This week I've been reading an essay by Martin Heidegger for my Oxford tutorial on Aesthetics and Critical Theory. In the essay, Heidegger asks a deceptively simple question: what does a work of art do? As Heidegger sees it, art work is about more than making something beautiful to hang on the wall. In fact as Heidegger contends, art does nothing short of creating our world. At first this sounds like quite a stretch—how can art create a world? Heidegger holds up the example of a Greek temple as a kind of art work to make this point. For the ancient Greeks, a temple was not about its beauty; instead, the work of building and consecrating a temple is about opening up a space for a collective understanding of all the ups and downs of existence. In this sense, the term “art work” has a kind of active connotation; it is a process of making the world meaningful, of figuring out what it means to be human in the context of other people and things at a given time. The up shot of all of this (at least as I plan to argue to my tutor) is that Heidegger presents us with a startling reversal of the conventional wisdom that a given culture produce art. Instead, what this essays seems to tell us is that it is in art work that we find the positive enactment of a community. (I feel the jargon coming on, so I'll stop with the bit about the temple.)
All of this becomes a little bit more clear when Heidegger give us another gives us another example by way of a painting of a peasant woman's shoes by Vincent Van Gogh.
On one level, Heidegger tells us that the shoes are merely things—mute objects that don't hold any meaning. On another level, the shoes mean something to the peasant they belong to—they are every day things that are useful for walking around and keeping warm, but she never really gives them a second thought. But here is the important part: in the work of art, the shoes reveal the truth of not just their own existence, but that of their surroundings, their owner, and, as I think as Heidegger might argue, even us. Heidegger unpacks all of this in a stunning passage.
From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth , its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry fields.
As much as I like Heidegger's exegesis of the Van Gogh, it would be disingenuous of me, looking at the painting in the 21st , to say that I see everything that Heidegger sees in the shoes. I have a feeling that this is because I grew up in Chicago in the 1980's and 90's and, frankly, have had little experience “trudging in furrows” or “toiling with ripening grain.” In short, I come from a different world than the peasant woman implied by the painting. But what happens in this case? What happens when we lose contact with the context of the world and the community that art belongs to? I think that Heidegger would say that when art stops being something that makes sense of existence and no longer unites a community it becomes a mere thing. In the paper I am writing for my tutorial I argue that it is at this point—when we become disconnected from the world that art creates—that we start to talk about beauty, aesthetics, and art for art's sake. For an excellent example, I don't need to look too far from Oxford. I'm thinking of the Elgin marbles, which were removed from the Parthenon in Athens and brought to the British Gallery in London in the 19th century.
When I visit them in London, removed as they are from their context, I can appreciate their form, their symmetry, their repose, but they will never have the dynamic, living meaning for me as they would have for Pericles gazing up on them from the Acropolis in the 5th century BC. That deeper meaning of these works of art is lost to me. They may be beautiful, but in many ways they are just dead stone, just plain things.
This reduction of art to its “thing” quality is also something I have been exploring in my tutorial. The Van Gogh painting or the Elgin marbles seem like “things” or plain old objects to me now, but this is because the worlds they conjure up are alien as a result of distances in space and the passing of time. But many recent critics contend that even contemporary art works fails to go beyond being merely things to reveal truths about the world. Many of these kinds of claims cite Karl Marx and his work Capital. There Marx argues that modern economies are able to exchange goods and labor by thinking about everything in terms of equivalent things or, in short, by objectifying everything into the form of commodities. Many Marxist thinkers I have read in this term argue that this way of thinking has penetrated almost every aspect of our consciousness, including our art. The cultural critic Fredric Jameson does an excellent job of illustrating this point by comparing Heidegger's reading of Van Gogh's shoes to Diamond Dust Shoes, a painting by Andy Warhol.
Unlike the Van Gogh, which conjures up a whole lived experience, Jameson says that Warhol's shoes are a “random collection of dead objects hanging together on the canvas like so many turnips, [...] shorn of their earlier life.” The Warhol shoes exist superficially and we can't imagine them being worn or revealing any profound truths about their world in the way that the peasant's shoes do. Here, like in his famous soup can paintings, Warhol seems to be examining the effects of commodification on works art.
All of this is, of course, fascinating and, as any good set of readings should, it leaves me with more questions than answers. Of few of them being:
If Heidegger is right and art really does “set up a world,” what are the responsibilities of the artist? (This question seems even more pressing when we consider the aestheticization of politics carried out by the Nazis, with whom Heidegger was complicit)
Can we ever truly understand the art of a bygone world? Do art works offer a way to empathize with others from different times and places? And if so couldn't this kind of empathy be counted among arts beautiful qualities?
Has the commodification of our modern (or postmodern world) eliminated the possibility of authentic art as Heidegger sees it? If not what might be some examples of authentic contemporary art works?