Critical remarks on Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of Art-works’

Morad Farhadpour


Since Kant the flight to aesthetics has been repeated so many times and by so many different and opposed thinkers that now it looks more like a happy end than an unwanted doom. In his third critique Kant tried to bring his system to a conclusive end and thereby turn it into a well-rounded whole. But even this Kantian venture, though managed with outmost decorum, could not totally hide the uneasiness and the need for escaping to some refuge, where truth could be experienced as concrete, or even, corporeal truth.   

   In the post-Hegelian era, despite Hegel’s verdict on the end of Art, or perhaps because of it, the flight to Aesthetics and its concomitant uneasiness became more apparent. Nietzsche’s remark in The Birth of Tragedy that only as an aesthetic phenomenon can life be justified, by the very excess of its claim and by imposing such a heavy burden on Art, betrays the same uneasiness, namely, the crisis-ridden nature of Art and its paradoxical status in the modern era.

   In more recent times, the same path has been trodden by thinkers as different as Heidegger and Adorno. In the case of Heidegger’s views on Art and Art-works the main question is  this: can the movement from the Kantian Aesthetic consciousness to the Hegelian philosophy of Art be repeated in our time? As Adorno’s Aesthetics –which be it noted retains the title of Aesthetics- shows, if Art is going to “function” as the Home of Truth and provide us with a refuge against “the world outside”, it can do so only by having no “inside”, by being no-where, that is by refusing to become a place, even a holy one, i.e. a sanctuary. As empirical objects that by their truth-content negate the empirical facticity of the world, art-works remain essentially enigmatic. If they can be looked at as relics of redemption, it is only because, as Benjamin once said, they themselves are absolutely irredeemable. As such, they resemble the absolutely individualized window-less Monads of Leibniz, though in their case there exists no “pre-established Harmony”. In its self-enclosed truth, each art-work negates not only all other art-works but also the very concept of Art. Put together they do not add up to any whole, be it greater or equal to the sum of its parts. Art-works have successfully resisted any attempt to provide them with such a pre-established Harmony by confronting them with a definition of Art as a generic concept. To this day Art means different things for different people and any positive definition of Art remains a mere hypostatization of one its element as its so-called essence. Beckett’s negative definition that “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail”(1) proves the Hegelian verdict to be still true. Neither Nietzsche’s identification of art-works with reality as such, nor placing them in an ideal, isolated realm of their own, can give them the ability to remain in the proximity of truth. It is only by remaining in this proximity, and keeping their paradoxical position inside it, that art-works can save their truth-content. They can not lose sight of the illusory nature of their truth nor celebrate the illusion as truth per se, but they can in the reality of their illusion, expose that illusion of reality which present itself as the immutable truth.


  In his reflections on Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger pointed to a very important feature of his thinking, namely, that Nietzsche found himself in the state of “holy dread” before the raging discord between truth and art (2). This dreadful insight indirectly refers to the fact that any loose thinking about Art can very easily succumb to one of the numerous kinds of ideological Art-worship. Disregarding all those whose only intention in “thinking about Art” is to “practice existentialism,” get their proper share of the spiritual free market, or insure their present and future career by adding another essay to the already glorious literature on “Deconstruction,” one can say that any thought which takes the relation between art and truth seriously and sets it at its center of attention, automatically gets infected by the content of its subject- matter. In trying to penetrate the truth of art-works, such thinking absorbs some of their truth. The fact that in almost every case, a thinker’s preoccupation with aesthetics_ that usually comes late_ is the summit of her thought and also its best clue, is an indication of this “infection”. As regards the late Heidegger, many of his basic concepts_ e.g. Truth as a-letheia_ are inseparable from his reflections on Art and art-works. These same reflections also throw some light on many obscure parts in Heidegger’s early philosophy, expounded in Being and Time.



