Nietzsche’s aesthetics

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

“German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) placed such a high value on aesthetics that his ideas on art form a core of his thought. In this respect he extends the interests of Schopenhauer, of whose writing he was a devotee in his younger years. Indeed, the ideas in his first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872) are suffused with a sympathy for Schopenhauer, one that would evaporate in the coming years. Nietzsche’s scholarship in ancient Greek – as a professor of philology – and fascination with ancient myths and customs led to his engagement with ancient drama as a paradigm of aesthetic accomplishment.

The Birth of Tragedy was Nietzsche’s analysis of human nature and the role of culture in embodying the conflicting (and complementary) sides of humanity. Nietzsche wrote that civilisation rests on twin pillars of temperament and response to natures which find expression in different art forms and modes: the Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian (or Apollinian, named after Apollo, Greek god of light) spirit resides in sculpture, painting and epic verse; it is characterised by appearance, logic, individuation and clarity; it is rational, cognitive and ordered. (“Apollo is at once the god of all plastic powers and the soothsaying god. He who is etymologically the “lucent” one, the god of light, reigns also over the fair illusion of our inner world of fantasy.”[i]) The Dionysian (named after Dionysus, Greek god of fertility, wine and theatre) spirit resides in drama and music; it is characterised by the hidden, emotion, mass body and intoxication; it is irrational, instinctive and anarchic. (“Dionysiac stirrings arise either through the influence of those narcotic potions of which all primitive races speak in their hymns, or through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature.”[ii]) The genius of ancient Greek civilisation was that the Greeks had not only the Apollonian arts, that favoured lucidity, but festivals of excess – bacchanals, named after Bacchus, god of wine, another name for Dionysus – which allowed the expression of Dionysian values….”

This article relates to my forthcoming course Foundations of Aesthetics. Read the full article here on Substack: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/nietzsches-aesthetics?s=w