User account

For an aesthetic mode of thought beyond the “linguistic turn”

Dieter Mersch

A Short History of ‘Truth’ in Art

Translated by Laura Radosh

in: Epistemologies of Aesthetics, p. 61 – 114


Bevor ›gedacht‹ wird, muss schon ›gedichtet‹ worden sein.


Friedrich Nietzsche.


Beauty as Truth


To begin our journey, we must first examine the question of art as beauty and of aesthetics as a branch of philosophy—not simply as a theory of perception, but first and foremost as a science of the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘sublime’. In the early modern period, whenever the arts are mentioned, they are almost always referred to as the ‘fine’ or beautiful arts. As is well-known, aesthetics has two beginnings; in the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century. Alexander Baumgarten first defined aesthetics as a scientia sensitiva or science of perception. In German Idealism, Georg ­Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and Friedrich Hölderlin revisited aesthetics, ­defining it as a theory of art. The relationship between the two is not immediately clear. The former was grounded mostly in aisthēsis, a form of cognition classified as belonging to the physical abilities of sensations, and was situated in the lower ranks of thought (intellectus et ratio). While Baumgarten did aim to elevate perception, he never let go of the established hierarchy. Aesthetics was lifted up only to be pushed down again by according it a precarious relationship to epistēmē. For Baumgarten, only “dark comprehension” (perceptiones obscurae) could give rise to cognitiones sensitivae. In Hegelian thought in contrast, aesthetics is a philosophy of art which understands the ‘work’ as the crystallization and embodiment of an ‘idea’. From the start, aesthetics was considered to be a kind of thought similar but subordinate to philosophical thought. Aesthetics as a theory of perception was concerned primarily with the analysis of imaginings (repraesentationes) and its objects or, more precisely, manifestations (eidos)—and therefore also of forms and their characteristics, the apex or perfectio of which is beauty. The ‘work’ on the other hand was seen as referring back to the conditions of its production in poiēsis and poiein, the principle of creation, based in the end (and as early as Italian Renaissance art theory) on the thoughts inscribed within the draft (disegno) and the conceit (concetto).

The two conceptions could not be in greater opposition. The beginnings of aesthetics mirrored the old antithesis of perception and thought that goes back to the Platonic separation of horaton and noēton. Accordingly, perceptions were seen as connected both to appearances (phainomena) and to apparitions (phantasma), their fragile nature oscillating between what is apparent or emerges on the one hand and a constant proximity to the phantasmal, to phantasia and its phantoms, on the other. Thought in contrast rests on the constitution of an ‘as’, that is to say on the delineation or definition of something as something. Perception always splits or doubles this thing and then gives it a meaning, a signification or even, following Derrida, a mark or an inscription. An artwork functions similarly. It separates diverse materials, colors, sounds, or performative acts (dramata), and correlates, links, and contrasts these elements to turn them into something else: a primordial difference that transforms a slab into a figure, a sequence of notes into a melody, a timed beat into a rhythm or acts into a scene. Only through these processes do they show something (theatron) or express something that had always exposed itself as ‘something’. Perception in turn remains in a curious limbo between being and seeming (Sein and Schein), between the impossibility of negating that we see or hear and the chronic doubt about what presents itself to our eyes or ears. In its first guise, aesthetics was an epistemological question that did not aim to define the difference between truth and falsity, because it constantly oscillated between the two, culminating in a discourse on beauty as the perfection of the phenomenon (perfectio phaenomenon), as Baumgarten wrote in Metaphysica, which corresponds with the perfection of sensate knowledge (perfectio cognitionis sensitivae). Later, aesthetics was seen as being about ideas and their material manifestation—their imagination and symbolization through signs. This bound it to the ‘truth’ of the symbolic, to representation via concepts and even, following Hegel, to a tenacious dialectic sublation which attempts to reach the ‘absolute’.


Early philosophies of aesthetics constantly circled around this opposition and their most important descriptions were developed within this framework. For example, the antagonism of perception and thought is mirrored in the relation of beauty to truth, as the latter two are the respective utmost expressions of the former two. At the same time, ontology is linked to the subjectivity of taste. The work and what it is ‘saying’ demands to be substantiated through translation or paraphrased in an adequate language, while aisthēsis can take direct possession of the ‘truth’ through cognition of a form and its idealness. Nevertheless, there is a remarkable analogy that can be made between the two. Just as truth has been determined since Aristotle as the conjunction of sentence and reality, the adaequatio intellectus et rei, in Baumgarten beauty is a correspondence (consensus) of either the unity of an apparition with an idea or of an order of thought with the thing being shown. These reflect the same figure, once as correspondence, saying or responding to the same thing, and again as consensus, a common feeling on the level of sensation—in both cases a ‘com-’ or a ‘co-’, a coming together or identification—a coherence like an equation without numbers that solves itself. Baumgarten repeatedly, inspired by Leibnizian rationalism, insisted that truth, whether logical or aesthetic—i.e. evidential—truth, comes from the senses and used the same ‘formula’ to relate truth to reason as an analogy. We are thus ­confronted with two perfectiones, two lines of one equation: on the one hand the fulfillment of the form in beauty, and on the other hand the fulfillment of the idea in truth. This figure is typical of classical thought, which worked with units, equivalents or consummation, and it is no coincidence that Hegel, as regards artworks, attempts to meld ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ into a single identity. Heidegger too, in his oft overlooked afterword to “The Origin of the Work of Art,” claimed: “When truth sets itself in the work, beauty appears. This appearing (as this being of truth in the work and as the work) is beauty,” making the event of beauty truly part of the event of truth in art, while conversely the truth of art is first articulated in beauty.


The coincidence of appearance and appearing (Schein and Scheinen) as well as apparition, and their inherent meanings of phenomenon, deception, and coming to light allows for both the depreciation of perception as well as the leap to the concept of truth, which in all cases remains the final criterion. Ontologically, these con­vergences are situated completely within an understanding of beauty that dates back to antiquity; to the geometric normativity of kalokagathía. Friedrich Hölderlin also yearned for such isonomic Classical Greek pathos, as applied to the beauty and goodness of the artistic idea. Thus beauty’s connection to apparitions (phantasma), sight (opsis) and light (phōs) is grounded in its relation to ‘seeing’ in the meanings of ‘being, making, and becoming manifest’ (phainein)—the precondition for all ‘insight’ (synesis). It is striking that, as regards their roles, beauty is to perception as truth is to discourse. They are different and yet intertwined dispositifs of identification and mystification. Statements only appear to be true if they touch on and resonate in being or reality, just as to be beautiful, something must bring together form and idea—the order of things and the ordered thought.


Truth and beauty are connected by the same processes, the same figures, and the same logic of verification—feeding the indemonstrable legend that the true is legitimized by the beautiful, and that beauty is the genuine form of artistic knowledge. This parallelism is an inheritance of European metaphysics, which holds fast to the principle of synthesis, of homoiosēs or harmonia, and still, despite all shifts in epistemic theory, privileges the ontological and speaks of ‘the truth of the beautiful’ and the ‘beauty of truth’. Justifications for this idea are taken from mathematical concepts: proportion, harmony or symmetry. Such idealizations can be observed to this day, especially in the natural sciences, which give priority to rational expressions and straightforward laws with ‘elegant’ proofs. Such thought culminates in, for example, the self-similar landscapes of the Beauty of Fractals or in the persistent and unproven belief in ­supersymmetry in elementary particle physics, put forward by many in the fields of cosmology and quantum mechanics. Whenever scientists make use of aesthetics, beauty is the unassailable emblem of accuracy, causing a strange reversal of art and science. While in the arts the experience of beauty became less and less important in the course of the 19th century, and was finally denounced completely in the destructive craze of the avant-garde as a “thick layer of filth” that belonged struck from the list of relevant aesthetic concepts, it still reigns ascendant in the technosciences. In this way, objectivism wins over the arbitrariness of taste and judgment about what “pleases universally.” The most bizarre example of this was perhaps George David Birkhoff’s ­measure of ­aesthetic order, which made up in mathematical naivety what it lacked in classical pathos.

