“America” shouldn’t dominate our view of art: a view from the Shoe Story

Jacques Derrida put his finger on something when in 1977 he looked into an ‘American’ element in the Heidegger/van Gogh controversy. He found that when America’s then top art critic Meyer Schapiro attacked Heidegger for a ‘wrong’ reading of the painting ‘Boots with Laces’ he was pretty much taking the official government line. Washington was deeply supportive of Israel at the time. In the Cold War meanwhile it was anti-totalitarian, which meant anti-Soviet and also anti-Nazi. Heidegger was a Nazi, ergo he must be wrong about art.  Derrida thought that for a great humanist critic to have made up his mind in advance on political grounds was incompatible with his task to see what was going on in this little painting from 1886:

shoes image

You might think he was right.

Still worse, for Derrida, was that Schapiro seemed to think he was pursuing his truths about van Gogh with an independent and scholarly mind. That Schapiro the academic expert actually quite a spectacle of himself is something I consider at length in A Shoe Story Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West.shoes cover

The occasion was a seminar at Columbia university on October 6, 1977, and there were mitigating circumstances.

Still, Derrida didn’t like what he read what he read and heard from Schapiro. It smacked to him of ‘The Holocaust Industry’ and a dropping of critical standards under political pressure. He all but called Schapiro to his face an ‘American policeman’ bossing the world of art and aesthetics.

Yes, he conceded, Heidegger went over the top in a famous 1936 passage praising the van Gogh painting’s closeness to the peasant life, and the soil. But that didn’t justify rejecting Heidegger’s whole oeuvre, as Schapiro did. Heidegger problematized metaphysics by bringing into philosophy a direct concern with our being-here in a material world. What is it, for instance, to own and wear and pair of shoes? he asked.

Dispute over the message of the painting ‘Boots with Laces’ has become hugely complicated.  Meanwhile Schapiro’s is still pretty much the standard view of Heidegger’s legacy where art is concerned. I’ll suggest why in a moment, but let me just look ahead to the result. If Heidegger’s groundbreaking theorizing about art in a material world is missed, then a lot of what asks to be considered art today looks puzzling or trivial. Because a man who had brilliant if unsettling things to say about art is ignored because he was a nasty piece of work, we live in a world in which art and life have rarely been so close, and we can’t make sense of it.

Take the Heidegger-ignoring case of Arthur Danto, the philosopher who has perhaps become America’s best-known writer on the postmodern. Now, with a career spanning six decades behind him, Danto knows perfectly well that materiality and its impact on art became a prime topic in art philosophy of the 1930s. He summed up, a few years ago: ‘For what it is worth, there were in philosophy certain developments that parallel what was happening in art at the time [of Fluxus, in the 1960s].’ ‘For what it is worth’? Can I believe my ears? This is a philosopher speaking, moreover a philosopher who philosophizes about art. The passage, from his essay ‘The World as Warehouse’, gets worse: ‘The efforts to deflate the pretensions of high art were matched by the effort to rid thought once and for all from the pretensions of what one might call “high philosophy”, say, the kind of metaphysical speculation exemplified in the somewhat tortured prose of Martin Heidegger.’ [Arthur Danto Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life (2007) p.53]

The fact is, this is a completely upside down view of Heidegger. First, peasant-born and in love with the simple life, Heidegger was anything but high-flown. His ‘shoe’ philosophy, let’s call it, was riven with scorn for middle-class German scholarly life, and the high culture the late eighteenth-century idea of Bildung had perfected. German Idealism, the high point of metaphysical speculation to date, had crowned the nineteenth-century philosophical culture Heidegger was born into, and for him its demise couldn’t come too soon. Second, metaphysical speculation was just what Heidegger was not offering, and to show why, he wrote in his lecture/essay ‘On the Origin of the Work of Art’ in 1936 of the need to ground concepts in present experience. In that essay the theme of grounding, of ‘having something to stand on’, Heidegger interweaves with the story of the ‘Shoes with Laces’ to give us a new picture of what art can do, namely remind us of the truth of our material being here: what and how it is to find ourselves in being in a ready-made world. Third, Danto refers to ‘the somewhat tortured prose of Martin Heidegger’. Only somewhat? I’ve read enough Heidegger criticism to feel that here is a critic who, just like Schapiro nearly half a century before him, hates this Nazi German’s guts. It’s not really relevant whether he’s read him or not. Enough of his readers will be prepared to agree, without probing more closely.