 The universality of flight to Aesthetics shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it has no universal meaning. Heidegger philosophy of Art, and its real intentions and goals, must be interpreted and criticized in its own terms. Why should a philosophy of Being change into thinking about art and its relation with Truth? Today everyone, including Heidegger himself if he was alive, would agree that the ‘Analytics of Dasien’ as the transcendental horizon of the question of Being never reached its proclaimed conclusion. The thought of Being, despite all claims about the overcoming of Metaphysics, ended up with abstraction: the eternal refuge and prison cell of all Metaphysics. It has been said that in Heidegger’s philosophy “transcendence and concretion scintillate “(3). There one is lured by abstract terms, such as Being and Authenticity, as if they were the most concrete terms. Heidegger’s thought, as a whole, can be described as a radical searching for concrete truth, which conveniently, and to the satisfaction of all concerned, ends up with being an abstract conservatism. This also explains the fact of his captivating attraction for all who come across him for the first time_ disregarding his own personal charisma and the ideological functions of his language_ and his equal repulsiveness for those who manage to break the spell. This transmutation of truth in Heidegger’s thought can be compared with the historical development of Fascism that began with apparently negative attitudes toward Capitalism but ended up as the most brutal form of the rule of capital and naked power. Of course, this analogy, as everyone knows, is not as innocent as it looks. But historical facts can’t be explained away by demagogic apologetics (4). They remain as what they truly are: the thorn in the flesh of abstract reified thought.

   Heidegger’s philosophy of Art indicates his thirst for concrete objectivity but it also remains tied to the project of Being and Time, and repeats all its defects on a higher level of mystification. Through integrating Art in his Being-thinking he succeeds in neutralizing art’s critical content and removes its distance from empirical reality. Heidegger’s essay, The Origin of Art-Work, contains almost all of his basic reflections on Art. The following remarks are a series of critical confrontations with this work, performed in the spirit of guerilla warfare, for this seem to be the best critical approach to the Heideggerian fortification.



   Heidegger’s concern for concrete objectivity and his tendency to abstract mystification, give rise to a tension that penetrates to the core of his essay and sets its tone, which is manifest in all parts of the essay, down to the single statements. This tension reveals itself in the very title of the essay as the contrast between the two opposite poles of “origin” and “Art-work”. From the very beginning the concrete individual Art-work becomes over-shadowed by the unique concern for origin and origin-thinking. In order to understand this need for origin and originating, we have to go to the origin of this need in Heidegger’s early philosophy: to the concept of Dasein and its inevitable demise.

   Heidegger begins with the truth or un-concealment of Being as coming-into-presence of all beings, and this leads him to a new analysis of time and temporality. But the phenomenology of being can not begin with the general question about the Being of any arbitrary being, though its outcome must of necessity cover all beings. “The question of the meaning of Being could be raised in a phenomenologically concrete manner only by asking about the being of the question, that is to say, about the way the question presented itself” (5). And this meant that one has to begin with Man and his existence. The hermeneutics of Dasein as Being-in-the-world was the only “concrete manner” of raising the question of Being, for “Dasein is present at the origin of the becoming-present of beings in time” (6). This insistence on man’s existence indicates the link with Kierkegaard in whose thought the mere, unmediated fact of existence becomes the principle of subjectivity. But the Kierkegaardian subject and its positivity_ commonly accepted by all existentialists_ is in its turn rooted in the theological concept of man as the image of God, i.e. the blueprint of all idealist systems since Plato. In Kant’s, and later Husserl’s, transcendental ego, this concept of subject reached its highest point. Heidegger was opposed to Husserl’s transcendental subjectivity as a “world-less” absolute consciousness, and believed that “phenomenology as a rigorous science” remained trapped in Metaphysics. The goal of his thinking was the concrete being of Dasein as Being-in-the world and from this thinking followed concepts such as facticity, thrownness, and historicity. Heidegger wasn’t concerned with anthropomorphism or even humanism. His aim in analyzing the phenomena of anxiety, death and authenticity, as Ricoeur has said, was not to “practice existentialism” (7). Heidegger was aware and sensitive to the subjectivist core of existentialism, whose protest against abstract thought was itself abstract and therefore forced to be content with mere enumeration of miseries of real subjects in abstract terms (glorifying and investing them with pathos as solid spiritual nourishment, in response to increasing public demand). But to go beyond such subjectivism, something more than a mere change of terminology is needed.

