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Is Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” a “Work of Art”? How about the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band”?

August 16th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · 2 Comments

“Neither qualify,” says Heidegger (or so he might have said) in “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Rather, in order to be a “work of art,” a thing must have earth-shattering, culture-transforming significance. Only a few candidates meet this criterion – like the Temple did for the archaic Greeks. It defined their world and created a disclosive space within which things and roles became meaningful.

I have come to believe that Heidegger’s account is lacking in (at least) three important respects. First, we want to designate many things as “works of art,” even though they lack the paradigm-constituting feature Heidegger requires, in order to receive this appellation. Heidegger’s criterion therefore is unduly restrictive. Second, Heidegger cannot explain the being of what might be called “consumer entertainment software” – objects like books, DVDs and “records” (an “old school” term I will use as a proxy for CDs, downloads, and streaming digital media). In many cases, these are our only means of access to the work itself – but what is the nature of their relationship to the work? Third, Heidegger does not account for the being of tools of creation – objects like guitars and synthesizers for the musician, the brush and palette for the painter, etc. I will deal with each of these issues in turn.

I. Heidegger’s Creative Ontology

Heidegger’s ontology is regrettably sparse when it comes to creativity – ironic, because Heidegger himself is one of the most creative thinkers of the 20th Century. For Heidegger, there are three (and only three) basic kinds of beings – equipment (the “ready-to-hand”), things (the “present-at-hand”), and Dasein. This leads to a problem, which is, “[a]n art work is like a thing because it is perceptible by the senses * * * [on the other hand, it] is clearly unlike things … because it is produced by man. * * * [A]n art work is like equipment because it is made by man, but it is unlike equipment precisely because [it is not] wholly subordinated to function,” Lawry 186. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger therefore established another category of being, which is, the “work of art.” “It has a privileged relation to Being, similar only to that accorded to Dasein,” Mansbach 163.

In order for something to be a work of art, it must be capable of creating, or invoking, a world. “The world in the sense in which Heidegger uses the word when he calls man’s fundamental state of being “being-in-the-world” is not our environment nor the sum-total of objects in external reality. * * * This realm of my possibilities is a unified interrelated realm of being, i.e., all things of existing reality that are known to me appear here as what they are,” Jaeger 62.

For a painting, this means situating that which is depicted in a context where it co-exists with all of that world’s other accouterments. Heidegger considers Van Gogh’s depiction of a pair of peasant shoes. “The art work let us know what shoes are in truth,” Heidegger (1971) 35, emphasis added. By “in truth,” Heidegger means, the painting discloses the way the shoes “are,” the nature of their being. It constitutes, or comprises, their world, or the world in which they appear. “Van Gogh’s painting ‘spoke’ and ‘disclosed’ what the peasant shoes really are, unveiling the truth of the peasant shoes’ being by means of the work of art,” Stulberg 260.

As a corollary to this, should there come a time when we no longer can envision or comprehend that world, then the “work” no longer is a “work of art.” In a kind of play-on-words, the work of art no longer “works.” The Greek Temple, for example, stopped being a work of art after the archaic Greeks no longer believed in the gods who inhabited it. It became simply an aesthetic experience – something that pleases us, for whatever reason. “[A]rtworks belong in a specific world which they help found, but become, with the passing-away of that world, merely worldless art objects,” Bruin 56. Reciprocally, for Dasein, “The clearing which the work of art creates makes authentic existence possible,” Mansbach 167.

But Heidegger doesn’t stop here. He relegates all non-”truthful” art, in this specialized sense of “creating a world,” to the same category – merely aesthetic phenomenon, works that appeal to the senses. “Aesthetics … takes its domain as the realm of sensation or feeling and confines itself to examining the manner by which such feelings are conveyed through the mediation of the object. * * * [Since] the object-in-itself remains veiled from human cognition, aesthetics naturally turns itself over completely to an examination of the experiencing subject. In the process, the work of art itself is rendered superfluous,” Palmer 400, emphasis added.

