Heidegger & the Landscape Insurgency Against Modern Art
From the beginning of formalized artistic practises and artistic traditions in the West, the two main points of muse and refuge for all artists have been the image of the human body and the image of the landscape. Specifically, the landscape, whilst not coming into its own as an official stand-alone genre until the eighteenth century, provided artists with a background to human drama on display in the great history and genre paintings. The landscape image was also utilized as a staple in artistic practise; being able to depict the landscape, especially outdoors (“en plein air”) in various changing light is a rigorous challenge most artists were taught to take on. Then, later on, impressionists such as Monet and Cezanne changed everything. Afterwards, the landscape was on its own, a symbol of divine beauty and picturesque belonging to the natural world — a feeling that all but faded and was lost in the Industrial Revolution. However, in recent times, landscape painting (and representation in general) has come under assault. Dethroned from its place as the pinnacle of visual art, the forces of chic in-vogue modernism have seen to it that representation is “kitsch,” or not “provocative” enough for the sensibilities of art critics and art school academics. The landscape is now a superficial pleasantry, a pastiche of its former glory as an artform, belonging to a bygone era, terribly bourgeois and pedestrian. And all the while, modern art goes on deconstructing and surpassing our seemingly facile need for beauty.
The landscape was all but lost in the collective mind of the art world… until recently. As of recent years, there has been growing interest in authentic pieces of representation and landscape art that truly connects us to nature. That is why, through examining Martin Heidegger’s work on the origins of art, combined with contemporary criticism of artistic modernism, and by placing the landscape within the truth of art itself, we shall see how the truth and beauty of the landscape genre is being reformulated and reformed as an artistic style of antimodernist insurgency, as an art form which serves our inner need for authentic expression towards the natural world.
Part 1: Art as Alethea: Heidegger’s Anti-Æsthetic Æsthetics
In The Origins of the Work of Art, Heidegger sets out on the ambitious project to ground the work of art in being and truth, and also as an outlet of fundamental importance in reflecting the sentiments of particular cultures and epochs. Heidegger’s æsthetics is rather an anti-æsthetics in the sense of his denial of artistic truth being merely self-expression, a view people have of art that he admits seems to be self-evident. The artist and the works of the artist are fundamentally one and the same to Heidegger, or, rather, coproduce eachother in a reciprocal relationship.1 Art is not merely the sum of its parts (such as canvas and paint) and nor does the placement of the artwork alone validate its mere essence as a work of art (such as in a gallery or museum). Heidegger contemplates equipment, the “thingness of things,” or how a work of art is a unique thing because it self-evidently admits its own form of something that is created.
Art is not merely a utilitarian concept, rather, the thingness of things, the use of equipment (such as work shoes), is revealed in the work of art, hence why the example of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of women’s work shoes give Heidegger a sense of direction in pointing to the origins of art. The shoe paintings by van Gogh spoke to Heidegger. They direct our attention in an uncanny way towards the facticity of the peasant woman’s shoes; they disclosed their being to the viewer. The use of the shoes is one thing, but only in art do we know the use and equipment of the shoes themselves. In art, the truth of an entity sets itself to work; the artwork to Heidegger acts as the unconcealment or revealing of truth: alethia.2
Fine art specifically gives us this venue into truth whilst also belonging to the beautiful. It is not industrial art that forges equipment or something merely subjective, but the producer of the beautiful. However, in keeping with Heidegger’s general anti-æsthetics, he assures us that the act of art, the work itself, such as a landscape, does not merely “reproduce” an image, but reproduces its general essence in the act of unconcealment. Art opens up, in its own way, the “being of beings,” and therefore must stand alone regardless of location or impute from the artist. We see the timelessness in certain pieces of fine art that have an inconsequential character shaped by the artists themselves, because, for Heidegger, the artist is merely a wayfarer passing through, destroying themselves in the creative process to give life to work.3
