A Pair of Peasant Shoes

Plato claimed that our physical world was a shadow by a series of forms. Only beyond these forms, we could reach something truthful and timeless. He dichotomized both worlds as forms and ideas, likewise, physics and metaphysics.

For example, we see various horses on earth. According to Plato, there must be something like ideal horseness that could manifest the timeless idea of a horse in general. It sounds nonsense when we use this example of a horse.

Diogenes’ criticism is well-known. When Plato mentioned the definition of man as featherless bipeds, then Diogenes plucked a chicken and claimed this is a man.

On the other hand, there is some area that such distinction works. While a variety of human relations overwhelms us, such metaphysical ideas as kindness, honesty, love, etc. could be useful in articulating them and give us better perspectives.

We pursue the ideas of what should be; at the same time, we also need to practice the forms of these ideas on earth in our everyday life. Even our daily experiences and phenomena could be part of valuable ingredients for our further articulation toward such ideas and metaphysics.

(Even within physics, such articulation and conceptualization must be the basis for understanding the world better. We call it science.)

Experiencing on earth, we perceive the world.

Martin Heidegger pointed out this in his essay, The Origin of the Work of Art (1950). In it, he extensively cited A Pair of Peasant Shoes (1885) by Vincent van Gogh.

How can we see this small piece of painting as artwork? How can we know the origin of the work of art through this painting? Like Plato, is it because we perceive the idea of shoesness manifested in this specific work?

Heidegger’s answer could be yes and no.

If we merely focus on the idea of shoesness in it, then perhaps we would encounter a criticism like Diogenes who would bring any pair of shoes at hand and could claim it as artwork.

Van Goph’s painting is concrete and specific on earth; nevertheless, this is far from a mere form on earth, but creating “the form (not the idea alone) in the world.” How can van Gogh make such a difference?

For Plato, the idea of shoes is something conceptualized. He could write his articulation about shoesness in general. For Diogenes, on the other hand, he would continuously keep the form on earth to feel and touch the reality of these specific shoes without unnecessarily conceptualizing them to avoid language games.

Alternatively, however, Heidegger believed there must be another approach called the artist’s way, which is the basis of the origin of the work of art.

When we see the work of art, there could be several layers. We could move around these layers, depending on our attitude and experience of art appreciation. These could be as follows:

  1. Shapes and colors
  2. A pair of shoes
  3. The pair of shoes
  4. The pair of shoes van Gogh took for his painting
  5. A pair of shoes on earth
  6. The pair of shoes in the world
  7. Articulations

Perhaps a newborn baby could see only the first layer without understanding its meaning. On the other hand, we also appreciate the aesthetic balance and composition of shapes, colors, and sophistication, just like appreciating abstract art.

In the second layer, a pair of shoes is an object. We understand the meaning of this object or its signified word as a concept. In the third layer, the pair of shoes should be one particular pair of shoes at this specific spacetime and historicity. Or, it could be repetitively shown and yet unique as far as its specific context is concerned.

The fourth layer is what van Gogh himself is supposed to express in this work of art existentially. There must be a vast story and world about his life behind it. In this regard, there could be a pair of shoes that has not yet been the work of art by the artist and his/her life, which is in the fifth layer.

And in the sixth, it is already the work of art. It can inspire the imaginations of various audiences in depth manifested from their existential specifics, even their lives. Often, our life changes because of the artwork. Heidegger calls it “Being in the World.”

Lastly, I would like to add this seventh layer, which is called articulation per se.

From Heidegger to Derrida and other various art critics, historians, philosophers, they created their writings around this piece of art. Mostly because of Heidegger, this small piece by van Gogh has been the mainstream of art history, existentialist philosophy, and postmodernism, which is quite amazing.

And now, I am also writing this humble entry in the same motivation. That is the very evidence that this small painting could be the origin of art. Moreover, perhaps Heidegger’s writing itself is also the art of work as it inspired a lot of people from art critics to historians to philosophers, and more.

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