Heidegger, Paul Klee, and the Origin of the Work of Art

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WHILE HE WAS SAID TO HAVE FOUND PAUL KLEE'S WRITINGS too neo-Kantian, overly concerned with form, and too cosmological, Martin Heidegger spent hours looking at Klee's late paintings and expressed a keen interest that was never fulfilled to write about them. Nonetheless, the writing on art that is his most well known, "The Origin of the Work of Art," written in the mid-1930's, remained a somewhat conflicted work about the art of its time. It began as an exposition of the history of ontological concepts that issued in the distinctions between form and matter "usually employed" in aesthetics. He did so, as he put it, because we "mistrust this concept of the thing, which represents it as formed matter." (1) Poised on what he termed elsewhere as an "overcoming of aesthetics," (2) this account refused to view art as representations of subjective experience. He held instead that works of art involved a more primordial struggling with the truth of their time; art is ultimately capable of opening up a domain of truth and art is especially suited to opening up such truths. Heidegger held that the conceptual history through which this origin of the work of art could be made manifest needed to be understood within the context (and a certain leveling) of its Greek origins. As a result he argued for an understanding of the thing as emerging from the earth (physis)--and the figuration (Gestaltung) of the work of art itself as a setting or bringing forth the being of such things (and their truth) into the open. Art thereby became linked with poiesis, and ultimately, a kind of human dwelling (ethos) that appropriately articulated the art and the world of its time. Infamously, in the thirties, the art of its time meant an art that would yet unite the German people--as much scholarship over the last decade has debated. Heidegger, not soon enough thereafter, seemed to demure about the connection, though he continued to think about art in connection with the truth of our time: its calculative and technological enframing (Gestell) and how we might confront the dangers of its leveling grip on us.

Many believed that this meant that Heidegger was not at all conflicted about contemporary art. In "The Origin of the Work of Art," Heidegger wrote not about Picasso or Braque but more about Greek temples and vases. He did speak briefly about Van Gogh (as depicting the reliability of the earth on the mud of peasant shoes), ultimately telling us that art was about understanding the interrelations joining earth and sky, mortals and divinities, the event of the 'fourfold' (Das Geviert). "Abstract art," he reputedly said, is a "tool that unfolds the being of technology" rather than the Greek's art, which "revealed the emergence of the world." (3) Like many in the lingering neoclassicism of the phenomenological movement, beginning with Brentano's own retrievals of the medieval intentio, classical treatises in phenomenological aesthetics seemed overwhelmed by the practices of the avant-garde that were going on around them. Indeed, Brentano himself still posited the beautiful as a timeless intuition. (4) When it came to art, it seemed to be a matter, as the title of a famous article put it, of "Heidegger et la pensee du declin," a matter made all the more manifest by Heidegger's claim that modern art itself had been largely a decline from the initial "realizations" of Cezanne's heroic realism. (5) In lectures dating from 1929-30, Heidegger, like Benjamin, had thought in this regard that both philosophy and art begin in melancholy (Schwermut). (6) Unlike Benjamin, Heidegger seemed to have spent most of his time mournfully reading H61derlin to understand the contemporary. In fact, both Heidegger and Benjamin, who had written a thesis on romantic criticism, had roots in post-Kantian philosophy; its legacy seemed to many to lie contested between them, divided between neoclassical nostalgia and romantic revolution. For Benjamin, this connection formed the protocols for his affirmation of the artistic avant-garde; Heidegger seemingly remained more skeptical, or at least more ambivalent about the "greatness" of contemporary art in comparison to the Greeks. …