On the Death of Art
The building number is one-five-one and the general admission sign leads the crowd into the marbled room with long columns and a hollow center allowing the sun rays to travel through the glass ceiling and illuminate the cash registers sitting on the counters of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. The evident three-dimensionality seems to dwell in every corner and aisle but the appearances may just be fooling the perceptions of the ten-dollar visitor. What is supposed to bring to life the unknown and untouched turns out to be just another instance of a manufacturer’s serialization. The old formulas are disguised as revolutionary recipes, and one may wonder if a true revealing can be achieved when following the market’s moods. In the coffin of contemporary art, Dali, Matisse, Rivera, Ernst, Lichtenstein, and many others become a mere price tag at the end of the day while some passers-by fake sighs of admiration.
Martin Heidegger argues that the essence of art is an experience that reveals new possibilities and allows the malleability of the framework into different formats; however, can such goal still be achieved? Isn’t it the case that art is now a mere artifact waiting to be placed in the stores shelves? Modern art appears enframed and bordered by a marketing campaign. Moreover, can one point out the ever volatile definitions of “art” as a sign of its demise? When art is incapable of staying in itself, and establishing its own endurance, art then turns into a controllable object of humankind.
When the word “art” loses its own permanence and wholeness, one must ponder upon the consequences that this apparent unpredictable and deceiving forefront may have. Through the work of early Greek philosophers and his reflections of “what is,” one is able to recognize their realizations of perfection and limitations through a constant conflict with humankind’s perishable world. Accordingly, if contemporary art reaches a halt masked by a superficial metamorphosis where the structure stays still, can anyone defend the claim that art exists?
In his “The Origin of the Work of Art”, Heidegger elaborates on the instrumentality of art. The essence of art, for him, carries a revealing function in humankind’s journey in which beings arrive from Being in an interminable cycle. Here, Heidegger demonstrates that true art may be the unique tool for the creation of new contexts, modes, possibilities and frameworks.
Heidegger approaches three different theories of “things”. In the first theory, a thing consists of essential traits and accidents. Heidegger demonstrates that a paradox may emerge because one cannot know if the theory actually represents the essence or just a mere construction of a linguistic debate about forms. A second approach holds that a being is a mere collection of characteristics. To reject this approach, Heidegger argues that to suggest a being is a simple product of some characteristics placed together would represent a reduction of a thing to the subjective territory of perceptions. One may recognize a stone as black, while another person judges the stone as dark blue in relation to the kind of light hitting the object. Thus, such theory would be plainly subjective. Lastly, Heidegger considers theories that attempt to enclose beings on the basis of their functionality. He asks whether a being would lose its beingness once it loses its functionality. At this point, Heidegger pursues the primordial function of a being in accordance to its self-mobility. He argues that the essentiality of a being rises from its “resting-within-itself” (OWA161). He calls this stage of letting itself work a “reliability” of the being. Imagine an object after it loses its usefulness due to breakage or usage, clearly at first sight; it would lose its reliability. However, the reliability of the thing can only be achieved when reaching the “blank usefulness” (OWA 160) of the thing. In other words, by arriving at this primordial functionality of a being, one can achieve the essentiality of art by letting the “truth of beings setting itself to work”.
What is this self-subsistence of art that would allow the discerning of its essence? For Heidegger, art creates or brings up a world while “setting forth the earth” (OWA 173). In other words, the world allows humankind to grasp into the womb of the earth. Heidegger establishes a duality between the earth and the world in which the work of art would exist as a channel between the two. Earth is the supporter of the Being, while the world works as the discloser of Being into the realm of beings. All things are enclosed into Being; however, humankind can only learn a limited amount of things or beings. So, once a person acknowledges an object for the first time, this thing is brought from Being into being. Thus, for Heidegger, art plays a mandatory role by disclosing new worlds from the all-holding Earth; and permits humans to be in an eternal circle in which beings arrive from Being while other beings go into the closeness of Being as a result of humankind’s limited “horizon” when such term must be understood as the limits of human knowledge. One can only learn the framework of their time and attempt to understand earlier contexts such as the Greeks; nevertheless, an individual can never reach into all frameworks.
