derek h whitehead


Martin Heidegger's Technites, Paul Klee's Gestalt, and "starting from the very beginning"




Key Words: Technitēs, Technē, Heidegger, Klee, modern art, artist, artwork, originary thinking, the gestalt, aesthetic perception, contemporary art.


This essay seeks to address the relations between Modern art and Philosophy, and whether art is undermined or reinforced by the exchange. Specifically, what does Martin Heidegger's philosophy say about art? And from an art practice perspective, can philosophy say what art actually is? In approaching such questions I propose a renewed focus on art's "in-visible things" (things brought into visibility), as they show themselves in the painterly vision of Paul Klee and in Martin Heidegger's concept of "the origin" in relation to art. Here I consider the ways in which philosophy and art might address each other's prerogatives and come to a mutual understanding. More particularly, Heidegger's insights into art signal a formative re-engagement with art at the level of human practices, and so I employ his notion of "originary beginnings" to intensify what I call Klee's "practical-analytic" of art-making; for Klee clearly testifies to a philosophic spirit of inquiry in searching out the circumstances of creative life and action. In bringing the philosophic venture and the artistic impulse closer together, we might become aware of the conceptual and experiential possibilities of an uncommon enterprise: the attempt to articulate art in praise of both mind and hand.

Heidegger never proposed a "philosophy of art" in the accepted sense. In fact, he adopted almost a non-aesthetic stance in relation to art and its history. I begin, therefore, with Heidegger's most individual reading of the phenomenon of art. How does Heidegger conceive art? And what is his response to vision and the visible, the primary perceptual modes of the artist? In short, does Heidegger's philosophy have material valency for the modern artist?

To focus on these questions we need a compendium of investigative tools. The philosophic tools employed by Heidegger have an aletheic or "disclosive" character that, in conjunction with the practical tools of Klee's praxis, have the potential to bring about a deeper engagement with created realities. What we aspire to in this setting is a counterpoint of philosophy and art. Here I examine Heidegger's concept of "the origin" in relation to art and the "factual createdness" of the work of art. I utilize the concepts of technitēs ("productive being") and technē ("knowledge" or "skill") to evaluate Heidegger's reading of the Archaic Greek mythos of art, and I extrapolate from this twofold sense of "skilful being" to demonstrate Klee's consciousness of the artist as one who "starts from the very beginning" in a thoroughly modern way. Finally, I argue that Klee's gestalt, his "form-giving," may be seen as a distinct heuristics ("form-finding") which has the capacity to enliven the perception of art in our times.


The Task of Thinking "at the beginning of art"

A close reading of Heidegger's treatise, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes - "The Origin of the Work of Art" (1935) - reveals a unique perspective on the question of art, or "the riddle that art itself is," as Heidegger puts it, and an implicit solution to the problem of the essence of art. Heidegger begins with a beginning, an origin. For him the term origin simply means "that from and by which something is what it is and as it is."[1] Heidegger says that the question of the origin of a thing asks about the source of its nature. Heidegger asks about the origin from which both artist and work are seen to derive: namely, art. That which takes its rise from art is both artist and work. And art itself, he asserts, is the source of artist and work. Heidegger generates a tripartite relation between art, artist and work in an encompassing hermeneutic. As Joseph Kockelmans has observed, "if art is the origin of the work of art, art lets those who intimately belong together in regard to the work, namely the one who artistically produces it and those who try to preserve it artistically, each in his own essence, be what they are."[2] Art lets those who belong to it be what they are.

The task that is reserved for thinking at the beginning of art goes right to the heart of modernity's aesthetic vocabulary. I am speaking of the kind of thinking that arises from a particular state of consciousness, apperception: wherein we become conscious of the visible phenomenon before us. Thinking and visualising are not indistinct categories, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty reminds us: they are constitutive powers in our understanding and seek a legitimate place in daily life. The thinking that arises from the place of art in society is crucial to the experience of art and its survival. Art's flourishing is proportionate to its quality, and its quality is determined by the impact of its beginning. It is by adherence to its beginnings in an origin, and not simply that of an enjoined art historical tradition, that art gains its visible and social legitimacy. Thinking through material means and events provides the basis for an artist's practice. If the thinker thinks Being, and the poet names the sacred, as Kockelmans suggests, then the task of the artist is to draw forth works from the wellsprings of the in-visible.

Here thinking itself is in question, for as Heidegger persuades us, we are capable of doing only what we are inclined to do. We truly incline toward something, he says, "only when it in turn inclines toward us, toward our essential being, by appealing to our essential being as what holds us there."[3] Thought is the gift given to us in thinking back toward that which in the first place draws us toward itself, and thus holds us in the path of thinking. It is this inclining of something toward our thought, as if the very thought of us were held within it, which enables us to speak of thought at the beginning of art. The beginning of art may be said to be the joyous enchantment of what is given to us to be and to accomplish in the realm of the human.

Heidegger tries to argue for an origin for art, which really means, as Walter Biemel has said, returning to a source that makes a new origin possible. Heidegger argues for a return to the source that would make a new origin possible. But it is impossible merely to repeat a first origin. We must advert to something different. Something new must emerge under the auspices of thinking. This origin waits for us to think toward it: not in order to repeat it and thereby diminish our thinking and forming, but to draw on it in the living and thinking present. But what kind of origin for art are we searching for in modernist terms?


