Art

A high school teacher took his students to a museum where, among other things, they were to go into a particular room, one at a time, and select a great painting which they would tell the teacher about immediately upon leaving the room by the other door. One student reported that he had been unable to find “a great painting” in the room at all. Most of the others, on the contrary, reported having had a difficult time deciding which of the great paintings to talk about. Strangely enough, a large percentage of them chose to talk about a painting of a couple of shoes. The high school teacher knew, though many of the students did not, that this was a famous work by one of the more famous painters represented in the room, if not perhaps the most highly regarded of the lot. And thus, though the teacher himself could see little of exceptional merit in a picture of what he took to be a pair of old shoes like those his grandfather might have worn, he suspected that the students were catching something that he was missing. (This sort of respect for the students had long endeared him to them, and they spoke to him honestly.)

Some of these students spoke entirely of the texture of the paint, the signs of the brush strokes, the color tones. A few pointed out the weird position of the laces in the corner.

Others were delighted by the fact that the subject of the painting was something so ordinary. They took this as a message from the painter to themselves, saying Open your eyes to the beauty of ordinary things even in the bottom of your closet.

One student suggested that the shoes were painted affectionately, as if they were a couple of old friends with whom one had been through a lot of adventures. He said that the reason the ordinary pair of shoes was so moving was the absence of the person who ought to be standing in them, the suggestion of a history and a possible future for these shoes.

Several other students took up the same theme. One spoke of a ghost walking in the shoes, one of which appeared to him to be lifted off the ground. (It was that motion which snapped the laces into a strange position.)

Another spoke of life at his aunt’s farm and how these shoes seemed to possibly [his word] tell a story about hard days working on the farm. To him the shoes were painted with affection because of their reliability. It was as if the painter wanted one to look at something that one generally didn’t give a thought to.

To another these boots, as she called them, spoke plainly of long nights dancing in various sorts of dance clubs.

To another student they spoke just as plainly of life in a European city.

To yet another the painting glowed with images of (American) football games in the early days of the sport.

More than one student thought the shoes were painted to depict the beauty of out-of-date fashions, to illustrate the continuity underneath superficial cultural changes.

Two students (independently) told elaborate stories about scraps of exploded tires on the edge of a road. (Not a word about shoes or boots).

And one student interpreted the shoes (assuming they are shoes) as a subtle, if not quite comprehensible, political statement on bisexuality.

Needless to say, I’ve been reading Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art, Schapiro’s The Still Life as a Personal Object, and Derrida’s The Truth in Painting (part IV). In Heidegger’s paper Van Gogh’s painting, variously entitled “Old Shoes”, “Old Shoes with Laces”, “A Pair of Shoes”1, etc., is used (among other purposes) as an example of a great work of art. Heidegger writes, “The art work let us know what shoes are in truth.” And what they “are in truth” is the reliable equipment of a peasant woman who gives them no thought. Schapiro contends that Heidegger has illicitly brought this story to the painting, for, he claims, there is external evidence that the shoes here depicted were Van Gogh’s own and not those of a peasant woman (real or imagined). Derrida makes light of this debate (if 145 pages can be called light); it serves him as raw material for his writing – writing which does not return, except in passing, to what I take to be Heidegger’s central idea (the interplay of “world” and “earth”).

What is our high school teacher to make of the wide array of stories he has been told? And what would he make of Heidegger’s? Did Heidegger bring the story of the peasant woman to the painting (if he, in fact, had in mind this particular painting)? Did he bring only certain details of it? The teacher believed that the various stories about the importance of the shoes’ wearer(s) (along with others, though not all, of the students’ comments) helped him to better appreciate the painting. But he saw that the various stories could not each be exclusively correct.2 Was there some basic story, perhaps, which viewers elaborated to suit themselves? Didn’t this have a parallel in the discussion he had held with his students the week before about the advantages of a novel over a movie? But on the basis of what test of plausibility or necessity could this basic story (if there was one) be identified? And of what weight, if any, would (if we could have it) Van Gogh’s opinion be? And – subsequent to these questions, and of secondary importance – what of Heidegger’s remarks in the Addendum of his paper to the effect that “fixing in place” and “allowing to happen” are a bad opposition, are not in fact in conflict? Granted that this way of Heidegger’s of describing things seems a useful characterization of artistic creation, could it not, must it not, also apply to artistic appreciation (or “preservation”)? That is, might Heidegger have been perfectly aware of what he was doing? If we can satisfactorily answer these questions, we can move on to an examination of what Heidegger had to say.

