11. The Work of Art


“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

OK, so we’re going to need some definitions for this one because, like it or not, we need to refer to Immanuel Kant and this section might just be tougher than your driving test or accessing your online account with a utility provider when you have forgotten your password! But, hey, let’s not be pessimistic, in the next section it’ll all be explained with some art.

Aesthetics – is concerned with questions of taste and beauty
A Priori – is reasoning that occurs before experience
Epistemology – is the theory of knowledge
Ontology – is the study of being, existence… stuff… what there is
Subjectivisation –is Kant’s way of saying something relates to a subject and not to truth or facts (objective things)
Universal – is true for anyone

So, when we last saw Gadamer, we left him leaping out of the canal of epistemology and into the stream of aesthetics because he decided to ask two questions:

“Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge?”2

“Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”3

The tantalising waters of aesthetics have long been found easier to navigate outside of epistemological concerns. However, being that wonderful oxymoron that he was, a careful revolutionary, Gadamer decided to abandon such conventions and sail through them both. Good for him, I say.

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Starting by addressing his own questions, a standard philosophical technique, Gadamer posited the following statement, and by doing so encapsulated, very concisely, the essence of his revolutionary fusion of aesthetics and epistemology:

“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself.”4

Excusing the fact that the translation has managed to provide us with the word ‘experience’ four times in two sentences, there are three neat mini-revolutions contained within this terse prose: First, there is the explicit challenge to accepted models of understanding in both aesthetics and epistemology. In both disciplines, the standard criteria for the experiential subject is to be static and stable, and not as Gadamer proposes dynamic and changeable. Second, the statement regarding the work of art’s ‘true being,’ the attainment of which is predicated upon its ability to alter the spectator, acts to license the judgement of the work in a radical manner, in that any such judgment is determined by whether or not there is a perceivable effect upon the viewer. Finally, the third mini-revolution, in contrast to the malleable spectator, sees the work itself remaining constant.

Isolated into their separate constitutive parts; the dynamic spectator; judging an artwork by its ability to produce a change in the spectator; and the work remaining constant, all can be investigated into within their own debates. However, for Gadamer they all strode together to act as a central thesis. A thesis with no sense of shame as it threw the contents of its glass into the face of the most important dignitary at the party: Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics.

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Gadamer, being the diligent philosopher that he was, didn’t randomly throw his wine in the general direction of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics; he first undertook reconnaissance in order to assess the true nature of his target:

“In his critique of aesthetic judgement what Kant sought to and did legitimate was the subjective universality of aesthetic taste in which there is no longer any knowledge of the object.”5

The effective result of such a legitimisation, therefore, removed any possibility for knowledge, and consequently truth, from aesthetic objects and dictated that they be bound together with the empire of the subjective. The whim and fancy of the individual subject was emperor and beauty, in its standard resident position, would be forever in the eye of the beholder.

Hence, Gadamer conceived Kant’s third critique as that which separated aesthetics from epistemology. Taste, beauty and the sublime were divorced from truth as far as Kant was concerned. This, of course, would be of minor concern if Kant were just an everyday down-at-heel philosopher trying to make an honest buck. However, Kant was no such mortal, because as Gadamer knew all too well, “The radical subjectivisation involved in Kant’s new way of grounding aesthetics was truly epoch-making.”6 (Epoch-making, because every succeeding generation studying aesthetics was left with the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation, and they either had to adopt it or at the very least address it). As Jean Grondin, a close chum of Gadamer’s wrote, the subjectivisation of aesthetics, for Gadamer, was “the great impasse of aesthetics, if not the whole of modernism.”7 Such an impasse, however, made Gadamer doubt its authority and decide to confront the yawning issue of an epistemological absence. By asking his two initial questions, Gadamer stood up to his full height, rolled up his sleeves, and held Kant squarely in his sights as he set about dismantling the subjectivisation of aesthetics.

700 rolling Up Sleeves

Armed with a monkey wrench and set of spanners, Gadamer took to his task and began investigating Kant’s work on aesthetics by examining what he called Kant’s Doctrine of Taste and Genius:

“In taste nothing is known of the objects judged to be beautiful, but it is stated only that there is a feeling of pleasure connected with them a priori in the subjective consciousness.”8

Aesthetically then, nothing can be said to be a ‘truth’ about a beautiful object; there are no objective aesthetic ‘facts’ to be agreed upon as to why the object is beautiful. All that can be said is that the object appeals to an individual’s sense of taste. This feeling, as Gadamer acknowledged, however, is not wholly ring-fenced to the subjective individual per se, because it can be communicated universally and as such gain validity. By looking at a piece of Edwardian furniture I might get a feeling of pleasure in my ‘taste’ zone which you would also make sense of and understand because my love of Edwardian furniture is ‘universalisable’ to everyone.

