Nietzsche on Art

Aaron Ridley


Aaron Ridley
ISBN 13: 978-0-203-96485-9 (ebk

Nietzsche is one of the most important modern philosophers and his writings on the nature of art are amongst the most influential of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This GuideBook introduces and assesses: * Nietzsche’s life and the background to his writings on art * the ideas and texts of his works which contribute to art, including The Birth of Tragedy, Human, All Too Human and Thus Spoke Zarathustra * Nietzsche’s continuing importance to philosophy and contemporary thought. This GuideBook will be essential reading for all students coming to Nietzsche for the first time.






1 Redemption through Art: The Birth of Tragedy

  1. An outline
  2. Dionysus
  3. The metaphysical position
  4. Between psychology and metaphysics
  5. Child’s play

2 Redemption through Science: Human, All Too Human

  1. The metaphysical position
  2. Art and science
  3. Genius and inspiration
  4. ‘Monumental’ art
  5. Art and the self

Contents3 Art to the Rescue: The Gay Science

  1. The metaphysical position
  2. Suffering and the intellectual conscience
  3. The need for art
  4. Art and the self

4 Philosophy as Art: Thus Spoke Zarathustra

  1. The teaching of ideals
  2. The power of art
  3. Zarathustra as exemplar
  4. Eternal recurrence
  5. Art and the love of fate

5 The Art of Freedom: After Zarathustra

  1. The metaphysical position
  2. The art of works of art
  3. Romanticism
  4. Becoming who you are
  5. Art and the self



Nietzsche was bowled over by art, perhaps more so than any other philosopher of comparable stature.1 His first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), is devoted to it, and shows his youthful enthusiasm at full flood. Art then features prominently in each of his subsequent books – lit from a variety of angles, playing a variety of roles in the larger movement of his thought – until, in 1888, the final year of his productive life, he completed two further books devoted exclusively to art, The Case of Wagner and Nietzsche contra Wagner. If we add to this the fact that one of his books – Thus Spoke Zarathustra – is intended to be a work of art; the fact that the style and construction of all of his books is self-consciously
artistic to a degree approached only, perhaps, among philosophers, by Plato and the early Wittgenstein; and the fact that throughout his life Nietzsche regarded himself as a serious composer, despite the evidence of his actual compositions to the contrary – and we have a quick sketch of the most art-fixated of all of the major philosophers. This sketch also indicates a difficulty in saying what Nietzsche’s ‘philosophy of art’ might have been. His engagement with art was multi-dimensional, and it lasted throughout his productive life – a relatively brief period, but long enough for his thought to have developed in some quite dramatic ways. And this means that the search for any single position describable as ‘Nietzsche’s philosophy of art’ is more or less doomed to failure. It is true that he says some things at the beginning of his career that he also says at the end; it is true, too, that his sense of the significance of art barely wavered; but – because of the evolution of his thought as a whole – the apparent sameness of those ‘things’ and of that ‘significance’ cannot be taken as a sign that he cleaved throughout to any settled view. Rather, Nietzsche’s thinking about art must be seen as standing in a dynamic and reciprocal relation to his thoughts about everything else; and this means that any worthwhile attempt at a reconstruction of his ‘philosophy of art’ must be both developmental and contextual – that it must, in effect, be an attempt to understand Nietzsche’s intellectual biography through the prism of art. I Born in 1844 to Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, a Lutheran pastor who died when his son was four, and Franziska Nietzsche, who died in 1897, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was taught first in Naumberg and then at Schulpforta, Germany’s leading Protestant boarding school, from which he received a first class classical education. At the age of twenty, he entered the University of Bonn as a classics student, before moving in the following year to the University of Leipzig (where he first encountered Schopenhauer’s philosophy). He proved an extremely precocious scholar: he published his first learned essays in 1867, and was appointed to a professorship in classical philology at Basel two years later, at the absurdly early age of twenty four. The speed of his advancement is all the more remarkable when one notes two further points. First, he lost six months of study in 1867–68 to military service, before injuring himself getting on to a horse. Second, and more strikingly, he seems very quickly to have come to doubt the real value of philology as an intellectual pursuit: a letter of 1868 sees him fretting about the indifference of philologists to ‘the true and urgent problems of life’.2 And his sense that philology failed to engage with the big questions was surely exacerbated by his first meeting, in the same year, with Richard Wagner, in whom Nietzsche found someone with a truly gargantuan appetite for the big questions – the bigger the better. Certainly he seems not to have committed himself very wholeheartedly to professorial life: in 1870 he volunteered as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian war, and then spent much of the following year on sick-leave in the Alps. By the mid-1870s he was dividing his time between taking cures in spas, travelling in the mountains, and being in Basel when he had to: he finally resigned his post, on grounds of ill-health, in 1879. The remainder of his life was spent on the move. Supported by a small pension, he took lodgings wherever the climate and environment seemed to promise some respite from his steadily worsening physical condition. In 1880, for instance, he stayed in Bolzano, Venice, Marienbad, Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Locarno, Stresa and Genoa. Italy became increasingly important to him; and it was there, in Turin, that his health finally gave out. On January 3rd 1889 he suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown, from which he never recovered. He died eleven years later, in 1900. Nietzsche may have ceased officially to be a classical philologist in 1879, when he resigned from Basel, but he had stopped being one in spirit pretty well from the moment of his appointment, ten years earlier. The books that he published during the period of his
employment – The Birth of Tragedy, Untimely Meditations and Human, all too Human – are all works of philosophy, and they are motivated by precisely the sorts of big question for which philology, he had come to feel, had no room. Nietzsche began the decade under the twin spells of Schopenhauer and Wagner, and his early work took its bearings from them; but by the end of the decade he had largely broken free of these influences, and had found a voice and a set of problems that were distinctively his own – a set of problems glossed rather neatly in the subtitle to his next book,


