Heidegger's Aesthetics: The Art Object and History

By Rosenstein, Leon | Studies in the Humanities, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Heidegger's Aesthetics: The Art Object and History


Rosenstein, Leon, Studies in the Humanities


"In the vicinity of the artwork we are suddenly somewhere else than we usually tend to be."

--Heidegger

"Pure art ... is the creation of an evocative magic, containing at once the object and the subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself."

--Baudelaire (1)

1. Prefatory Remarks

Heidegger scholars and those familiar with his writings will be horrified by my title. If there is any term Heidegger railed against in his various writings on art (especially in "The Origin of the Work of Art" and the "The Will to Power as Art" chapters of his Nietzsche), (2) it was this category of "subjective feeling analysis."

Nevertheless, I think there is an aesthetic theory latent in Heidegger and that, with some effort and forbearance, it can be developed from his analyses in Being and Time and made to cohere with and to amend his later writings on art. I think that, in part because of his anti-aesthetics prejudice and in part because at the time of writing Being and Time he was not philosophically interested in art objects as such or in our experience of them, Heidegger simply passed over an early opportunity to develop a theory of art or an aesthetics. Moreover, I think that, as it stands, much of what Heidegger says in "The Origin," and in his later work about art, is a muddle, filled with contradictions and obscurities that--even for the notorious Heidegger--are scandalous in scale. Yet I believe that some of this later work is brilliant; and that, if properly understood, it amplifies and augments the earlier work. By failing to see what was latent in his earlier philosophy and using these insights to "amend" the later Heidegger where necessary with the earlier and to expand the earlier Heidegger with the later--to resolve the contradictions and clarify obscurities--his recent interpreters have simply made matters less intelligible, for they have often celebrated what is worst in him and rejected as inconsistent what is best. I believe that such a reconstruction would not be a merely formal academic exercise, but that in developing a Heideggerian aesthetics we can overcome both Heidegger's misunderstandings and the misunderstandings of him by his interpreters. Furthermore, I think that this reconstruction can also show how previous philosophers' insights into the nature of artworks and aesthetic experience (Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche's, in particular) have become ingredient (however transmogrified) in Heidegger's theory. (3) That is why I think that working out a Heideggerian aesthetics will not only serve him well, but the history of aesthetic theory well. Finally, I think that aesthetic theory in general is served, particularly by demonstrating the crucial role that historical consciousness plays in aesthetic appreciation. Thus, Heidegger's phenomenological ontology, insightfully developed, will provide the correct basis for a general theory of aesthetics.

Having previously rejected them as unintelligible non-sequitors posing as an art theory in disguise for an ontology, I came to reconsider Heidegger's discussions on art in the course of writing a book about the aesthetic experience of antiques. (4) I was struck by Heidegger's insistence upon discussing art objects within a world, in relation to worlds, and in particular within historically contextualized worlds. For Heidegger, all art objects are historical or, better, are historically--just as are those things we normally call "antiques"--and "move us" because of our awareness of their historical being. I was furthermore struck by Heidegger's discussion of the "strife of earth and world" in the artwork. This notion, when properly understood, is a conception that is especially important when trying to understand the experience of art objects in general and that functions in a peculiar way in the aesthetic response to art-historical objects and antiques. It is something normally ignored in the tangle of contemporary art objects and art theory, where theorizing (philosophizing) about art works has come to be equated--erroneously, I think--with the aesthetic experience of them. …

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