Excerpts from The Origin of the Work of Art by Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger: “The Origin of the Work of Art”, 1936

Three pages from the writing of 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger—can you take it? They’re really good pages. The prose is some of the most poetic, direct, and intimate in Western philosophy. Eat it slowly and it will bless you with stronger bones and teeth, metaphorically speaking.

The central obsession of much of Heidegger’s philosophy is Being—not “a being”, nor “being this-or-that”, but something grander, more radical. For Heidegger, Western philosophy took a wrong turn with the Greeks (!), especially their conception of Being as an object—a thing which stays put, remains solid, persists and endures despite time. Heidegger’s revision, to be simplistic, is this: Being is not an object but a happening. Being is the moving through time of things and people. Or, literally, Being is a verb—but a verb caught constantly in a “state” of verb, a “verbing,” a gerunding of people-places-things, not-quite-nouns. Hence the title of Heidegger’s most famous work, 1927’s Being and Time.

In these pages below Heidegger’s obsession with Being as a happening comes out in this form: emergence, or better yet, emerging. For Heidegger, “truth” is not an object but a process. Truth is really the setting-to-work of truth, and the place where this setting takes place is, among other places, the artwork.

Why this in a class on the classical imagination in music? First, because Heidegger touches on a vision of art which is profoundly temporal (one wonders why he didn’t write more on music): art isn’t just a thing, art is a place where truth happens; art is a stage (in both senses). The implications for music are rich, both as sound-in-time, and as a performance art which measures time like no other medium. Secondly, there is Heidegger’s fascination with the artwork as conflict between a world (the artwork’s), and the world (the earth, as H. calls it). The artwork is the site for truth as the new, newing, and perpetually re-newing; indeed, it is the antithesis of the classical as we’ve looked at it: the artwork is not a happened but a happening, not an ancient origin or an always-beforehand, but a becoming-right-now. It is not a great empty monument inside which we saunter—it is a struggle to make a clearing from inside Being, so that Being can show itself. As such, even the hardest substance—say, rock for a Greek temple—maintains a malleability and suppleness, because it moves, both itself and other things.

In these three excerpts, Heidegger deals respectively with a painting of shoes by Van Gogh, a Greek temple, and the idea of the artwork as a struggle of emergence, between the artwork’s opening world and the “self-secluding earth”.

I. Van Gogh’s peasant shoes: equipment becomes art

We choose as an [example] of equipment—a pair of common peasant shoes. We do not even need to exhibit actual pieces of this sort of useful article in order to describe them. Everyone is acquainted with them. But since the matter here is of direct description...a pictorial representation suffices. We shall choose a well-known painting by Van Gogh, who painted such shoes several times. But what is there to see here? Everyone knows what shoes consist of. If they are not wooden or bast shoes, there will be leather shoes and uppers, joined together by thread and nail. Such gear serves to clothe the feet. Depending on the use to which the shoes are to be put, whether for work in the field or for dancing, matter and form will differ.

Such statements, no doubt correct, only explicate what we already know. The equipmental quality of equipment consists in its usefulness. But what about this usefulness itself?…The peasant woman wears her shoes in the field. Only here are they what they are. They are all the more genuinely so, the less the peasant woman thinks about the shoes while she is at work, or looks at them at all, or is even aware of them. She stands and walks in them. That is how shoes actually serve. It is in this process of the use of equipment that we must encounter the character of equipment.
As long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of the equipment is in truth. From Van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. There is nothing surrounding this pair of shoes in or to which they might belong—only an undefined space. There are not even clods of soil from the field or the field-path sticking to them, which would at least hint at their use. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet—

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the sole slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant women. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.

But perhaps it is only in the picture that we notice all this about the shoes…What happens here? What is at work in the work? Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant shoes, is in truth. This entity emerges into the unconcealedness of its being. The Greeks called this unconcealedness of beings aletheia…there is here an occurring, a happening of truth at work. In the work of art the truth of an entity has set itself to work. “To set” means here: to bring to a stand. Some particular entity, a pair of peasant shoes, comes to work to stand in the light of its being. The being of the being comes into the steadiness of its shining.The nature of the artwork would then be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work.

II. The Greek temple: making visible the invisible space of air

A building, a Greek temple, portrays nothing. It simply stands there in the middle of a rock-cleft valley. The building encloses the figure of the god, and in this concealment lets it stand out stand out into the holy precinct through the open portico. By means of the temple, the god is present in the temple. This presence of the god is in itself the extension and delimitation of the precinct as a holy precinct. The temple and its precinct, do not fade away into the indefinite. It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of historical people. Only from and in this expanse does the nation first return to itself for the fulfillment of its vocation.

