What is Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”?

“The Origin of the Work of Art” (Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes) is an essay by Martin Heidegger, written and published in various versions from 1935 to 1960. It was drawn from lectures he gave during the same period.
It’s a rich, layered, and complex essay, and it has something to say about virtually everything pertaining to the philosophy of art and aesthetics – and much more.

One important theme is that art is not limited to aesthetic interests. Artworks are about something. They have what philosophers call intentional content. For Heidegger, that means that they are a source of truth, a way in which the world reveals itself. In fact, they exhibit the nature of truth itself, namely that it is “disclosure.” You might say that works of art disclose disclosure. In other words, they are reflexive: not only are they about something, they are about themselves.

Although Heidegger does discuss works of art such as paintings and poems, his main focus in the essay is on buildings that play an important role in the life of a community: the ancient Greek temples to Apollo, Athena, and Hera at Paestum; the Bamberg Cathedral. These works disclose, in an especially vivid, concrete, and immediate way, the understanding of Being shared by the members of their communities. The Greek temples crystalized the meanings of divinity, mortality, victory, and defeat; the Bamberg Cathedral illuminated the meanings of grace and sin.

Heidegger points out that the Greek temples no longer “work” – function – as they did in the past, because we don’t share the understanding of Being in terms of which they made sense. Ancient Greek artworks such as the Aegina sculptures in Munich have been “withdrawn” from their world, and we experience them aesthetically, not as disclosers of disclosure.

To illustrate the phenomenon convincingly, we would presumably need to look at a contemporary work of art. But Heidegger seems to think that there are no artworks, in his sense of the term, in our world: our understanding of Being – “enframing,” or the essence of technology – doesn’t lend itself to crystallization in an artwork. That’s because epochs of Being prior to ours understood things in the world as emerging from unintelligibility into intelligibility – that’s what disclosure is. Attending to a work of art consisted of drawing out and clarifying its meaning, which was not fully explicable. In the technological age, however, there is no mystery. Everything is accessible, manipulable, and transparent. There is no meaning to understand or fail to understand; all there is to know is how things work and how to operate them.

That’s not right, in my view. Richard Polt, in Heidegger: An Introduction (1997), identified a perfect example of a contemporary work of art: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Focusing on a particular event, it’s not as comprehensive as something like the temple to Apollo or the Bamberg Cathedral – unlike them, it’s not paradigmatic of our understanding of Being. But it succeeds brilliantly in gathering Americans together for the purpose of drawing out the meaning of a very important event in our history, in a way that’s comparable to what Heidegger attributes to the temple.

I see a more general problem in the essay as well, one that’s unrelated to the origin of the work of art: it seems to me that it is confusing for Heidegger to insist on the claim that the phenomenon of disclosure is the essential nature of truth. We ordinarily think of truth as correctness, and of correctness as a feature of propositions or representations. The concept (and phenomenon) of disclosure is very far removed from propositional knowledge and has virtually nothing to do with truth in the ordinary sense. So why insist on calling it “truth,” or even the essence of truth? The important thesis is that disclosure is the meaning of Being.

Below, temples at Paestum.

Antonio Joli, c.1756–60.

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