The peasant shoes imply the woman without the physical presence of said woman, they reveal the truth and the world of the shoes in the work of art — a truth that is hidden yet revealed in its implied equipment use. This of course can be applied to all great art because, for Heidegger, truth and being are corollary in the work of art; a fluid truth that values the doubling movement of the openness and the hiddenness of being. For Heidegger, the truth of the work of art is caught in the dynamic struggle between what he calls “world,” or a world in the act of “worlding,” or creation of a unique world of dynamic and fluid possibilities. The world is grounded in history and culture, and is differentiated from the earth, the darkness, the primordial premetaphysical abyss from which all possibilities spring fourth and from which world emerges.4
The work of art is fundamentally transformative; to change the history and culture of this or that epoch, while also revealing the truth of that particular time. Great works reveal what matters to a culture and time, the values and shared norms of a culture, but have enough power to overcome and give us a new sense of what matters, hence Heidegger derides merely boiling down the work of art to æsthetics, or, in other words, art merely being created solely from the artist’s subjective expressions to be consumed as a mere object by the audience.5
Heidegger uses the example of a Greek temple, a place in which the psychical carved structure and its meaning is disclosed in this tension between world and earth. The temple creates a world, it conceals the statues of various mythic Gods within it, thus giving them life, and revealing the invisible. In the example of the Greek temple, Heidegger illustrates how the earth is a fount, where various aspects of life converge: birth, death, animal and human life, night and day, etc. — the temple, like all great works of art, opens a world that preforms a double movement of revealing (world) and setting back upon the earth (concealment). The earth shelters everything that arises from it, like the Tao, the groundless ground, the being of beings, it shelters or conceals at the same time of arising.6 As stated,
Art lets Truth originate. Art, founding preserving, is the spring that leaps to the truth of what is, in the work. To originate something by a leap, to bring something into being from out of the source of its nature in a founding leap.7
Heidegger wishes to look for a more primordial premetaphysical truth grounded in the work of art, one that discloses itself, rather than the æsthetic view that art is merely correspondence to some framework of reality, or that art (like enframing) captures reality and subdues it, it is rather an active dynamic participant to truth.6 Heidegger is proposing a poetic truth where the observer, or preserver, as he calls it, stands within the truth of the work, not merely as a passive observer, but within the poetic manner of truth being disclosed. Art not only originates artist and preserver, it originates human experiences and both maintains and moves forward whole cultures and ways of living.9
Part 2: Into Oblivion: Where Modernism Went Wrong
We have now explored Heidegger’s anti-æsthetic æsthetics and his seminal work of The Origins of the Work of Art. We have seen that van Gogh is a painter that depicts reality in all its dynamism, revealing and concealing the nature of a landscape or a worker’s shoes. Heidegger’s writing on the truth of art is in line with the Taoist notions of the landscape per Francois Jullien.
The Chinese ink landscape painting reveals and conceals the image of mountains, trees and lakes; painting in diluted ink, the Taoist landscape painter intuits the subject-matter of the landscape, never extinguishing the possibilities of the natural image. Art ensures that through the void, the earth, the effect of the landscape comes about continuously, the painting of the mountains and trees brings fourth or “unconceals” the truth of things, thus alethia is present in the ink landscape.10 It is no question why the landscape image is an eternal fixture to art both in the Occident and the Orient, and a genre which is naturally at home in Heidegger’s assessment of art and truth, but we must first address the question of so-called modern art, and why the landscape provides a means of resistance to artistic modernism and postmodernism.
One may conclude that art is entirely subjective, it is personal expression alone, and therefore a matter of taste from which one cannot judge, but Heidegger sees the detriments in the post-Kantian æsthetization of art. It is clear Heidegger finds art to possesses a profound rootedness in the context of peoples, cultures and religions. However, one can find in the various genres of what has become colloquially termed “modern” art, from its earlier, more innocent roots in cubism, fauvism and futurism, to its more sensationalistic manifestations in conceptualism and abstract expressionism, display an almost ubiquitous deracination in character. Of course, these art genres are rooted in the European and later American art world, but conceptualism specifically can be found within a variety of perspectives and transcultural manifestations. Heidegger himself, later on, was forced to come to terms with the question of taste given his framework outlined in The Origin of the Work of Art.
