In 1886, Vincent Van Gogh bought a pair of old shoes at a flea market. When he got them home to his Montmartre atelier and tried them on, he discovered that they didn’t fit. He decided to use them as a model and paint them. The shoes, which look more like boots, have high tops and thick rounded toes. They look old, absurdly old, and worn past endurance. The tops are floppy and droop with age. Everything about them is loose and worn and asymmetrical, a chaotic paroxysm of form. A haggard energy erupts from their dilapidation. It is as if their leather had grown so used to work and wear that even in its current state of fatigue it continued to hold on to life with recalcitrant tenacity. The painting is a monument to labor and a vigorous act of resurrection. No, the painter says with his brush, I’m not about to let you sink into desuetude that easily; I’m going to invest you with new life, soulful life, a life of shape and color and heart and stamina.
The shoes inspired an essay by Martin Heidegger who saw in this depiction of shoes the very essence of art. “The Origin of the Work of Art” is, in part, a tribute to Van Gogh’s shoes and a general exploration of the nature of art and reality. Heidegger described these shoes as evidence of the truth of being, as the unity of a manifold of sensations that define thingness and the kind of self-contained, irreducible spontaneity that invigorates the “workly character of the work in the sense of the work of art.” Heidegger emphasizes the concept of thingness throughout the essay, tears at it, fights with it, struggles to bring it into clarity, into epiphanic openness. He notes, first of all, that “there is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong - only an undefined space. There are not even clods of soil from the field or the filed-path sticking to them, which would at least hint at their use. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more.” “And yet,” he continues:
From the dark opening of the word insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.
This is a remarkably beautiful description. Heidegger wraps an entire gestalt around the shoes, a narrative of soulful reverie. I find it a little puzzling that he gives the boots a female use as there is nothing to indicate that these are a woman’s boots. Be that as it may, he emphasizes Van Gogh’s depiction as a painting of disclosure, an unconcealment of Being. Being in its large sense of existence, spit, blood, struggle, quest, imagination. “What happens here?” he asks, “What is at work in the work?” He uses the Greek word aletheia [ἀλήθεια]to describe the phenomenon. Alethia is variously translated as “unclosedness,” “unconcealedness,” “disclosure,” or “truth.” Its literal sense is “the state of not being hidden; the state of being evident.”
“The essence of art,” claims Heidegger, “would then be this: the truth of beings setting itself to work.”
Art creates a sense of openness. Openness is essential to Heidegger’s meaning. By openness is meant a free field in which the character of a thing displays its essential being directly. “Everything that might interpose itself between the thing and us in apprehending and talking about it must first be set aside. Only then do we yield ourselves to the undistorted presencing of the thing.”
Any endeavor to interpret an art according to a preset theory or formulation compromises our perception. “The attempt to interpret this thing-character of the work with the aid of the usual thing-concepts failed - not only because these concepts do not lay hold of the thingly feature, but because, in raising the question of its thingly substructure, we force the work into a preconceived framework by which we obstruct our own access to the work-being of the work.”
The best course is to allow the art to do its work, let it be, as the Beatles put it. Heidegger takes the word ‘world’ (German welt) and turns it into a verb: “The world worlds, and is more fully in being the tangible and perceptive realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home. World is never an object that stands before us and can be seen.”
Die Welt welten zu lassen: let the world be, and the world will become accessible. This is the artist’s intent: to make the world available to us. To let it stand on its own. For itself alone.
In German this is called Herstellung, production, manufacturing, fabrication, making. Literally, “setting forth.”
Heidegger refers to “temple-work,” an erection of the sacred in stone. But it can be anything, any material, any entity. It needn’t be a literal temple. The temple can be a work of art. The temple can be a pair of shoes. It is the material that comes forth. The material is crucial.
…the temple-work, in setting up a world, does not cause the material to disappear, but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the open region of the work’s world. The rock comes to bear and rest and so first becomes rock; metals come to glitter and shimmer, colors to glow, tones to sing, the word to say. All this comes forth as the work sets itself back into the massiveness and heaviness of stone, into the firmness and pliancy of wood, into the hardness and luster of metal, into the brightening and darkening of color, into the clang of tone, and into the naming power of the word.
This is adamantly the case with Van Gogh’s shoes: “The more simply and essentially the shoes are engrossed in their essence, the more directly and engagingly do all beings attain a greater degree of being along with them… the more simply does [the work] transport us into the openness and thus at the same time transport us out of the realm of the ordinary.”
If we come at the work expecting it to produce this or that state of mind in us, we ruin the art. We become blind and deaf to the work. We must let the work work its work, world its world. We must let the work be itself. And this is poetry: art lets truth originate. “All art, as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of beings, is as such, in essence, poetry.”