Truth and beauty are thus only seemingly far apart, since truth proves to be an objectivity that is grounded in the ‘ground’, while subjective beauty has a pull or an irresistible power no less than the casual constraint of the better argument. Beauty thus denotes—beyond its ­ontologism—not an attribute but an aura that captures us and bedazzles our souls with its siren’s song and, as Friedrich Schiller insisted, agitates our emotions. This is nothing more than an introjection of an external ­measure of beauty, whose agitations subdue, as Jean ­Cocteau phrased it “even those not consciously aware of it.” Here too we have an element of compulsion, an inability to defend ourselves from the aura of beauty. The ‘beautiful’ manifestation is inherently a moment of truth, which promises in that second to outshine all deception because it conceals all things and bathes them in its radiance. Seen in this way, beauty acts as the utopia of aesthetics, just as truth marks the utopia of discourse. Both reflect a mathematical clarity first manifested in the Pythagorean ­tetractys and continuing on through the Platonic body to linear ­geometrical projections, and the central perspective derived thereof, and further to the logarithmic reworking of the overtone series and the resulting “well-tempered” musical mood of early modernity. We can think of this ­trajectory as a rationalization of mimēsis, which has not only consistently inclined towards ­mathematizing—something which permeates and usurps all empirical thought—but also and conversely has advanced to become an aesthetic design principle and hence to determine the margins of subjective taste. Here we see, it should also be said, the immutable presence of the desire to conquer death that lies within all ideals. Just as ­mathematics seems to prevail over temporality, the desire for truth and beauty aspires to the same, without however ever shaking off one crucial failing. While mathematics can separate from the world, its shining aura of truth and beauty is darkened by the pain of the real, highlighting its chronic ­imperfectability. This pain is as integral to both truth and beauty as the ­denouement is to the climax.


Fragile and ambivalent, riddled and torn by the conjecture of impossibility, around 1800 the metaphysical kinship of truth and beauty was transferred to the works themselves and came to rest in the poetic aesthetics of idealism. The latter understood the making of art as a cognitive act grounded, in the end, in reason. Shortly thereafter this was refuted by Romanticism, idealism’s dark counterpart, with an idea of reason as rooted in unceasing poeticism that never ends. The reasonableness of a portrayal, as preferred in classicism, was believed to give art both its affect and the ‘correct’ expression. However art only possessed this power of ‘shining appearance’ when the form (and not even Hegelian aesthetics was immune to the geometric idealization thereof) was completely in accord with the demands of the idea. As Heidegger wrote in the afterword to “The Origin of the Work of Art”: “The idea fits itself into the morphē. The synolon, the unitary whole of morphē and hylē, in other words, the ergon, is in the manner of energeia. This mode of presence became the actualitas of the ens actu. This actualitas became actuality, reality … In the manner in which, for the world determined in the Western way, beings exist as the real, there lies concealed a particular convergence of beauty and truth.” That means that in the Western world, this connection at the same time veiled and distorted the same. In this short history of beauty we can see its growing subjectivization as well as its subservience and link to an ever-sharper instrumentalization of truth. Later, neither truth nor beauty seem to have been relevant categories for the arts. In the same vein as mathematical constructivism, which guided the natural sciences from the late 19th century onwards, all feeling for an innate relationship between art and epistēmē disappeared, pulling not only beauty, but also the role played by art in the acquisition of knowledge, into an abyss. Aesthetics instead becomes a site for critique, for resistance, and for a break with reality. The art of modernity—in ­particular that of the various twentieth century avant-garde movements, whether in architecture, the fine arts, music or literature—is, across the board, a practice of difference. Its métier is no longer knowledge, but rather the radicalism of the question. Art itself and the composition of art is interrogated as regards its mediality as well as how it can be differentiated from non-art, from the Other of art, from the real, and from the ‘thatness’ of bare existence, which Lyotard has ­connected to the ‘sublime’ as a category that was ‘lost’ and then ‘saved’ by Minimal Art.

On the Imagination’s Power of Knowledge 


This historical constellation does however raise suspicions that the losses suffered by beauty as well as truth in relation to the arts are connected both to the unfortunate beginnings of aesthetics in the Enlightenment and to a shallow and insufficient philosophical conception of truth and beauty. Both are grounded in a philosophical tradition that has continued alongside the history of metaphysics since antiquity, with latent traces reaching into the twentieth century. While truth and beauty both point towards a common base in correspondentia as well as in consensus, discourse and perception present themselves as having already won the right to define representation and link these two ideals to the phantasm of absolute identity. At the same time, the original disparities between truth and falsity as well as between beauty and ugliness are kept, assuming an exclusionary negation. We are looking at a decision or choice that adheres to the logic of either-or, of strict alternatives. In this thinking, truth is grounded in the convergence of being and thought, while falsity lies in their divergence. Beauty and ugliness are manifest in the coherence or lack thereof of form and material, design and work, or form and content—independent of the definition of these terms. To be true thus means to say something like it is and, correspondingly, beauty means that something shows itself the way it is ideally meant to be shown. Conversely, falsity or ugliness are the continuous frustration of these aims. In all cases the point of reference is reality, a presence or authenticity, which in turn has always prefigured the relationship between art and epistēmē. It is therefore necessary to unravel these relations, to set them adrift, not only to shift the meanings of the concepts of aesthetics and truth within a philosophical critique, but also to deconstruct the presumed relationship between art and thought. This intervention includes transforming the discourse-centeredness of theōria, which excludes practice, as well as undoing the dichotomization of theory and practice, which has from the beginning been hegemonic in the construction of theory. Not until then can the practical itself become a manner of thought or of knowledge able to follow its own way (hodos) of theorein—speculating or viewing—and can we avoid the misconception that thought necessitates the halting or standstill of action. This brings us to the difficulty of theorizing a practice that itself represents a manner of theory and hence systematically irritates those categories with which it might be described.


To achieve this we must return to the two-fold foundation of aesthetics in Baumgarten and Hegel and uncover their common misalignment. The problem lies in the supposed dissociation that is the starting point of both: the gap between aisthētics and artistic practice. Baumgarten actually attempted to connect the two in the first paragraphs of his fragmented Aesthetica, in which he brought together the “theory of the free arts” with the “art of beautiful thinking” in an “analogon of reason,” thus ­postulating a complementarity between art and science. Unfortunately, he placed this analogy between art and thought under the aegis of the ratio, in this manner neutralizing the singularity and recalcitrance of art. In particular the modalities and connotations of his concept of analogon remain unclear—analogous in which respect, in reference to which characteristics? The parallelism or association of sensuous knowledge and logic was addressed, but nothing was said as to what makes up the side-by-side of this parataxis and which relationships it calls upon. The criterion is without doubt reason, which shows up throughout Baumgarten’s work as a mediator, guide or directive. As a result he was never able to connect the two sections of his study; the theory of sensate perception and the “aesthetics of the other part”—the system of aesthetic arguments and their rhetorical nature. Instead, the two sections are divided and thus hierarchized, one is merely made to resemble or mirror the other. Nevertheless—and this is the incontrovertible benefit of Baumgarten’s Aesthetica—the secret core of his manuscript is an epistemology of the singular rooted mostly in aisthēsis that reaches fulfillment, as we shall see below, in art. When Baumgarten spoke of the ‘fine’ (beautiful) arts, he seemingly gave precedence to perception. More exactly, he claimed that all knowledge starts with perception, which is at the same time the foundation of art, because art, as Merleau-Ponty will later write, “draws upon this fabric of brute meaning” that active, discursive thinking “would prefer to ignore.”

