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Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art"


            We can observe that, in an obvious sense, the artist is the origin of the work; but we can also say that the work is the origin of the artist as such (without the work the artist would not be an artist).  What underlies this mutual originating?

 Art is the origin of both artist and work.  This is what is to be understood.  What can this mean?  What is art?  Sometimes the term seems empty.  If we define art by showing examples, we presuppose that we already know something of art in order to gather our collection in the first place.  There is a circle here that is unavoidable.  We must enter into the circle.

            What is art?  Have a look.  There is a thingly character, which is an enduringly profound aspect of the work: "the architectural work is in stone, the carving is in wood, the painting in color, the linguistic work in speech, the musical composition in sound" (256).  It is common to think of the work in its thingly character as a base for the symbolic function of the work, in virtue of which it points beyond itself.  But have we understood the concept of a thing adequately?


Thing and Work

[Ten pages from the article are omitted in our text.  These pages chronicle the attempts of the history of metaphysics to define the thing, e.g., as substance, with matter and form.]  In the history of Western metaphysics, the previously dominant conception of the thing was based upon a certain interpretation of equipment, e.g., table (something we can use, something "ready to hand.").  To get beyond the history of Western metaphysics, we need another ontological interpretation of "the equipmental being of equipment."  We'll take this interpretation from Van Gogh's painting of a woman's shoes.  The world of the woman comes forth in this work (257), the ways of her life upon the earth.  "The artwork let us know what shoes are in truth"; "in the work of art the truth of an entity has set itself into work" (259). 

            This thought departs from the aesthetics of beauty and seems to revert to a theory of "imitation," but a Greek temple imitates nothing; nevertheless, "truth is set to work in such a work, if it is a work" (259); e.g., "Roman Fountain" (260).    

            To begin an inquiry into art by starting with what seems most obvious—the thingly character of the work (presupposing traditional concepts of the thing) is an approach that runs aground.  Instead we need to approach the concept of thing by beginning with the concept of the work and how truth happens in the work.


The Work and Truth

            The origin of the art work is art. 

            It would seem as though, to see the work, we must see it in isolation from everything else, for example, as in great art, where the artist does not obtrude, does not manifest in his or her idiosyncrasies, but disappears in the work.  But works cannot be themselves when ripped out of their world context, and placed in foreign museums; nor can they be themselves when the world they inaugurated has passed away (262).

            Consider, for example, a Greek temple, which once focused the world of the people and which, by its contrasts, brings forth the earth as such, as nature (physis).  A people's relation to divinities, to the holy, and the drama of the great decisions of a historical people are focused in the temple.  The work sets up a world.

            The work is not like a tool in which material remains in the background and is used up; in the work the rock and metals and colors and tones and word appear as what they are (unlike the way they are made to appear through science, which is interested in technical objectifying and in mastery in which everything becomes a resource for the purposes of human will). 

Between world and earth, between the holy and the unholy, between opponents, there is a striving.  Understand the striving deeply.  The self-assertion of nature in the work is "never a rigid insistence upon some contingent state, but surrender to the concealed originality of the sources of one's own being" (267-68).

To see how truth happens in the work we need a deeper concept of truth.  It refers to what is essential, but essence is not understood in terms of "Platonic" forms.  Nor is truth merely a matter of correctness, of conforming to the way things are; this derivative conception of truth presupposes the deeper conception: that things are unconcealed, that they appear as what they are (rather than in terms of how we can manipulate them to serve some manufacturing purpose, e.g., referring to a forest in terms of board-feet). 

Beings stand forth, appear as phenomena, in the lighted clearing which is not itself a being, but "like the Nothing which we scarcely know" (270).  Disclosure, unconcealment, is never total, since there is always a measure of concealment, sometimes in the form of refusal to manifest, sometimes in the form of dissembling (a person may manifest as closed, or may play a fake role).  There is always more to the being of beings than what comes to truth as a-leth-ia: un-hidden-ness.  Art is one of the few essential ways in which truth happens.  Van Gogh's shoes enabled the world of the woman to come to light; the Greek temple enables the world of that historical people to come to light.  The poem, "The Roman Fountain" lets beings as a whole come to light.  "This shining, joined in the work, is the beautiful.  Beauty is one way in which truth occurs as unconcealedness" (272). 

The question, the inquiry, advances now, asking about the creation of the work: "How does the impulse toward such a thing as a work lie in the nature of truth?  Of what nature is truth, that it can be set into work, or even under certain conditions must be set into work, in order to be as truth?"  In other words, what is it about truth that impels the creation of art works?  And why does truth need art to be itself?

Definitions: "the world is the clearing of the paths of the essential guiding directions with which all decision complies" 271.

"Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises without violation.  In the things that arise, earth is present as the sheltering agent" (263).


Truth and Art

            Art works are created, not, however, simply through craftsmanship by a particular artist, but as the knowing bringing forth of beings into unconcealedment.  Art is something that Being lets happen; it is not simply an affair of one of the many beings (275).

            Truth "does not exist in itself beforehand, somewhere among the stars, only later to descend elsewhere among beings" (275).

            Truth happens in art, in the founding of a political state, in "the nearness of that which is not simply a being, but the being that is most of all"; in "the essential sacrifice"; in "the thinker's questioning" (275).

            "Truth is never gathered from objects that are present and ordinary" (278).

            If we have a deep enough understanding of language, we can say that all art is essentially poetry, bringing something that is into the Open.  [Contrast the all-too-common way of speaking that merely passes along conventional impressions of things (partisan, e.g., politically dismissive speech or gossip or a taken-for-granted, in-group consensus about what things are—with no regard for letting those things appear for who or what they are).

            "A work is in actual effect as a work only when we remove ourselves from our commonplace routine and move into what is disclosed by the work, so as to bring our own nature itself to take a stand in the truth of what is" (280).


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