   As finite transcendence, Dasein is both ontical and ontological. The general concept of Dasein covers both the real subject_ so much loved and yet never reached by existentialist_ and the transcendental subject of idealism as the constitutive center. In both of these aspects the subject remains self-identical. Heidegger himself points to the threefold priority of Dasein over all entities as regards the question of Being and the project of fundamental ontology (8). As ontical “Dasein is an entity whose being has the determinate character of existence” but it is in itself ontological “because existence is thus determinative for it”.  And thirdly it has ontico-ontological priority because “with equal primordiality Dasein also possesses_ as constitutive for its understanding of existence_ an understanding of the being of all entities”. It is clear that here subjectivity is posited both as a fact and as the consciousness that makes facticity possible. Heidegger plays with this duality and fuses the two elements together, thereby making a third element of Dasein, although the ontic and ontological as categories of reflection have no meaning outside the conceptual relation between subjectivity and Being. As Adorno has shown, in Being and Time Heidegger does “something very similar to what Kant criticized in the rationalistic form of ontology: an amphiboly of the concept of reflection” (9). But there, as with “the ontological proof” we are faced with something more than a simple mistake. This is the necessary result and the indispensable presupposition of all abstract thought.

  Heidegger is sensitive to the charge of subjectivism. After comparing Dasein to the concept of anima (soul) in Thomas Aquinas, he is careful enough to add that Dasein’s priority “has obviously nothing in common with a vicious subjectivizing of the totality of entities” (10). And yet the obvious fact is that the question of Being or the being of this question is always- already mediated by the subjectivity of Dasein which, according to Heidegger himself, is essentially historic. Heidegger tries to evade this fact by taking recourse to the primordiality of Dasein. He forgets that the perpetual criticism of real subjectivity in terms of its socio-historical determination, is the only true way of overcoming subjectivism. However, as it turned out, the historical deformations of subjectivity returned to haunt his reflections on Dasein’s every day life and its concrete being-in-the-world.

  Heidegger accepts the division of labor between philosophy and science as legitimate. The lack of any reference to Marx, Freud or Weber points to something more important than mere philosophical arrogance. Heidegger’s analyses of Dasein’s existentiales remains inadequate and in some important points are vastly inferior to the critical insights of empirical sciences. Philosophy lags behind science and through its resentful pride in its own poverty and isolation, it becomes regressive. Heidegger’s criticism of empirical sciences remains vague and abstract. What happens in his interpretation of Dasein as a whole is repeated in every single part of this interpretation. His analysis of anxiety, care, being- towards- death, the They, idle talk and the like, which are supposed to reveal the concrete modes of existence of Dasein, remain abstract and ideological. If he evades the critical insight of empirical sciences with a pose of “ontological disdain”, it is because they destroy the serviceability of Dasein as a subject without subjectivity. Unlike the concept of inauthenticity which seems to be “ontological” and therefore “legitimate” and more easily accepted, such insights point to the true nature of Dasein as mediated subjectivity and reveal its historical deformations inflicted by the objective structure of reification. Heidegger asks for a subject “refined by a previous ontological determination of its basic character” and wants to know “what we are to understand positively when we think of the unrefined Being of the subject, the soul, the consciousness”(11); as if the very concern with the ‘positivity’ of  subject is not itself a sign of reification, and as if history hasn’t proved _ to the detriment of  Heidegger and many orthodox Marxists_ that ontologically non-reified being or subject (e.g. the proletariat) is nothing but an ideological abstraction.