It follows that aesthetic theory-practices expend themselves in concrete materials: the stone that becomes structure, the raw materials of bodies and sounds that join to form figures, and the soil that is mixed for paint or, in one word, Dingsprachen (thing-languages), as Walter Benjamin so aptly put it. The same is true of series and technical apparatuses as long as they are bound to materiality, that is to say subject to time and therefore to entropy. These practices are always about something, its singularity and its existence and how it resides in the irreplaceable wonder of the presence of presences. That is what art wants to secure: that (quod) things are, that they have a weight, their own unique gravity, in both senses of the word, that pulls us in, and also, that they affect us by their singular presence, that they touch our emotions and therefore cannot be denied. Their ‘cathexis’ lures us, exerts a claim that both awakens and undermines our desires, runs counter to them, delimits them or turns them inside out. And in fact, their outside or their otherness is marked by their ecstasies, their standing ‘beside themselves’, which also shows their rebelliousness, their inaccessibility, and sometimes also their aggression and violence. Their agenda is their negativity: their refusal or dislocation, their “­somewhere else,” in Jacques Lacan’s words, one characteristic of which is that it cannot be negated. This is our formula for ‘ex-sistence’ in the sense of ‘ek-stasis’. Exsistere does not connote a meta-attribute, which has the attribute of having attributes, but a standing-outside-itself, a stance that not only exposes an inherent irrepressible surplus, but also contains a non-negative negative that constantly undermines and confuses our attempts at manipulation and classification. Because its testimonial is testimony itself, its being is a given in the sense of a gift. This dispels all doubt, as doubt can only arise after the work of identification and classification has already begun. What (quid) things are and as what they appear awakens our skepticism, while the experience of existence, as Baumgarten also admits, or that I perceive what I perceive, is tied to the state of our bodies (statum corporis), and is therefore incapable of being deceived. If perception has always been said to be ­particularly close to deception and lies, that has been in reference to the what of appearances, the way they appear—subject to the suppositions and interpretations of the prisoners chained to Plato’s cave—but not to perception as such, its sensuousness, the further negation of which would make every experience impossible. This is why there is sensate knowledge as well as an epistemology of aesthetics and it is why art has a unique practice of knowledge that, geared toward the singular, makes present the sensate shining of the existentiality of ‘­exsistences’.


With this last statement, we’ve moved far from Baumgarten, but he did accept the existence of both aesthetic knowledge (scientia sensitiva) and aesthetic truth (veritas aesthetica)—in contrast to classical thought, which usually assumes an opposition of the individual and the general and of the exemplary and the universal, leaving no place in thought and experience for singularity and its alterity. John Locke ignored the singular, as did Hegel, who rejected “sense-certainty” as phantasmagorical. The Geeinzelte, as Heidegger put it, the ‘one-made-to-­stand-individually’, has always been “subordinate to the idea as that which properly is [and] displaced into the role of non-being.” However ‘non-being’, which Gilles Deleuze saw as a “differential,” is extra-ordinary (Ungeheuer), an ominous monstrosity that awakens dread and regards with suspicion all that flickers and is uncertain or indecisive and lies at the margins of the sciences and their discursive ‘operationability’. It is one ‘case’ among many, which can at best be erased with a ‘date’ and whose force of expression at best stems from its mass, from a statistical series or the ‘law of large numbers’. The uncanny presence of the real must continuously be tamed by the rule of the form (eidos) and the symbolic and its orderings. The singularity of Baumgarten’s Aesthetica, in contrast, is in its daring straightforward conception of a scientia singularis, because perception has no choice but to look at individual things (singularia) and their presence. “The aesthetician” therefore prefers heterogeneous and specific truths “­general, most abstract, and most universal truths.” The aesthetic is more concrete than mathematical abstraction, which only recognizes ‘evidence’ with the help of demonstrative aesthetics. According to Baumgarten, aesthetics are also the base of fantasy (imaginatio), memory (memoria) and poetry (facultas fingendi) and therefore also of the arts, for “nihil est in phantasia, quod non ante fuerit in sensu.” This sentence, which heightens the older version, “nihil est in intellectus, quod non prius fuerit in sensu,” found in Thomas Aquinas and going back to Aristotle, was taken up by John Locke as a systematic foundation of empiricism. Tellingly, it replaces understanding with imagination and also sees sensate experience, with its outrageous tendency towards singularity, as useful not for scientific knowledge, but for the artistic imagination as the heart of creativity.


However there is a jump within this thinking. It leaps from perception to fantasy, from the apprehension of existence to imagination. At the same time it makes plausible the transition from aisthēsis to aesthetics as a philosophy of the arts by marking its position. Baumgarten, rather than leading the scientia sensitiva to its radical conclusion, integrated it into a scientia imaginativa. We could also say that Baumgarten added something new to the tradition, but only to immediately strike this thought completely. The idea that the ratio is empty or meaningless if it is not touched and fed by the senses is a common topos of the early modern era. Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola also made use of it when he named “phantasy” as the mediator between perception and understanding, making it—like every medium—precarious. In this understanding, the ‘imagination’ presents concepts with material and first imparts the ability to say something about it and form a predicate about it as something. Knowledge then comes from the power of the imagination alone. Originally, however, the scientia sensitiva meant more. It meant knowledge that stems from perception itself. It is being in the sense of exsistence that counts—‘given actuality’ (­Ge-Gebenheit) rather than the givens of phenomenology, gifts that are not given until after they have been received. With this idea, Baumgarten elevated aisthēta and at the same time assigned ‘truth’, in particular aesthetic knowledge and aesthetic truth, to the realm where the given and its appearance has already been adapted and transformed by fantasy and memory. Baumgarten’s chief point was that art takes both of these, transforming them and making of them imaginary worlds that are imbued with the persuasive power of the audio-visually perceived world. Imagination here becomes a source of ideas, but only insofar as it remains bound to perception and does not float free, decoupled from reality. Rather, as Immanuel Kant wrote in Anthropology, most certainly following Baumgarten, “no matter how great an artist, even a sorceress the power of imagination may be, it is still not creative but must get the material for its images from the senses.” But, he also said, “The productive power of imagination … is not capable of producing a sense representation that was never given to our faculty of sense.” It is thus less aisthēsis itself that leads the aesthetic, but rather, at least when it becomes a theory of art, phantasia which provides the foundation for an epistemology of aesthetics. There is a scientia singularis, knowledge oriented toward the non-representable and non-conceptual, but Baumgarten did not dare take this as the foundation of art’s path to cognition. Instead he left it to the productivity of phantasia and then expended much energy in narrowing its orbit, domesticating it to mean memory, with its concomitant tie to reality. This restraint of the unmoored—both through sensation and its fixation on the given actuality of the world and through ratio and its concepts—is what first turns the power of imagination into an instrument of knowledge that allows art to participate in ‘truth’.


This process mirrors the works of the early modern era by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, in which excesses of the imagination, as exemplified by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or Giuseppe Arcimboldo, among many others, are dampened and such surfeit productivity is brought back into the orderly sphere of reasonableness. “We should by sway of reason rule over phantasy, if it errs, and not urge it on,” warned Pico, who ascribed to the power of the fantasy just about all transgressions from fallacy to heresy. This conflicted and fearful view of the nature of fantasy is evident up until the eighteenth century and can even be found in Kant. In the history of discourse, this creative ability—the wild side of the subject—was seen as unhealthy and thus constrained, lest the pleasure of inventio transmogrify into lunacy. Imagination was assumed to have a permanent and necessary seat in the soul, where its effects are devastating if not restrained in time and put under the control of reason. We are confronted with a division of the mind, the creative part of which is subordinated to its other, more reasonable, side. The two must, it seems, act together if they are not to bring forth a monstrosity. At the same time, this is the history of a rivalry that oscillated from progression to regression—a back and forth that was always domesticated by reason and the limits thereof.


A similar pattern can be observed in Kant, who in all of his Critiques (in a different manner each time, incidentally) split the imagination in two; a ‘voluntary’ positive side under the reign of the will and an ‘involuntary’ or unconscious mind. The subjectivity of the subject, too, seems to be split to highlight two accomplishments: While Kant, in the transcendental deduction of the first Critique, spoke of a receptive or “reproductive” and a “productive” faculty of the imagination—the former an “ingredient of perception” and the latter an “active faculty” within us—in the Critique of Judgment he made a further differentiation into an “imaginatio affinitas” and an “imaginatio plastica,” compensating for and at the same time concealing the lack of a link between the two by means of intricate elaborations. Here the imagination acted as a mediator between sensibility and reason, but in such a manner that logical or diagrammatic schematic images are first necessary in order to see anything at all. Perception per se does not know anything, rather “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” This also means that the two are reciprocal, that ratio alone is not victorious; perception has its own relevance as a guarantee of a link to the world. However knowledge, in particular artistic knowledge, is necessarily precarious as long as it is based on imagination alone. Kant granted art a role no greater than fine-tuning our powers of cognition (just as we tune musical instruments to fulfill another purpose), after which he banned it to the outskirts of metaphysical cognition. Baumgarten’s position seems significantly different in contrast, but despite its topicality in the end it is as unsuitable as Kant’s, so that the currently popular reorientation of the epistēmē of aesthetics towards Baumgarten is a project doomed to failure. While Baumgarten did enhance the ability of the senses to gain knowledge, going so far as to speak of a “science of sensation,” he at the same time bound their “aesthetic truth” to processes that, mirroring the “analogies of reason,” ensured they would be graspable in “analogies of the senses,” in keeping with the clare et distincte of rationality—again putting art in the shadow of the rational sciences. Art does no more than prepare for or serve science, albeit ­independently, and support scientific achievements. Art is not in itself knowledgeable, at best it creates designs.


