The 20th century’s leading German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, entered a gallery in 1930 Amsterdam and saw a famous painting of shoes by Vincent van Gogh that would later be featured in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” (“Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes”). The goal of this essay is to explain, or “disclose,” the essence of a work of art. To Heidegger, “disclosing” something is to reveal its everyday functions and relationships to us and other things. Such “disclosure” is at the core of Heidegger’s philosophy: to understand existence is to understand how the world we find ourselves thrown into shapes our experiences. For Heidegger, there are things that are closed or lost in their operation (and usually this means that they work well or are doing the thing they were made to do and therefore are “ready-at-hand”), and things that are disclosed (things that are not working or are simply broken and therefore “present-at-hand”). To get at the essence of art, in the aforementioned essay he establishes three categories of things: equipment, nature and art. To explain art, he begins by getting at the essence of the first category: equipment. But Heidegger complicates matters by not referring to equipment that is real but equipment in a painting by van Gogh.
The shoes in this composition are very worn and, according to the philosopher, owned by a peasant woman. This piece of equipment “discloses” her world: she is poor, she makes a living from the land and she has anxieties about her poverty. Will the crops fail? Will there be enough to eat? Will the day end well?
Though the point of this description concerns “disclosing” what Heidegger imagines is the equipmentness of equipment (later in the essay he shows the natureness of nature and the artness of art), the philosopher’s mood is one of a person on the hunt for authenticity. And in this hunt, I think Heidegger reveals the ultimate source of all the species of authenticity that we find with us today.
Heidegger admires the shoes because they “vibrate with the silent call of the earth.” They represent for him a way of life that is real and honest. Living as a peasant is not like living as a city person (a mode of existence he despises); peasants cannot hide from hard work, long winters, the harsh earth, the mud of nature. They must live with it and within it, not by theorizing their existence, but by grappling with the physical world—the real. There are no distractions for the peasant because there is no distance between her self and her place. This authentic way of existing is “disclosed” by the shoes: “In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls.” Around the time Heidegger was writing these lines, he became a Nazi.
Those familiar with this philosopher’s work know that he described inauthenticity as verfallen, a state of not being open to one’s self and what he described as the thingness of things. Authenticity is “disclosure” of the self as it is in and as it is shaped by the world; inauthenticity is not.
But as sophisticated as Heidegger’s philosophical thinking may be, he never really stepped beyond what I think is the founding feeling of what is and is not authentic. This fact is made clear by the way he saw and read van Gogh’s shoes. His reading is useful because it points to what I believe is primordial “authenticity,” a concept we establish when we recognize the split between what we perceive as human (artifice) and nature (original). Whatever is closer to the latter is authentic. “Heidegger’s preference for the rural over the urban is clearly visible in his writings and in his own life,” writes the leading American Heideggerian, Graham Harman, in Heidegger Explained.
This split is as old as the city itself. We find it in the Bible (between cosmopolitan Paul and pastoral Jesus) and Plato’s Phaedrus (a Socratic dialogue about ideas and love set in the countryside outside of the walls of the city). We in the city have not and may never escape the raw power of this primary feeling; we want our food fresh off the farm, we praise the virtues of farmers’ markets, we have a religion of home cooking, we want vegetables grown and animals raised as naturally, as authentically, as possible—and indeed, by someone who wears muddy peasant boots.
Speaking of those shoes: they were not owned by a woman but a man, who was not a peasant at all but an artist living in Paris. Van Gogh bought those shoes at a flea market and purposely muddied them for the painting Heidegger would admire in the Dutch gallery.