  As we said before the repressed elements, the dregs of subjectivity, return to haunt the Heideggerian hermeneutics of Dasein. And as always the return of the repressed is disruptive. Heidegger can not maintain his role as a fundamental ontologist who is also radically concerned with the concrete, and Dasein,as the primordial origin in whose proximity the question of being could be raised, becomes problematic. The project of Being and Time remains unfinished.

  Even at that time, Heidegger was aware of this difficulty and tried to avoid it by what he called the pre-ontological understanding of Being. This was supposed to be the source of any ontology, for “whenever an ontology takes for its themes entities whose character of Being is other than that of Dasein, it has its own foundation and motivation in Dasein’s own ontical structure, in which a pre-ontological understanding of Being is comprised as a definite character”(12). This pre-ontological understanding, which allows Heidegger to glorify the rustic stupidity of an old farmer as the authentic voice of Being, shows Dasein as the only entity “which already comports itself, in its Being, towards what we are asking about when we ask this question (of Being).” And Heidegger with his usual cleverness adds “But in that case the question of Being is nothing other than the radicalization of an essential tendency-of-Being which belongs to Dasein itself _the pre-ontological understanding of Being”(13). Here the famous shift from Dasein to Being, that was to lead Heidegger to his late philosophy, is already anticipated. In the face of this “essential tendency-of-Being”, Dasein loses its priority as the origin and is later replaced by language as the house of Being.


With this change of “origin” we return to Heidegger’s essay on Art. However, before any detailed analysis, we must pause and take a look at the essay as a whole and its significance for thinking about Art. Heidegger’s essay contains two divergent trends, as shown by the disagreements between its critics. The latter mainly deal with the Epilogue and the Addendum, added by Heidegger in 1966,where he himself considers the essay as a whole and discusses its significance.

In his long commentary on this essay, Joseph J. Kockelmans discusses the differences between the critics and commentators at some length (14).In his book, Der Denkweg Martin Heideggers, Otto Poggeler, referring to a passage in the Addendum (where Heidegger says that several issues remain unresolved in his lecture on the work-of-art) notes that the essay dose not contain a philosophy of Art. In Poggeler’s view this essay belongs to a “romantic” position which Heidegger later abandoned. Furthermore, Heidegger had plans to write a new essay in order to show how art is still possible in a technical world. According to Poggler, Hiedegger’s reflections on Art began after his painful experiences in politics; thus his concern with Language and Art in that period was really a flight from political reality. Other commentators, such as Von Herrmann and Walter Biemel, reject Poggler’s interpretation in totto and maintain that the Holzwege essay dose contain an outline of

Heidegger’s  philosophy of Art. Von Herrmann reinterprets the Addendum and shows that by posing the question of art from the perspective of the question concerning the truth of Being, Heidegger wanted to indicate his intention to develop the outline for a Philosophy of Art which must be distinguished from any kind of Aesthetics. Von Herrmann says that in his personal discussions with Heidegger (1971-1975) it was obvious to him that Heidegger at that time still subscribed to the basic ideas contained in his essay (15).With regard to  the “place” of art in our “technical world”- itself a vague term, to say the least- Von Herrmann simply points out that although Heidegger does

not explicitly deal with this subject, yet he does bring to light those aspects of Art which due to their “formally general character will recur in each epoch.” As can be seen , in such interpretations Heidegger’s drive toward concrete truth gets completely lost and is replaced by notorious abstract concepts such as “formally general characteristics” or the ever recurring, invariable, elements of Art. In this way all the fruitful tensions of Heidegger’s thought are neutralized; and yet the end result is

something less than a “dead dog”. As usual with Heidegger, one can either catch up with him- in order to surpass him- or give in to regression and become an embarrassing “admirer” of the Master.                                                           

 At the beginning of the epilogue Heidegger writes “the foregoing reflections are concerned with the riddle of art, the riddle that art is. They are far from claiming to solve the riddle. The task is to see the riddle”(O.W., p.79).But this statement is itself something of a riddle; it contains both an other instance of abstract mystification and an awareness of the impossibility of grasping the concrete being of art-works through any ‘philosophy of Art’. The riddle of art is rooted in the fact that every art-work gives us its own ‘definition’ of what art is or rather should be, and at the same time points to the impossibility of art’s realization through its own concrete negative being.

