Saturday, November 12, 2016

Heiddeger on museum art as institutional and then on architecture as holy

In "The Origins of the Work of Art," (I am using the Albert Hofstadter translation..a side note, as an undergraduate Hofstadter was one of my teachers at U.C. Santa Cruz.) Heidegger writes about works of art as they are commonly treated today:  "well...the works themselves stand and hang in collections and exhibitions. But are they here in themselves as the works they themselves are, or are they not rather here as objects of the art industry?  Works are made available for public and private art appreciation.  Official agencies assume the care and maintenance of works.  Connoisseurs and critics busy themselves with them.  Art dealers supply the market.  Art-historical study makes the works the objects of a science.  Yet in all this busy activity do we encounter the work itself?"  It is interesting how many different kinds of typical activities surrounding art he categorizes under the negative term "busy activity."  Like John Dewey, he has a problem with the museum conception of art.  Unlike George Dickie, he would have no truck with a definition of art that exclusively understands it in the context of the institution of the artworld and its art-designating activities, the artworld consisting of all of the above-mentioned characters and activities.  Further, he clearly does not think that making a work available for public and private appreciation is in itself all that valuable, does not seem to value actual art maintenance (although elsewhere he talks positively of preservation), does not value the dominance of art dealers and the phenomenon of "art for the art market," and seems to be critical both the activity of connoisseurs and that of art historians.  All of this is, for him, merely busy activity.  (A Humean approach to aesthetics would be excluded, but also our contemporary highly contextualist art-historical approach.) 

The preceding paragraph had stated that the work was accessible in what he calls its "pure self-subsistence" only by removing it from all relations to other things:  it has to stand on its own.  This would seem to indicate an interest in formalism, but we quickly learn that standing on its own means something very different.  Moreover, it turns out, as we shall see, that some relations are really quite important:  a thing cannot escape its relations entirely.  The self-subsistence of art is mainly understood in terms of its independence from the artist:  the artist, who, Heidegger thinks, usually intends that the work be self-subsistent.  This artist "remains inconsequential" as compared to work (by which he means the great work), destroying himself in the creative process.  So much for art as self-expression!

The whole thing is clarified in the discussion of the Aegina sculptures in the Munich collection (these are classical Greek sculptures from the pediment of the Aegina temple).  The point is that (here, once again, in accord with Dewey) "placing them in a collection has withdrawn them from their own world."  And, further, this world has perished and this "can never be undone." (Doesn't he go too far here?  Clearly he found no problem earlier in the essay entering into the world of the peasant woman by way of Van Gogh's painting of shoes, even though that world had perished or had been radically transformed by the time Heidegger had written his essay.  Surely we can re-project the world of the work without, of course, ever completely matching the world that it originally projected.)

So now, housed in the museum, works such as these marbles "stand over against us in the realm of tradition and conservation" and "remain merely such objects":  they are a consequence "of their former self-subsistence."  This leads him to attack the art industry once again:  "the whole art industry, even if carried to the extreme and exercised in every way for the sake of works themselves, extends only to the object-being of the works" as opposed to their work-being, i.e. as opposed to treating them in their essential meaning.  This, again, seems inconsistent with the possibility addressed earlier that we could encounter a painting by Van Gogh in its work-being.  For Heidegger, the upshot of this line of inquiry is that the work belongs "within the realm that is opened up by itself" and it is there that we have a "happening of truth at work" as in, he even mentions it here, the Van Gogh case.  

It is this that introduces the architectural example.  Heidegger seems to think that he still needs to explore the question of truth. This is not surprising since his notion of truth as unconcealment is so radically different from any of the other main approaches to truth:  correspondence, coherence and pragmatist.  

On one level one might think, in talking about the temple after talking about Van Gogh's painting of shoes, that he is just moving from representational art to abstract art.  But more important is the move from easel art to public art.  The article on the origin of the work of art would be very different if it just stopped with the Van Gogh case.    

The example is a Greek temple.  But in the course of this discussion I also want to think of a secular temple, in particular the Lincoln Memorial with its statue of Abraham Lincoln. Although there is much to be said for the Greek temple as an example, the Lincoln Memorial, insofar as it is not strictly religious, can direct our attention to other applications of the example.  