Heidegger believes poetry to be the ultimate type of art because “language, by naming beings for the first time, first brings beings to word and appearance” (OWA 185). Therefore, one can only see a thing when a word exists to describe this thing. Consequently, Heidegger suggests that one may review the overly attributed importance given to the plastic arts as a revealing tool. While one can argue that new images and experiences may prompt an evolution in language to describe this pictorial experience, one would still ultimately be relying on language to disclose new beings from Being.
The modern world has witnessed the rising of a new kind of thinking that attempts to place nature in the rigid borders of reason. Humans try to find order and organization in nature. Heidegger approaches some of these questions regarding human behavior in “The Question Concerning Technology”. He points out that technology, since the Greek origin of the word, also engages in the process of revealing beings. Technology derives from techne which means revealing “what does not bring itself forth and yet does not lie here before us” (QCT 319). Nevertheless, nowadays, technology employs a different type of revealing in which modern technology “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy in which can be extracted and stored as such” (QCT 320). In other words, technology reveals nature not in its essence, but as a thing to be utilized as energy. Interestingly, Heidegger demonstrates how this revelation exists in a permanent “stand by” which he denominates as “standing reserve”. That is, humans must be on guard against the next ordering in which nothing stands in its essence anymore. Humans become dispensable and one cannot help to establish an analogy of this theory to Marx’s “reserve army” in which the worker can be replaced like a broken nut. Technology engages in a kind of pre-planned revealing that Heidegger names “enframing”. Such “enframing” consists of a “gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the actual, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve” (QTC 325). Heidegger admits that never in history men have been forced to engage in a revealing on such a great scale; nevertheless, this revealing does not strive to the essence because this revealing represents a mere “destining revealing,” that is to say, revealing is now supposed to follow scientific formulas that represent a product of “enframing” in itself. Well, “enframing demands that nature be orderable as standing-reserve” (QCT 328). In the end, people only fool themselves by utilizing a pre-planned revelation, which argues that science represents some type of untouchable standard. For Heidegger, humanity places itself on a road that does not allow exits.
The next question is: can one have an aesthetic experience in the modern world? One may be tempted to ask what would happen if instead of representing the unconcealment of beings contemporary art becomes a simple pre-planned revelation in which no Being can be transferred to the land of beings. Will humans have no more resources to renew its beingness and thus strive through different grounds? Will humans be forever destined to be set into this same framework? What is next? When getting into the busy aisles of San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts and stopping in front of Diego Rivera’s “Flower Carrier ‘, one can easily come up with innumerable metaphors and interpretations. Still, is this art observer walking out of his/her current framework? Art must now fit into the desires of a strict entertaining industry in which artists deceive themselves by debating who is the most original. Authorship achieves the status of a disputed banality. As Adorno and Horkheimer state, the culture industry turns viewers into decision makers among objects that appear to be different but are indeed the same. Creativity and artistic praising become dependent on how efficiently an artist fits into this market system. Thus, in the end, art does represent revealing, however, much in the same way of the technology industry “standing reserve”. The revealing becomes pre-staged even before the painter sits down to paint, the filmmaker rolls down to shoot or the musician practices it down to play. The industry is staged on an arena that appears to be renewed every second. The formulas are all the same and humanity cannot reach the essence any longer. In an age when nature has lost all its mystical power and has become a mere element of the spending system of the modern technological environment, why should art be any different? Art has lost all its mystical power as well. Art is not represented as a secretive revealing tool, but rather as another science. The plastic art becomes a pre-staged good along with the movie director translating Shakespeare into half of the original length. Art becomes ordered and now humans cannot break away from the current framework.
Humanity results in a permanent road, that is, a constant perception of change covering a halted state of being. With new movies in theatres, over flooded shelves at bookstores, shinny magazines in the market and banners everywhere, humankind drowns in an artistic culture that appears versatile with new brands and labels surging everyday for the assurance of the money inflow. Nonetheless, the market carries deeper rules than what may appear at first glance. Thus, the constant changes require rigid rules, and, to this state of being in art, this research denominates as movement-in-halt. Does the river change or not? The waters have long remained still and bugs fly above it without being able to venture toward the sun.
