In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Richard Schacht, philosopher and professor, correlates Friedrich Nietzsche’s admiration for art to his concepts of the ubermensch and morality, while asserting these concepts build upon Nietzsche’s first scholarly work, The Birth of Tragedy. Schacht writes:
“The strongly creative flavor of Nietzsche’s notions of such a ‘higher humanity’ and associated ‘higher morality’ reflects his linkage of both to his conception of art, to which he attached great importance. Art, for Nietzsche, is fundamentally creative (rather than cognitive), serving to prepare for the emergence of a sensibility and manner of life reflecting the highest potentiality of human beings. Art, as the creative transformation of the world as we find it (and of ourselves thereby) on a small scale and in particular media, affords a glimpse of a kind of life that would be lived more fully in this manner, and constitutes a step toward emergence. In this way, Nietzsche’s mature thought thus expands upon the idea of the basic connection between art and the justification of life that was his general theme in his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy.” (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 616-617)
For this paper, I would like to explore Nietzsche’s main theories through the lens of his concept of the Apollinian and Dionysian duality as described in The Birth of Tragedy. I will first outline some of Nietzsche’s main theories, namely, the death of God, slave and master morality, the overman (or ubermensch), will to power, perspectivism, amor fati and eternal recurrence while showing how these concepts relate to overcoming in order to create oneself. Next, I will outline Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollinian and Dionysian in The Birth of Tragedy. Finally, I will interpret each of Nietzsche’s main theories through his concept of the Dionysian and Apollinian duality in art. Ultimately, I will argue the value of Nietzsche’s theories is on the existential and individual level, namely in the art of self-creation.
Regarding the death of God, Nietzsche writes in the voice of a madman, “We have killed him […]! We are all his murderers!” (Gay Science, 103). The madman, as philosopher and author Douglas Soccio interprets the parable, asserts the weapons we used to murder God, were “scientific and technological progress” which replaced humanity’s faith in God (Archetypes of Wisdom, 468). The madman continues, “Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breath upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker?” (Gay Science, 103). Nietzsche asserts without God to assign meaning, purpose, and morality to humanity, humans are left alone in a cold, dark, empty, nothingness. Nietzsche writes, “How shall we console ourselves?” and “Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it?” (Gay Science, 103). Nietzsche suggests, in place of God, we ourselves must create ourselves into the ones who assign purpose, meaning and morality to our lives.
Soccio notes, for Nietzsche, the death of God means “all values must be revalued” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 469). Nietzsche proclaims “Evaluation is creation: hear this, you creators!” and continues “Through valuation only is there value; and without valuation the nut of existence would be hollow. Hear this, you creators! Change of values-that is a change of creators. Whoever must be a creator always destroys. First, peoples were creators; and only in later times, individuals. Truly, the individual himself is still the latest creation.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 53). Nietzsche is asserting not only is the creation of values necessary for existence, but it is through destruction of the “peoples” values the individual can create their own values, thus, creating their own individual existence.
Nietzsche asserts slave morality is born of “ressentiment” which “becomes creative and gives birth to values” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 472). Ressentiment, Nietzsche explains, is an “inversion of the value-positing eye,” a “need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 472). Nietzsche states “slave morality always first needs a hostile external world,” “external stimuli in order to act at all-its action is fundamentally reaction” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 473). For Nietzsche, slave morality is created from the bitterness of those enslaved, metaphorically speaking, who place themselves at the moral end of the value system while placing those who are not enslaved at the immoral end of the value system. Nietzsche asserts, those enslaved are merely reacting to their enslavement to create values. Soccio explains “slave morality is alien to true individuality,” it “is so opposed to the authentic individual that his or her own self-creating urges and impulses are stifled in favor of ‘external stimuli’ that function as guidelines from others,” and it is “uncreative” “because it is ‘always a reaction,’ never an originating impulse” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 474). Even while those enslaved seem to be creating values, their creation is inauthentic and uncreative because it is merely a reaction.