700 sofa

Consequently, Gadamer believed that Kant situated taste between the merely sensory and universal rational rules: “it imports no knowledge of the object, but neither is it simply a question of a subjective reaction.”9 Ultimately, however, because the universal element to taste is only in its communicability and not in the form of epistemic certainty, taste falls short of the requirements for objectivity and truth, and is relegated to the default status of the subjective. For Gadamer with his screwdriver in hand, having just stripped down this first component of Kant’s authority, it certainly appeared “impossible to do justice to art if aesthetics is founded on the ‘pure judgement of taste.’”10

Working ever onwards, Gadamer took out his oxy-acetylene torch and applied it to Kant’s doctrine of genius, and speedily discovered problems due to the interconnections that Kant drew between the two concepts of taste and genius. Without going into detail, Gadamer was left in no doubt that Kant’s mechanically designed aesthetics was constituted inadequately and by default found itself rooted in subjectivisation; a complete category error as far as Gadamer was concerned.

Fundamentally, then, it appeared that the justices Kant and Gadamer sought to bestow upon aesthetics were at odds. According to Michael Podro, one of Kant’s epoch respondees, “Kant’s primary purpose” was to indicate an “alternative mode of perceptual fulfilment.”11 The focus for Kant was not to find truths within aesthetics, as it was for Gadamer, but to understand a different mode of perception. This was because Kant followed up his previous two critiques on Pure Reason and Practical Reason with a third, on Judgement, that held at its core the same notions regarding a priori conditions – our mental hardwiring. The first critique was concerned with uncovering a priori conditions for “making objective, universally valid empirical judgements, both ordinary and scientific.”12 The second critique then “discovered a priori conditions for making objective, universally valid moral judgements.”13 The third critique, Gadamer’s current chosen critique of choice, then followed by finding a priori conditions for creating judgements based on pleasure, which are obviously subjective.

550 Mental Wiring

In a virtually blasphemous nutshell then, Kant’s project was locked into an enquiry that prioritised the workings of the mind in terms of sensibilities, intuitions, imagination and the understanding. The Gadamerian question of a work of art possessing truth simply was of no interest to Kant. A situation that left Gadamer very frustrated, as a chap called Kai Hammermeister neatly expresses when thinking about ontology – what there is:

“Kantian aesthetics leaves us strangely unsatisfied when viewed from a different perspective, namely, when questioned about the ontological status of the work of art… Kant does not answer the ontological question at all. The aesthetic judgement does not relate to the object, but is merely the expression of the pleasurable subjective state of the free play of imagination and understanding.”14 (The ‘free play’ stuff being the whim or fancy of the individual again).

The separation is absolute, aesthetic judgements have no ontological status for Kant. As Hammermeister notes, “matters of art and matters of knowledge must not be confused.”15 An erroneous position, of course, for Gadamer who was deeply convinced that art can possess truth and can also be discussed in terms of knowledge.

Going head-to-head against Kant and his three critiques though, was never going to be an easy task. So, even having established that Kant’s legacy was problematic and one-sided, due to the ontological question being omitted and the priority given to the subjectivisation of aesthetics, Gadamer still had to find a way of demonstrating the profound wrong-headedness of such a legacy and, of course, clearly identifying what his recommended alternative might be.

700 3 wrong one right

Returning to his more natural habitat – tangential modes of thought – Gadamer pursued the task by focusing his attention on the form of experience of those in an aesthetic encounter. Gadamer sought a way forward by applying his mind to the actual term ‘experience,’ which he discovered was once almost solely determined by one particular manifestation called Erlebnis: “what is experienced is always what one has experienced oneself.”16 The translators of Truth and Method usefully pitch in at this point to aid Gadamer by describing the concept of Erlebnis as “something you have,” and stating that it is always “connected with a subject.”17

Armed with the knowledge that Gadamer was almost certain to dislike this mode of experience it should come as no small surprise that he pitilessly set out how he thought an aesthetic experience of a work of art would operate under Erlebnis:

“What it ignores are the extra-aesthetic elements that cling to it, such as purpose, function, the significance of its content. These elements may be significant enough inasmuch as they situate the work in its world and thus determine the whole meaningfulness that it originally possessed.”18

For Gadamer, these ignored and distinctly ontological elements could start to give the work meaning and possibly truth, but as art, in the traditional (or Kantian) sense, “the work [of art] must be distinguished from all that.”19

700 Jackson_Pollock_studio,_ca._1950,_Springs,_Long_Island,_NY

An aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis, therefore, differentiates the ‘purely’ aesthetic from that which surrounds the artwork; a separation that Gadamer could not endorse. As a process, he designated it as the adoption of an ‘aesthetic consciousness.’ Such a stance isolates the experience of the artwork, as Erlebnis, from what it regards as incidental circumstance with no influence upon the aesthetic experience per se. As far as Gadamer was concerned, the consequent outcome of this was two-fold, because “through aesthetic differentiation the work loses it place and the world to which it belongs insofar as it belongs instead to aesthetic consciousnesses,”20 in addition to the artist also losing their place in the world because they are peripheral to the aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis. Hence, aesthetic consciousness, as a direct result of another subjectivisation of aesthetics, subsumes all works of art and artists: “Aesthetic consciousness has unlimited sovereignty over everything.”21

As well as the fault of establishing a false hierarchy, Gadamer also took issue with the resulting destructiveness of the Erlebnis driven aesthetic consciousness. Following a very simple progression, if the aesthetics of a work are only significant in terms of the spectator’s experience, in the manner of aesthetic consciousness, then there is no aesthetic unity to the work because the aesthetic content resides solely in the variety of spectators who view it. However, not only is the aesthetic unity of the object destroyed, so too is the identity of the spectator employing aesthetic consciousness. Citing Kierkegaard’s work on the aesthetic stage of existence, Gadamer reminds us that a life led in the “pure immediacy” of aesthetic pleasure is “untenable.”22 By continually ignoring the non-aesthetic elements to a work of art, as a method of experiencing and pursuing a policy of aesthetic consciousness, one is doomed to a fragmentary life without continuity or coherence. One floats meaninglessly from one aesthetic experience to another.

700 Floating

Ultimately, because of the destructive nature of the aesthetic consciousness, Gadamer regarded its position as unviable, to the point where he realised an imperative:

“Since the aesthetic stage of existence proves itself untenable, we recognise that even the phenomenon of art imposes an ineluctable task on existence, namely to achieve that continuity of self-understanding which alone can support human existence.”23

For Gadamer, then, the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics was built upon quicksand, with its core principle of aesthetic consciousness comprehensively destroying all the components within the experience of art: the aesthetic unity of the object, the artist’s place in the world, and even the identity of the spectator. By working through the problems of aesthetic consciousness, in particular the disintegration of the spectator’s identity, Gadamer realised the necessity for an experience of art that allowed a development of one’s identity, not its destruction. This realisation produced the imperative that one should achieve “continuity of self-understanding.”24 One’s experience of art, then, should perpetuate this self-understanding and keep one’s identity alive:

“Self-understanding always occurs through understanding something other than the self, and includes the integrity of the other. Since we meet the individual artwork in the world and encounter a world in the individual artwork, the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in and through it.”25

700 Sel-understanding.fw

Gadamer is taking us into deep waters here, which we shall have to continue exploring another time, but only after we have looked at some paintings that just might make everything a little clearer.


  1. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 102.
  2. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 41-42.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid. 102.
  5. Ibid., 41.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Grondin, J., The Philosophy of Gadamer, 39.
  8. Ibid., 43.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 45.
  11. Podro, M., ‘Kant and the Aesthetic Imagination’ included in Art and Thought, eds. Dana Arnold and Margaret Iverson, 63.
  12. Crawford, D. W., ‘Kant’ included in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, eds. Berys Gaut and Dominic M. Lopes, 52.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Hammermeister, K., The German Aesthetic Tradition, 39.
  15. Ibid., 40.
  16. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 61.
  17. Gadamer, Truth and Method, ‘Translators’ Preface’ by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 13-14.
  18. Gadamer, Truth and Method, p. 85.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 87.
  21. Ibid., 89.
  22. Ibid., 95.
  23. Ibid., 96.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 97.

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