 Kockelmans seems to be aware of this ambiguous duality when he says: “ Heidegger invites us in our reading of the essay to constantly keep an eye on the ambiguity implied in the claims that 1) an attempt is made to approach the riddle, and 2) an effort is made to render a contribution to our understanding of the essence of art. But how is one to do this concretely? Heidegger himself gives two hints that are of importance. The first has to do with the origins of modern aesthetics, whereas the second is concerned with the destiny of western art.”(16)

The first hint, as the title of Jacques Taminiaux’s essay tells us, is related to “Heidegger’s overcoming of Aesthetics and Hegel’s heritage” (17).There is no doubt that Heidegger did overcome aesthetic subjectivism and went beyond concepts such as “aesthetic consciousness” or “aesthetic experience” (Erlebnis).Subjective aesthetics sees human experience (erleben) of art as a source of information about art’s essence. But for Heidegger experience is the element in which art slowly dies. Aesthetics resolves the riddle of art by dissolving the enigmatic consistency of the art-work’s identity and difference, and by melting the work in experiences which consist in pleasure, joy, emotion, or vital excitation. This insight into the concrete being of art-work as something non-identical, indicates the objective tendency in Heidegger’s thought; yet even here his negative view of aesthetics in its literal sense, i.e. the sensuous nature of the work, distances him from Nietzsche and Valery who rightly emphasized its sensuousness. Heidegger believed that aesthetics as “a very young philosophical discipline’ is itself a singe of art’s decline in our age. And this brings us to his second hint: Hegel’s aesthetics and his verdict on the death of Art. Hegel’s conception of art was much richer than Heidegger’s, at least empirically. His notion of art “as the highest manner in which truth obtains existence for itself,” despite its abstract form, has an historically concrete content; it expresses art’s objective relations with religion and communal life. Heidegger rightly indicates that the Hegelian idea of art “as something past” does not deny the possible creation of new art-works, and it only means that art as an essential moment in the religious community’s life is forever gone (O.W. p.80). The important fact is that Hegel’s ‘end of art’ historically corresponds with the liberation of the art-work. So the priority of art-works over Art is not a subjective viewpoint but expresses the objective development of art itself.

Both Taminiaux and Kockelmans believe that in his lectures on the essence of Art, Heidegger was inspired by Hegel rather than Aristotel or Kant. He tried to retrieve Hegel and it is important to measure his success in this task. According to Taminiaux the Hegelian approach to art left some negative effects on Heidegger’s grasp of the essence of art. He points out some of the formal parallels in their thoughts- for instance, the methodological circle which is implied by any attempt to understand art’s essence. Furthermore, both of them explicitly limit their reflections to ‘great art’, i.e. Greek and Medieval art. In case of Heidegger, whose work was contemporaneous with the greatest flourishing of modern art, this could be interpreted as a sign of deep-rooted conservatism and German cultural arrogance- in contrast to Hegel who was familiar with the most revolutionary art of his time. In Taminiaux’s view, Heidegger’s evaluation of contemporary art-works is doubtlessly very negative (18); and the same thing can be said about his criticism of modern aesthetics. Taminiaux wonders about Heidegger’s unwillingness to see the richness of Kant’s aesthetics and asks why he never tried to incorporate his “deep reading” of Kant (from “Nietzsche lectures”) into his conception of the art-work. In contrast to all these, Kockelmans tries to defend Heidegger by pointing to the differences between Heidegger’s and Hegel’s concepts of truth. However, he is forced to admit that the contradiction between Hegel’s judgment concerning the impossibility of Art and Heidegger’s attempt to grasp its essence as “the setting-into-work of truth” remains with us and “it is not all clear how these seemingly contradictory statements can be brought into harmony with one another.”(19)