Modern Art and a Former Origin

The relation of modern art to a former origin presupposes an awareness of art's historiographical past. As Heidegger says: "after two and half thousand years, is art still claimed in the same sense that it was in ancient Greece?" And if not, "from what domain does the claim come to which modern art in all its areas co-responds?"[4] As Biemel notes, the very framing of such questions indicates that art is, for Heidegger, "no arbitrary production and creation."[5] In raising this question Heidegger sees modernity as fundamentally determined by scientific technology. His examination of technology, newly defined in its relation to modern metaphysics, shows that everything is subject to a "thoroughgoing calculability." The consequence is that "the world is available and can be dominated by man."[6]

The springboard for Heidegger's inquiry into the origin of art was Hegel's assertion that art is for us no longer the supreme way in which truth comes to be; that art is no longer the highest aspiration of the human spirit, and that art is, in terms of its loftiest vocation, something that is now past. But Heidegger says a critical question nevertheless remains: "Is art still an essential and necessary way in which truth happens which is decisive for our historical existence, or is art no longer of this character?"[7] And if this is the case, then there remains the question why this is so. Heidegger reformulates what Hegel takes to be the limit of art: its material determination. Heidegger does this by situating the artwork's "thingly" nature in the matrix of this determination: by emphasising a work's "work-being" rather than its "object-being."

Furthermore, Heidegger has an ally in Maurice Blanchot who considers the work of art to be something extremely ancient, "terrifyingly ancient, [and] lost in the night of time." It is the origin that precedes us and is always given before us, he says, "for it is the approach of what allows us to depart - a thing of the past, [but] in a different sense from what Hegel said."[8] The approach of what allows us to depart commits us to a departure that is never fully realised. And Heidegger argues for his own times, that any decision about Hegel's judgment will be made "from and about the truth of what is". The question of the relation of modern art to its former origin remains implicit in Heidegger's re-evaluation of two Greek concepts: technē, and technitēs. By examining these two concepts we may more readily grasp art's origin for modernity, an origin which lies in history and metaphysics.


Heidegger's Technē and Technitēs

Heidegger's treatise, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, articulates a role for technē (ή τέχνη), and technitēs (ό τεχνίτης:). Technē is a mode of "knowing" or "seeing", and technitēs a mode of "being" or "productive being". As Heidegger remarks, the technites is one "whose decisive deed is guided by an understanding."[9] Such understanding is designated technē. It becomes apparent that technē is the kind of knowing or understanding that guides artistic production. Technē is the knowledge that directs the activity of the technitēs. For Heidegger, to know or to understand is "to have that in view which is significant for the production of a structure and a work." Art is conceived as technē, but not "technology," while the artist is technitēs, but is neither a technician nor a handiworker.[10] Technē is the knowledge which looks forward to what is to be fully realised: an architect's plan for a building, a musician's sketch for a score, an artist's preliminary drawing for a painting. Technē looks ahead, Heidegger says, to "what is still invisible, what is first to be brought into the visibility and perceptibility of the work"; such looking requires "sight and brightness in a distinctive way."[11] In short, forward-looking sight requires foresightedness.

Heidegger speaks of the "anticipated look" of the thing to be produced. Such an anticipated or forward-looking vision is what the Greeks understood by eidos and idea. John Sallis argues that Heidegger ingeniously correlates Greek eidos as image with imagination. Heidegger himself writes: "The anticipated look, the pre-image shows the thing as what it is before the production and as it is supposed to look as a product. The anticipated look has not yet been externalised as something formed, as actual, but rather is the image of imagination of phantasia."[12] Eidos is determined as the look of things prior to their actualisation; the look anticipated in imagination. Imagination thus oversees production.

But the consequences for the technitēs are critical at this point. Any notion which prejudges sight as to its end - as it is supposed to look as a product - would seem to foreclose its outcome. It is as if a pre-existing image in the phantasia so thoroughly governs the productive process that the very plasticity of materials is forced to undergo some inexorable law of articulation. For the technitēs as artist it is not simply a matter of materialising some pre-existing image in the mind. Rather, it is a venture toward the internal sighting of things unformed in the imagination - the inward-turn of sight - in collaboration with an artist's deft handling of materials. That which comes into visible presence is a transmission of the anticipatory sighting of the formless eidos into something fully formed in and of itself.

For Heidegger technē is the art of "ontological disclosure." Indeed, for Michael Zimmerman the highest form of technē is the artwork that "founds a world wherein things may present themselves in a particular way." For Heidegger, Zimmerman continues, "the work of art could refine our ontological understanding in such a way that we could learn to free things from their captivity in the matrix of instrumental dealings associated with the industrialism spawned by productionist metaphysics."[13] Such a view has undoubted anthropocentric force in the context of modernist practices. But it is an ambitious claim in any attempt to revitalize the salvific power of art for contemporary times. There is a point at which the technitēs" seeing is interior, and thus prior to external sensations: a recognition of the eidos before its realization. But Heidegger reminds us that we must seek art's nature "in the actual work."[14] For the modern artist, it is in the nexus of "sensation-feeling" - in the expressivity of his feeling sensation - that the where and how of art is found for his times.

Heidegger believes it is the very existence of humanity itself that incites us to ask about the origin of art - a thinking that connects art with "the experience of beings." And what is central to this experience of beings is Dasein, or "Being-there." And given Heidegger's proposition that an origin is "the source of the nature in which the being of an entity is present", it becomes possible to conceptualize the being of an artist as a significant grounding instance of Dasein's historical emergence. Here Heidegger asserts a foundational ontology: Dasein is being-in-the-world. The disclosure of Being-in-the-world is states of mind and understanding. In such understanding lies "the possibility of interpretation - of appropriating what is understood."[15] Being-there understands and evokes the possibility of interpreting the world, without which the world would be devoid of an interpreter or interpretation. For Heidegger, interpretative understanding, by which human Dasein is in the midst of things, comes closer to us when we think the Being of beings.