Master morality, Nietzsche asserts, “develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself” and “acts and grows spontaneously, it seeks its opposite only so as to affirm itself more gratefully and triumphantly” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 473). Soccio explains master morality, “in contrast to slave morality, is an aesthetic-heroic code of honor. That is, the overman looks only to himself or herself for value. And value is defined in aesthetic terms” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 475). For Nietzsche, it seems, master morality is the self-affirming creative result of individuals who see the world and themselves, not in terms of “good” and “evil,” but in shades of aesthetic value, and who are not afraid to view the “ugly” in themselves in order to reaffirm even more the “beautiful,” thus transforming the “ugly” into the “beautiful.”
Soccio notes both the underman of slave morality and the overman of master morality possess will to power, however, “For the overman, the will to power is expressed openly, honestly, and nobly through exuberant, life-affirming self-creation and self-imposition” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 475). While, contrarily notes Soccio, the underman’s slave morality is “a distortion of the will to power” “shaped by feelings of gross inadequacy” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 472; 475). Schacht explains, Nietzsche envisioned “exceptional human beings capable of an independence and creativity elevating them above the level of the general human rule […] and through Zarathustra proclaimed the Ubermensch […] to be ‘the meaning of the earth,’ employing this image to convey the ideal of the overcoming of the ‘all-too-human’ and the fullest possible creative ‘enhancement of life.’ (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 616). The overman seeks out life, individuality, creativity and self-creation whereas the underman seeks comfort in conformity to deal with their own feelings of inadequacy.
Of the will to power, Nietzsche writes, “And life itself spoke this secret to me. ‘Behold,’ it said, ‘I am that which must ever overcome itself’” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 101). Nietzsche continues, “‘Whatever I create and however much I love it-soon I have to oppose it and my love: so my will wills it.”’ and “‘Only where there is life is there also will: but not will to life, rather-so I teach you-will to power!’” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 101). For Nietzsche, “all efficient force univocally,” “the world viewed from the inside, the world defined and determined according to its ‘intelligible character” is all the will to power (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 238). Soccio notes, for Nietzsche, all truths, which result in values, “are aesthetic creations which serve” and are “manifestations of the will to power” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 462-463). Nietzsche asserts, “Willing liberates: for willing is creating: thus I teach. And you should learn solely in order to create!” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 177). Everything concrete or abstract, for Nietzsche, is a representation of a naturally inherent will to power to overcome and control. It seems, for Nietzsche, the will to power is a force of opposition pushing one to overcome and control every aspect of life. For Nietzsche, the will to power is a creative force, overarching all of nature, which offers the individual freedom through its ability to create.
Regarding amor fati, Nietzsche writes, “‘To redeem what is past, and to transform every ‘It was’ into ‘Thus would I have it!’-that alone do I call redemption!’” and “All ‘It was’ is a fragment, a riddle, a fearful chance-until the creating will says to it: ‘But I willed it thus!’ Until the creating will says to it: ‘But I will it thus! Thus shall I will it!’” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 121-123). Soccio quotes Nietzsche as stating, “The fatality of nature cannot be disentangled from the fatality of all that which has been and will be. He is not the result of special design, a will, a purpose” but instead “One is necessary, one is a piece of fate” and “We deny God; in denying God, we deny accountability: only by doing that do we redeem the world” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 476). Soccio quotes Nietzsche later as stating “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity, still less to dissemble it…but to love it” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 477). Soccio explains, through Nietzsche’s amor fati “we realize that we exist as parts of a complex whole that can be only precisely what it is and cannot be otherwise” (Archetypes of Wisdom, 477). Through Nietzsche’s amor fati, or love of fate, it seems, one realizes the fatality of their existence, accepts the fatality, then uses their creative will to transform the fatality into what was and is necessary. By transforming the fatality into what was and is necessary, one would redeem themselves and their experiences as being necessary. By redeeming themselves and their experiences as necessary, one in turn views the fatality with love instead of bitterness, and thus, is capable of asserting to oneself they would not have willed themselves or their experiences any other way.
