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Essays On Origin Of Art

The Origin of the Work of Art (German: Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes) is an essay by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger drafted the text between 1935 and 1937, reworking it for publication in 1950 and again in 1960. Heidegger based his essay on a series of lectures he had previously delivered in Zurich and Frankfurt during the 1930s, first on the essence of the work of art and then on the question of the meaning of a "thing," marking the philosopher's first lectures on the notion of art.


In "The Origin of the Work of Art" Heidegger explains the essence of art in terms of the concepts of being and truth. He argues that art is not only a way of expressing the element of truth in a culture, but the means of creating it and providing a springboard from which "that which is" can be revealed. Works of art are not merely representations of the way things are, but actually produce a community's shared understanding. Each time a new artwork is added to any culture, the meaning of what it is to exist is inherently changed.

Heidegger begins his essay with the question of what the source of a work of art is. The artwork and the artist, he explains, exist in a dynamic where each appears to be a provider of the other. "Neither is without the other. Nevertheless, neither is the sole support of the other."[1] Art, a concept separate from both work and creator, thus exists as the source for them both. Rather than control lying with the artist, art becomes a force that uses the creator for art's own purposes. Likewise, the resulting work must be considered in the context of the world in which it exists, not that of its artist.[2] In discovering the essence, however, the problem of the hermeneutic circle arises. In sum, the hermeneutic circle raises the paradox that, in any work, without understanding the whole, you can’t fully comprehend the individual parts, but without understanding the parts, you cannot comprehend the whole. Applied to art and artwork, we find that without knowledge of the essence of art, we cannot grasp the essence of the artwork, but without knowledge of the artwork, we cannot find the essence of art. Heidegger concludes that to take hold of this circle you either have to define the essence of art or of the artwork, and, as the artwork is simpler, we should start there.[3]

Artworks, Heidegger contends, are things, a definition that raises the question of the meaning of a "thing," such that works have a thingly character. This is a broad concept, so Heidegger chooses to focus on three dominant interpretations of things:

  1. Things as substances with properties,[5] or as bearers of traits.
  2. Things as the manifold of sense perceptions.[6]
  3. Things as formed matter.[7]

The third interpretation is the most dominant (extended to all beings), but is derived from equipment: "This long familiar mode of thought preconceives all immediate experience of beings. The preconception shackles reflection on the Being of any given being."[8] The reason Heidegger selects a pair of peasant shoes painted by Vincent van Gogh is to establish a distinction between artwork and other "things," such as pieces of equipment, as well as to open up experience through phenomenological description. This was actually typical of Heidegger as he often chose to study shoes and shoe maker shops as an example for the analysis of a culture.[citation needed] Heidegger explains the viewer's responsibility to consider the variety of questions about the shoes, asking not only about form and matter—what are the shoes made of?—but bestowing the piece with life by asking of purpose—what are the shoes for? What world do they open up and belong to?[9] In this way we can get beyond correspondence theories of truth which posit truth as the correspondence of representations (form) to reality (matter).

Next, Heidegger writes of art's ability to set up an active struggle between "Earth" and "World."[10] "World" represents meaning which is disclosed, not merely the sum of all that is ready-to-hand for one being but rather the web of significant relations in which Dasein, or human being(s), exist (a table, for example, as part of the web of signification, points to those who customarily sit at it, the conversations once had around it, the carpenter who made it, and so on - all of which point to further and further things). So a family unit could be a world, or a career path could be a world, or even a large community or nation. "Earth" means something like the background against which every meaningful "worlding" emerges. It is outside (unintelligible to) the ready-to-hand. Both are necessary components for an artwork to function, each serving unique purposes. The artwork is inherently an object of "world", as it creates a world of its own; it opens up for us other worlds and cultures, such as worlds from the past like the ancient Greek or medieval worlds, or different social worlds, like the world of the peasant, or of the aristocrat. However, the very nature of art itself appeals to "Earth", as a function of art is to highlight the natural materials used to create it, such as the colors of the paint, the density of the language, or the texture of the stone, as well as the fact that everywhere an implicit background is necessary for every significant explicit representation. In this way, "World" is revealing the unintelligibility of "Earth", and so admits its dependence on the natural "Earth". This reminds us that concealment (hiddenness) is the necessary precondition for unconcealment (aletheia), i.e. truth. The existence of truth is a product of this struggle—the process of art—taking place within the artwork.

