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Martin Heidegger & The Origin of the Work of Art

The Origin of the Work of Art, is a famous essay written by philosopher Martin Heidegger, in which he unfurls the essence of art in terms of its relationship to being and truth. This is an exploration of the philosopher’s intense account of the significance art once had for the people of the Greek temples, as demonstrative of art as a medium by and through which we can temporarily transcend the shallower everyday flow of our lives, to wonder at the depth of being.

The Parthenon a Greek temple in Athens, Greece

Heidegger’s primary aim in the essay was to overturn a Kantian conception of the modern world as a series of mere ‘appearances’ where it projects away from being and thus in error overlooks the significance of what does not appear, i.e. what is below the surface of the everyday visual world. The philosopher is perceiving a shift occurring in the relationship between human beings and nature. We once understood ourselves as being embedded within the world of beings, interconnected and interdependent on everything around us. But with the modern world came a destructive world perspective that viewed private individuals as being distinct and prior to, the world as a series of mere objects.

Much has been lost in this projection away from the essence of being amongst all other beings, and we are still reeling from the effects. But could great art anchor us once again in the world and restore us to a more complete understanding of our being? Heidegger acknowledges the ramifications of such a huge shift in popular consciousness and so turns his reflections on art, to re-orientating us toward the full significance that an artwork can embody for a people and in addition, to proving how art as a medium has the potential to restore us to a more complete understanding of our being in the world.

Heidegger’s account of the Greek temple then explores the artwork not as an object, but explores the nature and the cultural consequence of art; the secretive and mysterious workings of art. So, the account is an example of art as a cultural paradigm, something which changes the relationship of a people to the world they live in, through its particular orientation towards truth. Simply speaking, art is the ‘happening of truth’, an event where truth is being decided in the present unfolding world situation. This happening of truth is made possible through an artwork’s living capacity to bring one conception of truth to the fore, from a background of infinite potential conceptions, for infinite potential worlds.

In describing how the Greek temple perishes with its people, Heideggar binds an artwork or happening of truth, to its temporal people and a finite world; he binds them in a mutually dependent relationship. The happening of truth can in this relationship, be further understood as the ‘opening up of a world.’ The artwork is alive, in terms of the charismatic function it performs to unify its people, by enclosing their shared experience within the limits of the world it opens up. Worlds, like art, decay and perish; either the art ceases to do its work of opening up a world when it is withdrawn from that world, or alternatively the people for which the artwork opens up a world may perish. So without the audience on which the happening of truth depends, art is just an object.

Without its context would the Christ the Redeemer in Rio, Brazil, still be an artwork or just an object?

With this in mind, for us to comprehend the temple as a living artwork, Heidegger must immerse us in a sense of the Greek world, and assimilate our thinking to a Greek way of thinking, so that we can in effect stand as a person who fully belonged to that world, which the ‘work-being’ of the temple, as he puts it, opened up. Heidegger bestows on us an understanding of how when a people belongs to one ‘world potential’, the artwork which opens up that world allows the world potential to become repeatedly manifest in the rituals and rhythms of daily life. In this way, an artwork inspires beliefs and behaviours that come to constitute an authentic identity for a people. Here, an authentic relationship with an artwork or happening of truth can bestow meaning on our lives, in revealing to us our relation to all other beings and the world around us through encouraging us to wonder at the depth of the nature of our being.

However it’s important to understand that artworks do not simply create worlds out of nothing, instead, it is by and through the existing construct of language, that the artwork invokes truth as correspondence. But the difference with art is that it can communicate truth directly, without the need for language. Language, Heideggar said, is the house of being and for this reason any truth is to be understood as finding its points of reference in the existing structure of language. Set into every language, is a ‘horizon of disclosure’ which people are thrown into when they are born and for the most part continue in their adult lives to reside within. This horizon is already defined by existing linguistic and sociocultural culture(s). The world that is opened up by an artwork is thus first defined by the limits of the ‘horizon’ in which it is created. Language builds a world which under normal everyday circumstances is invisible to us. But artwork makes ‘visible the invisible’ and in doing so articulates a world and our place within it, that language has already cast.

The Last Judgment


circa 1541

In fact, art has a dual nature. It has a great capacity for disclosing truth or a world, which we have already explored. But in addition to its tendency to bring near and make clear, we must not overlook its tendency to elude us; the way it can catapult us into the region of being which holds itself back from human cognition. Yes an artwork cradles a people within the limits of a world but at the same time it also brings us into contact with what in our being is unintelligible. Think of the temple, it contained its people in a unified understanding of their place in the cosmos, but it was also there to bring them face to face with that cosmos, face to face with the unknown. Heidegger’s account of the Greek temple, functions to show us how what is intelligible in being, always arises out of the realm of what is unintelligible and art is central to that process of making the unintelligable, intelligable.

There is no use in attempting to dominate and banish what in our being escapes us, to the void of ‘infinite space’. This way of thinking only serves to separate us from ourselves and from understanding ourselves as being among other beings. The unintelligible is not a void, it is only what has not yet been revealed to us. Just because we cannot clarify and measure it, does not mean that it does not exist or that it is not part of our makeup and that we are not living in relation to it every day. Life is a combination of our relationship to what is known and what is unknown and both hold significant sway over how we understand the world and our own being within it. This fusion of opposing concepts in art, explains how in incorporating ‘nearness’ of the intelligible and the awesome in our human being, through art we are able to access that which is vital to our understanding of our proper place within the whole of being. What is at stake, is not trying to master what in its nature holds itself back from conceptual human understanding; but to see the ‘enigma of art’.

We can recognise what it means to be mortal and gain a sense of our own finitude through contemplating an artwork’s violent theatrical display of crossing over and returning from the limits of the world we know. It is for this reason, that for art to achieve the status of ‘great art’ in Heidegger’s thought, it must be the ‘authority’ in that it not only posits the limits within which a people dwell, but that it must also through a kind of ‘displacement’, bring near the unintelligible in such a way that it appears as shrouded in mystery, as holy. Art in Greek times was ‘...the medium through which the sacred word was spoken’. All great art is capable of setting up a sacred relationship between a people and the limits of their world.

The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí


But how much is of value in Heidegger’s oeuvre? Within the notion of art as changing the relationship of a ‘people’ to ‘truth’; the very notion of a people seems suspect. So too is the notion of one truth for a people. But as philosopher Julian Young affirms, only one ‘perspective’ may ‘ inhabited at any one time... (as) for one horizon of disclosure to be for all the others to be...occluded.’ In addition, an artwork can only change the relationship of a people to truth, if they truly belong to, and commit themselves collectively with a common purpose, to the world it ‘opens up’. However the example of Renaissance Art could be offered in opposition to this presupposition. For it demonstrates that an artwork can in and through a certain harmonious relation between its diverse constituent forces, still cause a world to come bursting into presence...

What do you think?


The Origin of the Work of Art Martin Heidegger

Heidegger’s Philosophy of Art Julian Young


The Parthenon, a Greek temple in Athens, Greece

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, circa 1541

The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí, 1931

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