Almost all of Heidegger’s insights about the truth of art are rooted in his concept of ‘origin.’ He deals with this concept in the third and last part of his essay; and in fact the development of this essay as a whole expresses a movement from concrete reflections on the art-work to the general and abstract idea of art as that which originates the truth. We should begin with this last part and then, moving backwards, see how this concept of ‘origin’ deeply affects Heidegger’s views on art-works. This then leads us to an analysis of the reciprocity between art and art-works inside the hermeneutical circle. Lastly, we shall discuss the opening of Heidegger’s essay and the question of art-works as ‘things.’

Near the end of his essay Heidegger writes :”To originate something by a leap, to bring something into being from out of the source of its nature in a founding leap- this is what the word origin [ Ursprung; literally, ‘primal leap’] means”(O.W. pp.77-78). As the expression “the source of its nature” shows, origin is closely related to essence which as the coming into presence of something, indicates that a being is both present and abiding. The word ‘origin’ also reveals Heidegger’s genealogical concern. Following Nietzsche, he too tends to equate ‘the good’ with what comes first or ‘the early.’ In the third part of the essay we come across the following statements:

“All art… is as such essentially poetry” (p.72). “Language itself is poetry in the essential sense…Art, as the setting-into-work of truth, is poetry” (p.74). “The nature of art is poetry” ( p.75 ). “Art is the setting-into-work of truth…Art lets truth originate” (p.77). “The origin of the work of art…is art. This is so because art is by nature an origin” ( p.78). Our aim in quoting these statements was not just to show how he plays with ad hoc definitions and repeats them to the point of redundancy, absurdity, and nausea. For the main point is to notice where the string of definitions ends. The concept of origin which, as a secondary companion to Dasien, used to be left in the background, now becomes central. But how was all these managed?

Towards the end of the first part, Heidegger writes: “As long as we supposed that the reality of the work lay primarily in its thingly substructure we were going astray” (p.38). Then, after a lengthy discussion of : the work and truth” and introducing the concepts of ‘world and ‘earth,’ he concludes that “ thus in the work it is truth, not something true, that is at work” (p.56). Heidegger ends the second part of the essay with a question: “What is truth, that it can happen, or even must happen, as art?”(p.57) However, as we already saw, this question is answered in the third part through the idea of ‘art as the origin of truth.’ In other words, the question of the truth of art-work, jumping over any concrete critical reflection, leads to the idea of art as ‘what is by nature an origin.” If we remember that origin as “the source of the nature of things” is closely related to essence, then the whole thing suddenly looks familiar: from the essence of truth that must happen as art to the truth of art as origin or essence. This transmission from the essence of truth to the truth of essence – a common practice with Heidegger- lies at the heart of his concept of truth and is explicitly mentioned in his essay “On the essence of Truth.” There Heidegger writes: “The question of the essence of truth finds its answer in the proposition: the essence of truth is the truth of essence” (20) Heidegger, always sensitive to any trace of dialectics, loses no time to add that this proposition is not dialectical and no proposition at all in the sense of a statement. However, despite “the intentionally undeveloped” question of the truth of Being, the proposition states something and Heidegger is uneasily aware of it. So he writes: “Our thinking apparently remains on the path of Metaphysics. Nevertheless, in its decisive step it accomplishes a change in the questioning that belongs to the overcoming of Metaphysics”(21). Yet it is even more apparent that this ‘change in the questioning’ inevitably derives us towards essentialist metaphysics. In Heidegger’s thought the question of the essence of truth  implies a kind of essentialism, as is evident by the ontological primacy accorded to the concept of origin as the primal leap.