One the other hand, nowadays, what should one make of this ever changing definition of art? Should it be a sign that art is alive and well? One does not have to struggle much to realize an apparent cycling of subjects in the realm of art, where the new already emerges with traces of being aged. This current renewal carries the assumption that art is something under humankind’s control, and therefore conflict fades away; art loses its own self-established limits and stops to exist in itself, but only as an already made object of entertainment that appears to be ever changing.
In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger attempts to lay down the path for a philosopher understanding of the word Being. To do this, Heidegger describes the original Greek view of being as “standing-there, coming up and enduring” (IM 60). Interestingly, Heidegger indicates that this apparent limit to the definition of being does not arrive from outside, since “coming to stand accordingly means: to achieve a limit for itself, to limit itself” (IM 60). Therefore, the perfect occurs only as the limited because, for something to have a form and be, it must place itself out of concealment into its own established limits (IM 60). In other words, a thing must be something that draws its own lines of beingness, and endurance.
Next, Heidegger debates over the necessity of a conflict to the actual preservation of this same limit and endurance. To begin his argument, he cites Heraclitus fragment 53: “Conflict is for all (that is present) the creator that causes to emerge, but (also) for all the dominant preserver” (IM 61). For Heidegger, one must be sure to recognize that this conflict or struggle does not consist of a mere replenishment of the old with new, but rather the upbringing of the unheard and unsought into the open space. Moreover, this struggle not only bring beings out of concealment, but “it also preserves the essent in its permanence” (IM 62). As a consequence, this conflict turns out as the fuel, or Heraclitus’s fire fueling the endurance of a being. In contrast, as Heidegger indicates, when the struggle and conflict ends, the being must still remain but it will now appear as a simple already-made product that can be controlled and maneuvered in any way. As Heidegger puts it, things become mere “datums”. The essent, instead of carrying a mystical heritage, becomes mere objects in human’s daily affairs.
If in the 21st century art has turned out as a commodity to be sold, can one still argue that humankind may experience true art? If the conflict has extinguished its flame, how can art endure through time? Some of these questions arise after observing Heidegger’s retrieval of Greek ideas regarding the constituents of a being. Nowadays, any executive may think of him/herself as capable of fitting art into a company’s budget needs as an expendable asset. Therefore, art is transformed into a controlled and enframed being; in the same degree, art cannot emerge as “placing-itself-in-the-limit” (IM 60). The conflict vanishes, and one cannot draw from the original realm of concealment. Art gives away its entire limits where artists would hit and dig upon and become a plain advertisement campaign. In the end, all of these constant modifications to the concept of art may be seen as indicative of its health, but they only represent the biggest proof of the demise of art.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art represents the simple product of the pre-conceived industry in which every revealing must be shaped under tight restrictions that revealing does not need. While this paper is being written, the pen can only go so far because of the danger of losing the attention of the reader. The museum follows the same demands in which to be understood and enjoyed it must follow the tight restrictions of the current framework; otherwise, the visitor paying ten dollars will ask for a refund. When a person goes to a museum, he/she expects to see the artworks displayed in a certain strict manner that stands in a clearly paradoxical conflict with the revolutionary nature that true art must have. Contemporary Art has become a product and the museums have become a mere display, so at the end the visitor can spend some extra dollars buying a serialized replica. The old arrives disguised as the new, and humanity is disabled of its most powerful tool: art.
Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. Princeton, NJ: Yale University Press. 1974. (cited as IM throughout)
_____. “The Origin of the Work of Art” (abridged) in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell, trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977. pp. 149-187. (cited as OWA).
_____. “The Question Concerning Technology” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell, trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977. pp. 287-317. (cited as QCT).
Rivera, Diego. “Flower Carrier”, image retrieved from:, November 8, 2004.