Defining Art, Letter III: Enter Heidegger
[to read Letter II, click here]
I was reading Heidegger the other day. A little light beach reading that I did not quite get to over the summer. So there was Heidegger, sitting on my lap next to my Sunday crossword puzzle, and it came to me.
Art is a thing.
Not only that, but according to Heidegger, it has thingness and a thingly nature. In “The Work of Art,” he writes:
“Art works universally display a thingly character, albeit in a wholly distinct way. The attempt to interpret this thing-character of the work with the aid of the usual thing-concepts failed — not only because these concepts do not lay hold of the thingly feature, but because, in raising the question of its thingly substructure, we force the work into a preconceived framework by which we obstruct our own access to the work-being of the work.”
I am not sure that he says this as clearly as he might, but there is something afoot in these words, something valuable. If art is a thing, it has its own nature. And if it has its own nature, then there must be something – some thing – out there for us to define. Our problem, however, is that we are trying to use language suited for other things in order to define the art-thing, and that approach does not work.
I love what you wrote in your letter, and your closing words really strike home: “Art gives us privileged moments. It is an experience that stands apart from our every day lives. Because it’s distinct, we need to define it.” Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes. As I read your words and reflect on Heidegger’s thing, I think that we need to find that essence of what is distinct in art. That distinct quality moves us beyond the rules of the game for all other experiences. Art is ineffable as you say, and yet it is also real. A paradox. The paradox takes me to what the Romantics have to say on the subject, that we are trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, express the inexpressible.
Yet I do not want to dodge the question simply by saying it is all just “inexpressible.” So what makes art “distinct”? First, art creates that which did not exist previously. Second, art creation comes from a place separate from other human acts. Third, we receive art (as listener, viewer, reader, etc.) in a way that is also distinct from all other acts.
So where do we go from here?
With a shared respect for distinctness,