The 1930s crisis in German philosophy, German philosophy above all, as it touched art, was brilliantly captured by the playwright, poet and theorist Berthold Brecht, as quoted by his friend, the critic Walter Benjamin: ‘If the concept of “work of art” no longer holds of the thing that emerges when the work of art gets transformed into a commodity, we have to let this concept [“work of art”] fall away, cautiously and carefully, we don’t want to liquidate the function of the thing at the same time, but without fear…what happens here will change it fundamentally.’ More tortured prose? Well German is not English, and though I’ve done my best with the translation, maybe you need to read it again. But basically what we’re talking about is artworks that no longer relate to the hallowed ‘works of art’ of the Renaissance worldview as it passed into the high culture of the West and became the backbone of middle-class cultural life in the long nineteenth century that lasted until the second world war.  Brecht is focusing on a moment when the exalted ‘work of art’ has lost its old content and meaning, at the same time as art continues to have a vitally important function in society. Only, perhaps it’s not clear yet as what. The change when it becomes clearer to us will be fundamental. What we mustn’t do is fear it and dery it because it’s not of the old exalted and beautiful kind. Brecht was an artist, Heidegger was not. Brecht said it better than Heidegger. But it seems to me they were spelling out parts of the same revolution, which happened in the 1930s, in and to art; in a German version that the anglophone world has largely ignored.

Of course postmodernism, and already aspects of modernism, haven’t been ignored. Danto considers art today betokens a new ‘radical openness’. Moreover, it steps in with work ‘the philosophers were unable or unwilling to do.’ It takes over social criticism and repairs the damage done by political and economic policy.  [Unnatural Wonders, p.15, p.324] Danto writes: ‘We need from artists all the help we can get — of expressing, through performances and installations, the complex political ideas we need to master in order to navigate modern life.’ In Danto’s view, freedom and democracy — complex political ideas (?) are now what art endorses.

Well, for one objection to the view that art should create community where economic policy has destroyed it see Claire Bishop Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012). It’s wrong for politics to annexe art to make up for its social shortcomings.

Julian Stallabrass writes in Contemporary Art A Very Short Introduction (2004): ‘The supplementary character of art to neo-liberalism is becoming more visible as both corporations and states, aware of the lack in free trade, attempt to to augment it by making instrumental demands on art.’ Beautifully put. And further: ‘If democracy is found only in art it is in a good deal of trouble.’ [Contemporary Art, p.88, p.123]  What is being criticized here, if not Danto’s view of contemporary art as an annexe to freedom and democracy? Stallebrass sees art as having become a massively mediatized commercial enterprise, close to the sources of political power, in which sensationalism and mass ornament are encouraged, along with blockbuster shows of revered old masters [“the work of art”]. It is an enterprise, a commercial venture, in which art’s every moment of jubilation or depression, and its search for innovation, are a priori incorporated into the establishment view. He doesn’t set up the tension I’m proposing between a certain orthodox ‘American’ view and a neglected German approach from the 1930s, but I’m allowing myself to recruit Stallabrass on my side here.

The irony of the neo-liberal view of art prevailing over that complex view of materiality that Heidegger, Brecht, Benjamin and others pioneered is that contemporary art often seems shallower than it is, locked into its place in the establishment.

On the journey I built into A Shoe Story, which was also an art journey,  I started with van Gogh, and as I criss-crossed Europe I hoped to see art change, as it has done, so totally, since, say, the birth of van Gogh in 1853 and the death of Derrida in 2004.

Towards the end of that journey, partly from recent art history books, partly from shows on in London at the time, I found one artwork after another, one installation after another, that seemed to bear out that revolution in materiality that the Germans of the 1930s set out; and it was coupled with a politics that despised or laughed at the commodified world, while always finding a new take on our shared materiality. Joseph Kosuth, Santiago Sierra, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Mark Dion, Simon Starling, Tacita Dean and Richard Long were the names that got listed in my notebook. All artists working in very different styles, but all somehow irradiated, for me, by the theories I’d been working on. Long was even willing to answer my inquiry regarding Heidegger’s influence on his work with an ‘in my view there are connections to be made to philosophy in my work – but I would prefer you made them.’ Well, I’ve tried to make them in A Shoe Story.

I’ve written separately about the role the work of Anselm Kiefer played in A Shoe Story. I would only add here that Kiefer’s response to the materiality that van Gogh hinted at and Heidegger theorized has finally been noticed, indeed acclaimed; and perhaps that has something to do with his weaving in the story of German guilt, which makes possible and even ethical the nameless Heideggerian influence.

The Shoe Story got underway with Derrida’s attack on Schapiro,  and I’ll end here by restating the tension the whole book explores, between a typically individualistic (‘freedom and democracy’) American view of art and a typically European one, premised on our material being-here, authentic or otherwise. I don’t know if it makes me ‘anti-American’ , but art really has other things to do than heal society after the blitz of neoliberalism, or, even worse, cashing in on the commodification bonanza.


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