "origin" of works of art: "In the sense that interests Heidegger," Young explains, "an 'origin' is a logical or conceptual origin, that in virtue of which an entity of a certain kind counts as being of that kind" (16). Heidegger's question concerns the "nature" or "essence" (Wesen) of works of art, what (in a constitutive rather than a causal sense) "makes" works of art (intelligible as) works of art. What is the being of such entities? The short answer is that, like other "charismatic events" that play a central role in founding and sustaining a culture, art works function as paradigms by instituting and articulating shared standards of intelligibility and normative authority. Young is right to reject what he calls the "Promethean" view (29), which credits art works with the original creation of cultural worlds. Heidegger might have flirted with that idea briefly in the early 1930s, but frankly it is hard to see how any such authoritative work of art can precede and precondition the dawning of the world to which it belongs, at least in the several senses of "world" Heidegger himself defines in Being and Time. The Greek Temples of Athena and Hera in Paestum, Van Gogh's painting of a pair of shoes, and the Romanesque cathedral in Bamberg were all surely parasitic on the worlds that brought them into being. Young is right to propose instead that "the role of the artwork is not to create but rather to 'make expressly visible,' to 'thematize' a world which is already in existence" (33). Art works thus perform the crucial explicative function anticipated somewhat schematically in the accounts of signs and interpretation in sections 17 and 32 of Being and Time. Art works reveal worlds by making explicit the norms already constitutive of those worlds, and moreover by at once pointing out and pushing up against the limits of their intelligibility.

Those limits are what Heidegger calls "earth." Large portions of Being and Time are devoted to a phenomenological account of world, but what is earth? Young begins with two points: first, that earth is a "principle of holiness," that it is what consecrates the world and "invests it with 'dignity and splendour,'" as Heidegger says (38); second, more austerely, that it is a "region of ineffability" comprising alternative horizons of disclosure essentially closed off and unintelligible to us in virtue of the particularity of our world (40). In "Origin," however, Heidegger makes two further claims, to which Young objects. First, Heidegger maintains that earth manifests itself in the materiality of art works, the palpable thingly quality that tends to withdraw into inconspicuousness in our ordinary experience of things. Stone, wood, paint, sound, words all get "used up" in their ordinary transparent functions, but they stand out and "shine" forth in sculpture, painting, music, and poetry. Second, again, Heidegger insists that earth is essentially in "strife" (Streit) or "battle" (Kampf)--Heraclitean polemos--with world in the working of art works. At this point in Heidegger's account, Young protests, "something has gone wrong" (62).

Young criticizes the materiality condition on works of art with what strike me as unconvincing counterexamples. The "high Gothic cathedral," for instance, he says, "in its gravity-defying, heavenward ascent, asks us precisely to ignore the stony weight of its stone, to pretend that, like the soul, it is made out of some immaterial, ethereal stuff. ... Hence the ambition to construct a cathedral entirely out of glass in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda" (48). Perhaps medieval architects would have, if they could have, built with glass instead of stone. But then, arguably, the resulting work would not have been a Gothic cathedral, but something more like the Crystal Palace, whose artistic effect is completely different. The "stony weight" of the stone of the Gothic cathedral, after all, is not just a meaningless material condition imposed by an accident of primitive technology, but constitutes the very miraculousness of the structure's earthbound transcendence of all earthly constraint. The stoniness of the stone matters.

Young then attacks what strikes me as a caricature of Heidegger's position when he writes, "it is actually most implausible to suppose that on those occasions when one does respond to the materials in a work one has running through one's mind the thought: 'What wonderful colour and, gosh, how mysterious that such wonder can't be fully captured by science.'" This is a rare non sequitur in an otherwise engaging discussion, since of course Heidegger says nothing like that. Moreover, strangely, Young denies that there is any interesting connection at all between the recalcitrance of earth and the peculiar materiality of art works: "when we do respond to the material values of an artwork what is likely to grab us is nothing to do with conceptual inscrutability but rather sensuous beauty" (49). This is strange, I say, because conceptual inscrutability of a certain sort is precisely what Kant identifies as the mark of the beautiful: nonformulaic forms stimulate the imagination precisely by resisting conceptual regularity. More to the point, in the 1935 Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger himself identifies the ancient experience of beauty with the strife between earth and world: "What the Greeks meant by 'beauty' is taming (Bandigung). The gathering of the highest contestation is polemos, battle in the sense of confrontation, setting-apart-from-each-other (Aus-einander-setzung)." (2) Young may be right, then, that materiality is affiliated with beauty, but he is wrong to assume that artistic beauty has nothing to do with strife and incommensurability. For Heidegger, beauty is bound up with the "happening of truth," which in art works occurs in the inner tension between the ordering impulses of our worldly understanding and that which at once grounds and resists those impulses.

Young also observes that art "can conceal its materials or pretend that they are other than they are," and that in Heidegger's own remarks on Klee, Cezanne, and Japanese no "there is no mention at all of attention to materials" (50). But these points are inconclusive. To say that works may dissemble with regard to their own materials is not to say that the materiality of the materials is insignificant, nor is failing to comment on their significance the same as conceding their insignificance. It may be that accepting Heidegger's point would require understanding "materiality" in a very broad sense to include any particularly salient causal constraints operative in a work, not literally just the stuff it's made of. But Young seems to grant such a broad reading in the case of film, for instance, when he complains, or confesses, that "attention to the elegance of the spatial organization of the frames is usually a sign that the drama has failed to capture our attention--that the film has failed as an artwork--and that one is seeking diversion in order to evade boredom" (48). This seems plainly false. Indeed, I don't see how framing and pictorial composition could cease to be crucial material constraints on artistically interesting films without our ceasing to understand film as an essentially visual medium.

