The Origin of the Work of Art

Gregory Schufreider

Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes designates both a topic and a text. And just as there are multiple versions of the text, there are a number of topics at issue, over and above the question of the origin of artwork. In fact, one might argue that Heidegger’s aim in turning his attention to the work of art in the 1930s is to provide a new model of philosophy; although seeing this would require an appreciation of the precise way in which the topic of art is treated in a philosophical text that is designed to initiate a poetic thinking.

To complicate matters, there are at least a half a dozen versions of the essay, and more if we take into consideration the variations in the transcripts of the lectures taken by students who attended them. What has come to be designated as the “First Version” is the draft of a lecture that was never delivered. The text was published (in Heidegger Studies) in 1989, after an unauthorized version of a lecture that was first delivered in Freiburg in 1935 appeared in France (in 1987). These differ significantly from one another as well as from the official version of the essay that was published in Holzwege in1950. That text was based on the typescript of three lectures delivered in Frankfort in1936, although not without alteration in the later publication, including an Epilogue that was, at least in part, written later. An Addendum, written in 1956, was then added to the revised edition of the text that appeared in 1960. Finally, there is the Gesamtausgabe version, which includes Heidegger’s marginal comments to the earlier editions, marking yet another incarnation of the text.

In what follows, we will be drawing our account primarily from this final version, noting differences from other versions only when unavoidable. In this respect, there are two worth mentioning from the start, namely, in connection with the First Version of the essay; for its stunning formulation that “truth is essentially earthy (erdhaft)” is omitted from later versions, as is its claim that only art “works.” Given this distinctive emphasis, we begin with a discussion of work, before turning our attention to the Earth.


As necessarily as the artist is the origin of the work in a different way than the work is the origin of the artist, so it is equally certain that, in a still different way, art is the origin of both artist and work. (GA 5, 1/PLT, 17)

While modern thought may take it for granted that the artist is the origin of the work of art, on Heidegger’s view, this cannot be true, at least not unambiguously. For the work is the origin of the artist, assuming that someone only becomes an artist by creating a successful work of art. The event that Heidegger calls “art” is not the work of a single individual but must be thought collectively: in terms of a community that is constituted historically in a complex dynamic between artists, works, and what he calls preservers. At the same time, while Heidegger undermines the modern emphasis on genius, he also rejects the ancient failure to distinguish art from craft, such that “techne” refers to a set of productive principles through which a work is created by following the rules; even if he would agree that art is a distinctive way of coming into being (genesis).

It may appear that what we have here are two opposed models of the origin of artwork: a production model, in which a product is produced by executing a set of procedural techniques, in contrast to a model of creation that emphasizes the free imagination of an artistic genius, which cannot be duplicated in its operation. Both, however, offer causal accounts—the first based on Aristotle’s four causes, and the second by elevating what the classical account had relegated to the role of an efficient cause. In either case, art is thought in terms of metaphysical genesis: as an origin through which beings come into being in what Heidegger would regard as their ontical creation. By contrast, he would have us approach art ontologically, in a phenomenological ontology that thinks of “being” in terms of the different ways in which a being can appear. In that event, works of art are not simply ontical creations but involve an ontological determination; which is to say that “artwork” designates a specific way in which a being may appear, whether it is the Pieta of Michelangelo or an inverted urinal signed “R. Mutt.”