II. There’s Gotta Be More to It than This!

I think Heidegger’s definition is way too restrictive, because it does not account for things everybody would call “works of art” which, nonetheless, are not “culture-establishing” or “culture-transforming” in Heidegger’s specialized sense. Two examples I consider are Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch (1642) and the Beatles’ record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

On prominent display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Night Watch is one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings. It depicts a group of Dutch burghers, in various mock-heroic poses, as they supposedly head off to guard the city’s ramparts. Known for its subtle interplay of shadow and light, it is “a clear-cut case of a work of art,” Ziff 58.

I have stood in front of this painting, mesmerized, gazing at it from different perspectives for half a day, watching the light flit across the canvas, looking at people looking at it, the words of a song performed by the art-rock band King Crimson reverberating in my head:

So many years we suffered here
Our country racked with Spanish wars
Now comes a chance to find ourselves
And quiet reigns behind our doors
We think about posterity again
And so the pride of little men
The burghers good and true
Still living through the painters hand
Request you all to understand,

Palmer-James, R (1973). The characters depicted in the painting smile at me, beguilingly. One of them beckons. “Come join us,” he says. In this way, the borders between art and observer dissolve.

Mr. Palmer-James’ beautiful lyrics concisely summarize all of the requisites of a culture-defining work. Do they not capture the “meaning” of the work, especially for those intensely acclimated to both the being of the painting, and the being of the song?

Yet the community of Rembrandt’s 17th-century patrons was transitory. It dispersed after Rembrandt’s death in 1669. Furthermore, Night Watch was not particularly popular. “[M]any of the archer’s guild who gave Rembrandt the commission would not pay their share because their faces were not plainly seen. * * * [It] was the very last commission that any of the guilds were willing to give the artist, because he would not make their portraits beautiful or fine looking to the disadvantage of the whole picture,” (2007).

After Rembrandt painted it, “he slowly fell out of public favor * * * [One of the reasons for this decline] was a change in Dutch tastes in art. During the 1640s wealthy citizens, perhaps growing a trifle soft in their security, developed a fondness for showiness and elegance. They began to prefer the bright colors and graceful manner that had been initiated by such painters as the fashionable Flemish portraitist Anthony van Dyck – who, however fine an artist, lacked Rembrandt’s depth. Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro dissatisfied them too, and they turned away from an artist who seemed ‘dark’ and – what was perhaps worse – demanded that they devote some thought to what they were looking at,” rembrandt’s_night_watch.htm (2007). It would be fair to say that it was not until the invention of modern lithography that the painting became exposed to a wider audience.

Night Watch, then, lacked the significance-bestowing attributes of a Heideggerian work of art. Not even its own people believed in it, and until the advent of modern times, it essentially was inaccessible to anybody not visiting it personally. It only is subsequent art criticism and art history that recognize it as the paradigm-defining work it is, in truth and fact. For Heidegger, though, this isn’t sufficient. Rather, the people whose world is defined by the true work of art must be contemporaneous with it. Because if they do not believe in it – when the gods leave the temple – its “magical” properties vaporize. Heidegger does not allow for the possibility that a work of art transcends time, or that its art-like qualities only manifest themselves in time.

Let’s look at another example, which is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was around in 1967, and experienced its phenomenon, first-hand. “Whether the Beatles intended it or not, Sgt. Pepper came to symbolize – immediately – the ambitions and longings and fears of a generation. * * * What began in those years as a consensus in taste and style – with the Beatles at its center – had transformed into a challenging worldview. * * * No single work had yet epitomized these bold new senses of community, ideas and art. Nothing that is, until Sgt. Pepper. * * * Sgt. Pepper hit a nerve in popular culture as nothing before had; it was era-defining and form-busting, and intentionally or not, it caught and emboldened the mood of the times. * * * Sgt. Pepper was part of a moment when the twentieth century was opening up to reveal the potentiality within …”, Gilmore 74.