Heidegger uses the example of a Greek temple to illustrate his conception of world and earth. Such works as the temple help in capturing this essence of art as they go through a transition from artworks to art objects depending on the status of their world. Once the culture has changed, the temple no longer is able to actively engage with its surroundings and becomes passive—an art object. He holds that a working artwork is crucial to a community and so must be able to be understood. Yet, as soon as meaning is pinned down and the work no longer offers resistance to rationalization, the engagement is over and it is no longer active. While the notion appears contradictory, Heidegger is the first to admit that he was confronting a riddle—one that he did not intend to answer as much as to describe in regard to the meaning of art.

Influence and criticism[edit]

A main influence on Heidegger's conception of art was Friedrich Nietzsche. In Nietzsche's The Will to Power, Heidegger struggled with his notions about the dynamic of truth and art. Nietzsche contends that art is superior to truth, something Heidegger eventually disagrees with not because of the ordered relationship Nietzsche puts forth but because of the philosopher's definition of truth itself, one he claims is overly traditional. Heidegger, instead, questioned traditional artistic methods. His criticism of museums, for instance, has been widely noted. Critics of Heidegger claim that he employs circuitous arguments and often avoids logical reasoning under the ploy that this is better for finding truth. (In fact, Heidegger is employing a revised version of the phenomenological method; see the hermeneutic circle). Meyer Schapiro argued that the Van Gogh boots discussed are not really peasant boots but those of Van Gogh himself, a detail that would undermine Heidegger's reading.[11] During the 1930s mentions of soil carried connotations which are lost for later readers (see Blood and Soil). Problems with both Heidegger and Schapiro's texts are further discussed in Jacques Derrida's Restitutions - On Truth to Size[12] and in the writing of Babette Babich. A recent refutation of Schapiro's critique has been given by Iain Thomson (2011). Heidegger's notions about art have made a relevant contribution to discussions on artistic truth. Heidegger's reflections in this regard impacted also architectural thinking, especially in terms of reflections on the question of dwelling. Refer to the influential work in architectural phenomenology of: Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1980); and see also a recent treatment of the question of dwelling in: Nader El-Bizri, 'On Dwelling: Heideggerian Allusions to Architectural Phenomenology', Studia UBB. Philosophia, Vol. 60, No. 1 (2015): 5-30.

See also[edit]


Primary literature[edit]

  • Heidegger, Martin. Off the Beaten Track (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Translation of Holzwege (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1950), volume 5 in Heidegger's Gesamtausgabe.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Basic Writings, "On the Origin of the Work of Art." 1st Harper Perennial Modern Thought Edition., ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 2008, pg. 143-212).

Secondary literature[edit]

  • Renate Maas, Diaphan und gedichtet. Der künstlerische Raum bei Martin Heidegger und Hans Jantzen, Kassel 2015, 432 S., ISBN 978-3-86219-854-2.
  • Harries, Karsten. "Art Matters: A Critical Commentary on Heidegger's Origin of the Work of Art", Springer Science and Business Media, 2009
  • Babich, Babette E. "The Work of Art and the Museum: Heidegger, Schapiro, Gadamer," in Babich, 'Words In Blood, Like Flowers. Philosophy and Poetry, Music and Eros in Hoelderlin, Nietzsche and Heidegger' (SUNY Press, 2006)
  • González Ruibal, Alfredo. “Heideggerian Technematology.” All Things Archaeological. Archaeolog, November 25, 2005.
  • Inwood, Michael. A Heidegger Dictionary. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999.
  • Haar, Michel. “Critical Remarks on the Heideggarian reading of Nietzsche.” Critical Heidegger. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Dahlstrom, Daniel O. “Heidegger’s Artworld.” Martin Heidegger: Politics, Art, and Technology. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1995.
  • Van Buren, John. The Young Heidegger. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994
  • Guignon, Charles. The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Bruin, John. “Heidegger and the World of the Work of Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 50, No. 1. (Winter, 1992): 55-56.
  • Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger, Art and Politics: The Fiction of the Political. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing ['Pointure']. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington & Ian McLeod, Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1987.
  • Stulberg, Robert B. “Heidegger and the Origin of the Work of Art: An Explication.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 32, No.2. (Winter, 1973): 257-265.
  • Pöggeler, Otto.”Heidegger on Art.” Martin Heidegger: Politics, Art, and Technology. New York: Holmes
  • Schapiro, Meyer. 1994. “The Still Life as a Personal Object - A Note on Heidegger and van Gogh”, ”Further Notes on Heidegger and van Gogh”, in: Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, Selected papers 4, New York: George Braziller, 135-142; 143-151.
  • Thomson, Iain D. (2011). Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 1-107-00150-1. 