We mention Duchamp’s Fountain, which Heidegger does not (although it was “created” in 1917), because it helps to raise the question of the origin of the work of art, neither in the predictable procedure of a technical production nor through the inexplicable genius of an artistic creation, at least not one that operates by generating new beings metaphysically. Instead, what would otherwise appear as an item of gear (when mounted on the wall in a washroom) or even as an object (on display at a plumbing showroom) presents itself as a work of art, virtually without ontical alteration, except in its signature presentation—unless we also count its change of location (to a gallery) and inversion, which renders it dysfunctional (as gear) but self-standing (as a work of art). Similarly, when it comes to the traditional art that is mimicked here, it should be clear that the “work” may appear as an “object” (in aesthetic appreciation) or as an item of “gear” (in interior decoration), not to mention as a “product” (of a creative operation) or even as a “commodity” (in an economic calculation). Assuming that these ontological categories designate different ways in which the same being can appear, the question remains: what constitutes the “workly” character of the work of art, if not the work that the artist does in making it? What work, in other words, does the work itself do, such that, when it works, it creates an artist? And under what conditions does a being appear (in its “being”) as artwork, including the readymade, which (as its nickname indicates) abandons metaphysical creation in favor of an ontological originality that takes place right before our very eyes, in the event that what would otherwise appear as an item of gear presents itself as a work of art?


When a work is created, brought forth out of this or that work-material—stone, wood, metal, color, language, tone—we say that it is made, set forth out of it. (GA 5, 33/PLT, 44)

In attending to the question of what makes something art, we would, no doubt, have to face the institutional determination of the work, and not just in the museum (as an institution in which it may be displayed—to appeal to another ontological category—as an “artifact”) but insofar as a community is involved in setting the historical conditions, including for the advent of the readymade. To oversimplify, we might say that the ontological dimension of the work of art will be thought in terms of what Heidegger calls the world, as an historical structure that is created collectively, while the insistence on its ontical determination will involve a relation to the Earth as a prehistoric base of operations. This oversimplification will have to be corrected when we arrive at the most original thought in the essay on art, namely, of a “rift-design” that is created through a conflict that is yet to be defined.

If we have appealed to the readymade, it is not to suggest that Heidegger overlooks the ontical aspect of artwork, given his insistence on its relation to the Earth as the source of a concrete creation. Even Duchamp’s Fountain presents itself with a certain ontical originality, not in a material creation but in its presentation as an anomaly that isolates the ontological dimension of the work, highlighting the question of what makes something art. The answer, for Heidegger, is not that art is whatever artists say it is. On the contrary, his claim is that the successful work must be thought in terms of what he dubs as “the riddle of art,” which entails an appreciation of the way in which art “works” both ontically and ontologically. In that event, the task (of philosophy), we are told, is not to solve the riddle (of art) but to see it: to clarify how an ontical creativity may be riddled with an ontological originality, such that the origin (Ursprung) of art is seen to operate in relation to a primal leap (Ur-sprung) that is suspended in a breach between world and Earth that is created by the work itself.

In that case, we face a circle that may well be puzzling, given that artwork must create its own origin: instigate a rift between world and Earth whose resolution renders the design of a veritable fault line as an outline of truth in the making through the struggle of creation. If what Heidegger calls the world is an historical structure, then the Earth is a prehistoric ground: an Ur- as well as an Ab-grund; which is to say that, as both a primal and abysmal ground, it is as likely to undermine a world as to allow one to be founded on it. For the ground is not a foundation but, in this case, an abysmal source on which a world must be founded through the work of art. This does not make the Earth a “resource” (which is another way in which it can appear, ontologically speaking, under the auspices of modern technology), any more than the work is to be thought of as an object or an item of gear, let alone as a product or commodity. Instead, a world must be created and supported through work that has accommodated itself to both world and Earth: is set between world and Earth or, to be precise, sets up (aufstellen) a world by setting forth (herstellen) the Earth through a settlement of their inherent strife. In so doing, the work is set back (zurückstellen) on an Earth that secures (feststellen) a world, however tenuously, given the struggle through which it originates.