Of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche writes, “all things eternally return and we ourselves with them” and “‘I come again […] not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: I come again eternally to this identical and selfsame life, in its greatest and its smallest” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 189-190). Schacht explains, Nietzsche conceived of the world as being “without beginning or end, in which things happen repeatedly in the way they always have” and he used the eternal return “chiefly to depict his conception of the radically non-linear character of events in this world and […] to provide a way of testing our ability to live with it” (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 616). Schacht continues, “If we are sufficiently strong and well disposed to life to affirm it even on the supposition that it will only be the same sequence of events repeated eternally, we have what it takes to endure and flourish in the kind of world in which Nietzsche believed we find ourselves in the aftermath of disillusionment,” after the death of God (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 616). For Nietzsche, eternal recurrence is a perspectival tool to be used by individuals to reaffirm amor fati, to see if they would still love the fatality of their lives, even if their lives repeated exactly the same way for all of eternity. By reaffirming their love of fate through seeking eternal return, the individual overcomes the self-depreciating aspects of their lives to create themselves anew.
Regarding perspectivism, Nietzsche writes one should know “how to employ a variety of perspectives and affective interpretations in the service of knowledge” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 555). Furthermore, Nietzsche writes, “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, the different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing […] be” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 555). Nietzsche’s perspectivism asserts we are not passive observers of the world and our experiences. For Nietzsche, whenever we view, and subsequently interpret, anything concrete or abstract in the world, we do so through a perspective. Nietzsche’s perspectivism asserts, in order to obtain knowledge, one must recognize they view and interpret the world through a perspective, then make themselves view the world through as many perspectives as possible.
Schacht explains, even while Nietzsche rejects the concept of “absolute knowledge,” he did argue if the things in the world are “viewed in the multiplicity of perspectives” of the things’ relations to other things, then “they admit of a significant measure of comprehension” (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 615). Additionally, Schacht asserts, for Nietzsche, there is “no knowledge at all-even of ourselves and the world of which we are a part-that is absolute, non-perspectival, and certain” however, there is “a good deal about ourselves and our world that he became convinced we can comprehend” and “Our comprehension may be restricted to what life and the world show themselves to be” to us but for us, this is reality (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 615). According to Schacht’s interpretation of Nietzsche, our knowledge is limited to what we experience of the world, and for us, this is the only reality, thus, truth. To add to Schacht’s interpretation, it follows then, by closely looking at how we view and interpret the world through different perspectives, we could learn a lot about ourselves. One could create their existence based off what they learn about themselves by analyzing their perspectival interpretations of the world.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes “the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality […] involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 33). Nietzsche writes the Apollinian and the Dionysian are opposites which together “are artistic energies” “in which nature’s art impulses” are expressed in “the [Apollinian] image world of dreams, whose completeness is not dependent upon the intellectual attitude or the artistic culture of any single being; and then as intoxicated reality [of the Dionysian], which likewise does not heed the single unit, but even seeks to destroy individual and redeem him by a mystic feeling of oneness” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 38). Nietzsche is describing, within the inherent nature of humans, there exist two halves of a whole, each with its own characteristics, which, at times conflict with each other, and at other times intervene. The Apollinian characteristics are metaphorically like dreams, or illusions, which are creations within themselves, not dependent upon the human intellectual capacities of the individual but are solely formations of and for the individual existence. The Dionysian characteristic is of intoxication and is also not dependent upon the intellectual capacities of the individual, but is the urge to destroy the individual so that the individual can become one with the whole of nature.