The student who failed to find a great painting in the room, together with others who did not consider Van Gogh’s shoes great, raises, as much as anyone, questions about this work. According to David Hume, irremediable disagreement in the evaluation of artworks results from variation in either cultural background or temperament. If cultural variation can be ruled out in this case, the teacher may suspect variation in temperament. He will then be led either to making guesses based on his observations of the students’ personalities, or to attempting to remedy the disagreement, that is, to pointing out the merits of the painting in order to produce in the students an experience of its greatness. But what should he point out?

The students who spoke only of the painty qualities of the painting could hardly have been wrong (unless everyone was), but could hardly have been telling a complete story. The same must be said of the students who spoke only of the shoes, though in the latter cases one is inclined to allow greater latitude. Would one be so inclined, however, in comparing a student who spoke with tears and great emotion about the texture of the paint with one who remarked almost dismissively Yeah, it’s really about the shoes’ owner.? Isn’t one’s initial tendency to favor the more literal comments simply due to their appearing more amenable to some final consensus, and not at all a matter of the brush strokes’ being mere means toward the end of the shoes? If there is something to be found in this painting along the lines of what Hume would point to for the benefit of those unable to see its beauty, it will not be found without reference to colors, shapes, textures, and human vision.3

The students who spoke of a message (Appreciate ordinary things ) can hardly be said to be mistaken. Even if the shoes gain their power from an implied presence (a notable absence) of their wearer, they remain quite ordinary shoes. But this interpretation of the painting does not go very far, is less rich than some others. And so one hopes that there is more. One would like to be able to show these students that there is more. But, after one has done so, how will one know whether the additional ideas had been in the painting all along or were provided by oneself? The question is clearly a bad one. Yet, abandoning it would seem to banish any possibility of agreement. Need it do so? What if every viewer to whom the idea of the absent shoe-wearer is suggested (just that vaguely) assents to it, enjoys the painting more when in possession of it? Yes, and what if a minority demurs (say, our first student who finds none of the paintings great, and our last who sees bisexuality)? The suspicion naturally arises that these two are willfully imposing desired readings on the work. This seems confirmed when the first detests the food in the snackbar and is offended by the roads on the way back to school, and when the second finds bisexuality in six other paintings that day. But what difference is there between “imposing” and mere “providing”? I would suggest that, in Heideggerian terms, there is this difference: providing is fixing-in-place and is compatible with letting-happen, whereas imposing is closed to letting-happen. I will discuss this more fully in part II below. For the moment it is enough to recognize that, if this distinction holds, then agreement in the interpretation of an artwork depends on observation not only of the work itself but of other observers of it (of their manner of observation) – a situation which will not always give precedence to the opinions of experts.

The opinion of the student who spoke of an (unidentified) missing person impressed the high school teacher. He thought of the shoes as having been painted “affectionately”. This does not mean that the student himself was necessarily brought to feel affection for the shoes. But what does it mean? What are kind guitar chords, compassionate sculptures, affectionate paintings of old shoes? Well, at the risk of seeming evasive, I have to answer: If we knew that , we could all go home and not write another word. Nevertheless, we can make suggestions. Clearly the subject matter (the shoes, their type and condition) is pertinent, as are the details of the colors, shapes, and textures used. One can go some distance with color theories (the “warm” tones, particularly inside the shoes, as well as the care visible in the multitude of brush strokes), and a greater distance with psychoanalytic-like theories of shapes (the femaleness of the shoe on the left – the sheltering “earth” – and the maleness of the jutting “world” shoe on the right. These shoes are active companions ready to jump to one’s assistance, but at the same time pitiably weak and worn down, embarrassingly so, worthy of profound gratitude and comfort. The impression that they may be two left shoes heightens this contrast, without erasing their role as a pair of shoes. Do not look for logic.) But this is not a complete explanation and never can be, short of communicating every single speck of information constituting the painting itself. These sorts of ideas serve to share an experience with others. But that is not the same as explaining the causes of the experience, much less formulating rules for experience-types. Nothing has been said to indicate that an affectionate painting of shoes could not contradict every detail we find pertinent in this one.

The student who spoke of a ghost walking in the shoes seemed, it should be said, to regard this as something of a joke – the reaction he might have had to a pair of trick shoes actually approaching him across the floor of the museum. Can this be read as an imposition of his playful temperament on the “true” perception of the painting, to which he is not altogether blind? Well, and if Vincent were replaced by the signature of Dali’? Or had Vincent been a happy family-man with two ears? No, this “Intentional Fallacy”, as it has been well-called, cannot help us. Or can it? What if Vincent had given this painting the title “Ghost Dance”? Would one still object that one of the shoes was inside-out and therefore not meant as a shoe being worn (just as one objects when Henry James calls The Turn of the Screw a straight-forward ghost story)? Can one detach a title from a painting? What if Vincent had used the title “Old Peasant Woman’s Shoes Laid Aside on a September Night”? In that case Vincent would be wrong, no two ways about it. He would be underestimating his creation. (The Cafe’ du Tambourin arguably has nothing to do with Van Gogh’s Woman at a Table in the Cafe’ du Tambourin ). One could, of course, produce a painting of (exclusively) peasant woman’s shoes (and one could use one’s own non-peasant shoes as models, thus somewhat satisfying Mr. Schapiro) but what this means is that someone with knowledge of the culture of the painter’s audience would recognize peasant woman’s shoes in the painting. This could even occur despite the painter’s declared intentions to paint a male peasant’s shoes or the shoes of a city girl. As Heidegger points out, the artist of a great work is (in the work) inconsequential; the work is “self-subsistent”. Or as Stephen Dedalus put it: “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