While it may to be obvious that, in art, an earth-material is worked into an historical structure, in Heidegger the result cannot be thought in terms of a static (let alone an eternal) form that dominates its matter, but in the configuration (Gestalt) of a framework (Gestell) that is clearly designated as a gathering of opposition in the linguistic operation of the above-mentioned set of “stellens.” To appreciate the dynamic nature of the resolution of the conflict between world and Earth, we would have to add another piece to the puzzle by insisting that, for Heidegger, what is distinctive about such work is that, in setting up a world, the Earth is revealed as a self-concealing source: set forth in its concealment as an abysmal support that must be “unearthed” in a dual sense. Not only must the Earth be disclosed in a world, but if it is to be exposed in the integrity of its self-determination, it must be worked against itself: be literally “un-earthed” as the Earth in a world that does not violate its self-concealment. Instead, in the respect that is shown for it in its revelation, the Earth appears as the self-contained basis for a world to which it is indifferently opposed.

If the world of a people directs us to an historical dimension of phenomena, while the Earth marks the facticity of a prehistoric givenness, then artwork makes it clear that a world is not simply projected on but protected by the Earth insofar as it is created out of it. If the Earth is to be rendered suitable for historical habitation, it must be un-earthed, however ambiguously, even as a world is unearthed on the basis of it insofar as the configuration of the work is worked out in a conflict that stems from a profound indifference. While the Earth is disclosed in a world that must work with and against its inclination for concealment, the world is stabilized by being set back on an Earth that maintains its self-enclosure in a sublime seclusion. This is not a matter of isolation but of an integrity that keeps to itself in an indifference that must be thought in relation to a duality that is complicated by its simplicity, namely, that world and Earth are not two different things. For while there is an inherent asymmetry in their relation insofar as the Earth is indifferent to a world that depends upon it, there is a far more essential “in-difference” between them insofar as their difference is not ontical but ontological. The Earth is not just indifferent to the world but in-different from it insofar as the world “is” the Earth disclosed historically. In that event, the ontological (in)difference between world and Earth is not just instigated by and secured through but exhibited in the work of art as it displays its origin in its presentation.

In so doing, what art shows is that a world is not imposed upon beings (as the paradigm of the “object” may suggest) but unearthed in their midst through the creation (and installation) of specific beings, namely, “works” of art, that literally make a world out of the Earth. If we take art as our model, it is clear that a world “happens” as a concrete site for human habitation when the Earth appears within the confines of an historical structure. Moreover, if these works are to provide a foundation for the world, then they must be designed in and as a configuration of the conflict, such that, in the unearthing of a world through artwork, it becomes apparent that “truth is essentially earthy.”


Truth establishes itself as a strife within a being that is to be brought forth only in such a way that the conflict opens up in this being, that is, this being is itself brought into the rift-design. (GA 5, 51/PLT, 61)

If what Heidegger once referred to as our “being-in-the-world” must now be thought in relation to a being-on-the-Earth, then this is to insist that the world, as a meaningful whole, is founded on a massive insignificance that both precedes and exceeds wherever sense can be made of human existence. In that event, we must admit that all historical significance is instituted through and submitted to a formation that is “faulty,” if we may take the term geologically: is full of faults, not as defects or mistakes but as cracks or breaks in the foundation. In this respect, it is the self-concealing operation of the Earth that keeps a world open: interrupts our inclination for totalization in an enclosure of sense as a framework of significance. Not only does the Earth inevitably disrupt our meaning, given its indifference, but a sublime insignificance may be glimpsed in the beauty of the breach that is created by works of art in the breakdowns as well as the breakthroughs that constitute a “continuous” history of creative struggle. For the Earth remains intact in its integrity throughout the fluctuations in “world-history,” which is to say that there is only one “Earth” (which is why we capitalize it as a proper name) but many worlds.

