Journal Philosophy

Art as Truth Speaking and Heidegger (or the experience of visiting Menil for all you Philosophy/Aesthetic Nerds)

When my wife and I went to Menil to see the Ghandi exhibit[1], I had come with a certain view of militant nonviolence. When I was in the presence of the photographs and the objects, the art itself communicated beyond the work of art and produced in me a deeper longing for the ideals and convictions present in the people who took these photos. The picture of the glasses, sandals, and other simple items that Ghandi used daily revealed more than the beauty of the objects presented, but of the lifting of the veil covering the process.  The work of art brings the artist into Being, as well as the artist brings the work of art into Being. I as the observer feel a connection to the artist through the work of art as the work is communicating the essence of the artist to me, and vice versa.


When I think of art do I think of Truth? Do I think the essence of everything, as we know it? I do not think that there are numerous amounts of truths that birth the work of art into the world, but Truth as the process of unconcealing, revealing what is really going on behind what is usually projected to the people around us. Truth is not plural; rather, Truth is the one continuous experience one has that is ongoing and unrelenting, only stopped by the person who shut them off from openness and learning, which produces a life that is not living in Truth, but possibly a lie disguised as the Truth because they have ceased to engage in the process. What I seek to understand is that a concealing or the “un-truth” is not a lie but a reality that plays a role in the unconcealing. When I think of process, I am not sure what exactly that process looks like, except that art helps us see a snapshot of the process as we get to participate in the moment. The moment is an event by which the transformation begins.

There is a temptation to assume that Heidegger’s view of the origin of the work of art[2] as circular, but it is Truth that is driving art to compel the work and the artist to come into being. This is not circular, but I see this as linear, because of Truth. Truth is constantly unfolding, in a process that is not repetition, rather it is constituted in reflection. Heidegger seems to say the same thing over and over again, but he is actually constantly perfecting the art of meditation as he discovers new and deeper things about his previous thoughts. He does not land on the Truth and declare, “This is the Truth, and nothing but the Truth, so help me…” Truth speaks and is desperate to be revealed. I struggled with Heidegger for a while because I saw the truth as truth and the un-truth as the lie. What I have seen is that it is un-truth that is also Truth because it is revealed in the process, which is Truth. Art allows me the observer to see the world that is concealed to me. This is how art manifests and reveals Truth. Here is my thought: Art allows me to theoretically uncover from someone else’s life what I have not experienced, to gain knowledge and understanding that someone else (the artist) has paid the price for. Art enables me to come into a universal understanding from the subjective lens I am working with, unless I need to remove that lens.

Is Heiedegger performing? Yes, and so am I. We are performers on a world stage that seek to fill a role that suits the environment we are in. Heidegger seemed to perform to a fault, but seems to have fallen victim to his own thinking by embracing Nazism and watching the eventual unfolding of the ideology that killed millions of people. Oops! While these motivations are unsure, as we await the translation of the black notebooks, I am certain the roles we play that go unchecked can produce only more illusions. Politics is how the philosopher attempts to practically live out the ideas. Unfortunately, I do not think that Heidegger lived his ideas because he seemed to be just as deceived, living in the concealment of truth. It is like watching the movie Swing Kids, where the students see the horror of Nazism but only to defend their right to dance to the music they want to dance to. At first, this becomes a form of protest, but only at the beginning of the movie does the group of swing kids fight HJ’s. Is their form of resistance a matter of standing up for Truth, or to preserve a pleasure that life has afforded them? There is no point in the moment where any of the characters are sorry for the treatment of Jews. On the other hand, when the arts are persecuted, even if our motivations are not totally altruistic, attack those forced limitations in a way that is still keeping fidelity to the Truth.

Heidegger may have saw himself as a type of character that would hold sway in the new vision of national socialism, but history revealed it was merely a concealment that was eventually revealed for what it truly was, outside of propaganda. Propaganda is not a total lie, but half-truth (factual witness of concealment) propped up for everyone to conceive as whole truth, where we are led to believe the concealed is also the unconcealed. Nazism was an ideology that refused to continue in the process of uncovering, thus it created a natural bias that was merely the appearance of Truth. In reality, it was a lie that only propaganda, which I do not consider to be “art,” could project. Consider that Facebook can be a form of personal propaganda. Facebook is a mere projection of the idea of myself that I have without the consultation of others, and if I do not appreciate or like what someone says on my timeline or wall, I can practice personal censorship by deleting their posts. It is easy to be a personal fascist, because I can demonstrate a form of control over a world that affirms what I believe and encourages growth in areas of understanding that I already agree with. Art is different; it is subversive and disruptive. Art arises from Truth. Any idea that seeks to stifle and hinder the process is committed not to Truth, but a perversion of said Truth.