Furthermore, Nietzsche writes “let us imagine how into this [Apollinian] world, built upon mere appearance and moderation and artificially dammed up, there penetrated, in tones ever more bewitching and alluring, the ecstatic sound of the Dionysian festival; how in these strains all of nature’s excess in pleasure, grief, and knowledge became audible, even in piercing shrieks” (The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 47). The individual builds an illusionary existence of moderation and restraint, then into their existence enters an excess of emotion and knowledge of the reality behind their built up illusion. Nietzsche continues, “The muses of the arts of ‘illusion’ paled before an art that, in its intoxication, spoke the truth. […] The individual, with all his restraint and proportion, succumbed to the self-oblivion of the Dionysian states, forgetting the precepts of Apollo. Excess revealed itself as truth. Contradiction, the bliss born of pain, spoke out from the very heart of nature” (The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 47). The individual finds the truth of their existence through the intoxication of emotion, of suffering, and seeks comfort in a unity with nature as a whole. Nietzsche states, “And so, wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollinian was checked and destroyed” and vice versus (The Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 47). The interplay of the illusion of the individual existence, of moderation and restraint, and the intoxication of the emotional existence of the individual when succumbing to the whole of nature, proceeds checking and balancing each other.
Nietzsche also writes “Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion […] Not reflection, no-true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth outweighs any motive for action, […] in […] the Dionysian man” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 60). The individual becomes paralyzed by the knowledge and truth of the reality of their existence. In order to survive, the individual must turn to the Apollinian illusion. Nietzsche continues, “Now no comfort avails any more; longing transcends a world after death, even the gods; existence is negated along with its glittering reflection in the gods or in an immortal beyond” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 60). The individual can no longer take comfort in unity with nature as a whole and existence, along with any sort of faith in God or heaven, becomes meaningless. Nietzsche states, “Conscious of the truth he has once seen, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence […] he is nauseated” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 60). The individual knows the suffering and meaninglessness of existence, and becomes mentally sickened. Nietzsche continues, “Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 60). Art, as a creative outlet for the excess of emotion, transforms the meaninglessness, absurdity, and suffering, into a masterpiece and human condition of awe inspiring beauty.
Bernd Magnus and Kathleen M. Higgins assert, for Nietzsche, the Apollinian and the Dionysian are opposing aspects of each individual human, in which the Apollinian aspect places the individual “separate from the rest of reality” to “contemplate it dispassionately” whereas the Dionysian aspect places the individual within the “tumultuous flux” of reality where “individuality is overwhelmed by the dynamics of the living whole” (The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, 22). Magnus and Higgins assert, “Nietzsche believed that a balance of these principles is essential if one is both to recognize the challenge to one’s sense of meaning posed by individual vulnerability and the recognize the solution, which depends on one’s sense of oneness with a larger reality” (The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, 22). Magnus and Higgins reaffirm the Apollinian and Dionysian duality as an interplay between the individual outside of reality, outside of the emotional aspects of their existence, and the individual becoming succumbed within the reality, within the emotional whole of nature. The solution to the individual vulnerability, which Magnus and Higgins discuss, I propose, is a unity to a larger reality through specifically the art of self-creation.
For Nietzsche, art is a symbolic manifestation of the creativity inherent in nature, and inherent in humanity. Humans are naturally artists. Art is fundamentally creative and thus, is transformative. Before the death of God, the individual created their existence, meaning and purpose, around the illusion of God. The individual, thus created an illusion of existence for themselves and transformed their reality into this existence. After the death of God, the individual fails to create and transform further, when they lack the perspectival tools to view themselves and their experiences within the world. Once the individual sees the truth of reality, the demise of the illusion of God and the demise of the illusion of their prior existence, the individual is thrown into the chaotic and emotional reality of existence. All becomes meaningless and absurd as contradictions define reality.
The undermen, find comfort in the herd, failing to create, thus failing to transform, themselves. The overman sees the truth of reality is not God, but instead the will to power and through this realization unifies with the whole of nature. Utilizing the will to power, the overman re-evaluates the values of the herd and creates values of his own based on the aesthetic qualities inherent within nature, thus the overman further transforms. Next, the overman creates and thus transforms and redeems the past through amor fati. The overman creates the past as necessary for his existence by utilizing his creative will to power. Now the overman can affirm his longing for the eternal return. The overman longs for his same life in all the minute details to be replayed over again throughout eternity, thus utilizing the creative force of his will to power to overcome the suffering of existence and thus creating his existence anew.