Standing there, the building rests on rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the mystery of the rock’s clumsy yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, yet first brings to light the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night. The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air. The steadfastness of the work contrasts with the surge of the surf, and its own repose brings out the raging of the sea. Tree and grass, eagle and bull, snake and cricket first enter into their distinctive shapes and thus come to appear as what they are. The Greeks early called this emerging phusis. It clears and illuminates, also, that on which and in which man bases his dwelling. We call this ground earth. What this word says is not to be associated with the idea of a mass of matter deposited somewhere, or with the merely astronomical idea of a planet. Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises without violation. In the things that arise, earth is present as the sheltering agent.

III. World and Earth: What does an artwork set up?

What does [an artwork], as work, set up? Towering up within itself, the work opens up a world and keeps it abidingly in force…by the opening up of a world, all things gain their lingering and hastening, their remoteness and nearness, their scope and limits. In a world’s worlding is gathered that spaciousness out of which the protective grace of the gods is granted or withheld. A work, by being a work, makes space for that spaciousness. “To make space for” means here to liberate the Open and to establish it in its structure. The work as work sets up a world. The work holds open the Open of the world. When a work is created, brought forth out of this or that work-material—stone, wood, metal, color, language, tone—we say also that it is made, set forth out of it…The work as work, in its presencing, is a setting forth, a making. But what does it set forth?…Because it is determined by usefulness and serviceability, equipment takes into its service that of which it consists: the matter. In fabricating equipment—an ax, say—stone is used, and used up. It disappears into usefulness. The material is all the better and more suitable the less it resists perishing in the equipmental being of its equipment. By contrast the temple-work, in setting up a world, does not cause the material to disappear, but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the Open of the work’s world. The rock comes to bear and rest and so first becomes a rock; metals come to glitter and shimmer, colors to glow, tones to sing, the word to speak. All this comes forth as the work sets itself back into the massiveness and heaviness of stone, into the firmness and pliancy of wood, into the hardness and luster of metal, into the lighting and darkening of color, into the clang of tone, and into the naming power of the word.

That into which the work sets itself back and which it causes to come forth in this setting back of itself we called the earth. Earth is that which comes forth and shelters. Earth, self-dependent, is effortless and untiring. Upon the earth and in it, historical man grounds his dwelling in the world. In setting up a world, the work sets forth the earth…The work moves the earth itself into the Open of a world and keeps it there. The work lets an earth be an earth. The world [of the artwork], in resting upon the earth, strives to surmount it. As self-opening it cannot endure anything closed. The earth, however, as sheltering and concealing, tends always to draw the world into itself and keep it there. The opposition of world and earth is a striving…In setting up a world and setting forth the earth, the work is an instigating of this striving…the work-being of the work consist in the fighting of the battle between world and earth…the conflict is not a rift as a mere cleft that is ripped open; rather it is the intimacy with which opponents belong to each other to create is to cause something to emerge as a thing that has been brought forth. The work’s becoming a work is a way in which truth becomes and happens. It all rests on the nature of truth. But what is truth, that is has to happen in such a thing as something created?

Truth is un-truth, insofar as there belongs to it the reservoir of the not-yet-uncovered, the un-uncovered, in the sense of concealment…Truth is the primal conflict in which, always in some particular way, the Open is won, within which everything stands and from which everything beholds itself that shows itself and withdraws itself as a being. Truth happens only by establishing itself in the conflict and sphere opened by truth itself. Because truth is the opposition of clearing and concealing, there belongs to it what is here to be called establishing. But truth does not exist in itself beforehand, somewhere among the stars, only later to descend elsewhere among beings. One essential way in which truth establishes itself in the beings it has opened up in truth setting itself into work [that is, the artwork]. By contrast, science is not an original happening of truth, but always the cultivation of a domain of truth already opened.

Truth establishes itself in the work. Truth is present only as the conflict between lighting and concealing in the opposition of world and earth. Truth wills to be established in the work as this conflict of world and earth…As the world opens itself, it submits to the decision of a historical humanity the question of victory or defeat, blessing and curse, mastery and slavery. The dawning world brings out what is as yet undecided and measureless, and thus discloses the hidden necessity of measure and decisiveness.

Whenever art happens—that is, whenever there is a beginning—a thrust enters history, history either begins or starts over again.