Heidegger presents two views on the subject of modern art, one being that it is rather an anti-art (which we will get to later) and the other being the possibility that it is art. Heidegger states, when talking of abstraction and conceptualism (such as Duchamp’s Urinal), that it is art, but it is not rooted in a particular people, rather it is the product of industrialization, the universalism present in mechanical reproduction, in techno-science, precisely because it is, referring to the works of Kandinsky, “without object.” Furthermore, Heidegger states it “belongs to the world,” no longer producing the world of a people or nation and expressing their exigency for meaning, rather modern art in many ways possesses the same dynamic as enframing and capital do: dominating, subverting, and implementing its universalizing template to uproot the meaning-making of art.11
But why is modern art no longer existentially or even spiritually uplifting? Clement Greenberg, for whom the job of foremost promoter of modern art fits quite nicely, sees artistic modernism as a further evolution of tradition, the same way science is continually evolving. The modern artist strips figures, line and form to their bare essences (such as in a Mondrian painting) and critiques the wedded obligation artists have to representation. Mamet was the first to paint an outline of a figure in a flat space, for all abstract art basks in this flatness, rather than using light and shadow to mimic three-dimensional form. All the aspects of artistic modernism, Greenberg underlines, are the intensification of artistic practise and sporadic compositional arrangement, an acceleration of going beyond boundaries with an overt tendency towards self-criticism and, eventually, deconstruction.12
Let us explicate this tendency towards self-critique and deconstruction. For this we turn to more conservative cultural critics, Roger Scruton in particular. He outlines the problem of modern art in terms of beauty and truth. No longer is beauty the main concern, but truth is paramount; an ugly and often hideous truth about the human condition is seen through artistic modernism. However, modernism and postmodernism accentuate the mechanical reproduction of techno-late-capitalist society. Duchamp broke down the barriers of tradition and beauty with “found art,” and Pollack deconstructed the reliance on technical skill and ability. The urinal, the garbage heap with gallery velvet rope around it, Tracy Emin’s soiled bedsheets, etc. — all of them symbols of production and universal efficiency. Modern and postmodern art is also self-referential and destructive at its foundation, wishing to tear away the very seams of artistic expression and artistic beauty that have sustained Western culture for a millennium.13 Scruton agrees, pointing out that the tendency of modern art to deconstruct tradition, to ward off kitsch and faux works of unoriginality, lead back to the same consequence modern art wished to avoid: a stale reproduction of “fake works” and sensationalism for sensationalism’s sake. Ultimately, the monumental task of maintaining tradition has proven to be more appealing and uplifting than endlessly deconstructing and cultivating more lurid forms of gratuitous shock-appeal.14
Part 3: Return to Beauty: The Landscape Insurgency
Despite the machinations of modern and postmodern art upon the collective psyche of the masses, humanity still yearns for authenticity and natural beauty. Recently, there has been a growing interest in the landscape form, like with the en plein air art movement which seeks to naturally depict the landscape on location, letting the land speak for itself through the conduit of the artist working with the changing light. Contemporary technology has also effected the way in which artists approach the landscape, and even elements of abstraction have gone into the way contemporary landscape painters approach the subject, especially after the major impressionists. The landscape is picturesque, and remains as a repository that is free of the need to depict human subjectivity as its sole focus. It is the ever-flowing constant that grounds our experience of beauty itself, hence why we are witnessing a “return” to the landscape.15
In a famed study on landscape art, Kenneth Clark showed that we, as in the human subject, are exposed to the becomings of nature. We witness what is profoundly alien, not of our own making in the landscape, yet distinctly a part of us in our surroundings. Landscape painting marks the view of our conception of nature in a specific environment, and thus the artistic expressions of the landscape is a way of rekindling a primordial connection with the natural world that is dynamic, and not merely an assemblage of disparate parts.16
Here we turn back to Scruton, who shares Heidegger’s analysis of poetic truth, of a bringing fourth, an unconcealment that enunciates a more profound truth than simple scientific and materialist reductionism. Scruton sees Heidegger as giving a secularized version of the religious idea of revelation, that only through art does the profundity of myth reveal the truths of the human condition.17 It is only natural, then, that Scruton gives us a view into the truth of the landscape from a Heideggerian perspective. To Scruton, the landscape is removed from ordinary works of art (akin to what Heidegger calls “great works”) in that they encapsulate a rootedness to specific natural environments, yet simultaneously present an open and expansive grandeur present in nature. The landscape painting contains in it a world of beauty and weddedness to the natural environment. To behold a landscape is akin to a cosmic moment, a moment of awakening, being present in the now of revealing and unconcealment of nature in the work of landscape art.18, 19 The landscape strays the lines of abstraction, yet stays true to form in its depiction of the natural world. Scruton responds to the modern art proponents by stating that the landscape still displays a plethora of emotions of truths, that it can depict ugliness and violence, the cosmic feelings of total loneliness in the vastness of nature, and is faithful to its temporal and spatial location.20 A landscape from the Dutch masters will look completely different to an American Hudson River School landscape painting precisely because they are from different essential geographic locations. Scruton readily sees the landscape and its coming back into favor as a rebellion against the pastiche of modernist art and its lurid sensationalism. The modernist fantasies of total deconstruction negate what art is. Scruton takes another van Gogh example, this time of a chair painting. The “form” is what is important to a painting, especially a landscape, hence representational art will have a higher place than abstraction. Furthermore, despite the claims of abstract artists, without that crucial element of sticking to representation, at least in part, the painting (echoing Heidegger) will not possesses a poetic “polysemous” meaning that operates on several different levels, both in virtuality and actuality. In images, statements, feelings, etc.,21 landscapes are rooted in the eternal, yet when disclosed in an epoch and its location, they are a testament to beauty and truth. Dasein calls to this beauty and truth by painting the landscape, by indicating a panoramic world that is nonexhaustive, and in which the being of the landscape invokes a primordial sense of wonder, thus bringing us back to this state of original awe.22
Of course, modern art can purport to give us a view of human nature, of deep expression, but once again there is no “outside” or revealing of being (or the groundless ground, the being of beings), it is merely the æstheticizing of art all the way down. Furthermore, its emphasis on irony and deconstruction, or what some would label its manifestations as anti-art, presents a problematic framework to modern art proponents that wish to link their project with a Heideggerian criteria of disclosure. This is not to say certain or whole parts of modern art are worthless or wholly captured in advanced industrial (and now techno-informational) universalist society, or that all of it is lurid sensationalism, but rather, when one forgets the primordial art of the landscape, one forgets the integral nature of art to begin with. The professionalized art world can go on ignoring or deriding the landscape as nothing more than kitsch and meaningless pleasantry, but this does not change the fact that people throughout the ages — and even now — found a space of profundity and meaning within landscape art, an artform that gives us a sense of our place in the world, and discloses to us the hidden nature of things, and, more importantly, gives us a reprieve from the endless minutiæ and self-critical ugliness of modernism.