When one looks at the Facebook page, the page could be called a thing. Unfortunately, the Facebook is not a chair. Similar to a chair, the chair is the thing but there is something behind the chair that communicates to us that it is a chair, and this Heidegger would call chariness. The “thing” is the description of the object and the essence behind the object telling us what the object is. The “mere” thing is what the thing appears to be at first but the essence of the thing is what is unseen. It is like looking at other people, and having the ability to know that each one of those people is a human. Western materialism has no origin with its confusion of language. In life there is a conflict between world and earth, with the continual concealing and unconcealing happening all around us. It is a fallacy to choose either side, as if we are completely altruistic in all of life’s blessings and curses.

We build because we already dwell, but we do not dwell once we have built these physical structures. Heidegger saw essence preceding existence, or the dwelling before the building[3]. We must think before we act, and this is obvious in the way institutions are set up in history. Every ideology begins as a shared view of a few. Once the few share these views with a few others, the ideology transitions into a movement, which is essentially an institution without walls. Once the movement takes root in the life of a people, and a significant number of people see the value of this ideology, they take upon themselves as a people a corporate identity. The movement becomes an institution from this point, and subject to be the next rigid barrier that new movement rise up to destroy. Why? Institutions are visible. In Germany, Hitler had his personal view that was only shared with a few. Once he got followers, and those followers elected their movement into power, the Nazi party became an institution. Unfortunately, millions were deceived as their thinking began to be attacked, and this stifles creation of movement, fortunately there were small subversive groups like the swing kids who stood up from the inside to challenge the institution. In Heidegger’s book Poetry, Language, Thought, on page 159, he states, “However hard and bitter, however hampering and threatening the lack of houses remains, the real plight of dwelling does not lie merely in a lack of houses. The real plight of dwelling is indeed older than the world wars with their destruction, older also than the increase of the earth’s population and the condition of the industrial workers. The real dwelling plight lies in this, that mortals ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must learn to dwell. What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man still does not even think of the real plight of dwelling as the plight?” Once the building is constructed, Fascism does everything in its power to prevent man to think and to dwell outside of the structure created for it.

Significant form helps delineate between the work of art and the things, as described by Bell, so it is noncircular. Collingwood says much of the same thing. Heidegger, I think, would agree with this assertion. Things are not always a work of art, but a work of art is always made of things. Things like tables, jewelry, and shoes may not hold much meaning to us as they are frequent in use, but upon thinking and reflection, these things reveal their essence to us.

Truth is not necessarily associated with facts, as we see with Van Gogh’s “shoes” and the critics who say that the shoes are not belonging to a certain peasant woman, but what does it matter? As we gaze into the shoes, we see the other. In other words, we see the depth of experience of the lower class but even more than that we see the nothing behind the something, the Truth that is presented is something we all identify with, even when we have never been poor enough to wear shoes to the point of being torn because we cannot afford a new pair. The pair of shoes are significant form because we see more than the thing, but the thingness behind the thing. We do not always see the thingness behind the thing, because there are many things which do not have significant form. In my estimation, it is the shoe that reveals a world that although unfamiliar to me, is familiar to me at the same time. The Truth is buried in the relative but is vindicated in the Universal, and the Universal is Truth. Truth is flexible, not destroyed, and although I have never lived as a peasant woman, being a white man from a middle class family, I see the woman in myself.   

Finally, I do believe that Heidegger has moved us closer to an understanding of the work of art, because he rightly connects things to essence and reveals true being to us. This is what I love about Heidegger, because in his writing I sense a union of the mystical and the mundane. What a beautiful understanding! What we are left with is the conflict between earth and world. World demands to be brought forth into the earth, and searches for an opening. That opening is the Riss, which is the openness through which the truth is set free into the work of art, and finally realized through the observer. What I have learned about this is that Truth is concealed and rather than multi-sided (revealing a repetition) it is process that seems unending and unyielding. Truth is processing us into wholeness if we remain open, a personal Riss in humanity, that is able to come forth into story and connects us in a grand Truth narrative we are all performers in. I am happy to be a part of the poor woman’s shoes and the subversive men who thwart fascism in all of its forms.


[1] The Menil Collection. Sul Ross St., Houston. 25 October 2014. Place.

[2] Heidegger, Martin.  Poetry, Language, Thought.  Albert Hofstadter (trans.).  New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.  1971.  Print.

[3] (1977) ‘Letter on Humanism’, Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger, London: Routledge.