The student who thought the shoes might “possibly” tell a story about farm life was more clearly honest or self-aware than what Schapiro takes Heidegger to have been. But, as Derrida points out, Heidegger did not rely on the painting to speak of peasant shoes, but of reliability. Had Heidegger possessed more sympathy for city-dwellers, he might have recognized (would he, in fact, have disputed it?) that this reliability or equipmentality, allegedly revealed in the painting, speaks also of urban shoes. No doubt it also speaks, equally well, of one’s own or another’s shoes. It’s curious that none of the students suggested that the shoes belonged to the painter. It’s difficult, however, to picture them objecting to that possibility. The lines from Knut Hamsun quoted by Schapiro add to (elicit from) the painting.4 But even these lines are not limited to one’s own shoes. To imagine the shoes of another is, among other things, to imagine what they are for that other person. One can imagine Hamsun writing pages and pages of illuminating text about Van Gogh’s painting. One can imagine poems composed and symphonies conducted which contribute to our understanding of it. From this it should be clear that the painting lives a life quite apart from the painter’s.

What about the dancing boots, the European city shoes, and the football equipment? Well, why not? Are there signs that these readings are being imposed? What signs could there be? Well, if one can oneself derive from the painting what they suggest, this should be sufficient confirmation. But if one cannot, one must remain in doubt; one must look away from the painting and at the students. Do they object to generally recognized readings of the painting which they imagine erroneously to contradict their own? Do they have a tendency to find similar meanings in a suspicious number of artworks? Are they not “disinterested”? Are they tense and insistent? One must be careful here of jumping to conclusions based on simple correspondences between the subject of the painting and conditions in the students’ own lives. A student, even a high school student, is far less easily decipherable than any painting. And an eccentric tendency can as well be the key to appreciating a painting as a bar to doing so. Analysis of the observer should not jump ahead of attempts to bring him to point out more distinctly what he sees in the work. But sometimes such analysis is the only resort, and leads to the greatest certainty one can acquire.

The students who admired the beauty of “out-of-date fashions” are, no doubt, finding something in the painting which earlier viewers could not have found. The same may be said of Americans in 1995 who relish great novels about Brits circa 1850. The same may be said about Mr. Heidegger’s appreciation of Greek Temples. Even at the level of an artist’s intentions, need we assume that he works only for those with whom he is familiar, any more than the Egyptian pyramids were built only for the generations building them? In Heidegger’s view a work loses its extraordinariness when its world fades. What is left is the familiar, a mere “recollection”, if admittedly a powerful recollection, of what was. What is left is a mere object of the “art industry”. But does familiarity not, in its turn, fade away, and a different (perhaps lesser) form of the extraordinary return? When Heidegger strives to produce extraordinary philosophy, does he not turn first to what was familiar to Greeks? Keats’ Grecian urn speaks to him of truth and beauty despite or because of Greece’s being long since gone. An ancient Japanese palace is extraordinary to me. Moreover, “mere object of the art industry” seems a little harsh. What of modern art objects created specifically for museums? I know (or think I do) what Heidegger is saying. There is something very special about new artistic innovations which stretch one’s mind. But to recognize such innovations in the distant past is to admit that something of them remains. Much of what Heidegger says of the Greek Temple would be as clear to a Chinese as a Greek. I get a lot out of familiar old cathedrals. Van Gogh’s painting is not, I think, entirely lost on me because I am not “acquainted with” this type of shoe, as Heidegger thought “everyone” was. A building is not lost as soon as an unplanned-for building goes up beside it. The unplanned for is planned for.