The Truth and Falsity of Art— Hegel’s Aesthetics 


The case of Hegel is different. He was more rigorous than his predecessors in insisting upon the instability of ‘sense-certainty’. In his view, perception of the singular is always subject to time and can always be sublated by the concept, which is why objects must first pass through reflexive understanding if they are to be grasped. Nevertheless Hegel, in contrast to Baumgarten, Kant, and the aesthetics of affect of his time, saw the work of art as its own kind of truth, which he placed side-by-side with religion and philosophy. It is due to his efforts, alongside those of ­Schelling, Goethe and their contemporaries, that art—fifty years after Baumgarten—could advance to become its own language (Sprachform) that uses the senses as an expression in order to become a symbol that achieves purposes analogous to discourse. Hegel’s aesthetics in particular start with the idea, which is literally ‘real-ized’ and hence embodied. As a body, it is always connected to an Other or a difference that undermines the identity hidden behind the promise of ‘aesthetic truth’. Decisively, this ‘truth’ does not take the form of correspondence, but is representational. What is more, it proves to be a form of revelation, it is open or apparent and reveals, because “only what is real and true has power to create … what is real and true.” The shortcoming of this ‘truth’ is that it is bound to objects, to sounds, tones, and pigments, or to concrete acts or voices or similar elements that make art worth stooping to material spheres. Analogous to the reflexivity of the concept, art is neither able to recognize the universal, nor touch upon an internalized transcendence. Rather, art shows thought, mixing it with a foreign element which in the end corrupts it. What is more, art is not capable of dialectics in the sense of the principle of reflexivity. Rather, the concept forces dialectics on art and makes art look up to the truth or the universal. Art does not reach the truth out of its own volition, as it were, but through the ‘thought of the concept’ (Denken in Begriffen) latently inherent to art, but unnameable. Nevertheless, it was with Hegel’s aesthetics—and not Baumgarten’s—that a truly philosophical discussion of an epistemology of the arts began. Yet from the beginning, this discourse was distorted by a series of faults, in all senses of the word, that recognized while also limiting the autonomy of the arts. This conflict—despite many shifts, dissolutions and reversals—has never since ceased. It has fought against its demise and can be found in diverse art theory texts to this day.


The premises of Hegel’s philosophy of art are well-known: art, religion, and philosophy all give expression to the same understanding. However Hegel subsumed art under beauty as the “sensuous appearance [Scheinen] of the idea” which passes through and is surpassed by the “mystical brilliance of the numinous” in religion and 

the “light of reason” in philosophy, where it is brought to its proper fruition. Hegel once again re-situated that which was thought of in antiquity as a cosmology—the unity of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Here each is given its own medium; the medium of intuition/perception (Anschauung) in art, the medium of sanctification in religion, and the medium of the concept in philosophy. Hegel’s system realized what up until that time had been insufficiently laid out and merely embodied, conjectured, or revealed as “spirit for the spirit.” At the same time—and this is the peculiarity of this system—art, religion, and philosophy do not function as different and heteronomous expressions of one knowledge, rather the concept is always dominant, so that the system is hierarchical and one form always triumphs over the respective other. These triumphs mirror the transition from nature to spirit, from the material to the speculative, from sensuality to the spirituality of reflection, and from perception to the dialectical self-realization of the concept. Art, which deals mostly with materials and objects, therefore occupies the lowest position. Homologous to metaphysical tradition, the least abstract arts are furthest removed from language—the ranking begins with the fine arts of architecture, painting, and sculpture and moves, step-by-step, towards poetry (which does not yet speak in concepts, but is articulated in the exhilaration of linguistic metaphors and figurations), and finally the moral solemnity of the tragedy, which is already partly imbued with religion. Art is merely one step on the way, it is not knowledge in and of itself, and does not manifest its own truth.


Clearly this hierarchization of forms of knowledge is founded on the general assumption of the superiority of one medium, namely philosophical conceptualization, as the medium of reflection. In his Science of Logic, Hegel followed this processual logic of conceptualization from the abstract identity of being and nothingness to the constitution of the absolute idea, whose privileged position seems to be justified only by the fact that it is an integral element of discourse. The mediality of the means of representation is subsumed in the hierarchy that upholds it, because in the end everything refers to the ‘concept’ as the true manifestation of thought. Thus from the very first, the epistemic enhancement of art led to its simultaneous devaluation. This depreciation is due to the presumptuousness of reason, which judges art only in accordance with logic. Here Hegel’s system reveals its captivity in the infiniteness of language, which in this case advances to the only criterion for truth as truth, encompassing all else. For it is the concept and the definition that deliver the appropriate framework for the judgment or argument, not the painting or the poem or the musical composition, which at best regulate the emotions. The form of artistic knowledge, he therefore stated in the Philosophy of Mind, is “on one hand … a work” dependent upon “external common existence,” and “on the other hand, … the concrete contemplation and mental picture of implicitly absolute spirit as the Ideal.” It therefore expresses itself only in the identity of form, content, and material, and hence in the “unity of nature and spirit” as manifested in “­sensuous Schein” (shining, appearance). If however we are looking for answers about the modality of this 

knowledge, we arrive only at the “sign of the idea,” not the idea itself, which is in turn brought forth again as a sign “by the informing spirit” which makes it, literally, spirited. This is the site of the aesthetic epistēmē. Undertaking the act of synthesis is, as in Kant, left to the productive imagination, which must form the material, concurrently bestowing appearance (Erscheinen) upon both intuition and the object. Unlike in Kant, the role of the imagination is not to generate schemata—art is by no means only form and the process of forming—rather Hegel calls it “the imagination which creates signs.” Its wellspring is—similar to Baumgarten—recollection (Erinnerung), the images stored in the “night-like mine” of the soul, whose gloom must be dispersed by “the luminous clarity of a present image” so that these images can be linked to one another through “association.” This puzzling metaphor, to which Jacques Derrida devoted an entire study, anticipated the idea of the unconscious and of dreams as the royal road (via regia – Freud) to the same. Here Hegel presented the imagination as a ­nebulous abyss out of which slowly, through the same dialectical ­movement, concrete images arise clearly before the eyes and are turned into signs. Once again fantasy is at the center of the artistic epistēmē, but this time as ­symbolic creative imagination that, qua symbol, underlines its closeness to ­concept, its distant prolepsis. Hegel called it the true artistic intelligence, that is to say the actual act of the aesthetic, which, as he says, makes intelligence “a thing” and helps it finds its “sensuous expression” (Anschaulichkeit), because “Art represents the true universal or the idea in the form of sensuous existence.”

As we can see, Hegel did in fact make a direct link between the two previously divided domains of aesthetics: the theory of sensuous knowledge on the one hand and the theory of art on the other. While Kant’s schemata are simply analytical tools to mediate between form and intelligence, like geometric diagrams that overlay perception and figuration and make judgment possible, for Hegel intuition, as the “imagination which creates signs” articulates genuine poetic productivity that marks the site of artistic knowledge. Heidegger, as we shall see further on, later picked up on and radicalized these same thoughts. Baumgarten had similar ideas, reflected in the structure of his Metaphysics and the division of his Aesthetics into a theoretical and a practical section. Poetry, he believed, was akin to fantasy because it also saw “parts of different imaginings … as a whole.” Nevertheless, he remained in the realm of definitions and similes. Hegel was the first to derive the specificity of aesthetic knowledge from the ­creativity of poetics, paving the way for romantic theories 

of poetry. That is why art was supposed to tell the ‘truth’ and be part of the absolute–for it is poetry which draws from metaphors and creates specific forms (skēmata).