Furthermore, Heidegger conceives the work of art as technē in opening up and bringing into a clearing and gathering, and hence to a visionary seeing, the Being of beings. He defines this opening up of the Being of beings as occurring in the manner of a deconcealing: something that happens pre-eminently in the work of art. And what is disclosed in the artwork is a totally new term: "the truth of beings." This truth of beings has "set itself to work", and in such a way that in the artwork the truth of what is has set itself to work. If art is one privileged way in which truth - the truth of what is - sets itself to work, then according to Christopher Fynsk, Heidegger's response to Hegel entails defending the view that art "is for truth an exigency, inasmuch as truth has an impulse toward the work of art and wills to be established in art."[16]. This surely constitutes a kind of metaphysical solace for the artist, in that truth wills to be in the conduct of art.

In situating where and how works of art, carry, disclose, or open up truth, we come to recognise that the work of art posits the question of man. As Heidegger submits: "Being needs man and is not without man."[17] Such a question involves man with truth as the openness of the da or there.[18] For it is through Dasein's sensuous feeling for life that truth - as the openness that breaches - is broached.[19] Any acceptance of the impetus of truth toward the sensuousness of life - toward a grounding in art - is an occasion for deeper meditation on Dasein and its questioning. It is a questioning which carries Dasein into the world, as Fynsk declares, for the vision of things before our eyes.


Heidegger's Vision of the Visible

Heidegger's Seinsfrage, his "questioning of being", needs to be thought about in relation to vision. For Heidegger, as David Levin argues, the seinsfrage is a question addressed to us as human beings. And since as human beings we are embodied and gifted with sight, the seinsfrage can be conceived in terms of our seeing. Thus this questioning of being makes claims on our vision, Levin submits; "it makes a claim on us as visionary beings;" that is, a demand that calls forth from us a response. The claim that such questioning makes on us in the domain of our vision touches upon the nature of our seeing. Indeed, "it concerns our capacity to develop our vision further in the direction of its openness," and is something for which we are responsible, "for our response-ability as beings gifted with vision."[20] Heidegger says explicitly that it is necessary for us "to show how this "there is" [of being] can be experienced and seen." [21] Looking ahead we become foresighted in still another sense. Our visual field is disclosed, clarified and illumined by way of sightfulness: by what we experience and see. The veracity of Heidegger's injunction comes from its practical bearing on us as visionary beings within the existential circumstances of our seeing.[22]

Implicit in this sought-after revision is what Levin calls "the hints and traces of a different perceptual Gestalt, a different structuring enactment of our capacity for seeing."[23] Heidegger recognizes in the Gestell, "the enframing," something that proscribes, secures and dominates by a technological rationalization of vision. Here he glimpses the potential for overcoming the Gestell, and a new way of seeing which would enable the gathering, clearing and lighting of a formerly pathological sight. This movement toward a clearing and lighting of sight cannot be achieved by thought alone. It must embrace the domain and activity of the technitēs - the artist's productive being - and in such a way that the impulse of vision towards technē - of seeing and knowing in its highest sense - is accomplished through work. What, then, are the ontological and practical features of this technitēs at work?


Prudential Ontology and "the hand"

For Heidegger the existence of Dasein/human being is articulated through understanding. The understanding Heidegger achieves in respect of the work of artistic production, removed from a productionist metaphysics, is to insist that a work's "thingly nature" comes closer to us when we think the Being of beings. The opening up of the Being of beings occurs in the manner of a deconcealing which happens in creative or productive work. It is in the very possibility of art that "the truth of what is" sets itself to work. Truth is earthed-forth, as it were, as it arises in the origin as art. Heidegger believes that truth - aletheia, "unhiddenness" - requires the work of art for its happening, its deconcealing, its openness. Truth is thus known by means of an opening-up and coming-forth in the work. But what is truth, Heidegger asks, such "that it sometimes comes to pass as art?"[24] Is truth some sensibility that comes to pass as art, or some indefinable aspect of being that carries itself forth into art? Truth for art is the marking of technitēs - the artist - with what I call "prudential being": with a circumspectly directed mode of artistic being toward and for the world.

The question as to what art is, to which Heidegger returns again and again as if to gain its confidence, reflects his belief that art is, in its physical factualness, a pervasive power. Art at the level of the technitēs has a hold on sight. And as H. W. Petzet declares, "the poetic character of every work of art should never disappear from [our] field of vision." This serves Heidegger's "root-unfolding of the work of art," as Petzet describes it. As Heidegger himself says of this unfolding: "in its true character [art] is itself the epiphany of the world, which is lit up by the work of art and preserved in it."[25] Contrary to the enigmatic or mythical tag that might attach itself to Heidegger's thinking about art, Petzet argues that Heidegger simply wants to provoke or entice the observer "to think [more] deliberately by thinking with him."[26]

Heidegger testifies to what he calls the basic state of sight: a state that "shows itself in a peculiar tendency of Being which belongs to everydayness - the tendency towards seeing. We designate this tendency by the term curiosity, which characteristically is not confined to seeing," Heidegger says, "but expresses the tendency towards a peculiar way of letting the world be encountered by us in perception."[27] Martin Jay argues that the attitude or tendency of "letting things be" (of circumspective vision), latent in the early Greek pre-Socratic attitude of wonder, eventually succumbs to curiosity as the guiding element in the modern technological-scientific world-view. Jay argues that Heidegger wants to stress vision's "positive moments," and its "differentiated character," implicit in the term Zuhandenheit, "a readiness-to-hand"; a term which means employing something practically, without first visualising it.[28] Such readiness to hand brings into focus my notion of prudential being and its affiliations with technitic practice: the practice of the artist and the means of productive work - namely, the hand as the extra-organic organ of sight.