While it should come as no surprise if the key term that unlocks the structure of the work of art has geological overtones, what is referred to as the “rift” (Riß) is designed to describe the structure of the strife between world and Earth as a breach in which each is related to the other in the concrete determination of a dynamic configuration. The crack or split between world and Earth creates a figurative fault line, which defines an opening between them that is configured in the clash of their alignment. This dynamic “rift” is thought linguistically in terms of a complex “design”: in relation to the sketch or layout (Auf-riß) of a ground plan or outline (Grund-riß), in this case, taken literally as a ripping open of the ground. Such a “rift-design,” in other words, is rendered in a rent that rips through (Durch-riß) the ground, breaking it open in such a way that the breach defines the contour (Um-riß) of a concrete design. It is as if the ground must be ground down, if it is to take shape in a structure that is created as the configuration of a conflict between world and Earth that is etched into the work insofar as the work has been (sk)etched out of it. In this respect, the work of art is torn between the two, given its commitment to let the self-concealing Earth appear in a world that is clearly grounded on it.

If artwork is to found a world on the Earth, it must submit to both by creating a concrete relation between them: instigate a strife that is defined by the configuration of a rift-design in a dynamic event of unconcealment. Not only does the Earth appear in the unearthing of a world, but the work presents itself in its own originality: appears as an unprecedented revelation of the relation between world and Earth, and in an origination that is apparent in the appearance of the work of art. In this respect, art involves an exhibition of truth in the beauty of the breach, assuming that what we see on display in the work is the creation of an historic opening between world and Earth: a time-space, to be exact, that arranges for the disclosure, not just of the work (as an ontical creation) but of all beings in the historical dimension of their appearance, thanks to the installation of art in their midst. This is to insist that art is in a position to set a standard for unconcealment, ontologically speaking: to create a measure of “being” that the work brings with it in its own creation insofar as its appearance happens through a primal conflict that art is designed keep open, as if in the riptide of an historical momentum that does not subside in the meeting of its opposing currents. On the contrary, art accelerates history, setting its pace by intensifying the flow of time through the operation of a free creation that takes place spatially as well as temporally.


History is the transporting of a people into its appointed task as entrance into that people’s endowment. (GA 5, 65/PLT, 74)

If art involves an ontological determination, then this is to insist that a time-space of unconcealment is not only opened up in the conflict between world and Earth but that what Heidegger designates as “the truth of being” happens historically in ontical creations that are stationed in the midst of beings to set a standard for their appearance as phenomena. In facing what he dubs as the “clearing” (Lichtung), in the case in point, as an historical opening that takes place through creative “work,” we come to the heart of Heidegger’s thinking, and not only about the origin of art. On the contrary, it is his thought about the clearing of a time-space for the appearance of phenomena that gives to art a specifically Heideggerian look. As an historic event, what he calls “the open” is riddled with openings—which is what a work of art “is,” and not only insofar as “great art” creates a breach in history, but in that the work generates a free and open space and time in a clearing that is designed to keep the conflict between world and Earth happening by refining it in a dynamic design.

This refinement of the rift, as both a clarification and a condensation of conflict, takes place in the beauty of a concrete configuration that must be thought of not only as an open structure but as a structured openness. In structuring the strife, the work of art shows a certain restraint that displays the contention of the clearing in such a way as to keep its originality in play, working to disclose the struggle for beings in their historical being. Needless to say, the creation of what we might think of as a true beauty, given its relation to unconcealment, connects a world to the Earth more directly than a traditional sense of truth. In the end, it is the “earthy” dimension of truth that links it to the beauty of the work of art insofar as ontological truth must be installed (einrichten) or executed (verrichten) ontically in order to create a concrete opening for an historical existence. The disclosure of a free time-space must be arranged (richten) with an exactness (Richtigkeit) that is not a matter of correctness, or even of a mere precision, but of a literal accuracy in setting the directions from which a community may take its orientation (Richtung), in the case of art, through the erecting (errichten) of concrete sites of truth (Wahrheit) whose breakthroughs must be preserved (verwahren) collectively in order to sustain the momentum of a people’s history.