But Hegel also believed this to be exactly the problem, the irreparable defect of art and its inventions. They continually confront us with a contradiction, with the disparate—and irreconcilable—poles of the material and the idea. In this concept, the idea and its form are substantial, while material and its materiality are merely insubstantial mediators that must be overcome. Hegel’s construction suffers from its dichotomous configuration and from the binary opposition—maintained since the dawn of metaphysics—between form and material, idea and materiality, or thought (noēton) and perception (horaton). It can be seen in the binary opposition of physis and technē in which nature and culture are homologous. In consequence, truth in art is at the same time its falsity. The difference in their construction implies a tension that, in Ernst Bloch’s words, makes up the “central office of Hegelian logic.” It initiates a “dialectics of being and appearing” which is “particularly blatant” in the area of aesthetics, revealing the underlying problem of all of Hegel’s philosophy. For art—and this is Hegel’s main insight—is first and foremost thought made impure and disfigured by its reliance on material. Not until the inward significance of the external appearance “presents itself” to us, as he noted in the 

Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, does intelligence take on a perceivable presence, “an appearance which means something [and] does not present to the mind’s eye itself and that which it is qua external, but something else … Indeed every word points to a meaning and has no value in itself. Just so the human eye, a man’s face, flesh, skin, his whole figure are a revelation of mind and soul, and in this case the meaning is always something other than what shows itself within the immediate appearance,” as Hegel said with obvious scorn. It is necessary to read this passage, which at first seems self-evident, more closely.We can see the legacy of Christianity and its precarious relationship with nature and corporeality in Hegel’s claim that sensuality, due to the idea’s dependence on embodiment, betrays the purity of mind. Although there would be no truth if it did not appear and reveal (scheinen and erscheinen), since art does nothing more than help bring an idea to ‘life’ by giving it a body, it also sins against the idea. Hegel therefore believed that that which he apostrophized as the “infinite good” of art—namely granting a being (Wesen) with being (Dasein) or reality—was at the same time art’s flaw and alienating moment. As he wrote in Encyclopedia Logic: “appearance does not stand on its own feet, and does not have its being within itself.” And yet, if we turn Hegel against himself, this is exactly the way in which art takes revenge upon philosophy, because philosophical writing is necessarily in debt to an aesthetics that, in its dependence upon materiality, style, and the rhetoric of the repressed, returns to the site of the absolute and destroys its unconditionality. This is the foundation of Hegel’s failure: Concepts too, carried out (austragen) by dialectics, necessarily have a medium or signifier behind them, which they can never get beyond or overcome.


Thus the mind’s self-externalization becomes self-­diremption. This is moreover the foundation of the in equal parts famous and contested theory of the “end of art” (as well as of its paradoxes), because art can only sublate its own leanings towards the ‘idea’ and the ‘truth’ and be redeemed by the rationality of the concept. Hegelian aesthetics is satiated with this obsession. This has discredited it and earned the resistance of both contemporaries and following generations up until the twentieth century. This obsession, incidentally, also continually found new apologists, whether in the form of conservative assaults on the supposed iconoclasm of the avant-garde, or in the seemingly inevitable transition to post-history and the arbitrariness of post-modernity, or in modern art’s wearing itself out through self-reflexivity (leading to another way of working; an art that is particular or political). At the same time, Hegel secured the proximity of art and philosophy while provoking the rejection thereof, because their collaboration or ‘friendship’ is declared in the name of a one-sided philosophical discourse whose concept of its Other tends to usurp and simultaneously devalue the non-conceptual. It was therefore only consistent that Ad Reinhardt, in his polemical tirade Art as Art, rejected all appropriation of art and grand concepts so that art is left to just be art: “One thing to say about art is that it is a thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art-as-art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art.” He continued this series of tautologies: “Art needs no justification with ‘realism’ or ‘naturalism,’ ‘regionalism’ or ‘nationalism,’ ‘individualism’ or ‘socialism’ or ‘mysticism’ or any other ideas.” Or, as he added later in his manifesto An Artist, A Fine-Artist or Free-Artist: “Only a bad artist thinks he has a good idea. A good artist does not need anything.”

Dionysus and Hermes: The Aesthetics of Difference 


The relationship of art and philosophy, which Hegel introduced as the closeness, familiarity, or derivativeness (Abkünftigkeit) of the aesthetic with and from philosophical discourse—with the full weight of his authority, simultaneously underlining the absolute supremacy of philosophy—increasingly became a matter of conflict in modernity. Art does not allow itself to be led (on) by philosophy. This strife or rift developed out of a way of ­

thinking difference, which Friedrich Nietzsche introduced by ­inversing and dissolving Hegelian figurations of identity and instead extolling the taboo-breaking, rupturing antagonism of artistic forms of practice. That however went hand in hand with putting the aesthetic above the philosophical and its enlightened, rational discourse. Nietzsche joined this nihilistic chorus with verve. Nihilism, that “uncanniest of all guests,” as he noted in the winter of 1885/1886, in this case means the “repudiation of value” that metaphysics itself brought on, in particular the three cardinal values of the “‘true’ and ‘beautiful’ and ‘good’.” Art then becomes something other than what it was. Not the “sensuous shining of the idea” and not a call for the absolute, not even a representation, but a Dionysian act of excess, destruction or exposure that pulls the ‘ground’ out from under the feet of all things. Concurrently, art decidedly does not connote actions concerned with mirroring or representing the world and what holds it together, rather it springs from a practice of non-identity. This is why Nietzsche linked the Dionysian with the destruction of the “usual barriers and limits of existence.” The labor of art was no longer guided by the process of shaping and forming, but by an act of limitation that creates difference, peels off the mask of illusion and exposes the “innermost core of things.”The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s first work, is still brimming with the pathos of traditional metaphysics, and it is not clear exactly what he meant by the “innermost core,” which is reminiscent of the mystification of the ontological ­concept of truth. Arthur Schopenhauer’s image of unveiling Maya is misleading, because for Nietzsche, the core remained void. It is the sign of the abyss of the real, which does not evoke wonder (thaumazein), but strikes with horror. This however means that Nietzsche’s concept of art, in contrast to earlier theories of aesthetics, was concerned not with a form or with a work, but with an event. That is why the aim was no longer beauty, but the evocation of the sublime. One consequence was that art could then only articulate itself indirectly. It needed to be deconstructed or inverted; art necessitated intervention as a strategy of severance. Art no longer had a fitting medium, an adequate means of expression, except for the penetration, separation, and disruption of all means and media. These take place not for art’s own sake, but literally as ‘re-flection’. Not in the sense of ‘shining’ but as a ‘shining against’ (Wider-Schein), a blinding opening. Accordingly, knowledge gained through art cannot be derived from the manifestation of an as or from the form and its purpose. Instead, it falls out of line, leaving the limits within which something can be said or formed, because it is about the modality or mediality of just this saying or forming. Art is thus something other than the speakable and its concepts. Art leaves and transverses the circles of discourse and of science to point towards that which cannot be the object of an assertion or an analytical observation, and is therefore out of reach of exact results or methods. “Perhaps,” posited Nietzsche in one of the many sentences in The Birth of Tragedy that points in this direction, “things which I do not understand are not automatically unreasonable. Perhaps there is a kingdom of wisdom from which the ­logician is banished? Perhaps art may even be a necessary correlative and supplement of science?”

Nietzsche is at the beginning of a discovery of two different truths or concepts of truth, as well as of two different means of gaining knowledge. These stand in opposition to one another, because the one is symbolic, while the other extols the destruction of all symbol-making to find, beneath the rubble, another knowledge that has been abandoned by language and its manifestations. This is not “implicit knowledge” (Polanyi), but an epistēmē of the non-presentable which at the same time marks the un-presentable as an epistemology of shock and desperation. While scientific knowledge is geared in the main towards the positive, artistic knowledge is geared towards the negative. This does not mean that action within the arts should be seen as being in opposition to science, or as its corrective or compensation, although the passage above does suggest the same and has often been interpreted in this way. Rather we are looking at an aesthetic practice of knowledge in its own right that cannot be reduced to either scientific knowledge or to philosophical thought. It occupies another territory and therefore asks other questions and provokes other answers. It is to science as to philosophy something strange and excluded. It reminds us of what science has missed or not thought, as well as what it cannot interpret or mean, and it acts within the world in a way that science never could. Nietzsche’s philosophy of art never reached this conclusion. At best it moved in this direction and offered, despite its pathos of suffering and rootlessness, a model. Independent of its validity and also independent of the fact that, as we must admit, ­Nietzsche’s aesthetic ideal is still bound to the paradigm of presentation, because it wants to break with the same it still points us in the direction of a future in which art, science, and philosophy can interact as equals.


