How useful is Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art for art criticism? (Part 1)

van Gogh - Starry Night Over the RhoneThis week in my humanities course, we’re following up the music unit with a unit on visual art woven together with Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art. It’s spread over three days, and I pre-distributed some scans of paintings to them — day one is Van Gogh (for obvious reasons), day two is a mix of pre-modern and modern paintings (including a couple more or less totally abstract ones), and day three is Picasso.

In part I am doing this as an experiment to see how useful Heidegger’s theory is for the analysis of concrete artworks. One’s initial impression may not be promising, since it seems as though Heidegger is stuck at the level of the representational content of the work — his description of the Van Gogh painting at the beginning mentions nothing about more formal aspects aside from the abstraction of the background. Yet I think that the earth vs. world distinction and his claims for the way that the work reveals the strife between the two might open a space for more nuanced attention to the expressive content of the work on all levels. In Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, for instance, our discussion revealed the ways that his brushstrokes in the water and in the sky both contributed to a feeling of calm enclosure, as though the sky was almost a human-made dome. This shows a kind of momentary victory of world over earth, though the small couple in the lower right corner, standing as they are on uncertain footing, reminds us that the uncontrollable earth may surge forth at any moment.

van Gogh - Starry NightThe effect is just the opposite in another famous Van Gogh painting of a starry night, where the earth definitely has the upper hand over the small outpost of the human world. Here the swirling brushstrokes seem to present us with a natural world that has its own coherence and priorities that do not correspond to the ways we conceptually map it out — above all in the enigmatic plant that towers over the city. Our very perception of foreground and background is skewed, as the plant seems implicitly to be very close to us, and yet relates primarily to the swirling patterns of the sky.

The first painting uses a technique that is familiar from Cézanne, who often opens up a kind of “zone of indistinction” where individual brushstrokes belong to both foreground and background and thus begin to assert their own autonomy. Here portions of the waves could appear to be part of the masts of the ship. It seems that highlighting brushstrokes can reinforce the harmony of earth and world or else their strife — but I don’t want to suggest that the painterly technique is simply an indifferent tool that can be deployed at will. What I really want to consider are the implications of the fact that the artwork’s very materiality, which art as art always necessarily highlights, are a kind of upsurge of the earthly element. If a brushstroke calls attention to itself in seeming to refer at once to the ship’s mast and to the river’s waves, then it also calls attention to the earthly element in that the apparatus of the ship is a means of navigating the dangers of the waves.

One might see a similar priority of earth in the disproportionately thick brushstrokes in the sky of the first painting. Here we cannot help seeing paint, very emphatically — and in the squareness and the excesses around the edges, it can almost seem as though human beings have “bricked over” the sky. The nautical context highlights this, because it is most especially at sea that the stars — those brilliant balls of gas millions or billions of miles away — have been “re-purposed” by human beings as a navigational tool. Behind this bricked-over sky, though, in the very roughness of the surface of the painting, one can sense the unmediated earth vaguely threatening to break through, in parallel with the implicit though understated threat to the ambiguously positioned couple.

(I have ideas about how the other paintings I’ve chosen might play out in this scheme, but I don’t want to give it away in case one of my students is reading this. Hence I label this post Part 1, with the proviso that there may be no Part 2….)

2 thoughts on “How useful is Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art for art criticism? (Part 1)

  1. I tend to think that Heideggerian aesthetics is only useful when looking at works that can be seen to illustrate Heideggerian concepts. That being said, most aesthetic theories create an auxiliary body of work that can’t be assessed on that given basis (for example modernist formalism can’t say much about surrealism except to see it as regressive).

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