Moreover, Heidegger likens the task of thinking to the workings of the hand. But the hand, he says, is a thing "altogether peculiar." Commonly, the hand is considered a part of our bodily organism. But its essence, Heidegger believes, "can never be determined, or explained, by its being an organ that can grasp." The human hand is manifestly different from "all the grasping organs - paws, claws, or fangs - different by an abyss of essence." For it is only a being who can speak and think, who can have hands, who can achieve works wrought by hands.[29]

To think thought is to think the work of thought, and to work the work of thought is to employ the hands. The artistic or writerly hand is immersed in work. It is through his/her hands that an artist or writer establishes contact with "the austerity of thought," as Henri Focillon once remarked. Such hands, he says, "quarry [thought"s] rough mass [and] upon it they impose form, outline and, in the very act, of style."[30] The hand, as Heidegger insists, "reaches and extends, receives and welcomes." The hand holds and carries. But the hand also runs everywhere through language, and is "in [its] most perfect purity precisely when man speaks by being silent." And so for Heidegger, every movement of the hand carries itself through the element of thinking, for "every bearing of the hand bears itself in that element." Indeed, he submits, "thinking itself is man's simplest, and for that reason hardest [handwork]."[31] The hand and thinking share some mutual obligation: to think is to think and work with the hand. The hand that is enmeshed in thinking is like a gestalt or figure earthed in its ground.

Further, every bearing of the hand bears itself in the element of a thinking that makes. The hand, in being capable of multiple motion, inaugurates a profound simplicity in its makings. The hand is an extra-organic implement of thought, but it is also the extra-organic organ of sight. The hand is, in its dexterous motility, a handling of the things imparted to it by the tactile senses of touch and sight. Hands thus gather and comport themselves. And whether it consists in inscribing a line, throwing a pot, gesturing with a brush, conducting an ensemble, holding one's companion or soothing a child, our hands perform tasks of inspiring lucidity.

The artist sees the world with a keener sense, Henri Focillon believes, and as his art is made by his hands, so are his hands the instrument of creation. But before that, such hands are an organ of knowledge; for the artist "starts from the very beginning."[32] The hand as a principle of knowledge is closely aligned with the technitic hand - and brings about a factual clearing of sight for creative action. The impulse toward knowing and sightfulness is accomplished through the hand. But what bearings might this have on an artist who is intent on originary beginnings in works of art?


Heidegger and Klee: "of one who originates"

In "The Origin of the Work of Art" it is implied that the artist is somehow an instrument through which a deconcealing takes place in the artwork. However, Heidegger does not cast the artist in the role of a prime mover, so to speak; and this in marked contrast to his later judgments concerning artists such as Paul Cezanne and Paul Klee, both of whom, he said, were epoch-making artists. Here the artist is conceived as an originator or progenitor who brings works from out of their origin. For example, it is compelling to note that Heidegger himself, after long exposure to the work of Klee, found embodied there the whole direction and consummation of modern art. In Klee, Heidegger said, "something has happened that none of us as yet grasps."[33] What scholarship on Klee has begun to grasp since this remark of Heidegger's is the numinous quality of much of his work. Kathryn Kramer has identified what she calls Klee's "crypto-mythic figuration", which is literally "an attempt at the impossible - to depict/write a state of invisibility/indecipherability;" the result being, Kramer claims, an "extremely private visual language. [34]

This may be a partial explanation of Heidegger's comment that Klee has accomplished something which "none of us as yet grasps". My own view is that Klee, through the invisibility inherent in a private language, manages to convey an ineluctable horizon of transmutability which he signals for us, and in such intimate details, as belonging inescapably to Modernism's alchemical times, and as such, accounts for his idiosyncratic use of pictorial strategies. As Petzet has argued, "hidden in the paintings of Klee is the thorn of a claim that is not easy to satisfy."[35] And a claim that is less easy to satisfy in relation to the art of our own day: not merely to reproduce our thought of the visible, but to render thoughtful invisible things.

Heidegger did not overlook his long encounters with Klee's art. He spoke of his work making moods and feelings visible in paintings. The less Heidegger thought of Klee's pictures presenting objects as such, the more did they seem "to appear", in the Greek sense of: phainestai: "to bring to light", "to make clear." Heidegger's encounter with the work of Klee is characterised in this potent example: Klee's Patientin ("The Woman Patient"). Heidegger is reported to have said: "Our [medical] friend Nagel should see this painting. For no clinical probing ever reaches as deeply into illness and suffering as this painting does. A physician can learn more here than from medical textbooks."[36] Something akin to this psychical exposure is apparent in Klee's Enfant sur le Perron ("Child on the Steps", 1923), a moon-faced child deployed in some dark reminiscence; or Pauvre Ange ("Poor Angel", 1939), a bucolic angel caught in the happenstance of material emotion.

In Heidegger's account before Klee's Patientin we see an affective pointer or cadence in the way his experience influences his judgments about art's place in human affairs - in contrast to his formal philosophic writings on the nature and destiny of art. In his correspondence with artists, many of whom he knew personally, Heidegger acknowledges the pivotal role of the artist in commissioning the transformative powers of art, and which his sustained contact with the work of Picasso, Braque and other moderns would seem to endorse. Insofar as the modern artist immerses his subjectivity in creative acts, there resides the nature of production: pro-ducere, "to bring" or "to lead forward"; and of his ability to bring invisible things - symbols, emotions, and psychic states - into visible life. Heidegger's conception of the artist as technitiēs is fundamentally concerned with the kind of making which brings into the light, or which shows forth in human existence. And thus we see his philosophical justification for aligning production with craftsmanship: with the artist's setting-forth of work which causes things to first come forward in their appearing.

Heidegger affirms that the artist, because he is also a craftsman, is essentially a technitēs; but not a "technician" in the modern scientific sense. The artist is one whose whole demeanour is a presencing: one which brings forth things in their present appearing: beings, works, which assume an appearance. But all this happens in the midst of phusis ("nature"), Heidegger insists; that is, phusis is known by the rising of natural entities to a self-emergence and a resting-in-themselves; for instance, the way a plant emerges and grows under the influence of light and warmth into a formative whole; and in the order of created things, how artworks constitute themselves through the agency of an artist's sighted hand.