There is a connection, I believe, between Heidegger's stress on materiality in "Origin" and his central argument in that essay that art initiates a conflict between earth and world, and it is not surprising that Young rejects both points: "the motif of the primal conflict is extraneous to, and a disfigurement of, the important things 'The Origin' has to say about truth and art." Indeed, "Alter the transition to 'Ereignis-thinking' in 1936-38 ... it makes no further appearance either in connection with art or with anything else." In Heidegger's later formulations, truth "does not 'battle' its way into existence. It simply-even serenely--'happens'" (64). Young's observation of that change of tone, whether or not it amounted to a substantive change of heart, is decisive, and I think he is right that Heidegger's reliance on metaphors of war and battle was always overdrawn and misleading. As Young says, the motif is hardly adequate to, say, Raphael's Sixtina altarpiece, or to the magical charm of a Klee, or to what Heidegger himself once described as the "urgent stillness" of the seated figure in Cezanne's Gardener Vallier (152).

But if the words 'strife', 'conflict', 'war', and 'battle' overstate the case, the expression 'simple serene happening' may understate it. What Heidegger responded to in Cezanne's portrait of his gardener, after all, was not mere inertia, but an "urgent stillness." So too, one might say, Holderlin's "fire from heaven" (Feuer vom Himmel) and the glowing beauty of a Raphael Madonna emit not just light, but heat. Such images of divine fire and radiance, that is, capture the dawning of something sacred in the mundane, the eruption of something profound and recalcitrant to thought onto the surface of everyday intelligibility. Even if Young is right that the "numinous" emerges as much in harmony as in discord, it still seems to me necessary to speak of a kind of resistance or tension to mark the break or discontinuity with ordinary transparent worldliness. Otherwise, the "happening of truth" threatens to stand in mere indifferent contrast to the twofold concealment and unconcealment characteristic of all disclosedness, a peculiar augmenting of that ubiquitous structure perhaps, but nothing essentially rupturing, dissolving, or threatening it. Some such rupture or discontinuity, however discreet or inconspicuous, is what Heidegger ascribes, both in "Origin" and in his later works, to the transformative force of great art. A milder, less bellicose formulation of the point, though one still stressing an essential tension among incommensurable elements, might afford some insight into how "truth happens" in art, whether in the context of the sublime or the beautiful, over and beyond simply saying that it does.

There is far more rich and ingenious discussion in the remainder of the book than I have space to recount and comment on here. As I said, the unique contribution of Heidegger's Philosophy of Art lies in its comprehensive coverage of Heidegger's philosophy of art, both early and late, not just in "Origin." The result is not just thoroughness, but genuine insight into the breadth and the evolution of Heidegger's thought. In particular, Young shows how Heidegger moved "From Nikeism to waiting" (111-14), that is, from a conception of art works as themselves effecting a kind of cultural transfiguration, to the humbler, more plausible notion that, in modernity at least, such works might at most provide a kind of shelter to which new gods might (or might not) some day return. (Readers intrigued by the appearance of the winged goddess of victory at this point in the story could be disappointed to learn that Young's term for the earlier view turns out to be an allusion to tennis shoes.)

Thus, by the 1940s and '50s we find Heidegger insisting that the flight of the gods in modernity is in fact "no deficiency," that "citizens are not to strive, through artifice, to make their own god and so, by force, to do away with the supposed deficiency," and that the wise do not "make their gods for themselves and do not worship idols." Rather, "In the very depths of misfortune they wait for the weal that has been withdrawn" (113-14). What emerges in Heidegger's later view, Young observes, is a "seasonal" conception of alternating winters and summers in history in which the gods come and go. Young is right that Heidegger cannot be asserting the seasonal pattern as an objective metaphysical fact, but is rather endorsing the attitude that attends it as a kind of "Holderlinian Grundstimmung of cosmic gratitude" (118). Moreover, although that attitude as such cannot in principle be metaphysically correct (or incorrect), Young suggests that it is in another sense "the 'right' one to adopt" (119).

Maybe, but it is worth remembering that it makes sense only against the backdrop of Heidegger's unremittingly bleak assessment of modernity as the "night," the "winter" of Western history, as darkness, crisis, redeemable only by the return of a god, whether in part by our own voluntary effort or not. One needn't dismiss the whole, or even much, of Heidegger's thought, as critics sometimes do, to admit that his historical outlook is often colored by what Nietzsche called "the religious neurosis." Not that the jaundiced view of modernity is altogether implausible, at least up to a point. But desperate piety and Schopenhauerian pessimism cannot be the only alternatives, as Young seems to suppose. One could instead regard being and history as irreducibly complex, unfathomable, radically unpredictable, nonschematizable, utterly beyond our conceptual grasp--and therefore conclude that, like naive religious faith and technological optimism, neat seasonal metaphors purporting to describe the grand arc of Western history are bound to be hopelessly simplistic.


(1) Now available in Young's own translation in Heidegger, Off the Beaten Trach, ed. J. Young and K. Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(2) Heidegger, Einfuhrung in die Metaphysik (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1953), 100-101 (my translation).


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Author:Carman, Taylor
Publication:The Philosophical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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