In the later 1870s, Nietzsche’s thought as a whole underwent some seismic changes. He became altogether more sceptical than he had been about the value of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and – a profounder shift, although not an unrelated one – he fell out with Wagner. The ardour of his attachment to Wagner, which had been white-hot in The Birth of Tragedy, had already cooled somewhat by the time he came to write the fourth of his Untimely Meditations, ‘Richard Wagner in Bayreuth’ (1876) – an essay which, while still officially running a Wagnerian line, has something of a going-through-the-motions feel about it, and never really rings true (the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth1 was opened in that year, an event which Nietzsche found distasteful2). One has the sense that the hero-worshipper of The Birth of Tragedy has begun to find his hero, or at any rate his worship of his hero, oppressive, and that he is preparing to spread his wings as an independent spirit in his own right. The final break with Wagner came two years later, in 1878. It was precipitated, ostensibly, by Wagner’s sending him a copy of what would turn out to be his last music drama, Parsifal, a work that struck Nietzsche as an outright capitulation to Christianity3 (Wagner ‘suddenly sank down helpless and shattered before the Christian cross’ [HH II:P3]), and so as a betrayal of the hopes for cultural regeneration that Nietzsche had celebrated so uninhibitedly in his first book, six years earlier. It doesn’t matter for present purposes that Nietzsche was hopelessly wrong about Parsifal.4 The important point here is, rather, that his
alienation from Wagner, together with his obsessive raking over of the ashes, prompted him to develop new and radically more sceptical accounts of art and artistry than he had espoused hitherto – accounts from which the spectre of Wagner, even when Wagner isn’t mentioned by name, is never far away. These accounts were developed in the books that Nietzsche published between 1878 and 1881: Human, All Too Human, Assorted
Opinions and Maxims
and The Wanderer and his Shadow5 – the works in which Nietzsche first began to discover his mature voice. In them, we find him beginning to experiment with the aphoristic style, setting out his thoughts in numbered sections ranging in length from a single sentence to a substantial paragraph;6 and, just as strikingly, we find a new coolness and detachment of tone. In place of the unashamed and passionate advocacy of The Birth of Tragedy, here we have a writer who is determined to be disinterested, critical, ironical, aloof. In one sense, however, Nietzsche’s preoccupations have not changed. Just as much as in The Birth of Tragedy, his driving concern remains the possibility of a postChristian regeneration of culture, of new ways of living now that God is dead. The difference – and it’s a big difference – is simply that Nietzsche no longer has a Wagnerian blue-print to offer. Instead he pins his hopes to science (and his new tone is partly a reflection of that).

About the author:

aaron_ridley.jpg_SIA_JPG_fit_to_width_INLINEProfessor Aaron Ridley is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton.

Before taking up his position at Southampton in 1994, Aaron Ridley taught at the University College of North Wales, Bangor and at Ithaca College, New York.



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