This mention of the Greek Temple brings to mind two further difficulties in Heidegger which ought, I think, to be addressed before returning to the next student patiently waiting in line. These are the problems of 1) types, and 2) simplicity. The problem of types is, roughly, this: does Heidegger consider the generic idea of “Greek Temple” (or “Peasant Shoe Painting”) a great work, or can he comment usefully on the varied greatness of the many different Greek temples? The temples were/are not all identical either programmatically or formally. (It is possible to read Heidegger as being concerned only with the program [the use], and this raises possible questions regarding an atheist’s gasping at the beauty of a church, for example. But this reading is neither necessary nor charitable. In fact it conflicts with Heidegger’s initial statements about the thingly quality of works.) Heidegger has in mind both the form of the temple and the role it played. But what can he say of any particular temple? Derrida wonders whether (or how much) Heidegger had a particular Van Gogh painting in mind (though Heidegger believed he did, if only as a pedagogical reference point, if we are to trust his reply to Schapiro’s letter). Does this classification of types weaken Heidegger’s thinking? No, not in the sense of rendering it false; but it points out the limitations. If there is a single truth to be found in an artwork, it is a far more complex and nuanced truth than any of those Heidegger articulates – or could be expected to articulate in so few words.

“The more simply and authentically the shoes are engrossed in their nature, the more plainly and purely the fountain is engrossed in its nature – the more directly and engagingly do all beings attain to a greater degree of being along with them.” This is the problem of simplicity in Heidegger. His examples are a painting of (nothing but) two ordinary shoes, and a short and to-the-point poem about a (generic, or should I say particularly simple ) Roman fountain. What would he say about Respighi’s Fontane di Roma , or of many of the fountains themselves, or of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (hardly a lesser work than a Greek temple), or, in short, of any more complex art, a novel for instance? He is reported to have enjoyed The Death of Iva’n Illyich, but what about Anna Karenina – a book which Milan Kundera (in The Art of the Novel ) uses as an example of what he takes to be the novel’s primary merits: ambiguity and complexity? I see no reason why Heidegger’s ideas cannot enrich one’s understanding of complex and contradictory art, but must suspect that Heidegger rated such art beneath his simple paradigms.

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Applying Heideggerese to perceptionally complex art means stepping beyond Heidegger.

The students who saw pieces of tires, rather than shoes, in the painting are extreme cases of a common occurrence (and since they are fictional students, their creator may be blamed for their extremeness). Because there are two of them, one takes them seriously. What proof, after all, do we have that there are shoes in the picture? Well, we have a certain asymmetry. We can bring them to see the shoes, and they cannot bring us to see the tire scraps. But let’s imagine that one of them speaks of the tire scraps as the remnants of an old reliable piece of equipment, while the other describes a gory seven-car accident. Would we be inclined to listen to the first of these? We might, but we would also welcome some sort of quick-reaction tests designed to determine whether the student had shoes anywhere near the surface of his thinking.

Finally, what can be said of the proponent of bisexuality? One cannot demand necessary and sufficient conditions for a painting’s being about bisexuality unless one is prepared to provide the same for its being about shoes. But one can remain sceptical until the bisexuality is shown to one. And if it is shown to one, one can recognize that the painting is also about shoes.5 It is helpful in these discussions to keep in mind the remarks on Freud made by someone who is also a much better formulator of extreme examples than myself: Ludwig Wittgenstein. His name comes to mind frequently when reading Heidegger: (“Building and plastic creation. . . always happen already, and happen only, in the Open of saying and naming.”6) One should not, Wittgenstein notes, underestimate the attraction of Freudian mythology – of the desire to discover exciting explanations and to assert that others’ reluctance to accept them constitutes unhealthy resistance. This is not to suggest that there is not much of great merit in Freud. Exactly what Derrida’s thinking is in this area I do not now feel qualified to say. This is a topic for another paper.

To conclude my “clearing of the air” (by which I mean my wondering whether the Schapiro-Derrida affair weighs heavily, or at all, on Heidegger’s paper), I propose that it does not. Neither Heidegger’s nor Schapiro’s use of the painting is necessarily illegitimate; nor can any future discovery of a lost letter from Van Gogh alter this fact. (Derrida would agree, at least as regards any unknown letter). Heidegger has the reputation of having been unable to admit a mistake. But, in so far as he may have made one here – in so far, that is, as he supposed his interpretation of the painting to be the only one possible – he would have lost little by admitting his error.7 We have no reason to doubt that the painting did for Heidegger what he claims it did, and potentially much to gain from his description of that happening. Schapiro’s assertion that an actual pair of peasant’s shoes would have worked just as well is simply wrong. One could, of course, take out an actual pair of peasant’s shoes, place them in the middle of a well-lit room, sip some German beer, and study them. But one would be at a double disadvantage. First, one would have to fight the tendency to wonder what the actual specific facts about these actual shoes were, the actual never quite matching up with the ideal. Second, one would be on one’s own without Vincent’s capable help. In the painting the proper positioning, lighting, shading, and distorting of the shoes has already been taken care of.

This is the beginning of a longer paper. The rest of it, and the footnotes, are available on request.