HEIDEGGER’S ONTOLOGY OF ART
in certain situations, it is misleading to think of our style as a belief system, scheme, or framework. It is invisible both because it is in our comportment, not in our minds, and because it is manifest in everything we see and do, and so too pervasive to notice. Like the illumination in a room, style normally functions best to let us see things when we don’t see it. As Heidegger puts it, the mode of revealing has to withdraw in order to do its job of revealing things. Since it is invisible and global, our current understanding of being seems to have no contrast class. We can’t help reading our own style back into previous epochs, the way the Christians understood the Greeks as pagans in despair, and the Moderns understood the Classical Greeks as already being rational subjects dealing with objects. So how can we ever notice our style or the style of another epoch in our culture?
The Work of Art as Manifesting a World
Heidegger answers this question in two stages. First, he shows that art is capable of revealing someone else’s world. He shows this by describing a Van Gogh painting of a peasant woman’s shoes. (Whether, as art critics debate, the shoes are really a pair of peasant shoes or Van Gogh’s own shoes is irrelevant to how the picture works.) Heidegger claims that the shoes are not a symbol; they don’t point beyond themselves to something else. Instead, Van Gogh’s painting reveals to us the shoes themselves in their truth, which means that the shoes reveal the world of the peasant woman – a world that is so pervasive as to be invisible to the peasant woman herself, who, even when she deals with her shoes, “simply wears them . . . without noticing or reflecting” (GA 5: 23/Heidegger 1971: 34).
The Van Gogh painting, however, manifests the peasant’s world to the viewer of the painting. Art, then, can be seen as manifesting a world to those outside it. But, of course, a culture’s language, its artifacts, and its practices all reflect its style. This leaves open the question: if the style necessarily withdraws, how can anyone ever come to see the style of his or her own epoch? To answer this question, we need to look further into Heidegger’s account of the special function of art.
The Work of Art as Articulating a Culture’s
Understanding of Being
Heidegger’s basic insight is that the work of art not only manifests the style of the culture; it articulates it. For everyday practices to give us a shared world, and so give meaning to our lives, they must be focused and held up to the practitioners. Works of art, when performing this function, are not merely representations of a pre-existing state of affairs, but actually produce a shared understanding. Charles Taylor and Clifford Geertz have discussed this important phenomenon.
Taylor makes this point when he distinguishes shared meanings, which he calls intersubjective meanings, from common meanings. As he puts it: “Common meanings are the basis of community. Inter-subjective meanings give a people a common language to