The Metaphysical Discipline of Aesthetics: Martin Heidegger on The End of Art

JVF Conference Papers

In the afterword he writes to “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger raises the question of whether art is slowly dying.

The question echoes Hegel’s proclamation of the end of art, announced in Berlin more than a century earlier. To understand how Heidegger would respond to this question, and what story about art he would tell in order to determine whether art is still alive or not, is of great importance for assessing Heidegger’s thinking about art. This is because “The Origin of the Work of Art” appears to present a definition or theory of great art: great art is a way truth happens to a people, and it harbors the ongoing “ontological strife” between earth and world. If Heidegger does think that art is dying, this could be taken as an argument for interpreting the art-essay’s description of art and its essence to be describing something of the past – a description that fits art in the world of the ancient Greeks, the medieval Christians, and perhaps even the early modern European bourgeoisie, but which does not attempt to address the art of Heidegger’s own time. Hence art as making truth happen would be history, and Heidegger’s essay primarily a nostalgic reflection on a lost artworld, similar to Hegel’s description of classical art. However, Heidegger’s story of the life and death of art has to be different from Hegel’s. In the three decades following the completion of the art-essay in 1936, Heidegger makes several additions to his text. In the “Zusatz” of 1956 Heidegger stresses that an answer to the riddle “that art is” is not given in the original essay and this statement seems to take some of the force out of the definition of the artwork presented therein. I want to claim that Heidegger’s reworkings of the art-essay point to a hesitation in Heidegger’s understanding of art, and that this hesitation is brought out by his reflections on the end of art.

I will outline the beginning of an interpretation of what the question of the end of art, and a possible answer to it, might mean for Heidegger. To get there, I will first sketch Hegel’s original thesis of the end of art, and then ask how we can make sense of this thesis in light of the artworld of today, primarily drawing on the work of Arthur Danto.

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