Klee's Gestalt and Existential Composition

One of my concerns in this article has been to identify the perceptual conditions that distinguish art as art. We must now recognize that conceptual and practical processes are powers of existential composition. Such powers may elude exhaustive analysis, but works of art hold within themselves their own objective forces; it is the compositional character of works of art which disclose the temporal and spatial indices of their own form-language whereby the observer receives their objecthood. This is achieved through a work's coming to a cohesion and centrality as a created thing - a gestalt. The gestalt concept is something which Heidegger employed as a means of articulating the relation of what he called a "self-disclosing world" and a "self-secluding earth": the gestalt taken as that form, shape, or figure which is fixed in the conflict between world and earth; a necessary conflict, as he saw it, in order that truth might be fashioned. But here, and from an artistic perspective, I take the gestalt to mean a formational figure, in contrast to something fully formed. That is to say, a formational gestalt takes place in the creative tensions of art making.

We might say that for Klee the notion of gestalt is a counter-foil to a purely analytical modelling of form. Within his theoretical teaching program, the so-called Weimar Preliminary Course of 1924/25, Klee is concerned with the nature and function of the gestalt. His study of the gestalt treats of "the ways that lead to form", and thus emphasises the paths to form rather than the form itself. The word gestaltung - a forming or arranging - suggests as much. Klee says that the Theory of Form, Formlehre, does not give due emphasis to the necessary principles and approaches to form. And any Theory of Formation remains too unfamiliar. He writes, "Gestaltung in its broader sense clearly contains the idea of an underlying mobility, and is therefore preferable." Klee argues that gestalt, over against form, is something more alive. "Gestalt is in a manner of speaking a form with an undercurrent of living functions. A function made of functions," he says. These functions are purely intellectual, and a need for expression undergirds them. And every functional expression must be properly grounded. Thus Klee argues there will be a binding relation between the beginning, middle and end of a created thing.[37]

Creative possibilities suggest themselves to the artist who wants to draw together a sequence of living functions in the beginning, middle and end of a thing's production. The formal basis of these reflections is found in Klee's "theory of pictorial means": a theory in which, as Juerg Spiller describes it, "abstract thought and form models alternate with the immediacy of new points of departure that are close to nature." Close to nature in the sense that Klee's practice-based theories draw inspiration from the motive forces of the natural world - the natural order in a state of dynamic rest. For example, Klee speaks of the snail "joined to [its] growing shelter", and the apple, "from blossom to fruit", activated in an essential and ceaseless construction. [38]

Klee's approach to form, and the underlying functional motility that belongs to form, is essential to generating a living gestalt. Functional gestalt figuration has its own mode of kinetic expression: the gestalt as vital and alive within phenomena. Moreover, expressive ideas must be "cogently grounded," Klee says; only so will the crafting of works be open to intelligibility. Here we have the preliminary stirrings of creativity. Such stirrings, Klee suggests, are "our craftman's propensity directed towards the actual work and our transmission of this involvement to others, its beholders - these are the main components of the creative totality - pre-creation, creation and post-creation." Indeed, the artist's inner impulse, Klee reports, "is the urge that leads to production."[39] As with nature, so with us, he says. Nature is creative, and so we are creative. Under nature's inspiration, Klee believes, we learn of our own creativity; just as we are brought to recognize the pre-creative, creative, and post-creative conditions of our own work.

We see in the natural order the phenomenon of form-giving and its relation with "the basic urge", as Klee calls it; for what we sense is "a way of life developing from a mysterious motivation towards purposive action."[40] Klee points out to his students that this phenomenon of form-giving was discernible in their initial practical work when form-structure "began to take care of itself on the smallest scale." He says that the relation between form and form-giving, acknowledged and learned on that scale, retains its significance throughout the later stages of production: such a relation of form and form-giving being the productive combination of principle (form) and (form-giving) technique.

Here Klee lays down what I would call a genetic approach to form, where the path to form is directed by "inner or outer necessity", and as such, is more significant than the goal itself. [41] In stressing the importance of the inward impulse over its particular artistic goal, Klee reinforces the significance of form-in-process, or form-becoming, as something grounded in its own right. Klee says as much: "Form is set by a process of giving form"; form not as an end, but as genesis, growth, and essence. This approach determines the character of the work before us, a character which can be determined only once. Whereas form-giving is motion, movement, action, and life; what is unacceptable by contrast is form "as immobility, as an end, as something that has been tolerated and got rid of." Form as an end is "the end", "death".[42]

The character of a work's essential dimension must be refined, Klee submits; it must "develop interesting offshoots, rise, fall, dodge, become more or less clearly marked, grow wider or narrower, easier or harder."[43] And as Klee has rightly argued, theories of creativity, of proportion, of pictorial means, and theories of style, really have no independent existence; they are valid only where they become integrated into a single and indivisible whole. Such a totality, he says, "embraces a very large number of things, each in its place." [44] Hence Klee's adoption of the analytical approach; but analysis put at the service of free-flowing experimentation - one given over to the task at hand.


Klee's Practical-Analytic and "the Whole"

Of fundamental importance to the organic growth of form-giving is the interrelation of the component parts in a proportional whole. Klee says that there is an infinite scope for variation in the advent of a whole, and that to begin with, we are faced with a relatively undeveloped sense of proportion, such that "even as we exercise our ingenuity, we should vary but one element at a time." In so doing, he says, "we identify with our material, impart a rhythm to it, make it rise to the first stage above its imperceptible structure - and not much more." In such a situation we must keep our eye on the higher governing proportions of individual structure, because it is from these that form-determination comes. Such recognition governs the conduct of form, while structure simply lends support "as a pliable material aspect." These governing proportions "characterize the ultimate form, [and] the structures make possible their realisation." Klee argues that only form-determination and form-realization taken together can yield the sought-after "higher configuration."[45]

These governing proportions are living and breathing things, he says, because as human beings we have them within us and about us. That they are within us fits us for creative work. [46] The intradynamics of a material rhythm and its supportive structure, the determination and realization of form taken together, constitute a perceptible enrichment of the whole. We could thus say that creative work becomes the pursuit of higher order objects in phenomenal form. Moreover, Klee's ideas and analysis may yet contribute to the development of a contemporary form-giving episteme, especially his concept of "the energy-charged creative force" which animates all natural things. The contemporary artistic opportunity is somehow to harness this motive energy for creative thought and productive capacity.

