Part II: Gadamer on Play, the Play of Art, and the Reality of the Work in its Presentation

Kasimir Malevich "Composition with the Mona Lisa"As I explained in the previous post, in every presentation, performance, and interpretation of a work—even those which critics and other relevant communities judge as missing the mark—the identity of the work is not destroyed. For example, in the case of a poor performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 18, it is understood as presenting, albeit poorly, the structure of the work in view. Every presentation has a relation to the work’s structure and must “submit itself to the criterion of correctness that derives from it.”[1]

That we can discern a failed presentation of a work does not imply that there is only one excellent way for the work to manifest. There can be many correct, fitting, and even exemplary presentations, enactments, and performances of the same work. Here the notion of “structure” should not be equated with the “original” composition or performance, as if the “original” is the ideal and standard against which all future performances and presentations are judged. In fact, future performances of a work often bring out a depth and richness not manifest in the original. John Coltrane’s performance of the popular Broadway tune, “My Favorite Things,” is one such example. In Coltrane’s version, the standard and rhythmically simple three-four waltz time is transformed into a polyrhythmic and densely textured six-eight (and beyond) time. In addition, Coltrane adds lengthy improvisatory solos and complex harmonic textures to the original piece. In both Julie Andrew’s and John Coltrane’s performances, the work is presented and a common structure is discerned; yet Coltrane’s performance displays a level of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic complexity not present in the original.

In fact, Gadamer argues that through presentation (and performance) an “increase in being” occurs.[2] In order to understand what Gadamer means, one must examine his account of the complex relationship between Bild and Ur-bild. If presentation (Darstellung) is the artwork’s mode of being, how does a symphonic performance or a painting present the work? For example, on Gadamer’s analysis, a painting’s mode of being as presentation ought not be understood as a copy of something. The defining task of a copy is to reduplicate as closely as possible the original. Thus, its essence is self-erasure or self-effacement; it points not to itself but away from itself to what it copies. “[I]ts nature is to lose its own independent existence and serve entirely to mediate what is copied.”[3] A copy’s self-effacement indicates its function as a means, not an end. In fact, its independent existence serves this very purpose of self-erasure. In contrast, a picture’s essence is not self-erasure, nor does it function as a means to some other end. The picture points to itself and how it presents its subject-matter. In other words, “one is not simply directed away from the picture to what is represented. Rather, the presentation remains essentially connected with what is represented—indeed belongs to it.”[4] Again, instead of a self-cancelling existence and purpose, the picture’s being is autonomous; its being brings out something new in the reality which it depicts; thus, the picture is more than a mere copy or reduplication of an original; it belongs to the being of the original and expands its being. As Gadamer puts it, “[b]y being presented [the original] experiences, as it were, an increase in being. The content of the picture itself is ontologically defined as an emanation of the original.”[5] Here Gadamer draws upon Neoplatonic philosophy with its notion of an emanation as an overflow of the being of the One, whose being is not reduced as a result of its multiple emanations, but rather increases.[6]

Although helpful, the Neoplatonic model doesn’t quite capture Gadamer’s understanding of the relation between Bild and Ur-bild, as the emanations flowing from the One are ontologically inferior to the One. Here I suggest another analogy, which also has its limits, to supplement Gadamer’s account. In the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, in which the fullness of deity dwells.[7] Here there is no ontological subordination, yet Christ reveals the Father in a unique way, presenting him, so to speak, in a new light. Likewise, the Son and the Father are different expressions of the same being. The Christian model thus highlights an instance where difference essentially belongs to sameness without destroying unity and identity. Lastly, the revelation of Godself is given over time through many presentations and performances, and in each case God himself is manifest.

As should be clear from our analysis up to this point, even though the same work is repeated in each new presentation or performance, the subsequent presentations are not mere copies of an original and are thus not ontologically inferior imitations. Instead, Gadamer’s hermeneutic identity involves a phenomenon of repetition in presentation that, like the phenomenon of play, allows for flexibility and freedom that does not negate the work’s unity or identity but is instead an intrinsic aspect of the work’s ontology. The work lives, as it were, only in its presentations, performances, and interpretations.


[1] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 122.

[2] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 140.

[3] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 138.

[4] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 139.

[5] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 140.

[6] Ibid., 140.

[7] See, for example, 2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15, and Heb. 1:3.