In Martin Heidegger’s booklet The Origin of the Work of Art the German philosopher attempts to answer the question of the origin of the work of art which he places on an equal footing with the issue of the essence of art. To Heidegger, these two questions are interwoven. What is very problematic for the reader is the fact that Heidegger begins his investigation with a hermeneutic circle. The phrase ‘hermeneutic circle’ refers to the circle of interpretation involved when understanding some work of art.
According to this reasoning, it is not possible to really understand any part of a work until you understand the whole, but it is not possible either to understand the whole without understanding all of the parts. Heidegger starts by defining what to examine. In other words, we must identify something as a work of art. Only then it will be possible to infer what art is from the investigated work. But, to do that, Heidegger continues in a hermeneutic circle, we must already know which things are works of art and which are not. Further, if we can do this successfully, we must already know what art is.
Heidegger’s reasoning is complicated and can be seen as a logical problem but his intention is to get the reader to think in different orbits, to try not to get around the circle but to break into it in a way that is not completely clear to me. Heidegger asserts that one of a work’s more obvious features is its thingly character. Any work of art is a thing. First, Heidegger investigates three traditional interpretations of ‘thing’. A thing can be analyzed as a substance to which various qualities are attached, as a bundle of sensations and as a formed matter.
All three of these definitions are, according to Heidegger, wrong and misleading. Still, he lingers on the notion of formed matter which he connects to the concept of equipment. Heidegger sees equipment as an intermediate between thing and work and he states that the equipmental character of equipment is crucial to further investigation. To show what is equipmental character Heidegger analyses a painting of a pair of peasant shoes by van Gogh and finds out that equipmental character consists in its usefulness.
Seeing things this way means that we have to see equipmental objects as they are used, not in some abstract sense. Then, Heidegger names this equipmental character for reliability. The choice of this word is unclear to me and could be explicated in more detail. What Heidegger attempts to say is probably that the painting makes us understand what shoes are in truth. In a way, the connection between the work of art and the unconcealment (aletheia) which is Heidegger’s word for truth establishes itself. Inferring from this, the nature of art would be “the truth of beings setting itself to work”.
It is important to understand that a work of art functions allegorically, as something more than a thing we see before our eyes. It is also a symbol since in it “something is brought together with the thing that is made”. On the other hand, a work of art is not a piece of equipment with added aesthetic quality. It is in other words crucial to establish the connection between the work and truth. As Heidegger puts it, a work’s becoming a work is a form of truth happening. To grasp the origin of the work of art we must also consider the process of creation.
Heidegger sees the difference between making and creating as the distinction between equipment and work of art. He goes back to the Greek word techne which denotes both a craft object and a work of art. This part of the text is particularly difficult to understand since Heidegger takes in the notion of knowing. To know is to see what is present as such, in its unhidden nature, in its unconcealment. Things become even more complex since Heidegger puts in three not-easy-to grasp concepts. These concepts are rift, earth and world.
Rift would be some kind of relation that comprises both conflict and union between earth and world. The notion of world, as Heidegger sees it, could be described as the complete structure of relations that constitute our experience as human beings. The concept of earth comprises, as I see it, an all-encompassing source of life which have a mythic dimension to it. It is in this relation between world and earth that truth establishes itself. Heidegger puts an end to his article by stating that art is the becoming and happening of truth. In coming into being, truth becomes historical.
I am really not sure what Heidegger puts in this historical dimension but he also emphasizes that even art is essentially historical, which again connects the notions of art and truth on a historical level. Questions: 1. How do we know that art is unique in its capacity to reveal the truth? 2. Is it possible to come to the essence of art using some other method than hermeneutic circle? 3. What is the actual relation between beauty and truth? Heidegger says that “beauty is one way in which truth essentially occurs as unconcealment” but he does not reveal how these two notions hang together.