The process of destruction and creation is, like the Apollinian and Dionysian duality, a never ending artistic process. The overman creates his new existence which becomes an illusion to be dissected and destroyed through perspectivsm. Then the individual finds himself again thrown into the chaotic, emotional, absurdity of meaningless existence, to once again use his creative will to power to create himself. The overman composes, molds, writes or paints himself, as an artistic creation within the duality of the Apollinian and Dionysian forces inherent in his nature, to create his existence over and over again. The Apollinian force always placing the overman outside of the reality of himself, emotionless behind an illusion of existence. The Dionysian force always bringing him back to the whole of reality, forcing the emotion onto him, tearing away the illusion to show him the truth of his existence. The overman uses his creative will, like a masterful artist, to balance these two opposing forces resulting in ongoing self-creation.
Nietzsche viewed all of the natural world, as stemming from creative, artistic energies. All of his main concepts speak to the individual existence as a creative and artistic endeavor. For Nietzsche, the highest individual, the overman, is the master of the art of self-creation, who constantly creates his existence anew. Therefore, the value of Nietzsche’s work is in the individual existence creating itself as a living, never completed, work of art.
Magnus, Bernd, and Kathleen M. Higgins. “Nietzsche’s Works and Their Themes.” The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Random House, Inc., 2000. 33; 38; 47; 60; 238; 472; 473; 555.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2008. 103.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005. 53; 101; 121-23; 177; 189-90.
Schacht, Richard. “Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.
Soccio, Douglas J. “The Anti-Philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche.” Archetypes of Wisdom. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010. Print.
*I would like to thank Prof. Shannon Atkinson at SLCC and Prof. Greg Spendlove at SLCC for their critiques on the rough drafts of this paper.
About once every decade I decide to confront the issue of whether it’s possible to teach art or not. My immediate, passionate, and unexamined inclination is to say: yes, it’s possible. When facing our poor track record of producing good artists, I would say that this is because we still don’t know how to do it. It’s not a fault of the students but rather that of the teachers. I’m not referring to art teachers that only teach in an institution to subsidize their studio work and don’t spend time thinking about what happens in the classroom or in the student’s mind. I’m referring to the committed teachers aiming to change and tweak curricula to achieve more success, but yet who don’t get better results (or didn’t, as in my case).
A long time ago I figured that the main function of a thought-out syllabus was not to optimize anything but to minimize the damage caused by bad teaching. The effect has been, however, that good creative educators have become limited in their ability to adapt to particular students and to explore new innovations, and there are more limitations than curricula. Curricular development and revision are slow and sporadic, belatedly following perceived needs that by the time of implementation may no longer be current. Usually there are also ideas we take for granted and national directives buried in both ideology and funding requirements that, because we were educated within them, we accept without any challenge.
While I always opposed the notion of grades and credits, I never had gone as far as to challenge the ideology of meritocracy. I didn’t fully see the inbuilt contradiction of trying to develop the best in each individual while aiming to identify the best individual. Both PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) were very helpful in raising my awareness on these points. Education, especially in the U.S., is not designed to improve individuals, but to have the country compete with other countries and beat them. For that, it’s believed, one needs the best individuals. STEM’s intention, according to government rhetoric, is to prepare students to make the nation more powerful and achieve a leading position in the world. PISA measures national ranking and success in the endeavor. If all this is to serve the nation, it’s not clear why then students and not the nation have to pay for education.
With STEM came STEAM as a reaction, asking with the added “A” to also include the arts. It’s a corrective step and, at least for a while, I was sympathetic to it. STEAM seemed to redirect emphasis from national interest to the development of better individuals. I have now changed my opinion. I believe it’s lucky that the arts are ignored by both STEM and PISA. The arts, as long as they are still allowed to exist, remain an area for free thought. Once included in acronyms, that freedom will be lost.