Klee is an artist who works from "a beginning", bringing imperceptible things into visibility, supernal things into consciousness. Klee's gestalt of form-giving draws on those forces which act as a conduit for some creative possibility; so that at the end of the artistic process, as Will Grohmann has said, "all forces merge and crystallize." What emerges here is a parallel between universal forces and the artist. The guiding principle for Klee is, just as "analogies with the totality of laws are reproduced exactly in the tiniest leaf," so are the laws governing universal processes reproduced in the artist himself;[47] laws and forces, that is, which achieve their earthing in human artistry.

But what connections can be drawn between a beginning for art and the forces of art-making? And how does Heidegger's thinking address art's evident materiality?


Materiality and Art-Making's "thingly character"

I argued earlier that the beginning of art is the joyous enchantment of what is given to us to be and to accomplish in the realm of the human. And I said that "thought" is the gift given to us in thinking back toward what in the first place draws us toward itself and holds us in the path of thinking. But if contemporary culture, with its fluid entities, has refused the restoration of things to their origin, then it forfeits its claim to hold us in the abiding path of thinking, as Heidegger conceives it. As noted, Heidegger's major concern is with the historical disclosure of the artwork as a vehicle for aletheia, truth: "as a happening of truth as having happened" (so Fynsk)[48] in the artwork itself. In a very considered way, therefore, Heidegger's meditations on art, artist and artwork assume a hermeneutic role in his project of the epochal disclosure of Being.

What, then, do we encounter with the originary beginnings of art? At the outset, we encounter an Ursprung: "a primal leap", and a Vorsprung: "a forward leap". Here an origin is envisaged as a primal leap taking a forward leap into some intelligible form, shape, or idea. We recall that Heidegger says "to originate something by a leap, to bring something into being from out of the source of its nature in a founding leap - this is what the word origin means." Heidegger recognizes that art can only exist because of the actuality of artists and works. Art must be given a determination in a specific context - one that serves the activity of artist and work. To see the character of the art in a work we must go to the actual work, Heidegger believes, and ask the question of the work: "what and how it is." This is a crucial question. The work's response, so to speak, is to show itself from itself: to show what and how it is.

Works of art are "as naturally present as are things," Heidegger says. Works of art have a thingly character. It is the element upon which Heidegger's vision of art as "allegory" and "symbol" depends. A work of art draws our attention to its thingly nature, so that even "the much vaunted aesthetic experience cannot get around the thingly aspect of the work of art." [49] However, the thingly aspect or the "thing-being" of the work must not obstruct our reception of its "work-being", its workly nature. And here we do not simply take a work's work-being for mere equipment. A work is not simply a piece of equipment that is fitted out with an aesthetic value attached to it. Such a work is "worked out, brought about, effected," Heidegger writes. One thing distinguishes a work: it is something created. A work is a created actuality. And to such a degree, Heidegger claims  that "all art, as the letting-happen of the advent of the truth of what is, is, as such, essentially poetry."[50] The role of the poet is to search after ineffable beginnings by way of the logos or "word." The role of an artist is to image-forth some affective response to life's origins and demands - through the poverty of artistic materials. Consequently, "the truth of what is" has revelatory force for the artist - not least for its problematic placement in a world of creaturely values and finite creations.

Can such a knowing and handling of art, endorsed by Heidegger and Klee, come to pass in our time? Can it support the claims of theoretical discourse in the highly charged atmosphere of contemporary art? Can we, in our world, legitimately speak about origins for anything at all, given that multiple production and commodified reduplication appear the order of the day? And can arts practice, in its plastic, literary, and performative making, not only survive in such a climate, but enhance the significance of meaningful beginnings?


The Aleatoric Aesthetic: Some Implications for Contemporary Art

In the 1980s Craig Owens asserted that the postmodern artwork unsettled the stability of "the modernist mastering position", whereby the authority of an artwork was not based on its uniqueness or singularity but on "the universality modern aesthetics attributes to the forms utilized for the representation of vision";[51] and this beyond any differences in content due to the production of works in actual historical conditions. Not only does postmodernist work claim no such authority, Owens argues; it is intent on undermining it - hence "its generally deconstructive thrust."[52] However, contemporary art now claims another index of authority for itself: an aleatoric or "random" character; so that what is introduced is a disruptive or discordant mechanism, the aesthetic effects of which postpone or cancel judgment along modernist lines.

