A Response to Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”

Art is the setting-into-work of truth. In this proposition an essential ambiguity lies hidden, in which truth is at once the subject and the object of the setting…art is in its essence an origin: a distinctive way in which truth comes into being, that is, becomes historical.  ~ Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Basic Writings, 202

The beautiful circularity of the structure of Heidegger’s essay and the self-consciously circular nature of the argument itself by its very nature gets at something that is impossible to describe: a work of art brings forth the concealed, earthly, mysterious, all that which resists explicability and unambiguous definition, by creating a world in which the concealed becomes unconcealed — but not before its concealed nature reasserts itself! The conflict between these two creates an ambiguity that is nevertheless construed as a kind of truth, in that the art somehow demystifies the mysteriousness of being. I find myself slipping into the same circularity that Heidegger does, in repeating myself over and over again, although perhaps it is a spiraling more than a circling, so that we are actually nearer to the origin of art, or at least its nature.

Caught in the Act of Creating

Strikingly, beauty is only one manifestation of this process in art. But this aligns with another issue in aesthetics: we almost need to redefine beauty in order for Kantian or Hegelian theories of the beautiful to apply to any modern art, or perhaps even any art. In spite of the inherent inexplicability in the argument, Heidegger’s ideas may actually have a significant amount of payoff for an aesthetics of music. Instead of focusing on the beautiful, the theory focuses on the meaningful, but specifically on the ambiguously, spontaneously, non-rationally meaningful, the unknowable, but perhaps the partially graspable. This ties into the question of musical meaning, a question that occupies me in the context of both aesthetic and semiotic concerns.

We might be able to agree that extramusical, associative meaning, as palpable as it can be, is certainly contingent. In addition, it might be fair to say that the explicable aspect of meaning found in, for instance, tonal tendency, expectation, and fulfillment or denial, is, if not contingent, at least incomplete with regard to the nature of musical meaning. In other words, no matter how detailed or imaginative my explanation of a particular tonal event, even an explanation that draws on supposedly secondary elements such as timbral and registral effects, the result of the explanation is not ultimately the same as the meaning of that moment in the music. Many people speak of music as a sort of “communication,” but as Peter Kivy (in The Fine Art of Repetition) argues, claiming to communicate without being able to give an equally clear sense of what is being communicated is suspicious.

And yet, in a certain sense, this is what Heidegger is claiming for art in general. Could it be that music opens up vistas onto otherwise inexplicable parameters of being, becoming truth in both its revealing of those vistas and its concealing of the content from our rational grasp? And in so doing, is it creating an awareness of our own being that cannot be created in any other way?  This could explain the sense of “communication,” of “meaning,” of the value we place on music and the arts in general. Of course, we never can explain what exactly it is that music means, and certainly our knowledge of musical structure and style and historical context, along with our own situation in history and culture, affects our response to the individual work of art. I, like Kivy, am inclined to be somewhat suspicious of the truth claims of something I cannot grasp in words, and yet I wonder if our study of music and our study of aesthetics implicitly relies on an assumption something along these lines — whether we like it or not.  And as a Christian, this view of art coincides with my faith in a God who has created a universe that is so much more than what I can see and touch empirically and rationally, my belief in the existence of the soul and the depth of spiritual things.

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4 thoughts on “A Response to Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”

  1. “the art somehow demystifies the mysteriousness of being” — and “the result of the explanation is not ultimately the same as the meaning of that moment in the music” are my favorite phrases in this piece, much of which is quite over my head since I haven’t been reading at this level in many years… I like the point about communication, too.

    • Marcy – that point about the explanation of a moment not being the same as the meaning of that moment is something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. As a theorist, most of my work involves explaining musical structure and relationships between concrete musical elements (keys, chords, motives, etc.). While these things can provide a lot of insight into a piece, they do not in themselves alone have any emotional or otherwise extramusical meaning – and yet we perceive meaning, so something else must exist in between the material and the perception or meaning. That makes me want to do analysis that takes into account more than just the theoretical bits. 🙂

      • This reminds me of the productive issues in music — wanting, for example, to directly convey some experience or feeling or thought in music, and not having a direct path from brain and heart through fingers into the instrument. Being able to talk about an experience, and being able to convey the experience in art — embody it, so to speak — are two different things as well.

      • Also — how in physics an equation that describes something does not at the same time imply qualitative understanding… and, the difference between mind and brain…

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