Heidegger’s Ontology of Art

Introduction: World, Being, and Style

Heidegger is not interested in works of art as expressions of the vision of a creator, nor is he interested in them as the source of aesthetic experiences in a viewer. He holds that “modern subjectivism . . . immediately misinterprets creation, taking it as the selfsovereign subject’s performance of genius” (GA 5: 63/Heidegger 1971: 76), and he also insists that aesthetic experience “is the element in which art dies” (GA 5: 66/Heidegger 1971: 79). Instead, for Heidegger, an artwork is a thing that, when it works, performs at least one of three ontological functions. It manifests, articulates, or reconfigures the style of a culture from within the world of that culture. It follows that, for Heidegger, most of what hang in museums, what are admired as great works of architecture, and what are published by poets were never works of art, a few were once artworks but are no longer working, and none is working now. To understand this counter-intuitive account of art, we have to begin by reviewing what Heidegger means by world and being.

World is the whole context of shared equipment, roles, and practices on the basis of which one can encounter entities and other people as intelligible. So, for example, one encounters a hammer as a hammer in the context of other equipment such as nails and wood, and in terms of social roles such as being a carpenter, a handyman, etc., and all such sub-worlds as carpentry, homemaking, etc., each with its appropriate equipment and practices, make sense on the basis of our familiar everyday world. Heidegger calls this background understanding our understanding of being. As he puts it in Being and Time, “being is that on the basis of which beings are already understood” (SZ: 7).

When he wrote Being and Time, Heidegger thought that he could give an ontological account of the universal structures of Worldhood and thus ground a “science of being.” He was, therefore, not interested in what he called ontic accounts of specific sub-worlds and various cultures. It was only in the early 1930s that he realized that, in our Western culture at least, the understanding of being has a history. Then, he saw that the specific way that beings are revealed – what he then calls the truth of being – determines how anything shows up as anything and certain actions show us as worth doing. For simplicity, we can call the truth of being of a particular culture or a specific epoch in our culture the style of that world.