The Earth and the World: Art According to Heidegger

One of the most interesting writers on poetry today surely is Adam Kirsch, who blends common sense with a deep thoughtfulness. Sometimes that can make critics mushy, but Kirsch is no  pushover. This month’s Poetry shows him thinking through the consequences of Heidegger, an influential critic ruined in our esteem by his attraction to Nazism.

Nonetheless, Kirsch points out, his theory of art — how it places "the earth" in the context of "the world" has powerful resonance with poets today, and perhaps for enviros as well. Kirsch writes:

To answer the abstract question "What is art?" Heidegger begins by
setting the reader before a particular artwork—a Van Gogh painting of a
pair of shoes. When you wear shoes, he points out, you seldom think
about them. Shoes, like all kinds of tools and equipment, are at their
best when they are most reliable, that is, when they perform their
function silently and unobtrusively. In fact, you only begin to pay
attention to your shoes when they stop working properly—when they pinch
your foot or when the sole comes off. And most of the objects that
surround us share this quality of being instruments, things that we use
and ignore.

Looking at Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes, Heidegger
suggests, something different happens. For the first time, we become
aware of the two dimensions or axes in which a pair of shoes exists. On
the one hand, we are struck by their physical reality: their weight and
texture and color, all the qualities we tend to overlook when we wear
them. At the same time, the painting allows us to imagine the life in
which these shoes belong—the life of a peasant woman, Heidegger
imagines, with her "toilsome tread." Crucially, these two aspects of
the shoes—what they are and what they do—are inextricable in the
painting. "In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes," Heidegger
writes, "there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through
the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw
wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under
the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls."

In this way, he suggests, the Van Gogh painting demonstrates the
double purpose of art. Art confronts us with "the earth"—the sensuous
reality of the non-human, which we tend to forget or ignore when we are
engaged in practical tasks. At the same time, art sets the earth into
"the world"—the historical human context in which we work, suffer, and
hope. Artworks can perform this unique function because they themselves
have a double nature. They cannot exist without matter, and they always
have physical properties—music is formed sound, painting is formed
color. But they also do not exist simply in matter, the way utilitarian
objects do. Rather, they simultaneously transcend their material and
allow their material to be itself for the first time. When we look at a
Greek temple, Heidegger writes, we understand the weight and color of
marble, in a way that we can’t when we’re just looking a rock quarry.

Of course, it’s much easier to theorize than to paint (or act, or sing, or dance, or what have you). Nonetheless, with this approach Heidegger offers us a tool for understanding, and encourages us to look again at Van Gogh’s mastery. He painted many pairs of shoes, but they all have this ability to transcend their material and yet allow the material to be itself (to us humans) for the first time.

Once I tried to capture that by taking a picture of my old hiking books. Just didn’t work, I confess. Better leave it to Vincent:


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

2 thoughts on “The Earth and the World: Art According to Heidegger

  1. Do try again (taking a photo of old hiking boots, I mean). Practice makes perfect, and you’re right, it’s a great still-life subject. And by the way, you’re a very good photographer.

    I read a book by Heidegger years ago that was a series of straightforward, easy-to-read essays on what he considered the five great philosophers. If I remember correctly, they were Buddha, Aristotle (or it could have been Plato), Jesus, Kant and somebody else. To read about Christ as an historical figure/philosopher was one of the most revolutionary moments in my reading life. I had to look at everything differently afterwards.


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