Great Critics and Their Ideas: Martin Heidegger

on painting now, interview by Matthew Collings

By Matthew Collings

Anselm Kiefer Wege Der Weltweisheit: Die Hermansschlacht, 1978. Courtesy the Sonnabend Collection, New York

Martin Heidegger (born in Messkirch, in 1889) was a German philosopher whose books, notorious for untranslatable neologisms, looked at problems of existentialism and phenomenology. His major work, Being and Time, was published in 1927. His much revised essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ was first published in 1950. He died in 1976.


Hi Martin. You once wrote about a painting by Van Gogh. I’d love to hear what you think about painting today, and if you’ve come across any writing about it that has impressed you.


Well, the kind of painting issues that get really concentrated attention from art writers today tend to be status related: a painter the artworld is in awe of starts showing at Gagosian, and a notion starts up – no doubt unfounded, but it has a mesmerizing fascination – that he got a big transfer fee. And is it against future sales or is it a present – a car and a million dollars maybe? Or ten million? This is felt to be more urgent than the kind of meanings that preoccupied me in my career, from the publication of Being and Time onwards. Meaning itself, how things are perceived to have it, and how it becomes concealed, so that a meaningful existence is really a process of seeking unconcealment – these are notions of a very different order to the ones that preoccupy art writers today. An iron-hard scrutiny of the commercial bottom-line determines the whimsical proposals they eventually commit to paper in a perfumed or disguised form.

Art writers feel free to express their own feelings nowadays.

MH If art is to be capable of provoking or revealing feeling, which is already a difficult philosophical issue, it must be about something, and it must be so in an inescapably intense way. Of course the same goes for writing about art. You don’t just emote. Or at least what you write will carry more weight if you don’t. You should put something convincing together, in terms of what you think the painting is about and how it works. And if what you end up with has a surprising quality of recognition, as if experience is being unearthed, then there might be a chance of it being moving. But this quality of being moving should be a byproduct of your work as a writer, just as being funny, say, should be a byproduct. The real aim is truth. How do you engage with it? The essay you mentioned, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, is not about feelings in art but about art’s ability to reveal a world.

Did it come to you all at once, when Van Gogh’s painting of an old pair of shoes struck you like a thunderbolt?

MH On the contrary, the essay was a long time in the making. It first came out in 1950. I started drafting it 15 years earlier, and its basis was a series of lectures I gave a few years earlier still. A redrafted version came out ten years after its first publication. So what you read today, when you read it, is the result of nearly 30 years’ thought.

Can you break it down for us in simple terms?

MH It is about two things: first, the essence of a work of art; and second, the meaning of a ‘thing’. The wearer of the shoes that Van Gogh depicts had no reason to think about them, they just wore them, so we can get rid of the idea that the shoes are a symbol. It is only through being painted that they become something. A world is manifested to those outside that world – ‘outside’ because that world has now passed. The painting opens up an epoch, a moment of humanity. In it we see world-experience. Not the feelings of Van Gogh, or those of the peasant woman (if that’s who it was) who owned the shoes.

Are aesthetics really that important, though? Art is much more relaxed now. It’s the digital age. Painting is nothing special, it’s democratic; we can all get it, like we get anything.

MH ‘Aesthetics’ is the term invented by philosophy to describe pleasure caused by beauty. I think this aspect of art is of secondary importance. Art’s primary function is truth. Van Gogh’s painting of shoes is not about the meaning of shoes but the truth of being. In any case, in the essay I say that art is really the source not only of art but also of the artist, since art reveals us to ourselves. This is a development of an idea from Nietzsche: the world, existence itself, is an ongoing work of creation. We make our world.

But what about feelings? These are really important, aren’t they?

MH The artist’s feelings and ideas I would always take to be of the noblest kind, since art is a high calling. But the artist is only a conduit for the force of art.

Do you have any thoughts about the audience for painting now?

MH The kind of painting you tend to find is one where the artist deems it enough to communicate what it means now to be an artist: celebrating tentative meaning, for example, or embracing relativism. And the kind of audience is one that agrees to go along with this.

What about critics?

MH They combine whimsical, fleeting opinions with confident assertions of selfhood.

Confident about what?

MH Well, that’s the problem. Trapped as we are in irony, nevertheless it’s also an age of unrestrained sentimentalism. Revelations of quivering selfhood are as familiar in Frieze and Artforum as they are in The Guardian. The invented self in these cases is not of a sly kind that might ironically problematise your reading of the critical material so you are forced to question your assumptions about both criticism and art. Rather, it continues the theme of whimsicality. The writer always ‘loves’ something. Feels ‘moved’ by something.

At ArtReview we don’t think there’s any consensus about what painting is. Let alone why one might be better than another. So we never say anything about it that could be considered judgemental, or even thoughtful. We adhere to the Frieze and Artforum line of pretending to agree with what everyone else who doesn’t think anything either says, and to have already come to the same conclusions. But it sounds like you believe there are certain features that could be noticed. Is that so?

MH Yes. A painting might have a great deal of intensity as a visual object. It might be an idealisation of the phenomenon of light, for example, certainly if colour plays a major role; these are possibilities now. Some painters in Germany and the USA, perhaps more than in the UK, have been recasting abstraction as a language that seems intrinsic to painting’s innate properties, and therefore doesn’t have to articulate the irony that has seemed so essential in painting for so long. This relates to the problem in life of inauthentic being.

Do paintings need ideas?

MH Ideas as such aren’t really anything, so in that sense paintings don’t require them, but it’s dismaying if those whose job is to write about art, which after all still includes painting, don’t appear to have any.

Have you read the recently published first part of Brian Sewell’s autobiography, Outsider?

MH Yes. Despite his variation on the theme of superficiality, which I have been pursuing with you – whereby instead of projecting an unctuous or cloying fake personality, he projects one that is grotesque instead – he remains a model of the dereliction of art-writing now. It is certainly striking that by the end of this book, whose subtitle is Almost Always, Never Quite, he has reached the halfway point of his life without encountering a single idea.

Can you give examples?

MH So-and-so who taught him art history possessed ‘a knowledge of Rococo art and artifacts as great as any man’s’. We are not offered a fresh insight into the significance of the Rococo style, so all we’re hearing in this comment is power talk whose purpose is to elevate the speaker. Elsewhere, we are informed that English eighteenth-century painting is at least as good as painting of the same period from anywhere else: ‘Hogarth, Ramsay, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Wright of Derby, with young Lawrence at the end, are in their various ways the equals, even the betters, of the more esteemed European painters of the century.’ The nation is seen as an extension of self. The difference between English and French, or whatever other national entity you might think of, could be anything, and yet the whole point is that one side is as good or better than the other: but at what? Since nothing about painting is defined, we don’t know what’s at stake. Rather than a cultural assumption being daringly overturned, we’re disappointed that once again little is really said.

Yes, but this is autobiography and not an intellectual explanation of art, so he can be more casual, because he’s talking about life.

MH Indeed. But when the book really is about life as opposed to art, it is only a matter of sensationalism. An uncomfortable buggering by a friend at school, with a withering comment afterwards (‘Gosh that was good, if you were a girl I’d do it again!’), and a rape by a corporal in the army are a bit more surprising than sonorous mentioning of artistic worthies, but that’s as far as it goes.

How do you summarise the problem then?

MH Nothing has any sense of tangible, concrete being-in-the-world, because of the exclusive emphasis on noticeable phrasing. As if reality would get in the way of that. Of course reality is hard. You have to struggle with it. The words come slow. But he is too preoccupied with creating an impression of being remarkable to bother with such troubles