Such a moving beauty will itself be thought in four movements, once again expressed in terms of a root that is pulled in different directions. This time the term “rücken” will be deployed to define a linguistic complex that is designed to track an elusive beauty in its dynamic operation. Through entrancement (berücken), engagement (einrücken), transport (entrücken), and derangement (verrücken), the work of art attracts an audience that is drawn to it thanks to a captivation that engages them in an historical movement insofar as they are transported to another world, as old standards are struck down and new ones are erected, which only take effect if preservers are willing to submit to them: are committed to protect the truth that is happening through the work as a standard-setting event of unconcealment. In submitting to an ontological derangement, not as the madness of the insane but in the ecstatic opening that is involved in resetting the range of the horizons of world-history, the audience participates in the beauty of art, whose origin, as we have insisted from the start, must be thought of as a collective creation.

In Heidegger’s view, art takes part in the creation of a truth that is coming true historically, in work that sets the standards for the appearance of phenomena through its beauty. For beauty happens when ontological truth appears ontically: in its installation through the origination of specific beings that operate to set a standard of being in their own appearance. Such a measure-setting event, in the case of art, involves the self-evidence of its own creation, in which a being appears to set the standard for its own appearance, not to have one imposed upon it, and least of all by us insofar as we submit to it. Consequently, Heidegger will claim, following Hölderlin, that beauty is “the most apparent appearance,” as an appearance in which appearance itself becomes apparent and, as such, strikes us with an amazement that is astonishing, if not awe-inspiring. In appreciating the unprecedented presence of the work of art in its originality, we are struck by the fact that it is at all—and not in the debilitation of anxiety but in the elation of a beauty that moves mountains into history insofar as it displays the Earth in its entry into unconcealment, assuming that we agree not only with Heidegger’s view of Cezanne’s many renderings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, but appreciate that they are created out of paint.


Does the clearing happen through language or does this appropriative event of clearing first grant articulation and renunciation and so language? Language and body (speech and writing). (GA 5, 62)

Given the word-play that we have seen on display, it should come as no surprise that a text on the origin of art would inevitably lead to the thought of linguistic work in its own originality as well as to a (re)consideration of philosophy as “a work of the word” in its “kinship” with poetry. This is not a matter of art yielding to philosophy, as in Hegel, and certainly not of poetry giving way to prose. On the contrary, the point, we would insist, is to recreate philosophy in the face of art; even if Heidegger will do so by insisting upon the priority of a poetic thinking.

While we cannot deny that the overall structure of “The Origin of the Work of Art” involves the plotting of what would appear to be a strategy of betrayal in its ultimate commitment to poetry, the tactics of the text would suggest otherwise. Admittedly, the movement of thinking begins by appealing to a model drawn from the plastic arts, in which the appearance of the Earth is evident, only to end by rendering them secondary to poetry, based on Heidegger’s claims about the priority of language—which hardly seems to qualify as an “earth-material,” even though he includes it in the list, along with stone and paint. And while he also includes a disclaimer, distinguishing poetry proper from the “poetic” nature of all art, his insistence on the centrality of linguistic creativity remains problematic.

It would appear, however, that sometime after 1960 Heidegger had second-thoughts, questioning the priority that he had attributed to language in the determination of the clearing, or at least wondering what it means to say that the other arts operate in an opening that “has already happened unnoticed in language.” And without addressing this in detail, we would insist that the tactics of the text already suggest a different approach: not an eclipsing of the plastic by the poetic arts but the presentation of a linguistic creation as a plastic operation. Here we would have to appreciate the text not only in its configuration of opposing roots (stellen, reissen, richten, rücken) but in its rendering of each through a complex prefixing that operates through hyphenation: by inserting a rift in the word as a plastic act designed to break it open, and not just in the exposure of a root meaning but in a reconfiguration of the sight and sound of language insofar as a moment of silence has been inserted into the word through its punctuation. In so doing, words presents themselves with an unprecedented significance, such that we literally sense language as an original event, breaking the silence through which meaning comes into being.

Gregory Schufreider - The Origin of the Work of Art
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