Monday, December 1, 2014

The Aesthetics of Friedrich Nietzsche

I keep on-going research on a variety of subjects, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche especially, since I devote another blog to him.  In 2014 I purchased a newly published academic work entitled Nietzsche on Art & Life.  Art, as my many posts on the subject attest, is held in high esteem by me intimately.  I can not bring it into sharp focus yet, but there is something about Art that is sacred to me and is connected to my existence. Nietzsche's philosophy is rooted in the subject of Art (among other major subjects) and this new book attempts to shed insight into Nietzsche's application of Art to human life.

Eleven diverse essays grace the pages of this book. Each offers a perspective either slightly or significantly different from the others.  Generally, however, it is agreed that Nietzsche's views on Art and aesthetics changed significantly over the course of his life.  Early on with The Birth of Tragedy he was under the influence of Schopenhauer  and Wagner - Art was a source of refuge and salvation for enlightened human beings. Tragic art contextualized our sense of Beauty and thereby made high Art relevant today.

Later, Nietzsche came to see Beauty as too limiting a perspective within the vast potential of Art.  His ideas became more complex and placed the act of creation, being the creator, as actually more important than Beauty itself.  Life should be relevantly affirmed and aesthetically embraced through suffering and struggle in addition to an appreciation Beauty.

The book's first essay, as others offered throughout its pages, argues that Nietzsche always understood Beauty to be an illusion, adopting a perspective that was essentially escapist. Nietzsche argued that when the creator took charge through the will to power then life would be affirmed and loved (amor fati) as tragically beautiful.  Rather than escaping life through Beauty, the artist should embrace it in all its difficulty. Indeed the difficulty itself becomes the revalued Beauty of life.

The second essay goes so far as to emphasize that Nietzsche, in his later philosophy, came to believe that Truth was, in fact, Ugly and that traditional ideas of Beauty hinder genuine insight.  Instead, there is Beauty in the struggle of the artist and what the artist attempts to tragically express is the highest manifestation. "Nietzsche urges that to find value in the very 'activity of confronting and overcoming resistance' without that activity's reaching any ultimate resting place where desire ceases, is to discover a 'new happiness'." (page 41)

The following few essays are variations on this overall theme. The nature of tragedy redefines what is beautiful.  "If Nietzsche is correct that a fundamental problem of human existence is an existential lack of meaning, and that a fundamental function of tragedy is to create the comforting illusion that even if individual lives are wretched they form part of a greater whole imbued with genuine significance, then the appeal of tragedy is understandable.  Tragedy acknowledges the intrinsic painfulness and disappointments of the hero's life, but from a distanced perspective that puts the tragic hero's life in a context of a clearly significant greater narrative.  That our lives, as insignificant as they seem from our very partial viewpoints, might themselves be part of a greater meaningful whole is the great solace and pleasure tragedy can offer us." (page 104)

Nietzsche's special sensitivity to the aesthetic qualities of music, particularly the music of Richard Wagner, is covered in three essays.  Music serves as a great example of how creativity and art relate to loving an inspired life in spite of the challenges that life confronts the adventurous spirit freed from the confines of traditional morality and ethics.  In another essay, the book's editor, Daniel Came, makes a contribution on what all this means in terms of human character and virtue.

"His is an 'immoralist' doctrine that proposes an outright replacement of traditional morality, seeking to devote himself exclusively, not necessarily to aesthetic goals, but to practical-existential criteria which are best served by aesthetic devices, and to regard all conventional normative considerations as potentially matters of indifference, suspicious, or magnificent contempt." (page 131)

"Compared with the superfluous, the higher man has the great aesthetic virtue of originality: he is 'solitary', his song is 'unique' - and it is uniquely his, for he possesses 'greatness, that is to say, creativeness'.  It is 'necessary' precisely because it has the gratuitousness of true art, born not in the vulgar 'marketplace' of practical life, but in self-imposed seclusion of spiritual inwardness.  What, in his 'creativeness', does this splendid individual create?  The most obvious answer is, 'himself'." (page 136)

Two essays resonate with me more than the others in this collection.  One deals with how similar, rather than dissimilar, Nietzsche's approach to Art and aesthetics is compared with Arthur Schopenhauer, who Nietzsche originally admired and later tried to distance himself from. The other essay has to do with the act itself of distancing oneself.  I'll turn to the second of these two first and then finish up the essay on the Nietzsche-Schopenhauer shared aesthetic.

"Nietzsche on Distance, Beauty, and Truth" begins by clarifying the personality traits of Nietzsche's aesthetic sense, the goal and existential manifestation of the artist's self work. "Contrary to the superficial process of association by which we might be tempted to link the 'will to power' or the Übermensch with ideas of sheer brute force, it is clear that among Nietzsche's main objects of aesthetic esteem are levity, delicacy, poise, nuance, 'halcyon' self-sufficiency, and calm - in contrast to coarseness, vehemence, noisy assertion, and emphatic gesture.  Among his favorite images for the free (yet disciplined) movement of thought is that of dancing." (page 202)

The essay proceeds to contend that the philosopher equated "giving style" to one's character to be "the aesthetically motivated project of adapting and transforming one's character into something that can be contemplated with pleasure."  When this intimate project is undertaken it is a noble artistic expression that inherently distances the artist from the mass of humanity.  The highest art is for the highest free spirits who transcend commonality to become distinctively rare beings.