So the specific Greek temple referenced, he imagines, simply stands in "the middle of the rock-cleft valley."  (I cannot think of an example that actually fits this description.)  I think Heidegger is trying to stress three things here, first that, in setting up the Greek temple, a world is set up, and so naturally it is "in the middle"; second that it's commanding presence is due to its being relatively isolated (at most it is part of a temple precinct) and is not seen as in the middle of a city; and third that it will have a profound affect, as we will see, on the rocks that surround it.  

Further, "the building encloses the figure of the god and in this concealment lets it stand out into the holy precinct through the open portico."  Phidias, the most famous Greek sculptor, was known for his Athena in the center of the Parthenon and for his Zeus at the temple of Zeus at Olympia.  But the sculpture of Lincoln by Daniel Fester French placed within the Greek-styled temple-like building designed by Henry Bacon in 1920 also works here.  The words "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln in enshrined forever" appear above the statue. 

But, a reader might reply, "Lincoln is not a god."  My answer would be that the statue of Lincoln in that spot and when animated with the holy is a god in Heidegger's sense of the word.  Heidegger, after all, was an atheist.  We will see that the statue of Lincoln fits his criteria of a god every bit as much as the statue of Zeus.  

So it is said that "by means of the temple, the god is present in the temple." Perhaps it would be better to say, by means of the temple and the sculpture of the god.  The god is present as much as a god can be in a world that is without gods.  The god extends the holy precinct, which is to say that the work of the temple with its god is to transform its physical surroundings by animating them:  "it is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself of the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquired the shape of destiny for human being."  This may seem strange here, but, after all, Heidegger is an existentialist philosopher.  So he begins phenomenologically with the things we care about most deeply, birth, death, disaster, blessing, victory, disgrace.  

The temple constitutes a holy space which is much like the stage of Greek tragedy:  it is a place where our hopes and fears can undergo cathartic ennoblement.  He had already brought up such things in discussing the peasant woman he imagined as the owner of the shoes in Van Gogh's painting (he would not admit he was imagining here:  but that is not important).  When Heidegger speaks of art bringing truth into unconcealment and of the truth of beings happening in the work, he means existential truth.  He means what is most fundamentally real in human experience: death, birth, disaster, blessing and so forth. 

I write this essay on the day after the presidential victory of Donald Trump, when America faces divides perhaps as great as any since the Civil War.  So, when Heidegger says that "the all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people" I find myself thinking more of the USA as a "historical people" than of his own Germany, which, to speak of the unfortunate "elephant in the room" in this discussion, was closely associated in his mind at the time he wrote the first draft of this essay with his support for the Nazi movement.  

We must not let Heidegger's moral and political failures in this regard, deep as they were, blind us, however to the insights or potential insights of this essay.  Reading great philosophy is always a matter of setting aside the material or implications we find repellent, or perhaps just not useful, and appropriating the material that has meaning for us.  And so, looking at the Lincoln Memorial, we may think of a monument built sixty years after the Civil War one that attempts to reconsecrate the destiny of a historical people much like the Parthenon of Athens build after the destruction of Athens by the Persians.  Do not we need, similarly, art that recreates the American dream out of the ruins of a traumatic presidential election?

So, what is the relationship between the great work of architecture and its surroundings?  The work changes the way we see things. This would have been particularly true for the ancient Greeks, who really believed in these religious cults, but can also be true for us even with the Greek temples, ruined as they are, to the extent that we can read ourselves back into the frame of mind of the creators, and perhaps find what Gadamer referred to as a fusion of horizons, that is between our own perspectival horizon and theirs. 

But there is also the claim that the great work of architecture transforms not only its surrounding but also its materials.  To put it briefly, art animates them, i.e. within experience.  The world comes alive when seen by way of and through the great work of art:  "this resting of the work [on its rocky ground] draws up out of the rock the mystery of that rock's clumsy yet spontaneous support."  

Let me tell a personal story to illustrate.  My wife and I were once visiting the Greek island of Naxos.  We had arrived by ferry too late to secure a hotel room and because of some confusions and mistakes ended up spending the rest of the night sitting on a park bench nodding off sometimes and pretty cold.  I had to go out onto the nearly beach to urinate, and as I stood there I suddenly became aware that I was facing the ruins of a Greek temple alone and luminescent in the moonlight.  The experience was transformative and life-changing.  My admiration and love of the ancient Greeks all seemed to be concentrated into this one experience.  

