Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Interpreting a Painting of Shoes: The Benefits of a Deconstructionist Methodology

The ways in which art historians and critics analyze art works are not absolute however much they endeavor to be.  The processes of interpreting and decoding art are limiting and often times contradictory which is problematic in affixing meaning and value.  The discipline of art history must therefore attend to these boundaries and, rather than apply a single approach, utilize multiple methodologies in the exploration of art.  Three essays by philosophers and an art historian, compiled in The Art of Art History edited by Donald Preziosi, illustrate how interdisciplinary approaches and the debate of ideas lend to a better understanding of art and its meanings. 

In “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935) German philosopher Martin Heidegger attempted to uncover the nature or essence of art.  He believed this to be the most important question in which to attend since deducing the nature of art will aid in elucidating the origin of art.  Defining the origin of art can, thus, clarify the dichotomy of the artist-artwork relationship.  To Heidegger, artworks are not only representations of the environment but actually influence the creation of the environment.  Culture and the meaning of existence, therefore, change when artwork is introduced.  
Martin Heidegger
Heidegger viewed the source of an artwork as unrecognizable as both an artist and an artwork are determined by art.  He described art as being a condition of culture but also culture as being influenced by art.  According to Heidegger, an artist creates an artwork and an artwork creates an artist.  Art is the provider of both artwork and artist, and the force of art controls these two elements.  Heidegger acknowledged a paradox within this system as it is cyclical: without knowledge of the nature of an artwork, one is incapable of grasping the essence of the artwork, but without knowledge of the artwork, one cannot determine the essence of art.  Thus, the nature of an artwork can only be realized by understanding the meaning of art or vice versa.  Heidegger concluded that to avoid becoming misled in this cycle one must either define the essence of art or of the artwork.  He maintained that it will be an easier feat to define the essence of the artwork and turns to a painting by van Gogh to provide an example.  Heidegger first found it necessary to his argument to define ‘thing’ which he determined can be interpreted in three ways: things can be substances with properties or bearers of traits, things can be the manifold of sense perceptions, things can be formal matter.  The last definition of ‘thing’ relates to Heidegger’s interpretation of a particular van Gogh painting as it includes the idea that a ‘thing’ is a piece of equipment.  He used the painting A Pair of Shoes of 1886 by Vincent van Gogh to illustrate his point.  
Vincent van Gogh. A Pair of Shoes, 1886. Oil on canvas. 14.75" x 18".

This painting allows for a distinction between artwork and other things, like equipment.  The “equipmental-being of equipment” can be understood by viewing this painting as it permits viewers to be transported to a different place.  This is because the artwork knows the truth of the subject (the shoes) and, therefore, must understand the truth of equipment.  Viewers can grasp this truth because the artwork allows viewers to deepen the essence of themselves.  Heidegger believed that van Gogh’s painting depicts a peasant woman’s pair of shoes, worn and tattered by the long days spend toiling in the fields.   This is a narrative of a peasant’s life, however, three decades after Heidegger published this essay art historian Meyer Schapiro theorized that the painting describes a narrative of the artist himself.

In his essay, “The Still Life as a Personal Object—A Note on Heidegger and van Gogh” (1968) Meyer Schapiro disagreed with Heidegger.  He believed that Heidegger’s interpretation of van Gogh’s artwork was a self-created construction.  Schapiro’s explanation illustrated that the truth is historical and maintained that the shoes are not those of a peasant woman but those of a city man…the shoes of van Gogh.    Although van Gogh is known for his paintings representing peasant life, Schapiro argued that the peasant shoes of proceeding van Gogh paintings are depicted in a well-kept condition which affords dignity to the peasant.  He insisted that it is only his own shoes which van Gogh painted as tattered and well-worn.  Therefore, to Schapiro, the painting does not provide the essence of a truth.  The shoes actually represent van Gogh himself as they are those of a traveling city man and most likely the pair he wore in Holland in 1885.  
Meyer Schapiro
Schapiro believed that Heidegger failed to recognize the presence of the artist in the artwork for it is inevitable that a piece of the artist is retained in his artwork.  Whereas Heidegger based his theory solely on the perceptible qualities of the painting, Schapiro conceded that a still life is a personal object and possesses meaning outside of its physicality alone.  This argument illustrates a clash between disciplines as Schapiro maintained a Marxist viewpoint valuing dialectical reasoning; Heidegger held a Fascist outlook which sought an ultimate truth.

Jacques Derrida in “Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing” (1978) believed that neither Heidegger nor Schapiro possessed solid visual arguments in the aforementioned essays.  He stated that the shoes are not even a pair and cannot be proven to be those of a peasant nor of a city-dweller.  Derrida questioned what constitutes a pair of shoes and how the elements of such combine different forms of reality.  
Jacques Derrida
This deconstructionist approach forces a reconfiguration of the subject matter to study that which becomes visible underneath and between once the factors are rearranged.  A post-structuralist theory such as this finds limits in theories and attempts to probe further by reconstituting the important aspects of these theories and elucidating that which lies at their foundations.  To Derrida the entryway to a mode of thought is crucial to understanding the center or meaning which is sought.  Without one, the other does not exist and understanding the former allows for the understanding of the latter.  In this way, Derrida determined that Heidegger is ultimately more correct in his argument than Schapiro, although, Heidegger did not present it suitably.  Derrida supposed that the interpretations of A Pair of Shoes by Heidegger and Schapiro point to their respective standpoints rather than to the artwork itself as Schapiro himself was a city-dweller and Heidegger supported the peasant ideology.  Schapiro, Derrida upheld, was overly attached to representational thinking thereby weakening his argument.   To Derrida, it is more important to understand that which surrounds the artwork rather than the essence or nature of the artwork. 

Derrida offered a highly credible argument.  He proposed that both theories utilized by Heidegger and Schapiro were limited and, therefore, not fully attaining a truth.  Each scholar, critic, and collector has a lexicon of signs and symbols to draw upon and contend with which do not necessarily corroborate with the iconology of the artist.  It is crucial to understand that form and context are not the only factors at work when examining art.  The scholars themselves possess conscious or unconscious biases which affect how they interpret art.  Derrida argued that when examining art, one must take a self-critical stance and incorporate many avenues of exploration.  A combination of this careful, deconstructionist methodology and an objective lens will allow for a true comprehension of art.

Works Cited
Derrida, Jacques. “Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing [Pointure] (1978).” In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by Donald Preziosi, 301-315. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art (1935).” In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by Donald Preziosi, 284-295. New YorkOxford University Press, 2009.

Schapiro, Meyer. “The Still Life as a Personal Object: A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh (1968).” In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by Donald Preziosi, 296-300. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


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