Contemporary art has moved away from a determined conceptual stance to one of interactivity. Contemporary artists have been induced to leave the solitude of the studio and engage with the social order. Such artists now deal with a demanding repertoire of social tools and art institutional prerogatives in exhibiting their work. Definable public space has now become the artist's studio en plein-air - an overt mode of being and making. Contemporary art and its diverse applications - vis a vis computer and video art, installation or assemblage art, audio art and certain modes of performance art - now seems largely determined by some interactive mechanism. Here we need a discourse that recognizes the artist's perception as mover and shaper of his/her creations. Inasmuch as discourse is the articulation of social and cultural forces as they find expression in individual practices, then discourse constitutes a critique of power, whether of art or life. The evident materiality of an artist's discourse must be allowed to forge open-handed aesthetic values, so that we learn to interrogate those practices which are at odds with themselves or with the world.[53]

A Heideggerian intuition could influence contemporary art practice if it were to insist on the restitution of a work's "work-being" transmogrifying sensory things into visionary engagement. And so whether it is of a plastic, literary, or performative nature such work should assume its own ontic weight in the perceptual field, and be open to humanizing critical reflection. Whereas our contemporary historical moment is one of conflicted truth and heterogeneous appearances, the artist is one who remains to mould this world's latent meanings and undisclosed truths. If contemporary art appears overburdened with self-proclamation, then originary thinking may offer a corrective: a speech of encounter with art which mirrors back to ourselves something of Heidegger's sense of a work's "coming-to-presence" and "abiding"; and of an earthing of discourse amidst the competing forces of politicized visualities.[54] Here the contemporary artist can begin to work within freely chosen parameters only by occupying some outpost of thought and practice which portends a clearer view. For it is what remains unthought for art that poses an existential challenge to art.

Finally, what are the repercussions of such thinking? Can we accommodate the approach to art's appearings and its knowing-handling which Heidegger and Klee differentially enjoin?


Conclusion: Art's "appearings" and Knowing-Handling

Historically, what began as a desire for originality in modern art and discourse can be used as a medium or technique for interpreting the impasse between a dematerialised hyperculture (an uncritical virtual reality), and the kind of artist who seeks an authentic utterance over against a pervading societal unoriginality. Here we can begin to establish a gestalt-like pattern at the heart of creative thought and practice; for only where perception and experience meet do we invest ourselves wholeheartedly in cultural meaning. And we may yet come to a deeper awareness of some Heideggerian appearing: a kind of in-sight that is granted to us that we may see what we do not ordinarily see. The theme of appearing proposes a guiding premise or intuition for carrying out works of art; but one which as Jean Francois Lyotard tells us, "is still limpid for thought."[55] Any limpidity for thought is a metier born of seer and seen: a testing yet solicitous communication between art and its recipients through the expressive range which the enigma of appearing opens up.

What are the lessons to be drawn from philosophy's engagement with modern art? And has art gained from the exchange? Firstly, I would suggest that both Heidegger's originary truth-telling and Klee's materialising gestalt can activate, even refine and redirect, the appreciative faculties: our aesthetic senses. Secondly, Klee encourages artistic createdness to be exuberant in its reach and scope, thus making available a working consciousness at once self-corrective and self-assertive. This is a labouring aesthetic born of the body-constant: a silent discourse of arousal wherein an artist's judgment freewheels as to technical means and compositional ends. Thirdly, just as Paul Klee's graphic and painterly vision marks out our humanity at some secret scale, inscribing a life-image of itself in our retinal memory, even so does Martin Heidegger's mythos of art and truth infuse our imagination with the wonder of being. Indeed, here we contemplate the very possibility of seeing itself: for through the evocation of Klee's supernal world and Heidegger's originary world we glimpse art's appearing and inner knowing-handling as a vital actuality addressed to our lives.



Derek Whitehead has a background in the visual arts, Classical languages, and Continental philosophy. He holds a PhD from Sydney University, Australia, and is a practicing artist, independent researcher and writer in the areas of aesthetics, aesthetic education, and varying themes in art research from historical and contemporary perspectives.

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[1]Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art", (OWA), in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, (London and Toronto: Harper and Row, 1935/1975), p. 17


[2]Joseph  Kockelmans, Heidegger on Art and Artworks, (Dordrecht and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1985), p. 209


[3]Martin Heidegger, "What Calls for Thinking," in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. D. F. Krell, (San Francisco: Harper, 1964/1993), pp. 369-370


[4] Martin Heidegger, "On the Origin of Art and the Destination of Thinking", cited in Reading Heidegger, Commemorations, ed. John Sallis, (Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1972/1993), p. 140


[5] Heidegger, ibid, p. 141


[6] Walter Biemel, "Elucidations ...", in Reading Heidegger, Commemorations, ed. John Sallis, (Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1972/1993), pp. 374-375


[7] Heidegger, OWA, p. 80


[8] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebrasks Press, 1955/1982), p. 229


[9] Heidegger, OWA, p. 137


[10] Heidegger, ibid, p. 137


[11] Heidegger, ibid, p. 137


[12] John Sallis, "Imagination and the Meaning of Being", in Heidegger et l"idee de la Phenomenologie, (The Netherlands: Kluwer, 1988), p. 130


[13] Michael Zimmerman, "Authentic Production; Techne as the Art of Ontological Disclosure", in Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, and Art, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 223


[14] Heidegger, OWA, p. 57


[15] Heidegger, 1962, Being and Time, trans. John Maquarrie and Edward Robinson, (New York: Harper and Row, 1927/1962), section 34


[16] Christopher Fynsk, "The Work of Art and the Question of Man", in Heidegger, Thought and Historicity, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 132


[17] Heidegger, OWA, p. 74, p. 86


[18] Robert Bernasconi, "The Greatness of the Work of Art", in Heidegger in Question: The Art of Existing, (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1993), p. 108

Bernasconi remarks:"because truth is essentially earthy, then the work, that is art, is necessary for the happening of truth". Truth is earthed-forth as it arises in the origin as art; thus the work is perhaps a projection or an offering of truth. Here truth requires the work for its happening, its deconcealing, its openness. The work is offered to truth - a self-offering - by which a work becomes truth's address.


