Heidegger in Plain Sight: "The Origin of the Work of Art" and Marcel Duchamp

By Alkhas, Anita | Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Heidegger in Plain Sight: "The Origin of the Work of Art" and Marcel Duchamp


Alkhas, Anita, Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry


I. Introduction

"The picture hangs on the wall like a rifle or a hat." This statement might well be attributed to Marcel Duchamp, the 'originator' of the readymade, if one were to hazard an educated guess, but it is in fact from the introductory pages of Martin Heidegger's 1936 essay "The Origin of the Work of Art" ("Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes"). (1) Heidegger (1889-1976) and Duchamp (1887-1968) lived parallel lives that do not seem to have crossed on the historical plane. And yet, intersection occurs as Heidegger moves toward an aestheticization of philosophy and Duchamp moves toward a philosophization of art. This intersection is seemingly disavowed on both sides. Heidegger, who catalogs more than a dozen exemplary "great" works of art in his influential essay, chooses none from the twentieth century. (2) Duchamp satirizes the question of ontology in his remarks to Pierre Cabanne: "I don't believe in the word 'being.' The idea of being is a human invention ... It's an essential concept, which doesn't exist at all in reality." (3) The contradiction stemming from Duchamp's avowed disbelief in "being," which he then explains using terms related to being ("human," "being is," "essential," "exist," "reality") suggests, however, his awareness that one cannot escape from the question of being. Indeed, Duchamp's works explore forms of being and display striking affinities with Heidegger's explorations in "The Origin of the Work of Art." Heidegger, on the other hand, surreptitiously slips a twentieth century work of art into his catalog of "great" art: his own essay, "The Origin of the Work of Art," thus acknowledging the potential of contemporary art to be "an essential and necessary way in which that truth happens which is decisive for our historical existence." (4) "The Origin of the Work of Art" is based on lectures given in 1935 and 1936, over twenty years after the advent of Duchamp's readymades. The essay appears soon after Heidegger's so-called Kehre, or turn, when he purportedly switched course and began to pursue a more radical questioning of metaphysics, attempting to return to the beginnings of Greek thought and abandoning traditional philosophical discourse in favor of a more poetic style. (5)

Thomas McEvilley in his article "Empyrrhical Thinking (and Why Kant Can't)" has described Duchamp's abandonment of painting, (6) which occurred soon after he introduced the readymades, as a decisive "turn," one that "was to be so portentous for the art of the rest of the 20th century." (7) McEvilley outlines how critics sought the cause of this important shift, ascribing it, for example, to Duchamp's two-month visit to Munich in 1912. For McEvilley, however, it was Duchamp's (re-)reading of Greek philosophers during his stint as a librarian at the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve in 1913 that had the greatest influence in triggering his "turn away from subjectivity." (8) Among the philosophers that he studied, it was Pyrrho, the first great skeptic, who especially intrigued Duchamp, perhaps in part because Pyrrho was known for having abandoned painting for philosophy. (9) Duchamp's aspiration to become more philosophical in his art mirrors Heidegger's aspiration to be more poetical in his philosophy, their shared mistrust of subjectivity leading each of them to question the continued viability of art on the one hand and philosophy on the other. Heidegger titles a late essay "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking," and Duchamp is often credited with-and blamed for-announcing the end of art. (10) Despite their apparent pessimism (characterized in Heidegger's case by a heavy-handed, prophetic tone in stark contrast to Duchamp's playful ironic detachment) their projects are essentially positive. In order to reinvigorate our experience of being in the world, (11) they seek to circumvent the impasse they believe has been created by metaphysics' ill-founded reliance on subjectivity by reconnecting with earlier modes of thought.

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