It is only as “what is by nature an origin” that art can reveal the essence of truth as the truth of essence. In the earlier essay ‘truth’ and ‘essence’ gave support to each other in a friendly way, here, likewise, the two concepts of Art and Origin help each other by bestowing on each other the character of profundity and immutability. The latter gains some semblance of concreteness from Art- which due to its relation with art-work is less abstract- and in return, it guaranties the priority of Art over art-works. Just like Dasien’s, Art’s priority is also ontico-ontological and, therefore, it too leads to a duality: Art as what makes art-works possible or Art as something that must be derived from art-works and their (comparative) study. This brings us to the circular relation between Art and art-works or what is known as “the question of the hermeneutic circle.”

Before getting involved in ‘hermeneutical subtleties,’ it must be said that art has been a matter of consideration independently and apart from its relation to concrete works of art. However, it is important not to forget that art, as opposed to the work, is not an aesthetic object and cannot be experienced in a sensuous way. As a general concept designating a socio-cultural phenomenon, art is open to ideology and ideological manipulations. This indicates an important difference between art and works of art. Jean Paul Sartre’s remark about the impossibility of writing a good novel in praise of anti-Semitism shows that a work of art, despite the intentions of the artist or its reception by the public, cannot surrender itself to ideology; it does reveal the true nature of, say, anti-Semitism, condemning its falsehood while paying it lip-service (22). Art, just like myth or magic, has been studied with regards to its origins and growth. Although Art has lost most of its spiritual-religious potency, yet in this age it has turned into a very flexible and effective ‘cultural instrument’ in the hands of critics, connoisseurs, museum directors, and various postmodern immaterial vultures. However, the fact that we always must refer to the work as a work of art indicates something more than a semantic necessity, it reveals an essential feature of the work itself. Every work of art says what art should be and at the same time proves that the realization of this ‘ideal’ is impossible. Art is the name of that reconciliation which the work can never attain on its own. Every art-work, in its concrete being, is both a thing and something more (than a mere thing). In this more, lives the negative, critical moment of the work; it is also a refuge for the work’s longing for truth and reconciliation. Its concrete and palpable presence as a thing is what allows an art-work to point indirectly towards a possible reconciliation of truth, freedom, and reality, yet it is this very presence which forces it to bow to the law of un-freedom and live under it as all other empirical things. In its illusory truth, every work of art manifests an impulse toward universal freedom, reconciliation, and happiness. As the image of this freedom, art is what every work aspires to but never attains. Every work has to prove itself as a work-of-art and fail, because ‘real’ or ‘realized art’- which necessarily remains ambiguous for us- belongs to the future.

Kockelmans tries to apply the concept of ‘hermeneutic circle’ to the question of art-works. He describes this circle with the following statement: “in order to be able to distinguish works of art from other things one must know what art is, whereas what art is can be gathered only from a comparative consideration of available art-works.”(23) This rather pragmatic description is rooted in an inadequate, ‘objective’ conception of art and total indifference to the fact that a work of art is exactly that very thing which breaks this circle. He tries to expand his argument with the help of Heideggerian motifs : “ What has been said here about a piece of equipment is mutatis mutandis true also for works of art, as we shall see later”(24). However, we see nothing more than the reiteration of the same description cited before.

Such generalizations, often presented as just another ‘philosophy of Art’, reveal the ideological dimension hidden in the so called eternal question of ‘what art is.’ But the truth is that Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades’, better than any philosophical argument, bring out the ideological function of Art in our late bourgeois era.

Heidegger’s lengthy discussion concerning the ‘equipmental’ and ‘thingly’ character of art-works ends with the following remarks : “The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings…the truth of beings happens in the work…Art is truth setting itself to work. What is truth itself, that it sometimes comes to pass as art?”(O.W.39) As we already know this question leads to the idea of art as the origin of truth.

