The Thinglyness of Thingly Things
What do you make of Heidegger’s way of reading artworks, equipment and things in relationship with each other in “The Origin of the Work of Art”?
Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art attempts to explore the metaphysical aspect behind ‘things’ and their ‘thinglyness’. In particular, his essays focus upon the difference between ‘equipment’ and ‘art’, the uses of these differences and the consequences. By exploring the thinglyness within both equipment and art, Heidegger touches upon many important and reoccurring concepts such as Aletheia, existentiality and the rift between ‘Earth’ and ‘World’. Heidegger wishes for us to move away from the traditional western view of the subject/object dynamic, with the object having agency and the subject purely being a recipient of that will. Instead Heidegger argues for the being of all things, and all human experience involves the ‘sacrifice’ of the subject which willingly gives itself up to the object/human in order to create a new reality. Thus Heidegger’s views on things, equipment and art attempt to move away from these ingrained notions into his realm of metaphysics.
It is important to look past the physical material or earthliness of art or equipment and to understand what Heidegger perceived to be the core thinglyness of all things. Heidegger says one of the most difficult tasks is to simply “let beings be” and “let things be things”, because humans have constructed the world and their language in such a way that a book is not just a ‘thing’ instead there are many different associations and connotations which cloud the thinglyness from the view of humans. A book fosters up images of pages, font and book covers, yet it can fail to highlight the true thinglyness of a book; an instrument to communicate from the author to the reader; a physical instrument which if read can ‘melt’ away the physical world and teleport the author into the pages (Groden, Kreiswirth & Szeman). I think this speaks to the core of Heidegger’s philosophy which resonated around the core of simplicity and how these distractions chip away from the fundamental desires and goals of being. These distractions serve to cover up what is ‘nearest’ in our lives such as death, love and art whilst emphasising what is most ‘remote’, superficial relationships and attempting to foster social acknowledgement. These veilings of what is closest to the human ‘Being’ will lead us astray and cause humans to focus upon matters which are not important instead of striving for Aletheia or the desire to be great.
For equipment, Heidegger saw it as formed matter, something derived of the earth which was shaped by an external agency. Aristotle’s analogy of the wax stamp is another way to understand Heidegger’s thoughts on the creation of equipment: The wax stamp is comprised of two different ‘parties’ the wax and the stamp which shaped it; yet when understanding the wax stamp, it is impossible to fully separate the ‘form’ and the ‘matter’; the object and the subject. The most important aspect of equipment is the purpose which lies behind it; it is this linear objective which separates equipment from the realm of art. Understanding something holistically is a reoccurring theme within Heidegger and a key reason why he believes that science can never simply reach any truth within the realm of human understanding. The separation and the over-analysis of something conceals its thinglyness in pursuit of ‘more accurate information’. For Heidegger whose philosophy has elements of Romantic thought, understanding light as wave lengths completely destroys the other real effects and associations with light such as warmth, safety and the divine. Heidegger’s quote “the thingness of the thing remains concealed, forgotten. The nature of the thing never comes to light, that is, it never gets a hearing” reflects his belief that science simply rewords what is already ‘known’ and does not impart new knowledge. As a romantic and an admirer of eastern philosophy which moves away from the intense desire to categorise and rationalise within western philosophy, I appreciate Heidegger’s attempts to create a philosophy which is much more interconnected with the physical human experience. I often find myself asking whether western philosophy is motivated for the sake of information or if it is truly trying to uncover a ‘Truth’ to better human society.
Equipment’s main objective is to try to unlock what Heidegger calls the existentiality within things in order to create works of art. Existentiality refers to the glimpsing and unlocking of one’s potential and moving from the ‘actuality’ to the ‘possible’. Whilst this Heideggerian concept is often used to label people who never challenge the status-quo and simply ‘exist’, without deeper considerations for the philosophy of life. In many ways the unlocking of nature’s beauty from a ‘thing’ to a work of art also falls in line with this concept or ascending into something greater. The beauty behind an axe is found in its ability to shape the natural environment in order to create art, whilst art’s beauty shines its radiance or ability to transport an individual into another ‘World’. One may notice how this Heideggerian belief on equipment and its uses mirrors natural law, which rewarded the unlocking and shaping of the natural world in order to forward civilisation.
This stance upon equipment and purpose is noticeably different to how Heidegger perceives art; Heidegger is especially strong in his love and respect for art and its ability to unconceal the ‘Truth’. Whilst equipment prides itself on being ‘non-distracting’ and being formed in a way where the matter or its ‘earthly thinglyness’ doesn’t get noticed or get in the way of an objective: Art is the total opposite as the artist attempts to bring attention to every choice and decision made in the crafting of the artwork; whether this is a musical note, a paint stroke or the chiselling of a statute. In this sense, the art is the real catalyst and creative origin whilst the artist and the equipment are simply the conduits to Aletheia; “like a passage which destroys itself in the progress”.