In conclusion, we have explored Heidegger’s assessment of the purpose and truth of art and his anti-æsthetic æsthetics in his seminal work The Origins Of The Work Of Art, that art is a room-making and truth-disclosing entity, caught between the swaying tension between earth and world, and that the work of art creates a world. We have used the cultural critic Roger Scruton to criticize modern art and distance it from the Heideggerian artistic project. And lastly, we have wedded landscape art to Heidegger’s project and reformulated the landscape as a direct response and insurgency against the machinations of modern art, returning us to a state of open-ended truth and beauty.
1. Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Hofstadter, Albert. (New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 1971, 2001): 17-18.
2. Ibid., 33-35.
3. Ibid., 35-39.
4. Ibid., 60-61.
5. Ibid.. 74-75.
6. Ibid., 40-41.
7. Ibid., 75.
8. Zuidervaart, Lambert. Artistic Truth: Æsthetics, Discourse and Imaginative Disclosure. (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid: Cambridge University press, 2004): 49-50.
9. Stulberg, Robert, B. “Heidegger and the Origins of the Work Of Art: An Explication.” The Journal of Æsthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 32, No. 2 (Winter, 1973): 264-265.
10. Jullien, Francois. The Great Image Has No Form. Or the Nonobject Through Painting. (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 80-83.
11. Goux, Jean-Joseph. Sharp, Michele. “Politics and Modern Art. Heidegger’s Dilemma.” Reviewed Works: La Fiction du Politique by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe; Le Nazisme et la Culture by Lionel Richard. Diacritics, John Hopkins University Press. Vol. 19, No. 3/4, Heidegger: Art and Politics (Autumn – Winter, 1989): 22-25.
12. Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” Forum Lectures (Washington, D. C.: Voice of America, 1960).
13. Hicks, Stephan. “Why Art Became Ugly.” Navigator Magazine. (New York: Rockwell College, The Foundation for the Advancement of Art’s “Innovation, Substance, Vision” Conference, Oct. 2003, Sept 2004).
15. Johansson, Hanna. “The Revival of Landscape Art.” Landscape Theory. Ed. Elkins, James. (New York: Routledge University press, 2008): 222-225.
16. Clark, Kenneth. Landscape Into Art. (London: Harper And Row, J. Murray, 1949): 1-3.
17. Scruton, Roger. “Poetry And Truth.” The Philosophy of Poetry. Ed. John Gibson (Oxford, London: Oxford University Press, 2015): 150.
18. Scruton, Roger. “Why Beauty Matters.” B.B.C. Two. Doc. Ed. Mullen, Edna. Dir. Lockwood, Louise (United Kingdom, Nov 28, 2009).
19. Bertonneau, Thomas. F. “In the Fen Country: Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.” The Orthosphere. Dec. 29, 2016. [https://orthosphere.wordpress.com/2016/12/29/in-the-fen-country-landscape-and-music-in-the-work-of-gustav-holst-and-ralph-vaughan-williams/]
20. Scruton, Roger. Beauty, A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 2011): 145-147.
21. Ibid., 92-95.
22. Gordon, Rivca. Gordon, Haim. Hobbema and Heidegger on Truth and Beauty. (New York: Peter Land Press, 2008): 80-84.