"The idea emerging in the last few passages cited - that of an emotional distance which restrains the noble, or aristocratic, type from any facile impulse to 'plunge into' the life around him - can be regarded as one of many variations on the theme of distance played out in Nietzsche's thought.  Again, this theme connects a certain pattern of response to straightforwardly 'aesthetic' phenomena with other - more pervasive or structural - features of Nietzschean mentality." (page 209)

"Nietzsche can speak simply enough of 'high culture' as something with which he and his putative reader are familiar; and in this kind of context a political motive promptly reappears. Mass higher education, for Nietzsche, is an oxymoron, for any 'higher' curriculum 'belongs to the exceptions alone...Great and fine things can never be common property'.  There are, no doubt, books 'for everybody', but these 'are always malodorous books: the smell of petty people clings to them'.  In general, we must remember that 'what can be common has ever but little value...great things are for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined, and, in sum, all rare things for the rare'." (page 213)

For Nietzsche it is the rare individual who is capable of the highest aesthetic experience of life. This explains why their life experience is existentially distanced or removed from the what common individuals can aesthetically grasp. Most essays in this collection correctly stress that Nietzsche's aesthetic sense evolved with his application of Beauty to the aesthetic life.  Relevant aesthetics for the Übermensch involved more complex and varied manifestations than the limiting experience of what is commonly understood as Beauty.  Beauty expanded for Nietzsche.  For him it became "beautiful" to embrace the difficult and even ugly aspects of human existence and to find the inspiration in those experiences as well.

Yet, according to the essay entitled "Attuned, Transcendent, and Transfigured", even though his definition became more complex Nietzsche did not stray so far from his original mentor, Schopenhauer, with relation to the nature and importance of Art as a force in living an intimately transformational, creative life.

"Nietzsche owes to Schopenhauer the key features of what is arguably his most central aesthetic concept, biz., that of aesthetic transfiguration.  The idea that aesthetic transfiguration can invest human experience with positive value - that despite its suffering, strife, and pointlessness life can be 'aesthetically justified' - is already implicit in Schopenhauer's account of artistic activity." (page 166)

"It is precisely because of its transfigurative power that art plays the vital role it does for Nietzsche: through art, we learn to see human experience for what it is, and yet to love and honor it - we learn to view life honestly, yet optimistically....the transfiguration by the work of art of the material of which it treats - its content or subject.  Secondly, there is self-transfiguration - the project by which we can exploit aesthetic strategies to transfigure ourselves, acting as artists in a broad sense of that term, recreating our own characters and destines." (page 167)

"It is indisputable that Nietzsche took engaged aesthetic experience to be intense, impassioned, and cognitively captivating....He often uses the term 'Rausch' to capture this aspect of aesthetic experience.  'What', he asks, characterizes 'the psychology of the artist'?  His answer is that 'If there is to be art, any aesthetic doing and seeing, on physiological condition is indispensable - Rausch'. Rausch is sometimes translated as 'ecstasy' or 'rapture'....Another common translation of 'Rausch' is 'intoxication', which likewise carries more or less appropriate connotations; there is something right in that its suggestion of a state in which agency is compromised (as in drunkenness), and also in the idea that one has been overpowered by something affecting all levels of thought, feeling, and perception." (pp. 172-173)

"...to regard the world aesthetically so to regard it, like an artist, creatively and affirmatively.  Doing that, we find that art enables us both to understand reality more deeply and to value it.  For Nietzsche, as for Schopenhauer, Art affords the former - the deeper understanding - in part by eliciting our fully attuned attention to its objects, such that the one is absorbed by or immersed in them to such an extent that the contents of one's consciousness can only be incentivized in relation to them." (page 190)

For Nietzsche, the higher self creation of individuals in tune with Art is the greatest manifestation of both Art and the artist.  "Self-overcoming is, inter alia, a matter of 'giving style' to one's character - an art 'practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of the nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and even weakness delight the eye'.  Put most simply, it is a project of self-creation, in which one stands back from one's character - one's given desires, dispositions, ambitions, values - rather as the painter stands back from his easel.  Like the artist, one uses this distance to decide how one shall organize, arrange, and manipulate them according to an artistic vision." (page 190-191)

"For Nietzsche, the evaluative consequences of this sort of aesthetic insight likewise reintroduce the interested, individual subject.  Indeed, that subject re-emerges with a vengeance as the Übermensch, that ultimate artist who is prepared to take on the task of creating his values from the ground up. Such transformed valuations are, Nietzsche insists, art's ultimate raison d'être.  (Hence art ultimately is to be viewed 'from the perspective of life'.)  Art, not nature, is the proper paradigm for the psychologist - and for each of us - because it shows us what artistic reconstruction is capable of doing, viz., realigning our evaluative dispositions at the deepest level, proposing novel and creative ways of framing human experience." (page 198)

This essay's emphasis on placing Art at the center of a psychological paradigm for human experience and individual development strikes at the heart of Nietzsche's philosophy and at the essence of who he was as a human being.  "...it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified."  He proclaimed that in The Birth of Tragedy and that little piece of his philosophy never changed.  It is, in fact, embedded in Schopenhauer.  So this thin thread of Schopenhauer remained with Nietzsche in spite of how the philosopher redefined Beauty and many other human aesthetic traits.  To become the artist of oneself and to transform one's act of living into a work of art is, for Nietzsche, the highest possible expression of human identity.

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