Gadamer: Art and History

Kristin Sampson

According to Gadamer, art and history have something in common: Both are capable of opening up something unfamiliar that we can understand ourselves against.

According to Hans-Georg Gadamer we explore history to learn more about ourselves. In his major work Truth and Method he claims that historical consciousness is essential, not in reconstructing the past but in reflected exchange with the present.1 He emphasizes this as meeting between two, where the past is present both as something unfamiliar and foreign that we can consider ourselves against and as part of a background for our present placement within history. By turning towards previous eras within history a possibility is thus opened up to gain access to something more than a background or tradition that explains the path towards where we are today. We can also find worlds of meaning that are foreign to us, and thereby gain access to perspectives that provide new insights to our own time's unquestioned and acknowledged truths.

Not only history but also art can provide access to other worlds of meaning than those that would seem obvious and true to us. Art is deeply bound to our experience of the world in the sense that the world's reality reveals itself through aesthetic appearance. Art is one of reality's forms of emergence and the reality that reveals itself cannot be distinguished from the presentation of it. According to Gadamer there is no objective form of truth that is independent of the specific forms of emergence or particular ways of perceiving the world. The world is realized through its presentation and then always in some specific way. Since art in this way is related to something vital with our way of being in the world, we can never come to a point in history where art ends. For Gadamer therefore, art is not something that can die. As he writes: "The death of art, as an end to the restless will to form that resides in human dreams and longing, this we cannot conceive of as long as human beings continue to form their own lives. Any claim that the time of art is ended will thus consequently lead to new art."2 However, what art is will vary and be determined by the historical context within which it emerges. Each time will have its own form of art.

Gadamer compares experiencing a work of art to playing a game

A work of art always points beyond itself, according to Gadamer. It is inherently open. On the one hand this has to do with the fact that a work of art will always remain open to being subjected to new ways of seeing. Furthermore, these various conceptions of it are constitutive of the artwork as artwork. The meaning of a work of art emerges only in the encounter with an observer or listener. This meeting is inherently dialogical, in the sense that both bring something to the encounter, as in a conversation. One part of the meeting consists in the spectator applying the work of art with his or her own perspective. Nevertheless, it is also necessary for the spectator to open herself to being moved by and to a certain extent loose herself in the artwork. Similarly to the way we are all cast into a world at birth, we must, as spectators, give ourselves over to the work of art to a certain extent, if we wish to understand it. A work of art is also a «world» in the sense that it constitutes a world of meaning. Gadamer compares experiencing a work of art to playing a game. A game is a structured world of meaning that players must enter and lose themselves in, or the world will lose its magic. In forgetfulness people open themselves up to the game itself. Such openness is also necessary in interpreting a work of art. If the spectator does not let herself be gripped by the world of meaning that is the artwork, she will not be able to understand it, or find it interesting or exciting. In the same way as the game, the work of art must also be taken seriously. If one enters an encounter with a work of art with a serious expectation of being told something, artwork can reveal something new and unknown to the spectator. Embedded within works of art there thus lies a potential to open the spectator up to what is other and foreign. This provides access to an outside in relation to what stands as rigid and unquestioned in our own conceptions, and which is difficult to recognize and question critically. In this way, through its ability to display and reveal the limitations of any benumbed cultural expectation, art contains an ethical significance.

That a work of art always points beyond itself also refers to how it necessarily belongs to a context, and how this context belongs to a world that inevitably has a history. An artwork thereby unavoidably relates to the history within which it is inscribed. One way or another, every work of art relates to a tradition. This relationship is ambiguous. On the one hand a tradition constitutes the path between historical eras and horizons. It may, for instance, express the relationship between a modern reader and a work of art from Antiquity. The notion of tradition is for Gadamer an expression of what has to do with the effects of an artwork through history. However, history also constitutes something more that this, according to Gadamer. It represents something against which we can see ourselves. In this way turning towards history and previous historical eras can provide a contrast against which we may understand more about ourselves and our own preconceptions.

Art and history thus have something in common, namely a potential for opening up new perspectives and insights in relation to, and in contrast to which, we can understand ourselves. Both art and history offer us access to an outside to our own rigid preconceptions. To the degree that art wishes to enforce such a project of self-reflection, it may gain additional strength by turning to history.


1 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and method. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.: 2004. The original German version Warheit und Metode was published in 1960.

2 My translation. See Gadamer, «Er kunstens tid forbi? Fra Hegels lære om kunstens fortidskarakter til dagens antikunst». Den europeiske arven, p. 76. Oslo: Cappelens upopulære skrifter, 1991, p.76.


Kunstjournalen B-post nr. 1_10/11: The Past Now!