At first, and by Zarathustra at the latest, writing in a style that was no longer philosophical but itself artistic or literary, Nietzsche contented himself with the polemical reversal of hierarchies. By conceiving of aesthetics and science as epistēmē that correlated with one another, he continued to keep them separate, placing the latter beneath the former to once and for all discredit Hegel’s claim of the absolute precedence of conceptual thought: “At present, however, science, spurred on by its powerful delusion, is hurrying unstoppably to its limits, where the optimism hidden in the essence of logic will founder and break up. For there is an infinite number of points on the periphery of the circle of science, and while we have no way of foreseeing how the circle could ever be completed, a noble and gifted man inevitably encounters, before the mid-point of his existence, boundary points on the periphery like this, where he stares into that which cannot be illuminated. When, to his horror, he sees how logic curls up around itself at these limits and finally bites its own tail, then a new form of knowledge breaks through, tragic knowledge, which, simply to be endured, needs art for protection and as medicine.“ Later, the ‘fool’ and ‘play’ will mark this other epistēmē and pit the truth of art against the watered-down solutions of science. Art, as an alternative practice of knowledge, as a differential ­epistemology, can learn from this. But it is no longer in need of such exaggerated clarion calls. It is enough to instantiate those reflections within the medial in which artistic practices exhibit their own, idiosyncratic research perspectives without needing to justify themselves or mirror scientific precision or worry about the relevance or validity of their results. 


Nietzsche was still thinking in terms of the opposition of science and art and their reversal: the apotheosis of aesthetics. Heidegger would be the first to mediate between Hegel and Nietzsche and to develop a non-metaphysical concept of truth, which he applied to the arts. He did so in “The Origin of the Work of Art” in two ways. First, he freed art from an ontology coupled solely to a focus on the form. Second, he grounded artistic practice in the original meanings of technē and poiēsis, going beyond disegno—the drafting of a design—the core of which is in turn the poiēin of composition or ‘poetizing’. This process is not guided by the imagination, just as little as the epistemic of the arts is realized in the delineation, the outline or the sketch as sites of the concetto, the conceit or idea. Artistic creativity had always stressed shaping or manifesting thought or the immersion of form in material. But, according to Heidegger, the productivity of art constitutes itself in a continuous process of figuration and defiguration. It gives birth to the symbolic and at the same time contains an integral, irrevocable tension, an irreconcilability that contradicts Hegelian dialectics and is made up of what Heidegger dubbed the Riss (rupture, tear). This chronic difference or caesura, which both opens and exposes, also calls forth the Riss, ‘sketch’ or ‘design’, made by painters as a first draft and the Umriss (outline), as well as the architect’s Grundriss (blueprint ) or Aufriss (projection). This field of connotations creates an additional shift in the concept of truth. No longer oriented towards the absolute—towards the identicalness of identity and difference—and thus bound to correspondence, it reveals the ‘unconcealment,’ reinstating the original meaning of the Greek aletheia. The ideas prepared by Nietzsche culminated in Heidegger’s work: truth as difference—but not in reference to the moment, to the event as an interruption that unmasks us and leaves us at the precipice of our being, but as a meaning-event, an illumination or opening up into that puts our understanding of the ‘world’ in, literally, another light. If for Nietzsche Dionysus was the god of destruction, for Heidegger Hermes is the mediator of what cannot be mediated. His ‘medium’ is the work, as long as, Heidegger adds in an elitist aside, it is a ‘true’ work of art. It creates a rift (Riss), rips aside the veil of the usual and displaces us or alienates us from the world we know. That is why Heidegger wrote in reference to van Gogh: “In proximity to the work we were suddenly somewhere other than we are usually accustomed to be.” That is part of the reason why, as Heidegger continued, “art is the setting-itself-to-work of truth,” which, as he stated further on, “thrusts up the extra-ordinary [Ungeheure] while thrusting down the ordinary, and what one takes to be such … Whenever art happens, ­whenever, that is, there is a beginning, a thrust enters history and history either begins or resumes.” Art is ‘ab-solute’ exclusiveness, the exception as such. But it can only create historical caesura or ‘thrusts’ where it manages to instate a difference; where the fissures of time split open as radically as possible and the rift reveals its sign/design (Zeichnung), trace or wound. Truth as difference is for Heidegger no longer a moment of sublime suddenness, but of a conflict that cannot be resolved. It is, in Lyotard’s words, le différend: dissent in permanence. And in fact strife or polemos plays a central role in Heidegger’s philosophy of art. In “Origin of the Work of Art” it is presented as the difference between ‘earth’ and ‘world’. This opposition seems at first to revive the old dichotomies between form and material or idea and materiality. However here the opening of the ‘world’, as the synchronicity of ‘concealment’ and ‘unconcealment’ (alētheia), which is also concealed, is linked to the ‘ground’ of the work of art itself. This connection is entangled. Heidegger used ‘earth’a term he borrowed from Hölderlin and that should not be confused with the ‘ground’ of raw material, or at least not exclusivelyto first and foremost address the substance out of which art is made and to which it will be set back into: the conditions of its composition. In a painting, the difference of figure and ground is possible as long as the figure can be distinguished because of the ground and the ground is signified or marked by the figure to show itself as such. In the same way ‘earth’ and ‘world’ unfold themselves reciprocally, and come to rest in the ‘work’: “The work moves the earth into the open of a world and holds it there. The work lets the earth be an earth.” But ­Heidegger also associates another term with earth—the Greek work for nature, physis. This refers not only to the ‘ground’ or the materiality of material, but also encompasses space and time, like the ‘given’, which is not the product of a work and is, in the broadest sense, the thingness of the thing and its presence. As something which is unmade and unmakeable, ‘earth’ is the precondition for all composition in the sense of technē. Its materiality precedes it; just as Aristotle also said that poiēsis brings forthas technology constructs—but does not at the same time bring forth the conditions of its bringing forth. Put another way, the ‘earth’ is older than the ‘world’, and its meanings and materialities are also older than their technical transformations, because the latter must, as Heidegger said, “come forth” from the former.


Heidegger’s most important idea in this context is that both ‘earth’ and ‘world’ necessarily refer to and conceal one another, so that neither can be placed above the other: “In the struggle, each opponent carries the other beyond itself.” The two not only have the same root, but are completely intertwined, their relation to one another is chiasmatic. This is what is meant by the term ‘struggle’ or ‘strife’ (Streit). Art is a means of exposing this chiasm. Therefore if we want to know about the possibilities of art, its ‘truth’ and its knowledge, we must observe each singularly unfolding chiastic play and its practices. Heidegger accordingly continued the previous passage as follows: “The more intransigently the strife outdoes itself on its own part, the more uncompromisingly do the opponents admit themselves into the intimacy of their simple belonging to one another. The earth cannot do without the openness of world if it is to appear in the liberating surge of its self-closedness. World, on the other hand, cannot float away from the earth if, as the prevailing breadth and path of all essential destiny, it is to ground itself on something decisive.” Hence it is key that the artistic process opens an interstice, an in-between in which the dialectics of both can be seen. At the same time, by creating a Riss, art opens the chiastic gap that much more, and makes this split explicit. The relation between ‘earth’ and ‘world’ is shaken and something breaks open which not only reconfigures this relationship, but within which can be found the event of its own epistēmē—an epistēmē of opening. It reveals something which had previously been invisible and readjusts the constellations of perception. In this event, Heidegger’s linking of art and truth is realized: The distinctive configuration and constellation of ‘earth’ and ‘world’ first brings forth that which is artistic in art. It gives art a space, a purpose as art, and thus admits an experience which rivals the illuminated clearing (Lichtung) of alētheia.


