Art-work or Art-object? A phenomenological introduction

In the blog this week: The Institute will publish a series of articles on contemporary art and philosophy in conjunction with the Talk Art/Talk Society events. The first blog post is written by Valter Holmström and deals with one of the main currents of philosophy of art in the 20th century –  phenomenology – and the transformative power of art. 

“By the opening of a world, all things gain their lingering and hastening, their distance and proximity, their breadth and their limits.” – Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art, 1950.

When venturing into the dense conceptual forest of contemporary art it is easy to get lost. The multitude of art theories, avant-garde art pieces, eccentric artists and confused public discourse makes for a strange foreign ground where the traveler is lost with no clear guiding coordinates. To create a framework of understanding – to grasp contemporary art in the form of thought – we turn to philosophy. Not necessarily to reduce the complexity of art to a few intelligible principles, but rather to sketch at least one way to navigate the contemporary art field.

In the Finnish Institute’s recent Talk Art/Talk Society event, artist Hans Rosenström and critic/curator James Putnam discussed various forms of visibility for contemporary art. Regarding the question whether art should be actively marketing itself for a wider audience Rosenström quipped “at what point does a work of art become an object for the market?”– a question that can be read in a phenomenological way, and a good starting point for elucidating some philosophical interpretations of art: the difference between art-work and art-object.
The distinction I’m referring to is one made by Martin Heidegger.  And whereas it might be pretentious to go into the complexities of Heidegger’s phenomenology in a short blog post, a simple grazing of the surface might give us a sketch of some concepts that can shed light on contemporary art. Suffice it to say that phenomenology is the philosophical study of consciousness and experience, and in that sense it’s often a natural ally to art and aesthetics.[1]
The distinction between art-work and art-object is one made by Heidegger in The Origin of the Work of Art (1950). One of the many things Heidegger was objecting to in this essay was the view of art as an object isolated from the viewing subject. We come to expect art to personally enrich us – we go to a museum and observe an art piece and walk home with a sense of fulfilment. Maybe we talk about it with our peers. But this attitude is restrictive in many ways and fails to grasp the true transformative power of art, or the crucial role art plays in a community.
The problem with this “aesthetic approach” to art, Heidegger suggested, is that it isolated the art and the viewer from each other. In fact, in our everyday experience, the line between art and subject is blurry. Modern thought is generally haunted by a shadow of dualism, of an object-subject distinction, which gives us a warped view of the world. And Heidegger blurred the lines. Art, for instance, is transformative; it does not leave its subject(s) intact.[2]

Artwork from the ceiling of the Tomb of the Diver in a temple at Paestum. 
Photo by Michael Johanning 2001.

Rather, both art and viewer are immersed in a historical community – what Heidegger calls a specific “world” – where they both play a dynamic part. It is in this context where the art-work does its work. It is an active part of this world, it creates, entangles, brings together different forms of intelligibility, values, existential attitudes, traditions – aspects which constitutes our experience of reality. Heidegger used an ancient Greek temple at Paestum as an example of a great artwork: it connects a community, shapes attitudes towards life and death, of what matters and what doesn’t. Art is not confined to some leisurely activity like going to the museum, it is not an object to be merely passively pondered.
The role of art in our historical situation, Heidegger continues, is also to bring forth the tensions immanent in our understanding of our world. Not only is art a crucial part of world creation, modern art also open ups worlds, makes us aware of the fundamental openness of world-making – how our reality is neither eternal nor objective, but always creatively constructed by human communities.

Nocturnal festivity by Paul Klee, 1921. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Art objectified, whether by a market logic or as bourgeois cultural capital denies art its world-opening, its world-making and world-transforming role. In stead it becomes part of the subject’s – this mythical creature’s – strive to self-growth, a perspective Heidegger viewed as insufficient if we want to really grasp our existence as human beings.
But there are many other ways of encountering art, and this is only one glimpse of one way of viewing it. Indeed, if contemporary art is a dense forest, so is contemporary thought. And there are different paths through both, interspersed with light.

[1] Although, of course, not in every instance.
[2]And indeed, “the subject” probably does not even exist as a fixed entity to begin with.

2 thoughts on “Art-work or Art-object? A phenomenological introduction

  1. aldosco says:

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