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The Arts

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Dasein And The Arts

So how do you apply philosophical principles to think about art? An example can be derived from an unlikely source. Reneh Karamians uses Heidegger’s philosophy as an illustration of how to understand aesthetic experience.

Martin Heidegger gave philosophy a new description of humanity. No longer was mankind defined in terms of mind distinct from the physical world, as in Cartesian thought for example, but rather as being-in-the-world. Heidegger described ‘being’ as the essence of humanity, and employed the term ‘Dasein’ (German for ‘being-there’) to describe our existence.

This idea of being as the essence of humanity is not difficult to understand. It’s the realization that the essence of human existence is not to be found in our corporeality, as it would be for a physical object existing in space and time, but rather, in a certain type of experience of existing. Therefore, when Heidegger refers to humanity as Dasein or being-there, he is referring to the human experience of existing rather than to a person’s physical location in space and time, which is irrelevant when discussing the essential nature of humanity. To clarify the term ‘being’, one might further say that being is the totality of experience during any given unit of time.

‘Being in love’ is an excellent intuitive example of how this works, for the term makes no reference to existence in time or space, but rather to a specific state of being, namely love. So ‘being in love’ refers to the mode of being which is love, and this mode of being is the totality of the experience of love at precisely the time of the experience.

For any aware being which can be referred to as Dasein comes the realization of its own temporal existence. Sooner or later, it realizes it is mortal, that its time is limited. With this realization comes what Heidegger calls “being-towards-death”, which experience occurs through the mood of anxiety. Anxiety reveals time, which seems to be pushing Dasein to its end, and to the ‘nothingness’ (note: no-thing-ness) of death. Once this understanding of time and death is realized, the person, Dasein, exists in what Heidegger [perhaps unfortunately] calls an ‘authentic’ state of being. However, this authentic state does not last, for one gradually escapes it by finding refuge in a ‘public self’. This is the self who goes to work, makes dinner, mends the fence, etc. This type of escape from authenticity and the authentic self is called by Heidegger ‘inauthenticity’.

Let us now apply these ideas to the arts.

Dasein and Music

The idea of Heideggerian inauthenticity reveals a novel interpretation of music. Any inquiry into the essence of music can only reveal temporality, for at the very basis of music is rhythm, which is fundamentally a division of time using sound. Therefore music is essentially temporal. So to address the question “Why do we appreciate music?” one need only look as far as the inauthentic self. For wouldn’t any involvement in this sort of activity give one the false impression of a certain harmony with time? Doesn’t the uniformity of the rhythm make time less offensive to Dasein, who otherwise must live face-to-face with death? One might even go as far as to say that rhythm presents a false sense of control over time. By creating the illusion of control over or harmony with time, music softens the idea of inevitable death, since time is the phenomenon through which Dasein reaches death. Put simply, any activity which presents time in a less threatening manner, as music does, provides the illusion of escape from time and therefore escape from anxiety and the no-thing. And if Dasein can escape the effects of time, then Dasein in a way, eludes death!

To understand this idea one need only hear music, or even mentally project (‘imagine’) the experience of hearing music. There is a certain non-conscious soothing character provided by the rhythm. This rhythm, this even division of time through sound, presents time in a non-threatening manner, giving Dasein the escape he/she so often attempts to make from authenticity.

Although I am in no way suggesting that this is the last word about the human fascination with music, I offer this idea as a primordial reason for the innate human love of music. So Heideggerian thought could very well hold the key to the human interest in musical experience.

Dasein and Poetry

The human love of poetry can be accounted for in basically the same way. Firstly, the rhythm of most poetic styles again causes a division of time; now through the use of words and syllables. Therefore, rhythmic poetry is, like music, a temporal entity by which Dasein is again offered an easy decline (or release) into inauthenticity. Some psychologists, such as Julian Jaynes, even believe that the rhythmic nature of certain poems have soothing effects on the brain. In his work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-down of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Jaynes states, “the function of meter in poetry is to drive the electrical impulses of the brain, and most certainly to relax the normal emotional inhibitions of both chanter and listener.”

Secondly, the sentimental nature of poetry offers Dasein an emotional escape from anxiety. This occurs in many ways. For example, nostalgic remembrance can take one’s experience back to a pleasantly inauthentic point in one’s being. More commonly, Dasein can be manipulated sentimentally into various other modes of being, such as, loving, fearing or lusting for example. These again guide Dasein’s being away from anxiety and cause a pleasant inauthenticity.

Dasein And The Visual Arts

Though the visual arts such as painting are not temporal in any way, they do however motivate emotion. Therefore, at times the visual arts can once again guide Dasein away from anxiety through the manipulation of sentiment. The creation and admiration of visual art also lead to inauthentic being in other ways. To understand this idea, one need only observe patrons at a local art gallery or local museum, as they busily discuss the technical points of the artwork being critiqued. Heidegger himself talks about such behavior in his work Being and Time (1962): he considers discussions taking place concerning the use of color, light, shade, etc, as one attempts to prove one’s self in the eyes of the other. This behavior is the very essence of inauthenticity, and once again, Dasein is making use of the arts to plunge into an inauthentic state of being. However, the visual arts can also postpone one’s boredom. According to Heidegger, this stimulation of thoughtfulness can lead to anxiety and therefore to authentic being.

© Reneh Karamians 2006

Reneh Karamians is the author of this article.

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