Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889– May 26, 1976is renowned for the complexity and subtlety with which his thoughts on the philosophy of being (ontology) is expressed. His ideas are inspired by numerous sources from the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle and much of his thought dependent upon his early training as a Jesuit. He read and imbibed St Augustineand Duns Scotus. He trained under the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl at Freiburgand his approach is deeply engaged with German philosophers like Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He also read Kierkegaard with close attention.
His ideas about the nature of being are in stark contrast with those of Descartes which involve a split between consciousness and the external world. This Cartesian framework or dualism is embedded in modern science and Western thought generally. One result of Descartes philosophy is that Nature is subject by the mind to measurement and calculation and also to manipulation. This borders on what is termed instrumentalism and indeed the consequent exploitation of the environment. This, Heidegger with his alternative view of the direction of philosophy, he deeply and radically opposed. The implication of Heidegger’s thought for the creative artist and the making and meaning of art forms the thrust of Barbara Bolt’s text. His project is illustrated with specific reference to international artists like Sophie Calle, Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer.
Generally considered as a great classic of Twentieth Century philosophy Sein und Zeit, 1927 is not an easy book to read even if you are thoroughly fluent in German. Concerned with existence and the nature of being, it is equally interested in associated questions about time. This central text focuses on the nature of reality and the being-right-there of existence for which Heidegger uses the term Dasein. Part of the difficulty of understanding this central work is that language almost seems to break down under the pressure of difficulty in communicating the awesome nature of human existence, which many would see as essentially spiritual. Barbara Bolt provides a thoroughly useful glossary to such terms in support of her guide.
This glossary contains some eighty terms; it is relatively clear but illustrates some of the difficulties in expounding Heidegger’s collected work, Gesamtausgabe, which itself runs to more than eighty volumes. Barbara Bolt explains in her early chapters concepts associated with Dasein which involve care for the self and other beings, Sorge, and in the face of personal and certain knowledge of death, the termination of existence on Earth, anxiety or Angst. For Heidegger there are two possibilities, it seems either falling into immersion in the day to day, which he terms ontic existence or striving with resoluteness for authenticity. This bears upon artistic endeavour in several ways; the acceptance of strife when faced with unsettling artworks, the necessity of praxis in art education and research which hopefully produces a practical and respectful understanding of materials by a heuristic approach. Bolt is interesting and thought-provoking in her exposition on this.
A perhaps greater difficulty in appreciating Heidegger, which Bolt mentions, perhaps too briefly, continues in current debate. This was his active involvement with Nazism and his eulogy of Hitler involving praise for his moral regeneration of the Fatherland. This has been, not surprisingly, a sticking point in the appreciation of the Heidegger canon. A discussion of this may be found in Inauthenticity: Theory and Practice, contained in JP Stern’s essays on literature and ideology, The Heart of Europe. There is particular concern over his treatment of his German-Jewish teacher, a Christian convert and former colleague, the proponent of phenomenology Husserl, to whom Sein und Zeit had initially been dedicated. He also took a renowned student, Hannah Arendt as his mistress and she it was who later to testified on his behalf at a denazification hearing in opposition to Karl Jaspers.
In a key chapter, Barbara Bolt uses two central concepts of Heidegger to evaluate particular art works. These are ‘enframing’ (Gestellung) and ‘poiesis’-a Greek term for making from which the word poetry is derived. Enframing, according to Heidegger, has negative connotations and is applied to methods like those of modern technology which treats nature solely as a means to an end and shows Heidegger to be an early proponent of environmentalism and certainly a critic of agribusiness. This seems to be echoed by concerns about the manner in which the business of art has been cheapened and debased by commercialisation and celebrity culture. There is, she explains an unholy alliance developing between advertising in late capitalism as evidenced, for instance, by Tracey Emin selling Bombay Sapphire Gin. Enframement also appears to include a criticism of managerialism; disapproval of the manner in which humans are treated often with statistical techniques as mere available resources. Before examining the concept of ‘poesis’, it is worth noting that this book is actually entitled ‘Heidegger Reframed’ and is one in a general series. This tends to give framing a different, presumably positive connotation that sits uneasily with the particular use of the term by Heidegger. Unfortunately, there appears to be no general series editor that could add guidance and cohesion to this demanding project of applying the thought of modern philosophers to art.
Bolt sometimes writes convoluted sentences in a somewhat orotund style which may be an understandable effect of propounding the concepts of this demanding, intriguing philosopher. Nevertheless, the style invites the reader to question some of the propositions expounded. There is no doubt that Heidegger had a particular view about the dominance of the scientific method as he conceives it. Also mathematics seems deemed uncongenial, whereas language, and also history with its different conception of time and certainly etymology are viewed by Heidegger as more relevant to his project. It is interesting to speculate how much he might have responded to philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn whose views on paradigm shift, and those too of Paul Karl Feyerabend, might have influenced him had he been fully aware of them. Heisenburg, a contemporary and also a controversial figure, might have influenced Heidegger on his notion of how preconceived theories operate in science.
Heidegger as Bolt explains was inspired by poetry and must have been sensitive to its lyricism. This makes the reader question his apparent failure to respond to the beauty of mathematics which is in a sense a universal language. In general he was at pains to oppose certain notions of aesthetics associated particularly with the Enlightenment and Romanticism and the artist as an inflated, self-dramatising subject. In his conception of poesis, Heidegger approaches another mode of artistic appreciation and indeed gratitude which is guided by sympathy. The term, as Bolt makes clear is Greek in origin and involves openness to the bringing-forth or unconcealment of being. It is, for example, the sense of wonder when a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis or in the transformation when a flower blossoms from a bud. Heidegger spent a year in 1942 lecturing on Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” which relates to theDanubeand examined the limitations of a metaphysical interpretation of art and appears to argue the case for spiritual values in art together with a feeling for place attained by intimate journeying. George Steiner emphasises elsewhere how Heidegger’s titles are those of peregrination and comments, “He has been an indefatigable walker in unlit places”.
Barbara Bolt has written an interesting book on a difficult topic. The publishers might have supported her with somewhat better illustrations than the few disappointing images provided. However, she has shown how Heidegger can illuminate the work of prominent international artists. She has provided an introduction to a highly influential and controversial thinker supported with a sound biography. This work encourages the reader to bravely question art and promote radically innovative ways of observing and researching related issues.