As we have seen, form and materiality, ground and figure, aisthēsis and symbolization took on a very different position in Heidegger’s work than they had held in the traditional metaphysics of art, most recently in Hegel’s philosophy of art, grounded as it had been in early modernist aesthetics. In Heidegger, it is the event of ‘assembling’ or the coincidence of chiastic interplay that first allows a literal composition or compositio, a putting together or arranging. We investigate this point in more detail in the next chapter. The essence of art is neither form nor the “sensuous shining of the idea” and the concomitant shining appearance of the beautiful. Decisive is rather the singular way in which it is put together, the con-stellare that leads to the presentiment that every ‘work’ creates its own paradigm and its own knowledge, which cannot be manifested in any other way. We will explore these ‘singular paradigms’ further on. For now, it is enough to note that Heidegger understood poetry (Dichtung) as an aesthetic consolidation (Verdichtung). He made this clear in the last section of his essay on the work of art. Poetry or figuration—in the broadest sense a configuration or composition—is the essential “design” and “language of art.” All art, Heidegger said, also art not based on language such as architecture or music or painting, is included in this essence (Wesen): “The essence of art is poetry. The essence of poetry, however, is the founding [Stiftung] of truth … Building and plastic creation, on the other hand, happen, always and only, in the open of saying and naming … They are an always unique poeticizing within the clearing of beings which has already happened, unnoticed, in the language. As the setting-into-work of truth, art is poetry.”

Diapoetics and aisthetics of the epistemic


Heidegger understood artistic practice and its epistēmai as poetical. Here ‘poetry’ means something which goes through rather than is placed upon all art—a diapoetics, not the Romantic metapoetics—just as Heidegger interpreted technē as poetical. The prefix dia—Latin per, English through—refers in turn, as explored in the first chapter, to medial practice itself. ‘Diapoeticizing’ thus at the same time implies ‘diaformation’—including all (self-)reflexive structures. We are not talking about the form itself, the creation or composition of the completed work as the original ‘ground’ or basis of work. Rather, we are referring to the processes through which they first come into the open and through which they are completely part of the exceptionality of their singular event of truth. This is why Heidegger also said art was “founding” or “grounding.” Concurrently, art only touches upon the ‘truth’ when it tears us away from familiar certainties and confronts us with an Other—the never-suspected or un-thought: “In its exclusive reality, what went before is refuted by the work.” Each work of art therefore establishes a new beginning and participates in ‘grounding’ in the sense of founding a history that is intertwined with the opening of ‘truth’ (alētheia). This happens emphatically where art is able to reintroduce historicity and the temporality of meaning. Heidegger therefore named artists—and in particular ‘poets’ on whom he, completely in accordance with Romanticism, conferred a twofold precedence: over other forms of art and over ‘thinkers’—as the true founders of an opening to the world, for they first discovered and invented the to-be-set (and at the same time decisive) ‘word’ from which ‘being’ draws its meaning and its ‘time’. It is unimportant that Heidegger, aside from a few remarks on Paul Cézanne, Paul Klee, and Vincent van Gogh’s famous Pair of Shoes—the latter example perforated by Meyer Schapiro’s critique—almost never analyzed the fine arts or music. Neither does it matter that he concentrated almost exclusively on writing and—not unlike Hegel—despite assertions to the contrary, believed that the “linguistic work … has a privileged position among the arts as a whole.” More important is that with these ideas, best expressed in his notes in Denkerfahrungen, he paved the way for a two-fold path between writing and thinking or between art and philosophy. These two paths or alternatives are related, but remain independent. For example, he wrote of Cézanne: “In the late work of the painter, the tension of emerging and not emerging has become onefold, transformed into a mysterious identity. Is there shown here a pathway that opens onto a belonging-together of poet and thinker?” We are not talking about perception or aisthēsis nor, as Heidegger still claimed in 1931/1932 in The Essence of Truth: On Plato’s Parable of the Cave and the Theaetetus, about the fact that the artist is uniquely capable of “bringing out the inner possibilities of being, thus for making man see what it really is with which he so blindly busies himself.” Rather art, as criteria-setting poetics which are therefore hermeneutic in the literal meaning of hermēneuein—the explanatory and understanding interpretation of the world—sets its own kind of truth and knowledge equal to thought and, in contrast to Hegel, not sublimated by the philosophical concept and its implicit hierarchical consequences. Art corrects the concept and turns it in another direction, creating perspectives philosophy had never thought. Seen in this way, art and philosophy are equals and the epistemic practice of the arts is a different, but equally suitable and useful opening of the meanings of being which takes place outside all differences between concept and metaphor.

That means at the same time that art ‘thinks’—if we want to call it such—as a form of ‘poetry’ and is therefore, unlike philosophical thought, a ‘founding’ or an ‘unconcealment’ of truth in the sense of a gift of revealing that cannot otherwise be given. And in fact, the possibilities of art and its epistēmē are located here in the “neighborhood of poetry and thought” which Heidegger saw as “two parallels” that begin and intersect in the infinite, that is to say in a place that cannot be located. This makes it clear that ‘thought’ has not one, but manifold and equal possible avenues including art and philosophy, but not art and science or philosophy and science. Science is at a deficit because, as Heidegger says in What is Called Thinking?, “science does not think” since it works in another dimension than and is dependent upon philosophy. We might add that science does not poeticize. Obsessed with precision and unambiguity, it is not in the same realm as images, metaphors, and figures—which it nevertheless needs for its concepts and ideas. The extent to which this is true has become obvious since the dominance of the technosciences, which rely not only on mathematical formulas, but also on visualization and diagrammatic tools. Without art and philosophy, science in this form would not be possible. This does not however mean that art and philosophy offset one another, rather each is the Other of the other, which is why Heidegger does not speak of two different modes of thinking, but of the difference between ‘thought’ and ‘poetry’. Each has its own position vis-à-vis the truth—while poetry takes on the role of a savior from or resistance fighter against the rule of technology, philosophy, in the course of its history and in the return to its beginnings at the crossroads of Western metaphysics, is still searching for a new start.


For Heidegger, poetry, as an emblem of aesthetic thought, does not inhabit a space below (as in Hegel) or above (as in Nietzsche) philosophy, but at its side, literally in its ‘neighborhood’. He had this in mind when he wrote in his late essay The Nature of Language: “poetry and thinking are in virtue of their nature held apart by a delicate yet luminous difference, each held in its own darkness.” Heidegger did not bring the two, in their darkness, together, but left them separate. Poetry is different from thinking, thought is different from poetry. They refer to one another; poetry provides the ‘word’ about which philosophical thought is still thinking and conversely thinking is the task of defining and delineating problēma in its many meanings as something that projects or as an unsolved question that is put forward, which in turn needs ‘poetry’ to be named. Nevertheless, the difference of each in their respective disparity is at all times neither delineated nor nameable. Thinking cannot be defined by poetry nor poetry by thought. And neither poetry nor thinking can fathom the difference between the two. This is why Heidegger spoke of their “darkness.” The nature of aesthetics is not drawn from thought and the nature of thought does not stem from aesthetics. Furthermore, both are sequestered in their traditional role of ratio or imagination. They remain, despite their equality and closeness, essentially strange to one another. Neither allows itself to be translated by the other—through which they would have another relationship to themselves and their respective other. This is what Heidegger meant by their “delicate yet luminous difference.” There is the thinnest of borders between philosophical thought and artistic poiein, but it is still noticeable. From this follows that the aesthetic arts do not ‘think’ in linguistic or metaphoric expressions, rather their thinking is different, the thought of the Other or something other than thought that should not be given the same name or practice.


