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Art, Technology, and Humanism

In the public imagination, technology is mostly associated with technological revolutions and the acceleration of technological change. But, actually, the goal of technology is completely the opposite. Thus, in his famous essay on the question of technology, Heidegger rightly says that the primary goal of technology is to secure the storage and availability of resources and commodities. He shows that historically, the development of technology has been directed towards the decreasing of man’s dependence on the accidents to which the natural supply of resources is inevitably prone. One becomes increasingly independent from the sun by storing energy in its different forms—and in general one becomes independent of the annual seasons and the instability of weather. Heidegger does not say this explicitly, but technology is for him primarily the interruption of the flow of time, the production of reservoirs of time in which time ceases to flow towards the future—so that a return to previous moments of time becomes possible. Thus, one can return to a museum and find there the same artwork that one contemplated during a previous visit. According to Heidegger, the goal of technology is precisely to immunize man against change, to liberate man from his dependency on physis, on fate, on accident. Heidegger obviously sees this development as extremely dangerous. But why?

Heidegger explains this in the following way: If everything becomes a resource that is stored and made available, then the human being also begins to be regarded as a resource—as human capital, we would now say, as a collection of energies, capabilities, and skills. In this way, man becomes degraded; through a search for stability and security, man turns himself into a thing. Heidegger believes that only art can save man from this denigration. He believes this because, as he explains in his earlier text “The Origin of the Work of Art,” art is nothing other than the revelation of the way we use things—and, if one wants, of the way we are used by things. Here it is important to note that for Heidegger, the artwork is not a thing but a vision that opens to the artist in the clearing of Being. At the moment when the artwork enters the art system as a particular thing, it ceases to be an artwork—becoming simply an object available for selling, buying, transporting, exhibiting, etc. The clearing of Being closes. In other words, Heidegger does not like the transformation of artistic vision into a thing. And, accordingly, he does not like the transformation of the human being into a thing. The reason for Heidegger’s aversion to the transformation of man into a thing is clear: in both of the texts cited above, Heidegger asserts that in our world, things exist as tools. For Heidegger, becoming objectified, commodified, etc., means becoming used. But is this equation between a thing and a tool actually valid?

I would argue that in the case of artworks, it is not. Of course, it is true that an artwork can function as a commodity and a tool. But as a commodity, an artwork is different from other types of commodities. The basic difference is this: as a rule, when we consume commodities, we destroy them through the act of consumption. If bread is consumed—i.e., eaten—it disappears, ceases to exist. If water is drunk, it also disappears (consumption is destruction—hence the phase “the house was consumed by fire”). Clothes, cars, etc., get worn out and finally destroyed in the process of their use. However, artworks do not get consumed in this way: they are not used and destroyed, but merely exhibited or looked at. And they are kept in good condition, restored, etc. So our behavior towards artworks is different from the normal practice of consumption/destruction. The consumption of artworks is just the contemplation of them—and contemplation leaves the artworks undamaged.

This status of the artwork as an object of contemplation is actually relatively new. The classical contemplative attitude was directed towards immortal, eternal objects like the laws of logic (Plato, Aristotle) or God (medieval theology). The changing material world in which everything is temporary, finite, and mortal was understood not as a place of vita contemplativa but of vita activa. Accordingly, the contemplation of artworks is not ontologically legitimized in the same way that the contemplation of the truths of reason and of God are. Rather, this contemplation is made possible by the technology of storage and preservation. In this sense the art museum is just another instance of technology that, according to Heidegger, endangers man by turning him into an object.

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