Heidegger concludes his ‘thingly’ analysis by saying that “as long as we supposed that the reality of the work lay primarily in its thingly substructure we were going astray” (O.W.38). And in this way the derive towards concrete thinking ceases. Perhaps the best way to reveal the mystifying nature of these statements is to compare them with Paul Valery’s idea of art. For him the significance of art-works and our encounter with them resides in an infinitely rich and ever-deepening experience based on a self-generating, inexhaustible sensibility, or as he himself says “a regular exchange between potentiality and activity in the sensibility” (25). It is because of this ‘exchange’ that we repeat a line of poetry again and again, going from words to meanings and then back to words, getting more and more enjoyment from this thing, i.e. a work of art.

What is lacking in Valery’s ‘Idea of Art’ is that very critical dimension which turns this repetition into a negative dialectic. It was Adorno who on the basis of Kantian aesthetics, insisted that works of art, as purposive purposelessness, are indeed useless equipments. But they are a specific kind of social objects through their truth-content. Every work of art is an implicit, yet very powerful, critique of ideology. Through the constitution of their own meaning-content, and by defining art in their own individual ways, art-works break the so called hermeneutical circle and reveal our pre-conceived ideas of art as pieces of bourgeois ideology. Their sedimented truth-content enables us to go beyond ideology as such. Works of art constitute the concrete being of our freedom. They are ‘things’ that defy the law of reification and remain with us as pieces of congealed hope, even after we have crossed the gates of Hell.



p.s. this essay was written around 1992; it has been edited and partly rewritten for publication in this site. M.F.     




Notes and References


1. “Three Dialogues” in Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Martin Esslin, Prentice Hall, 1980, p.21.

2. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, New York: Harper and Row, 1979, pp.236-7. Nietzsche himself writes about the importance of serious thought in dealing with Art: “Very early in life I took the question of the relation of Art to truth seriously, and even now I stand in holy dread in the face of this discordance”( in Gesammelte Werke, vol.XIV, p.368).

3. T.W.Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, London: R.K.P., 1979, p.21.

4. In his general introduction to Heidegger’s Basic Writings, David Farrell Krell writes: “that Heidegger’s early engagement in the Nazi cause was a monstrous error all concede” ( Basic Writings, London: R.K.P.,1978, p.28). Apparently he has forgotten that this ‘all’ doesn’t include Heidegger himself who, to his credit, remained silent during his life-time and by avoiding the issue and the unwanted consequences of its discussion (postponed through post-mortem publication) showed that he was more clever than his forgetful apologists.

5. M.Heidegger, Basic Writings, p.19.

6. Ibid., p.20.

7. Paul Ricoeur, “The Task of Hermeneutics,” in Heidegger and Modern Philosophy, ed. M.Murray, Yale, 1978

8. M.Heideggar, Being and Time, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967, p.34.

9. T.W.Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, London: R.K.P., 1973, p.119.

10. Being and Time, p.34.

11. Ibid., p.72.

12. Ibid., p.33.

13. Ibid., p.35.

14. Joseph.J.Kockelmans, Heideggar on Art and Art-works, Martinus Nijhoff, 1968, pp.81-87.

15. F.W.von Hermann, Heideggers Philosophie der Kunst, Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1980, p.xxiii.

16. Kockelmans, op.cit., p.83.

17. Jacques Taminiaux, “Le depassement heideggerian de l’esthetique et l’heritage de Hegel”, in Recoupments, Bruxelles : Ousia, 1982.

18. Ibid., pp.181-182.

19. Kockelmans, op.cit., p.87.

20. Basic Writings, p.140.

21. Ibid., pp.140-141.

22. Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? , London : 1967, p.46.

23. Kockelmans, p.100.

24. Ibid., p.104.

25. See Paul Valery, “The Idea of Art”, in Aesthetics, ed. H.Osborne, Oxford: O.U.P., 1972, pp.32-39.   







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