[19] W. S. Di Piero, Out of Eden, Essays on Modern Art, (Berkeley and London: University of California Pres, 1991), p. 63

For example, Di Piero makes the observation that Vincent Van Gogh's life and work was "the fluid, [and] harmonious exercise of an existence, [which] took as its subject the fullness of existence". Art "does not redeem existence or set itself at some invulnerable, ironic point apart from it". Rather, Van Gogh's "painterly gestures were, in what he himself felt to be unequivocally moral terms, acts of driven reciprocity". It is these acts of driven reciprocity which solicit us in Van Gogh's work. Such work may be interpreted as the giving-back to existence, by the painterly gestures of the technites, of a wholeness or happening of truth without which human Dasein remains unquestioned and incomplete. And if truth is essentially earthy, then art can be thought of as the conduit for some presencing of truth's accessibility, in that truth releases itself through human feeling and judgment in the form of created work and thus exposes itself to the rawness of our questioning.


[20] David M. Levin, "Decline and Fall: Ocularcentrism in Heidegger's Reading of the History of Metaphysics", in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. D M Levin, (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1993), p. 207


[21] Heidegger, On Time and Being, trans. Joan Stambaugh, (New York: Harper and Row, 1969/1972), p. 5


[22] Levin, "Decline and Fall ...", pp. 208-212

Levin poses a question which, he claims, remains unthought in Heidegger's writings: "For the vision of our eyes, what is being? How does being presence?" Indeed, "our eyes are given something to see, they are given the lighting, the openness of a field of illumination, within which seeing first becomes a possibility." And "as beings of vision, we are claimed by being: our being is questioned; the character, the ethos of our vision is called into question." Levin stresses that being is: that being is the lighting and clearing - both Heideggerian terms. Being is that "which lights and illumines, that for which all beings present and absent, visible and invisible, opens up and inaugurates a visual field, a matrix open in its reach and range, its dimensionality, its possibilities, its prospects and promise." Levin proposes that our vision can make an historical difference, but only if it were to become ontologically responsive - if our vision were to become a recollection of being.


[23] Levin, ibid, pp. 212-213


[24] Heidegger, OWA, p. 39


[25] quoted in H. W. Petzet, "Heidegger's Association with Art", in Encounters and Dialogues with Martin Heidegger: 1929-1976, ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 134-135


[26] Petzet, ibid, p. 135


[27] Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 214


[28] Martin Jay, Vision in Context: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Sight, (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), p. 271


[29] Heidegger, "What Calls for Thinking", p. 380


[30] Henri Focillon, "In Praise of Hands", in The Life of Forms in Art, (New York: Zone Books, 1934/1989), p. 157


[31] Heidegger, "What Calls for Thinking", p. 381


[32] Focillon, "In Praise of Hands", pp. 157-158; 162; 166-167

We who see "also need our hands to see with, to complete the perception of appearances by touching and holding," Focillon declares. The hand at times "would seem even to think." Indeed, "in repose, the hand is not a soulless tool lying on the table or hanging beside the body." Moreover, "habit, instinct and the will to action are all stored in it, and no long practice is needed to learn what gesture it is about to make." Further, "all great artists have paid close attention to the study of hands. Since more than other men they live by their hands, they sense the peculiar power that lies in them." And in such wise that all things are "but the occasion for the work of hands ... they are the goal of an experiment that neither sight nor mind can conduct alone."


[33]quoted in H. W. Petzet, "Heidegger's Association with Art", p. 150


[34]Kathryn E. Kramer, "Myth, Invisibility, and Politics in the Late Work of Paul Klee", in Languages of Visuality, ed. Beate Allert, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), p. 182


[35]Petzet, "Heidegger's Association with Art", p. 151


[36] Petzet, ibid, pp. 148, 151


[37] Paul Klee, Notebooks, Volume 2, The Nature of Nature, ed. Juerg Spiller, (London: Lund Humphries, 1973), p. 47


[38] Juerg Spiller, "Introduction", The Nature of Nature, p. 47


[39] Klee, Notebooks, Volume 2, The Nature of Nature, p. 259


[40] Klee, ibid, p. 259


[41] Ibid, p. 263


[42] Ibid, p. 269


[43] Ibid, p. 269


[44] Ibid, p. 281


[45] Ibid, p. 283


[46] Ibid, p. 285


[47] cited in Will Grohmann, Paul Klee, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), p 27.


[48] Fynsk, Heidegger:Thought and Historicity , p. 135


[49] Heidegger, OWA, pp. 56-57


[50] Heidegger, OWA, p. 72


[51] Craig Owens, "The Discourse of Others ...", in Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster, (United Kingdom: Pluto Press, 1988), p. 58


[52] Owens, ibid, pp. 58-59


[53] D. N. Rodowick, "Impure Mimesis or the Ends of the Aesthetic", in Deconstruction and the Visual Arts, eds. Peter Brunette and David Wills, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 96-97.

The postmodern aesthetic arguably has its origins in the modern idea of the aesthetic; something which, as Rodowick claims, took its rise from "the systematic retreat in philosophy from understanding the social and historical meanings of representational practices." He locates a certain interiorizing of subjectivity which identifies discourse with "speech and pure thought, as distinguished from external perceptions derived from nature"; which is to say, a certain privileging of discourse over the senses occurs in accounting for the subjective aspects of our experience of the world.

[54] David Farrell Krell, "Art and Truth in Raging Discord: Heidegger and Nietzsche on the Will to Power", in  Martin Heidegger and the Question of Literature: Toward a Postmodern Literary Hermeneutics, ed. William V. Spanos, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), pp. 40-41.

Exposing a Nietzschean proposition that art is the fundamental occurrence of all being, and that being is "a self-creating," the artist remains, according to Krell, one in whom the struggle against "atomistic experience" can only be by way of indirection. For since "the artist's creative life [is] ruled by a yes-saying response to the chaos of Becoming ... the achievement of art shatters the subject-object relation, [and thus fuses] worker and work." Such is an artist's self-production, Krell declares.


[55] Jean Francois Lyotard, "Fait Pictural", in Abstraction: Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts, ed Andrew Benjamin, (Great Britain: Academy Editions, 1995), pp. 9-15.