Strong acclaim, to be sure. And it always is wildly entertaining to spot Heidegger-type language (“opening up to reveal the potentiality within”) from a writer who shows no inclinations towards Heideggerianism. However, the fact of the matter is, the community embracing this record was not the entire population of “the world,” or even “a world.” Rather, it was “a generation,” and a younger one, at that – a subset of a group. Furthermore, this sub-set was geographically oriented around large, urban, mass-media centers, such as they were at the time – places like college towns, for instance. Thus, we are faced with a work that undeniably was influential, culture-transforming, and even world-defining – but only for certain people at certain locales. Heidegger thus is dislocated not only with reference to time, but also with regards to space and group (or class, or kind) membership.

I open my copy of Poetry, Language and Thought, its pages now separating from their binding, only to discover (once again, to my continued dismay) that Heidegger does not consider either of these to be a work of art.

The solution to this dilemma is not difficult to achieve. Heidegger needs only to expand the criteria for what counts as a “work of art” to accommodate smaller groups, who may be in different places, and exist at different times. This does not constrain, and in fact implements, Heidegger’s objectives, which are: (a) to demonstrate the connection between “art” and “truth,” that is, the way art reveals the meaning of being; and (b) to distinguish between art, in this sense, and other kinds of works that, while we still may “call” them art, really aren’t “art,” properly understood.

This in turn allows for the possibility of what might be called an “ontic” account of the being of the work of art. By this, I mean that a work of art might have a transformative effect on an individual, or a small community of individuals, as opposed to an entire culture. And, that individual or community need not be situated contemporaneously with the world that originally produced the work.

III. Iterations of a Work of Art

Most people, I dare say, have encountered Night Watch by looking at a reproduction of it in a book, and now, without question, on line. On principle, these reproductions vary tremendously in caliber and quality. Print reproductions, for example, are affected not only by the type of paper used, but also by the type of ink, and other vagaries of the printing process. A quick glance at Google Images reveals that bit density of on-line Night Watch reproductions varies by several orders of magnitude. Is the work of art only the painting itself, hanging in the Rijksmuseum? Or do these other iterations, or instantiations, or inculcations of it – however imperfect they might be – still have the power, or the capacity, to inspire Dasein, and to help define its world?

This issue becomes even more acute when we consider Sgt. Pepper. For the simple fact of the matter is, there “is” no physical “work,” like a painting. Rather, the “work” itself comprises the millions of copies that are sold and distributed.

As a person who has produced sound recordings, I can tell you that of course there is a multi-track master sound recording, comprising the individual and group performances of the members of the band, sometimes rendered simultaneously, sometimes “overdubbed” in a non-real-time process. This multi-track master then is mixed down to a two-track stereo master. Copies of it then are made (and, sometimes, copies of copies, and so on for many generations), from which physical goods – sound carrier devices such as records, cassettes and CDs – are duplicated.

The master tapes in turn can be remixed or reconstructed, potentially resulting in a drastic revision (and different perception) of the work. For example, I recently purchased a new album of Beatles remixes entitled Love. One of the tracks is a remix of the Sgt. Pepper George Martin (the Beatles’ original producer) and his son, Giles Martin, have expertly and painstakingly recreated it from the original. song, “A Day in the Life.”

After listening to it once, I immediately replayed it a dozen times in a row, I was so knocked out by its pure sonic impact. I had no control over doing so, it was that compelling. The differences between the remix and the original are impressionistic, like comparing wines, or analyzing the finer points of audio pre-amplifier tubes (Brimar v. Amperex v. Mullard v. Telefunken). My impression is the new version of “A Day in the Life” is more visceral, more muscular. From an audio technology perspective, this has been accomplished via different (improved) track separation, compression, equalization, and (quite frankly) eliminating a lot of sonic information.

The most interesting phenomenon, though, is the creation of differences, to begin with – within the structure of a song that previously was static. Which version “is” the song, or better iterates the being of the song, whatever that means?

Remixes of this sort notwithstanding, I can assure you to an epistemological certainty that the “original” master sound recordings of Sgt. Pepper are kept under lock and key at Abbey Road Studios in London, England, where the album was recorded. I know this personally ‘cause I’ve been there, when I was an executive with EMI Records. The only people who have “heard” them are the artists themselves, and an extremely small cadre of technical personnel.

