Gadamer on Art’s Emergence, Motion, and Non-Utility (and a Creative “Riff” or Two on Plato and Aristotle)

Malevich "Bureau and Room"In this post I continue my reflections on Gadamer’s analysis of the artwork and its presentations by way of a brief sketch of Gadamer’s relevant work on Plato and Aristotle. If Plato is read as devaluing or demoting art due to its status as third-removed from the truth and a mere copy of the original Idea, then of course Gadamer rejects this view and has no interest in this characterization of mimesis. (In fact, Gadamer argues that Plato himself rejected this view and that his position is articulated in his later dialogues, especially in the Philebus.)[1] For my purposes, I will focus on Gadamer’s creative appropriations of the Platonic-Aristotelian linking of beauty, goodness, and truth in his reflections on art.[2]

In the Philebus, Plato introduces a third category of being, which he calls, “coming into being” (genesis eis ousian; 26d8). This category opposes a dualistic view of reality in which the world of Ideas is separate from the world of appearances. Along similar lines and again in order to stress the unity of being and becoming, Plato speaks of “being that has been” (gegenêmenê ousia; 27b8). With this new category Plato shows how not only in our lived experience but also in the very structure of the world, “we encounter the mixed, and within it we must seek and find the ‘exact.’”[3] Here the “exact” or in Plato’s words, “the exact itself,” is not the “pure” exactness of mathematics but rather the “appropriate” (metrion) discussed in the Statesman, where two arts of measure are introduced and distinguished.[4] Gadamer, in fact, sees the “appropriate” or the “fitting”—the, so to speak, “im-pure” exactness—as an anticipation of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. Both types of measure are crucially important; however, we must discern and respect their difference and resist any push to make mathematical exactness the ultimate measure and model of all knowing and truth. In short, on Gadamer’s reading, if initially Plato advocated dualism, he has himself subverted such a view. In the Philebus, becoming is a coming into being and being comes forth from becoming. Plato and Aristotle have much more in common than Philosophy 101 might lead us to believe.

In fact, Gadamer sees Aristotle’s introduction of the concept of energeia as a mere “step beyond” Plato’s development of this third category of “coming into being.”[5] As Gadamer explains, Aristotle’s understanding and unique employment of energeia is complex and includes the ideas of actuality, reality, and activity. Moreover, energeia shares close conceptual resemblances with Aristotle’s notion of entelecheia (entelechy). The common idea of both terms is that they indicate the unfolding action, not the finished action (ergon). Of course, the activity of energeia and entelecheia involves an unfolding, internal telic movement. Yet Aristotle’s notion of energeia—such as the “pure energeia” of being aware, seeing, and thinking—also designate a movement with no goal outside or beyond the activity itself.[6] Thus, Gadamer suggests that these a-telic activities are characterized by a temporal structural of “tarrying.” That is, the activity of considering or having considering something does not designate a this-after-that sequence but speaks of lingering over something—a being absorbed or immersed in something until it manifests or shows itself. Similarly, with the artwork, as we tarry with it, “it” emerges. This is how we experience art’s truth; we allow ourselves to be absorbed by it, and as we wait and linger, it comes forth and addresses us. As Gadamer explains:

To tarry is not to lose time. Being in the mode of tarrying is like an intensive back-and-forth conversation that is not cut off but lasts until it is ended. The whole of it is a conversation in which for a time one is completely “absorbed in conversation,” and this means one “is completely there in it.”[7]

Given art’s non-practical focus and lack of use-orientation, Gadamer claims that art finds kinship with the ancient notion of theoria.[8] Here Gadamer’s creative appropriations of ancient Greek philosophical concepts are deployed not in order to mute the voice of the other, but rather they enable us to better understand and appreciate a modern conception of art for art’s sake. That is, as we come to understand what Aristotle meant by theoria, techne, physis, and energeia, we have a better grasp of modern art’s claims regarding its absoluteness and non-utility. Rather than associate the making of craftsmanship, whose products serve purposes of utility, with the making of artworks, Gadamer highlights the affinities between art and nature. For example, a work of art, like a flower that comes to bloom, has a developmental history and a process-oriented temporal structure that makes possible its manifestations of sameness in difference. In addition, art like physis shows its life through being in motion; art lives through enactment (Vollzug). Lastly, although in our exploitation of nature via technology, we have by and large lost the sense of wonder at nature’s beauty and its emerging and simply “being-there,” yet even so nature still has the power to surprise and overwhelm us. The same is true of art—even avant-garde art.


[1] See, for example, Hans-Georg Gadamer Dialogue and Dialectic. Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980,) esp. chapter 6, “Plato’s Unwritten Dialectic.”

[2] For a friendly yet critical engagement with Gadamer’s position, see Michael Kelly, “A Critique of Gadamer’s Aesthetics,” in Gadamer’s Repercussions. Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. Bruce Krajewski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 103­–120. On the one hand, Kelly agrees with “Gadamer’s critique of any philosophy of art that considers art to be a lie,” on the other, he rejects the notion that art makes truth claims (ibid.,103). Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image: ‘So True, So Full of Being!’” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard E. Palmer, 192–224 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.

[3] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image: ‘So True, So Full of Being!’” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard E. Palmer, 192–224 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.

[4] See, for example, Plato, Statesman, 284e ff.

[5] Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image,” 210.

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] Ibid., 211.

[8] As Gadamer explains, theoria was linked with divine activity and thus involves participation in the highest activity and reality. He also notes that the term originally meant to “participate in a festive act. Thus, it is not merely being a spectator. Rather, it means ‘to be fully there’” (ibid., 213).

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.