Similarly, experiencing a temple in a storm will have us experience the storm differently:  "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 building not only animates the world and phenomena around it, but brings out its essential nature.  This is also true for the materials out of which the building is made. Heidegger rejects the view that art is simply materials formed by craftsmanship and indicating or symbolizing some mental thing, the real work of art.  Rather the materials are animated by being in the work.  They come alive.  

"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 stone of the building not only gains its own luster and gleam through its animation, but this is in dynamic relation to the sun, the sky and the night.  They inter-animate each other.  Without this inter-animation the work of architecture lacks soul.  "The temple's firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air."  It is not just that the temple makes negative spaces, but rather that it makes us aware of how air too is animated when perceived through the eyes of the temple, i.e. in the context of its interaction with the temple in our experience.  

Heidegger describes this process in terms of his own interpretation of the Greek word "phusis," a word that we often associated with "physics" because it is its etymological root.  But here it means something very different.  It is almost the opposite of the physicalist way of looking at things.  Phusis, for Heidegger, and perhaps for at least some Greeks, means this:  "The Greeks early called this emergent and rising [for example, of the essence of the raging sea when contrasted experientially to the repose of the temple] in itself and in all thing phusis."  

So what does phusis do? It "clears and illuminates...that on which and in which man bases his dwelling," which Heidegger calls "earth," a term for which he has, here, a highly technical meaning.   To speak with the earliest Greek philosophers, for example Thales, phusis would have both a material and a spiritual side.  All things are water but they are also filled with spirit.  When the physical element, including surrounding and the materials out of which the work is made, is illuminated by the temple set up in its midst (and made up out of it) we have a world which is not merely mechanical but is also animated. 

"Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises without violation." The temple allows the air, for example, to arise into its animation as phusis, and then, if this arising is not a violation, then there is also a way in which the earth (in short, all of this animated context and materials) shelters, makes peaceful, protects:  so the earth, in its dynamic relation with the work of art and the world it exhibits is a "sheltering agent."  This kind of harmonious relation between earth, world, and work is utopian:  something we hardly ever achieve, a kind of ideal.

So, "the temple...opens up a world and at the same time sets this world back again on earth, which itself only thus emerges as native ground."  The earth only emerges as animated when the temple opens up a world, i.e. the world of ancient Greece, or perhaps of a re-unified or at least re-animated and re-consecrated America. 

Heidegger asks us to leave our framework, then, of thinking of the temple as just another thing set into a world of pre-existing "men, animals, plants and things" but rather as something that in creating a world and in creating a world/earth dynamic through creating a world also animates these things and gives them meaning.  That is expecting a lot of art, I know.  

So the temple not only gives "things their look" but also, insofar as it creates a world and a destiny for a historical people gives men "their outlook on themselves."  This is true, Heidegger insists, "as long as the god has not fled from it."  For an atheist, what this means is that the animation of the world that one accepts if one is not a strict physicalist is one which can be understood in terms of the presence of the, admittedly fictional, god.  If the god has left the Lincoln memorial (one thinks of the time Nixon came out there to speak with odd but strangely moving as well as pathetic effort to recreate the spirit of America in another time of national crisis).  

Heidegger then applies the same logic to the sculpture as to the temple:  "it is not a portrait whose purpose is to make it easier to realize how the god looks; rather, it is a work that lets the god himself be present and thus is the god himself."  This of course is idolatry and quite shocking to traditional believers, particularly to Christians.  But the point is fundamental to aesthetic atheism:  that there is meaning in religion to the extent that there is a presence of the holy as a numinous aura and a center of concentrated meaning to be found in the sculpture, temple or work of art.  But the god can leave, the numinous can be drained.   

Heidegger then launches into his discussion of the difference between setting up a work in an exhibition (going back to his anti museum theme) and "setting up in the sense of erecting a building, raising a statue, presenting a tragedy at a holy festival."  The latter form of setting up involves praise and dedication, and in setting up the work in this sense "the holy is opened up as holy and the god is invoked into the openness of his presence."  Dignity and splendor are "given to the god." 

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