Also, the Beatles never performed Sgt. Pepper in front of a “live” audience. [Though evidently the band Cheap Trick recently did so. Not only did they perform a track-by-track rendition of Sgt. Pepper, they even hired the band’s former engineer as chief sound technician (Powers 2007).]

“Replicability,” in this sense, turns out to be the distinguishing characteristic of copyrightable works:

“While the cost of creating a work subject to copyright protection – for example, a book, movie, song, ballet, lithograph, map, business directory, or computer software program – is often high, the cost of reproducing the work, whether by the creator or by those to whom he has made it available, is often low. And once copies are available to others, it is often inexpensive for these users to make additional copies. If the copies made by the creator of the work are priced at or close to marginal cost, others may be discouraged from making copies, but the creator’s total revenues may not be sufficient to cover the cost of creating the work. Copyright protection – the right of the copyright’s owner to prevent others from making copies – trades off the costs of limiting access to a work against the benefits of providing incentives to create the work in the first place,” Landes & Posner 326.

All of this leaves several important questions for Heidegger. How is it possible for people to become exposed to Sgt. Pepper as a “work”, if nobody (for all intents and purposes) ever has “perceived” it “directly”? In Heidegger-welt, this is at least an implicit condition precedent for something to be a work of art. Because it would be impossible for the work of art to exercise its iconic influence, if nobody knew what it was. This is as true for reproductions of Night Watch as it is for records like Sgt. Pepper, and DVD reproductions of films and television shows.

More importantly, what is the being-nature of the work’s replications? If Sgt. Pepper is a “work of art,” does it acquire this stature only by virtue of their thing-like characteristics? Nobody would characterize the record “itself” as a work of art. Rather, it is a true piece of equipment – functional and transparent to the aural information it contains, which it will dispense upon interaction with the proper type of sound-reproducing device. The “work itself” remains fundamentally intangible, enticingly out-of-reach. Our “means of access” to it is curiously attenuated.

This becomes even more apparent upon considering the phenomena of radio and television, or, more currently, streaming Internet media. Let us imagine a world where we have done away with finished goods sound-reproducing devices altogether. In order to listen to music one enjoys, or watch a performance, all one has to do is connect to a portable device of some sort, which will receive them automatically through the aether. Literally no “thing” is involved, except for an ephemeral “master” audio-visual recording, somewhere on a server.

These technological advances have profound implications for Heidegger. They have no “being,” because they are not “things.” Since they don’t “exist,” they can’t have any “truth,” nor can they be, or comprise, or even stand in for, a “work” of art. There’s no particular reason, though, why we should constrain the ontological realm of (potential) works of art, so severely. I think there is a way out of this dilemma for Heidegger, though it will require him to admit phenomena such as “performances” and (reciprocally, but more dubiously) “experiences” into his metaphysics. Although Heidegger would care less, the distinction between “mechanical” uses of a musical work (i.e., its being as a physical sound-carrier device), and the work’s “performance,” are incredibly important, especially when it comes to matters like payments to the creator of the work. Since the latter are intangible, they clearly are not “things.” Nonetheless, they can partake of, or participate in, “truth” – just like a “work of art.”

IV. Hand Me that Guitar, Please

The last issue I’d like to consider is the being-nature of creative implements, such as instruments (for a musician), brush and palette (for a painter), or even body (for an actor, a dancer, or a porn star). These are more than merely “equipment,” which is the only Heideggerian category-of-being to which they otherwise might belong. The reason why they’re different is because the performer/artist deploys them to produce a creative work in a manner quite dissimilar to the way in which a carpenter uses a hammer, Heidegger (1962) 98, or a player wields a tennis racket, Dreyfus (1998).

As a musician (reasonably adept on guitars and modular synthesizers), and also as an as-necessary carpenter (OK-ish) and tennis player (not so good), I can report with clarity that the phenomenological experience of playing a musical instrument is utterly different than that of hammering in a nail, or wielding a tennis racket. Heidegger and Dreyfus are completely right about the latter two, and I have nothing to add to their respective accounts.