  1. ^Heidegger (2008), p. 143.
  2. ^Heidegger (2008), p. 167.
  3. ^Heidegger (2008), p. 144.
  4. ^
  5. ^Heidegger (2008), pp. 148–151.
  6. ^Heidegger (2008), pp. 151–152.
  7. ^Heidegger (2008), pp. 152–156.
  8. ^Heidegger (2008), p. 156.
  9. ^Heidegger (2008), pp. 146–165.
  10. ^Heidegger (2008), p. 174.
  11. ^Shapiro M. (1968), The Still Life as a Personal Object in The reach of Mind: essays in memory of Kurt Goldstein, ed. by M. Simmel, New York: Springer Publishing, 1968.
  12. ^Derrida J., (1978), The Truth In Painting, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0-226-14324-8


  • Heidegger, Martin; trans. David Farrell Krell (2008). "The Origin of the Work of Art". Martin Heidegger: The Basic Writings. New York: HarperCollins. 

External links[edit]

Writing Essays in Art History


These OWL resources provide guidance on typical genres with the art history discipline that may appear in professional settings or academic assignments, including museum catalog entries, museum title cards, art history analysis, notetaking, and art history exams.

Contributors:Margaret Sheble
Last Edited: 2016-03-01 09:17:11

Art History Analysis – Formal Analysis and Stylistic Analysis

Typically in an art history class the main essay students will need to write for a final paper or for an exam is a formal or stylistic analysis.

A formal analysis is just what it sounds like – you need to analyze the form of the artwork. This includes the individual design elements – composition, color, line, texture, scale, contrast, etc. Questions to consider in a formal analysis is how do all these elements come together to create this work of art? Think of formal analysis in relation to literature – authors give descriptions of characters or places through the written word. How does an artist convey this same information?

Organize your information and focus on each feature before moving onto the text – it is not ideal to discuss color and jump from line to then in the conclusion discuss color again. First summarize the overall appearance of the work of art – is this a painting? Does the artist use only dark colors? Why heavy brushstrokes? etc and then discuss details of the object – this specific animal is gray, the sky is missing a moon, etc. Again, it is best to be organized and focused in your writing – if you discuss the animals and then the individuals and go back to the animals you run the risk of making your writing unorganized and hard to read. It is also ideal to discuss the focal of the piece – what is in the center? What stands out the most in the piece or takes up most of the composition?

A stylistic approach can be described as an indicator of unique characteristics that analyzes and uses the formal elements (2-D: Line, color, value, shape and 3-D all of those and mass).The point of style is to see all the commonalities in a person’s works, such as the use of paint and brush strokes in Van Gogh’s work. Style can distinguish an artist’s work from others and within their own timeline, geographical regions, etc.