In order to understand great works of art, it is necessary to decipher two Heideggerian terms; ‘World’ and ‘Earth’, which in true Heidggerian fashion sounds like synonyms yet represents something completely different. The ‘World’ is a fictional reality which one is transported to when they are engaging with high art, for an example, entering an ancient temple may sever one’s connection to the outside physical as they are moved to another realm where the gods dwell. The ‘Earth’ however is the physical ground upon which this temple or piece of art is built, yet the unlike the ‘World’ is in a constant sense of unveiling, the ‘Earth’ attempts to conceal itself, never fully letting a human comprehend it completely. For a painting or a vase, the ‘Earth’ comprises of the physicality of the thing, from the brushstrokes to the grainy texture and colours respectively. Yet the concealing of high art is why certain films, paintings and poems compromise of many meanings and that it may take many viewings before one can come to an understanding; and even then it may not be complete.
By immersing the audience in the greatness of their craft, an artist creates a rift between World and Earth, and the tension is which allows audience to glance at the ‘Truth’. It is important to note that equipment doesn’t have this worldly element to it, nor does it inspire great feelings since equipment is simply there to make achieving an objective easier. However, equipment and art share a mutual relationship, since art can only be formed with the assistance of equipment and equipment only has value in creating. Interesting, artworks are much more depended upon the ‘World’ which surrounds the thing; thus is an ancient statute is removed from their native ‘World’ which they naturally inhabit, their ability to bring viewers into their ‘World’ is severely reduced. Once again, equipment does not have this aspect to its thinglyness, instead, equipment remains linear regardless of the situation and is only not ‘useful’ if it is outclassed by other equipment.
I find Heidegger’s metaphysics fascinating because there is such a cyclical element to it and I see the joining of artworks and equipment to be in a sense a hermeneutic circle where one can only understood by exploring the other concepts in a circular notion. Continuing this metaphor of the hermeneutic circle, Heidegger also sees ‘Truth’ through a similar lens, ‘Truth’ or Aletheia is circular. By unconcealing certain information, another element gets shrouded in darkness and thus Heidegger entertains a relativisitic conception of Truth which is subject to a person’s context, instead of something which is self-evident and unchallengeable. Heidegger perceives great art as one of the few ways to uncover the Truth, and this is only possible when the audience or viewer concentrates deeply without outside distraction. Heidegger’s analysis of the Van Gogh’s painting A Pair of Shoes paints a vivid picture of the thinglyness of the shoes, “From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth.” It is important to distinguish that Heidegger insists art is a window to Truth and not to what is ‘true’. Using Van Gogh’s shoes for an example, the painting’s objective is not to accurately depict the physical aesthetics of a peasant shoe, instead the brush strokes, colour and lighting all create a picture of suffering and scarcity which is the thinglyness of the shoes; the true soul of the object. Interesting that whilst Heidegger argues that equipment (shoes) will never be able to create the tension between the World and Earth which is necessary to inspire and communicate the Truth: Heidegger picks an artwork depicting a pair of shoes (equipment) to highlight the power of art to create Aletheia, ironically highlighting only through a work of art can a pair of worn out shoes transcend their physical equipment uses and create a World for the audience to merge into.
At the core of Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art is his attempt to distinguish and identify the differences in the thinglyness of things. For Heidegger, acknowledging the physical differences between artworks and equipment was not enough; only through understanding the differences in objective and purpose did one understand equipment and artwork. Heidegger’s admiration of high art and its transformative power is evident through his essay; whilst equipment is not placed upon such a privileged status, it is still essential in the creation of art. Art’s ability to open a World is essential in Aletheia; the uncovering of Truth. In many cases, it is through this unveiling of Truth that humans are able to see the irony between ‘remoteness and nearness’ and how many beings attempt to escape from ‘confronting’ topics like death, life and purpose. For Heidegger, very few things are more important than art which has the ability to peel back this façade of social normativity which humans have imposed upon their surroundings. As stated above, art can only be created through equipment and it is equipment; the unsung heroes, which are responsible for creating the environment or situation for the art to come forth from. Equipment rarely draws attention to itself and unlike art, the less noticeable it is, the more effective it is at being equipment. This hermeneutic circle stands at the core of Heidegger’s metaphysical analysis of the thinglyness of both parties; connecting artworks and equipment in a never ending dance, as never ending partners.