However, the former is quite dissimilar, in that it adds a creative component to the utilization of the tool. When Mozart performed a piano sonata, for example – or when Eric Clapton improvises a guitar solo – not just “any old note” will do. Whereas, any old swing of the hammer is sufficient, so long as it hits the nail accurately and with force, and any old swing of the tennis racket is sufficient, so long as it returns the ball with desired effect to a zone on the court.

Yes, the better you are at playing an instrument, the more transparent it becomes. For example, you miss fewer notes. However, this does not account for the essentially creative experience of playing the instrument, which integrates its functionality as equipment with its capacity as the means of expression of a creative, artistic intention.

One way to see why this is so is to consider what would have to be true if the opposite pertained. There is a sense in which any work of art is indeterminate – an observation marvelously made by John Cage in his work of close-to the same name (Cage 1959). Because, in principle, any old note will do, or any old brush stroke will do, so long as it meets certain technical requisites, i.e. it is correctly intonated or applied with a sure, smooth stroke – or perhaps not, if that is the desired effect.

But this observation falls short of the mark, because if it was all there was, there would be no difference between a Mozart piano sonata, and a fusillade of staccato notes unleashed by, say, McCoy Tyner. Both would just be random assemblages of notes, whereas, that clearly isn’t the case. Not only are there different notes, but each player also deploys different performance techniques, and evokes different aesthetic responses in the listener.

The brush and palette were, for Rembrandt, far more than merely tools. For the Beatles, their instruments were far more than merely tools. Night Watch and Sgt. Pepper didn’t somehow just accidentally “happen.” Rather, they required intense creative concentration, during the course of which equipment was deployed to achieve a creative result.

Another way to see this dynamic at work is to consider musical improvisation: for example, a saxophone solo by John Coltrane, or a guitar solo by Eric Clapton. I saw the rock band Cream, of which Mr. Clapton is/was a member, in 1968. While I did not see them on their recent, somewhat abbreviated “reunion” tour, I have watched the DVD, and listened to the CD, of same. I am pleased to report the band was, if anything, far better reunited, than it ever was in its (original) prime. More importantly, while of course he played the required musical themes – the “riffs,” in rock parlance – his improvisations around them were completely unique and original.

Sounding suspiciously Heideggerian, Mr. Clapton has stated, “I haven’t got any music in me until I’m in the place where it’s needed. Which is one of the reasons I do this,” Fricke 52. “The place where it’s needed” is nothing more or less than a Heideggerian world. These artists are not just randomly playing notes. Rather, they are deploying an elaborate set of skills towards a creative end, and using their instruments in a manner that is completely different than equipment.

Dance – ballet, jazz, hip-hop – partakes of the same purposefulness, as does acting, particularly on stage. There, like with improvisation, freedom of movement is not rigorously constrained by a choreographic score, or stage directions in a script. Even though there are dozens of different inflections and nuances, different ways to play a scene, one in particular emerges. Part of the skill of directing is to induce the actor to deliver the performance that best captures the character’s essential nature (the nature of the character’s being) in the scene (further, in the case of film, selecting among competing takes).

And then there is the performance of the porn star – having sex on camera – where her body literally is the artistic medium itself, without the intervention of external translative devices (guitars, paint-brushes, etc.) – except when – oh, never mind.

Since it is the custom in essays like this to close with a wry, post-ironic observation, I offer the following. How did Heidegger regard the thing-ness of his own books – the means by which he expressed his exceptionally creative ideas? The books comprise words. But why did Heidegger select the particular words he did, as opposed to some other words? Of course, to express the ideas he wanted to express, in his own idiomatic, idiosyncratic style.

But this is the whole point – the book is more than merely a container for the words written in it. The words are more than merely “equipment.” Rather, the book is a repository of ideas and intentions – those meant and conveyed by the author in the work. Rembrandt knew which brushes and colors he wanted to use. Clapton knows what notes to play. Heidegger used, and often made up, the best words he could.


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