As with the rest of Nietzschean philosophy and thought, the relationship between author, reader and the work is an intractable one. Nietzsche is a stubborn – and undoubtedly arrogant – counsellor to his reader. To attentively follow the twists and sinews of his writings is to ensconce oneself in a quicksand of elaborate and ornamental prose. Occasionally a morsel of clarity reveals itself here and there, shimmering like a pearl in a vast choppy ocean (and what a mesmerising ocean it is), but any student of Nietzsche soon comes to the somewhat dispiriting conclusion that he wasn’t exaggerating much when, in Ecce Homo, he wrote ‘I am no man. I am dynamite.’ (Though, upon seeing this quote, one always feels prompted to ask whether this was before or after he contracted a fatal bout of syphilis on his first, and last, sexual encounter). It seemed that for Nietzsche writing was nothing but a game, a game that he played very adeptly, whilst his focus on style can be seen in his formative years when, as a nine-year-old he wrote oratorios, plays, and poetry.
Yet, the trickiness of Nietzsche’s writing style shouldn’t be disdained as the product of a pompous man. Aside from the undeniable beauty of Nietzsche’s writing, he was, or at least appears to be, attempting to embody his philosophical project in the writing style itself. When Nietzsche sets down a sentence it shouldn’t necessarily be taken as final and conclusive. When he makes an assertion Nietzsche doesn’t think that this is the only way of understanding things. This is Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’, the notion that there is no single, objective way of knowing something, but that knowledge is a series of interpretations dependent on our perspective – hence the fluidity of Nietzsche’s language. Thus, the way we come to understand ourselves and the world around us has some sort of subjective grounding – the relationship to art here should be evident.
It doesn’t exactly take an unwavering nihilist or a devout atheist to agree with Nietzsche that existence is, fundamentally, meaningless. The universe simply does not owe us a sense or a reason. We stumble, we get up; we cry, we laugh; we fall in love, we suffer; we make friends, we lose others. And in between all of this we all in our own way seem to experience the most intense beauty and the most agonising pain (at least for those aware of the party on terra firma). There’s not much more, that seems to be it; and one can’t see the use in asking for much more either.
Yet, though it may be superfluous to ask for meaning, that doesn’t mean that we don’t, unwittingly or not, create it of our own volition – therein lies the true beauty of a meaningless existence. For Nietzsche this volition finds one of its manifestations in art. Art justifies existence whilst giving direction and meaning to it; ultimately, for Nietzsche, ‘only as an aesthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity.’ It is a metaphysical solace, the transcendence of nature itself, and a counterpoint to nihilism. Art is a process of self-aggrandizement that doesn’t result in a god (and if Jacques-Louis David’s six metre by ten metre Le Sacre de Napoléon, commissioned by Napoleon himself, doesn’t scream self-aggrandizement, then I don’t know what does).
This stands in contrast to the aesthetic perspective of Immanuel Kant, and his Critique of Judgement. For Kant – an ancestor of formalism in art – we have in the beautiful and the aesthetically pleasing a disinterested interest. The beautiful brings us an objective pleasure in as far as we contemplate it, and it pleases us apart from any desired end, use or interest. Nietzsche mocked Kant for this position – “without interest!” he exclaims before continuing in a condescending tone that if a Kantian aesthetician finds it ‘possible to contemplate statues of naked women “without interest”, one is entitled to have a little laugh at their expense’.
During one and a half years of editing the Arts section of Redbrick I have found that pieces and features debating the perennial ‘What is art?’ question have found themselves settling on either side of this aesthetic divide. These two sides are not quite as incompatible as Nietzsche would have them, but there is something to be said of Nietzsche’s life-affirmation when attempting to understand our own relationship to art.
Unfortunately Nietzsche took this notion of an unfettered aesthetic expression and derived a largely offensive morality from it, not to mention the most detestable views on women, seeing them as merely the recreation of men – and what an odd recreation he had planned: “thou goest to woman? Do not forget thy whip”. Nevertheless it makes for a useful perspective.
Life-affirming as it is, if art foments our ‘meanings’, then it follows that we can understand life through art. Take the example of perhaps one of the most divisive artists living today. The work of Damien Hirst seems to be, as far as I can personally deduce (and I admit, something may well have gone over my head), materialistic tripe. But the ironic, macabre humour that can be found in Mother and Child Divided (a cow and a calf cut into sections and exhibited in a series of separate vitrines), for instance, offers something of a penetrating insight into the human condition. Take also the literature of the early 20th-century existentialists; one can learn a lot more about the travails of life from these texts than any didactic religious text. And to take a personal favourite, Lowry’s Coming from the Mill, there is something cathartic, reassuring even, in seeing those stooped, emaciated figures and understanding that perhaps we all feel the same weight at some point. The question is, was this feeling, in all its nuances, intelligible before the painting? If Nietzsche’s aestheticism elucidates one thing it’s that the reason great art says so much to us is simply because we’ve already absorbed into our cultural fabric.