Methods & Theories To Consider:







Social Art History

Biographical Approach


Museum Studies

Visual Cultural Studies

Stylistic Analysis Example:

The following is a brief stylistic analysis of two Greek statues, an example of how style has changed because of the “essence of the age.”  Over the years, sculptures of women started off as being plain and fully clothed with no distinct features, to the beautiful Venus/Aphrodite figures most people recognize today. In the mid-seventh century to the early fifth, life-sized standing marble statues of young women, often elaborately dress in gaily painted garments were created known as korai. The earliest korai is a Naxian women to Artemis. The statue wears a tight-fitted, belted peplos, giving the body a very plain look. The earliest korai wore the simpler Dorian peplos, which was a heavy woolen garment. From about 530, most wear a thinner, more elaborate, and brightly painted Ionic linen and himation. A largely contrasting Greek statue to the korai is the Venus de Milo. The Venus from head to toe is six feet seven inches tall.  Her hips suggest that she has had several children. Though her body shows to be heavy, she still seems to almost be weightless. Viewing the Venus de Milo, she changes from side to side. From her right side she seems almost like a pillar and her leg bears most of the weight. She seems be firmly planted into the earth, and since she is looking at the left, her big features such as her waist define her. The Venus de Milo had a band around her right bicep. She had earrings that were brutally stolen, ripping her ears away. Venus was noted for loving necklaces, so it is very possibly she would have had one. It is also possible she had a tiara and bracelets. Venus was normally defined as “golden,” so her hair would have been painted. Two statues in the same region, have throughout history, changed in their style.

Compare and Contrast Essay

Most introductory art history classes will ask students to write a compare and contrast essay about two pieces – examples include comparing and contrasting a medieval to a renaissance painting. It is always best to start with smaller comparisons between the two works of art such as the medium of the piece. Then the comparison can include attention to detail so use of color, subject matter, or iconography. Do the same for contrasting the two pieces – start small. After the foundation is set move on to the analysis and what these comparisons or contrasting material mean – ‘what is the bigger picture here?’ Consider why one artist would wish to show the same subject matter in a different way, how, when, etc are all questions to ask in the compare and contrast essay. If during an exam it would be best to quickly outline the points to make before tackling writing the essay.

Compare and Contrast Example:

Stele of Hammurabi from Susa (modern Shush, Iran), ca. 1792 – 1750 BCE, Basalt, height of stele approx. 7’ height of relief 28’


Stele, relief sculpture, Art as propaganda – Hammurabi shows that his law code is approved by the gods, depiction of land in background, Hammurabi on the same place of importance as the god, etc.


Top of this stele shows the relief image of Hammurabi receiving the law code from Shamash, god of justice, Code of Babylonian social law, only two figures shown, different area and time period, etc.

Stele of Naram-sin, Sippar Found at Susa c. 2220 - 2184 bce. Limestone, height 6'6"


Stele, relief sculpture, Example of propaganda because the ruler (like the Stele of Hammurabi) shows his power through divine authority, Naramsin is the main character due to his large size, depiction of land in background, etc.


Akkadian art, made of limestone, the stele commemorates a victory of Naramsin, multiple figures are shown specifically soldiers, different area and time period, etc.


Regardless of what essay approach you take in class it is absolutely necessary to understand how to analyze the iconography of a work of art and to incorporate into your paper. Iconography is defined as subject matter, what the image means. For example, why do things such as a small dog in a painting in early Northern Renaissance paintings represent sexuality?  Additionally, how can an individual perhaps identify these motifs that keep coming up?

The following is a list of symbols and their meaning in Marriage a la Mode by William Hogarth (1743) that is a series of six paintings that show the story of marriage in Hogarth’s eyes.

  • Man has pockets turned out symbolizing he has lost money and was recently in a fight by the state of his clothes.
  • Lap dog shows loyalty but sniffs at woman’s hat in the husband’s pocket showing sexual exploits.
  • Black dot on husband’s neck believed to be symbol of syphilis.
  •  Mantel full of ugly Chinese porcelain statues symbolizing that the couple has no class.
  • Butler had to go pay bills, you can tell this by the distasteful look on his face and that his pockets are stuffed with bills and papers.
  • Card game just finished up, women has directions to game under foot, shows her easily cheating nature.
  • Paintings of saints line a wall of the background room, isolated from the living, shows the couple’s complete disregard to faith and religion. 
  • The dangers of sexual excess are underscored in the Hograth by placing Cupid among ruins, foreshadowing the inevitable ruin of the marriage.
  • Eventually the series (other five paintings) shows that the woman has an affair, the men duel and die, the woman hangs herself and the father takes her ring off her finger symbolizing the one thing he could salvage from the marriage.