Tag Archive: Heidegger


Art, Truth, and History

            I know I’ve touched on ideas of art and truth before, but it’s something I frequently find myself returning to.  I suppose as someone who’s read “The Origin of the Work of Art” three times now it’s fairly well ingrained in my mind.  This time I’ve been thinking about history paintings and truth.  History paintings were a huge source of commissions for artists for a long time.  Yet for many of the subjects being depicted the artist was not present or even alive at the time. So how can these pieces contain the truth?

            Indeed it seems almost impossible for these paintings to contain the truth.  They were created by people who weren’t even there and often commissioned by people who planned to use the piece in some way to promote their own personal and/or political agenda.  Doesn’t sound like there’s much truth there.  I think the key lies in the difference between “truthful” and “the truth.” So yes, many of these paintings are not “truthful.”  They may represent people and events that actually existed/occurred, but the scene itself is the invention of the artist’s imagination.

            But this does not mean that the painting doesn’t still contain “the truth.”  A good history painting, while perhaps not historically accurate, should still capture the spirit and essence of the time/scene/event it is representing.  And it is there in which the truth lay.  Did Washington really look like that crossing the Delaware?  Probably not.  But does the painting capture the spirit of the American Revolution?  Absolutely.  There’s an essence to that painting that captures the truth of the time.  It is not truthful, yet it still contains the truth.

            The danger arises (and I suppose I’m getting a bit Platonic here) when people take these pieces as historical fact.  The truth of the spirit gets confused for the truth of the scene/historical accuracy.  Appreciate art for capturing the truth of its time.  But don’t assume the piece is truthful.  It seems that far too few people really know/understand how much and for how long art has been used as personal and political propaganda.  Even when not intended as propaganda, as long as it’s being produced by a human being, every piece of art carries with it some kind of bias.  And it’s so important to remember that when looking at art.  Not that these biases necessarily take away from the truth the piece may contain, in fact it may even add to it.  But it can effect and possible take away from the truthfulness. 

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas.

“Almost done with this painting?  I’ve got places to be!”

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Art and Money

            The other day I was looking at the blog of one of my former art teachers and read the entry about selling his work (which can be read here: http://paintthepainting.wordpress.com/2011/03/02/lets-break-up/).  It made me kind of sad.  As someone who will (hopefully) be entering the art world more seriously in the next few years it made me sad to think that one day I may start to see beautiful works of art as just thinks to be bought and sold.  Maybe I’m too sensitive for the business side of the art world.  I like knowing a piece’s history and back story (and not just for provenance purposes).  It adds to its charm and gives it character.  I think it’s also nice to know that a piece is going to a good home.

            And really, how do you put a value on a work of art?  Obviously if it’s done by a well known artist the piece gets a higher price.  I don’t think that’s necessarily fair though.  I’m sure there are a lot of pieces by relatively unknown artists that deserve to sell their work for just as much as the famous artists.  Then there’s the fact that an artist’s work tends to sell for more after their death.  That also doesn’t seem very fair.  Artists put so much time, money and emotion into their work, they deserve to see something back from that while they’re alive and can enjoy it.  If it’s a piece from a limited edition the ones near the beginning and end of the series are worth more than the ones in the middle.  One of a kinds are worth more than multiples, etc.  A lot of it just seems so arbitrary. 

            As much as it pains me to do so, I have to agree with Heidegger and his view of the art industry.  Heidegger says in “The Origin of the Work of Art” that, “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.”  This is a shame because there’s so much more to a work than its object-being.  A piece is its place and time of creation.  It’s the artist’s hard work, emotions and memories.  How do you put a price on emotions and memories?  But that’s what artists selling their work have to do all the time.  And art dealers have to tell other people what their hard work and efforts are worth.  Even for commissioned pieces the artist may not have much attachment to they still have to put a value on themselves and their time.

            I don’t own many original works of art other than my own yet.  But as I grow my collection I hope I always keep a piece’s past in mind and honor it in the future.  I’d want the artists to feel confident his or her work is going to someone who values and appreciates it.  I hope I never lose my appreciation for art and beauty.

Picasso vs. Heidegger

          “We all know that Art is not truth.  Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.  The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” – Pablo Picasso

            When I stumbled upon this quote from Picasso on www.quotegarden.com I immediately thought of Heidegger.  For it is Heidegger who believes that, “Art is truth setting itself to work,” (in “The Origin of the Work of Art”), and this would seem to be in direct conflict with Picasso’s view.  One says art is truth, the other that art is a lie.

            However upon further contemplation, I don’t think the two views are as contradicting as they first seem.  Picasso says that art is a lie, but that it is a lie that helps us see the truth.  So there is still truth in art, just a selected truth.  For Heidegger art opens up a world, whereas for Picasso it seems more that a world is presented.  Heidegger has art opening, while Picasso has it revealing, which are similar concepts, but still different.  Revealing implies that things were hidden, and that some things perhaps still are.  This is different than opening, which to me at least, implies a gaining of access.  The things are always there, you just might not have access to them all the time. 

            I think these views also differ in the role the artist plays in truth.  For Picasso the artists plays a larger part in the truth art may reveal.  It is up to that artist to decide how much truth their art reveals and to convince the viewer of this truth.  For Heidegger it seems the artist plays very little part into the truth revealed by art.  The artist is important in that the artwork would not exist without him or her, but the truth is dependent entirely on the world opened by the piece.  One could say that the artist controls the world that is opened up, but Heidegger does not say that, and he is who we’re talking about in the first place.

            Overall, though seemingly contradictory, at the heart of it, Heidegger and Picasso agree that there is truth in art.  They may differ in their views of how the truth is presented, but the truth is still present in art in some way or another.  It makes sense that Picasso would put more importance on the artist than Heidegger.  Heidegger dismisses artists fairly early in his search for the origin of the work of art.  Picasso sees artists as key for showing the audience the truth, whereas for Heidegger the work speaks for itself. 

Picaso, Violin, 1912

Truth or Lies?

           As someone who hopes to one day own her own gallery, I’m a bit offended by Heidegger’s opinions about the art industry (in “The Origin of the Work of Art).  He’s not entirely wrong but I don’t think he’s entirely right either.  He says that the displacement of art destroys the world of the piece.  I believe this is true for certain art – ancient art taken from its natural setting and put in a museum mainly.  But even on that I’m a bit torn.  On the one hand, I don’t think artifacts should be removed from their original settings.  But on the other hand, they do need to be preserved and putting them in a museum allows more people to see them and experience them.  Over the summer I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the ancient Mesopotamian section was able to see the giant Lamasus and relief carvings from Shalmaneser III’s palace that I learned about the previous semester.  It was amazing being around these monumental pieces of art and to experience them, even if they were not in their original environment.  So yes, Heidegger’s view of the art industry destroying the world of a piece I think is valid for ancient art and monuments that have an original environment in the first place. 

            However I think Heidegger is overlooking one thing.  For much modern art, especially painting and photography, the gallery is the world of the art.  The gallery is its intended space.  This however, puts a lot of pressure on the person in charge of setting up exhibits to make sure each piece is shown in a way that is true to the piece and does not destroy its world.  There are so many factors that influence how a work of art is perceived.  From lighting to frame, all these things matter.  Living artists have the option of controlling how their work is seen and able to preserve the world.  For artists who are no longer around though, it’s up to the curators.  Curators must take this responsibility of not destroying the world of a piece seriously.

Lamasu at the Met