To grasp the relation of art—or, more exactly, of the aesthetic—to epistēmē, our exploration must therefore become more differentiated. The circle of art and knowledge encloses questions both about thought and about truth as well as questions about the purpose of thought and its Other and their varying connotations. That is the extraordinary relevance of Heidegger’s contribution to the discussion of an epistemology of aesthetics: the simple, but paradoxical attempt to define aesthetics neither as thought nor as not-thought, but as a third thing, an ‘allonomy’ which is resistant to all usual categorizations and dichotomies. This implies the necessity of changing both the concept of thought and the idea of the aesthetic, leaving philosophy and science behind and locating art in alterity. But—and this is the predicament of this endeavor, as productive as it has been—the specific epistēmē of perception, the power (enargeia) of aisthēsis and its sense of singularity, remains strangely underexamined in contrast to the element of language. In the end, Heidegger’s idea of aisthetics was linguistic. The philosophical prejudice in favor of the absoluteness of its own medium was upheld. Heidegger’s philosophy of art falls short of what it achieved. In it, language refers art and aisthēsis to one another and brings forth the aesthetics of art. In this way, figuration is rhetoricized or it is thought using the model of rhetoric. Consequently aesthetic thought is put above poetry and saying is raised above perception and its feeling for materiality, which the term ‘earth’ attempted to save. There are moments in which it becomes clear that aesthetics is unclassifiable, that it is defined by its indefinite nature—withholding judgment and reproducing meanings. Consequently, art ‘thinks’ in leaps and discontinuities, and produces ‘jokes’ rather than linear derivations and proofs. But these moments are brought back into language and addressed as two different ways of speaking—the ‘ground’ and the ‘poetic’. Latently, Heidegger therefore reinstated the contempt for art and its thought/poetry—which is disappointing considering his insistence on the autonomy of both—that philosophy had long held for perception and its exuberant colors, multifarious tactile impressions of material, and fullness of sounds and silences, as well as for the distribution of affect in the reproduction of medial sensations or, more concisely, the chaos of the senses and their convulsions. 


Perhaps we should therefore favor Theodor W. ­Adorno’s preferred term ‘constellation’ (about which more later)—the distribution of moments that have not yet been woven together as forms or figures—over ‘configuration’ and the concomitant concept of poetics: not joining them (fügen) in a fugue of aspects that synthesizes the various facets of koinos in one work and balances conflicts (no matter how precariously), but juxtaposition, a loose coupling or dispersion of aspects opposed so that they create their own energy—their own contrasts and contradictions. For there is no immediate connection to ‘found’ or ‘ground’ anything, but at first only an irritation, a split with an opening that does not open. There is no word sufficient to break out of the constraints of meaning and keep that which shows itself in a constant, unfulfilled limbo. In, for example, the music of Morton Feldman, in which every sound is given equal footing and echoes to be mixed with others, or of John Cage, where indeterminacy and a lack of intention give the tempo for musical dis-order, or the Merz pictures of Kurt Schwitters, unexpectedly perplexing ‘asyntheses’ of found objects thrown together in simple conjunctions, torn out of the world of commerce and made worthless—in all of these unclassifiable, floating, and finally unknown things we are dealing with another logic of aesthetic thought, an a-logic of caesurae or decomposition that is far from Heidegger’s concept of ‘poetry’. We are thus confronted with different understandings of both aesthetic experience and of ‘truth’ in art and its epistemic practices. On the one hand, we have Heidegger’s understanding, a compositionality that unfolds from language, and on the other hand an aesthetics of the rift, of the diabolon or contingency that has its roots in the insoluble difference of the instant and the experience thereof (Widerfahrung). Out of the latter, another knowledge or a knowledge of the Other can arise, as in arts of chance (tychē)—without the aid of figuration or metaphor or hermēneuein, or even poiein.

The question of how art and thought as well as art and truth are connected must be posed again from this perspective and their relationship delimited anew. The lines of conflict run on the one hand between the arts and aesthetic practices—from those inherent to the process of shaping and creating, to varying types of design, up to technology, and the art of living, whether or not they lay claim to being artistic—and on the other hand between thought and the varying forms of (acquiring) knowledge that we looked at in the first part of this study (eureuna, zētēsis). In contrast to Heidegger, we will be using a concept of ‘thought’ that allows for the heterogeneity of the term: both thought and thinking and therefore something different from what is usually meant in philosophy, whether that be logos, a proposition, a discourse, or—as in German idealism, systems theory, and the varying schools of post-structuralism—the production of difference. In short, we are interested in ‘thought’ that already includes its own Other. For this reason, in the next chapter, the term ‘aesthetic thought’ is placed in quotes to make clear that we are not talking about thought or thinking in the usual philosophical sense, nor about poeticizing, but about something else that we have yet to characterize. ‘Thought’ is perhaps here less a method of theoretical experiencing and more a singular means of reflexivity that is different from other types of reflection, in particular from substantiating discursive introspection, and cannot be traced directly to either philosophy or science or their research practices. Rather it comprises a distinctively non-discursive, non-symbolic processuality that has more to do with the literal meaning of reflectio—a mirroring or shining back—than with intellectual speculation. For this reason, in the previous chapter we linked it to zētēsis, the open and never-ending quest. It can therefore be demarcated through its acts or actions. Hence if the question is whether and how aesthetics is knowledge and in particular how it brings forth another kind of knowledge independent of scientific knowledge and philosophical epistemics, and whether it has its own locality, it is important to study its other kind of thinking as well as the Other of its thinking (as pertains to discourse) to secure a place for it within the cultural epistēmē. If we speak here of another thinking or even of an other than thinking, it is because aesthetics pushes the boundaries of all existing concepts and categorization and refuses to fit the terminology that has till now been used to talk about thought. It constantly changes positions and is never found where philosophical theory expects it to be. That is why we have taken a detour to examine the relation between art and truth, from Baumgarten’s scientia sensitiva to philosophical aesthetics and from Hegel to Heidegger. These all saw a type of thēoria in the practice of art that, each in its own way, was understood as the presentation or revelation of a ‘truth’, without however being able to truly grasp its specific ­singularity. Heidegger introduced a radical shift in the history of metaphysics in that his concept of truth comprised the event of opening or ‘unconcealment’ (alētheia). Nevertheless, he remained oriented in the main towards the happening of meaning. If, however, we return to the initial meaning of thēoria, a spectacle and things looked at, then ‘aesthetic thought’ could again be connected to the performances of the phainesthai and the allowing-to-appear. This might make it apparent that the theoretical, even if its framework is a science such as philosophy, cannot but refer to aesthetics, which opens our eyes and ears in order, like the original passio, to let in an Other, an alterity. What is more, it would not be necessary to immediately domesticate this Other by finding meanings or interpretations. With this we arrive at a difference or blurriness in both the practice of thought and in the practice of truth that is not subject to delineation or demarcation, but reveals itself anew each time and is therefore, as a difference, both productive and producing. In the next chapter, we attempt to draw the contours of such a possibility.


  • epistemology
  • artistic research
  • Think Art
  • discourse analysis
  • art theory
  • aesthetics

My language
English

Selected content
English, French

Dieter Mersch

Dieter Mersch

studied mathematics and philosophy in Cologne, Bochum, Darmstadt. In 2004 he became Professor for Media Theory and Media Science at the University of Potsdam. Since 2013 he is Head of the Institute for Theory at ZHdK Zurich and visiting professor at University Potsdam, where he is one of the chairs of the DFG Research Training Centre ›Visibility and Visualization – Hybrid Forms of pictorial Knowledge‹. Dieter Mersch was a visiting professor in Chicago, Budapest and Luzern, and Fellow at IKKM Weimar and at ZHdK Zurich. His work focuses on media philosophy, aesthetics and art theory, semiotics, hermeneutics, post-structuralism and philosophy of the image and language.

Other texts by Dieter Mersch for DIAPHANES
Dieter Mersch: Epistemologies of Aesthetics

Dieter Mersch

Epistemologies of Aesthetics

Translated by Laura Radosh

Softcover, 176 pages

PDF, 176 pages

The idea of “art as research” and “research as art” have risen over the past two decades as important critical focuses for the philosophy of media, aesthetics, and art. Of particular interest is how the methodologies of art and science might be merged to create a better conceptual understanding of art-based research.
In Epistemologies of Aesthetics, Dieter Mersch deconstructs and displaces the terminology that typically accompanies the question of the relationship between art and scientific truth. Identifying artistic practices as modes of thought that do not make use of language in a way that can easily be translated into scientific discourse, Mersch advocates for an aesthetic mode of thought beyond the “linguistic turn,” a way of thinking that cannot be substituted by any other disciplinary system.