I thought all these were very wise thoughts, but I never took them to their logical conclusion. Without noticing, by using certain words, “teaching” and “art” among them, my thinking was imprisoned. The word “teaching” is deficient because it assumes that knowledge can be taught independently from context and therefore easily transferred. With teaching, the student becomes a receiver or a trainee. With learning, the student develops a never-ending autodidactic ability and becomes a researcher and an experimenter. We should therefore talk about learning and not about teaching. Art, which is an autodidactic process defined by research and experimentation, actually shouldn’t be taught. Teaching art means transferring existing technical, aesthetic, or conceptual recipes. Teaching art therefore closes options instead of opening them, and defeats the whole idea of forming artists. Grading, a consequence of teaching, not only corrupts education by introducing competitiveness, but also is only capable of verifying if the recipes come out correctly. I think that if we intend to help in the formation of artists (or anybody else) the word “teaching” should be eliminated from our vocabulary and only “learning” should be used.¹
“Art” is the next problematic word because of its wide range of meanings. When we ask if teaching art is possible, what we mean is can we increase the number of successful artists through institutional education. Is there any difference in the results from teaching and, say, spontaneous generation? Institutions try to stack the deck in their favor by accepting only those they perceive to be promising students and then teaching them “how” to do things. The “what” part (and the “why” related to it), where art actually takes place, is presumed to be unteachable and left up to the students. Presumably the idea is that the better the entry filter, the better the school is at identifying any given prospective student’s potential to understand and develop the “what,” the better the quality of the graduates. Meanwhile, those who really need to learn are left out.
Accepting that the institutional quest is not to teach art but to identify future successful artists, what would happen if we change the question? Is it possible to learn to be a successful artist? Schools keep refining the process, but their rate of success, when measured statistically by those admitted and those who make it, is still dismal. The social task should not be to promote the best talent at the expense of those we decide don’t have it. We should make sure that everybody has equal access to good education, in art as in any other field, and that those who seem less promising are guided to find stimulation instead of being left aside because of snapshot information used as filters for admission. Obsessed with the creation of a national elite, what should be a comprehensive education system seems to forget that its mission should be the empowerment of individuals to function in a community and not in a nation.
I’m increasingly becoming more of an extremist in my views of society. I dream about a socialism of creation. It is something more urgently needed than any traditional socialism of consumption. Art focused on the elaboration of products creates traditional market relations and the consequent need for branding as well as respect for authorship and competition. Objects, knowledge, and ideas become labeled as “mine” instead of “ours,” and the distribution of power becomes unequal. Released from this focus on the product and the value of property, and with a reorientation toward art as a form of non-competitive cognition, a socialism of creation may have a chance to redistribute power towards ultimate equality and a better society.
Unfortunately we are drifting further away from this utopia. In the U.S. we seem to be entering a perverse version of neo-feudalism. An already stratified society is reaffirming class and wealth separation, and academia is complicit in the process. Yet art schools maintain some advantages for those that can afford it both in terms of tuition and the failed quality of life they can expect after graduation. Granted, art schools are elitist and guided by institutional greed. But in educational matters they also are imprecise and clueless enough to allow them to be the only free area in academia. By not teaching what art is or might be, students are at liberty to imagine, speculate, fail, and waste time. Wisely administered, these conditions provide a platform on which one may build something worthwhile.
One question then is: Could artistic success come by changing the education model rather than through tightening admissions? Since art schools intend to form professional artists, we should discuss the relation the artist establishes with materials, with the artwork, and with the public. In certain ways these relations are different forms of dialogue, and in this regard I like to speak of two dialogues. Dialogue 1 is the conversation the artist has with the work of art he or she produces. Dialogue 2 is the one that takes place between the object and the public. These two dialogues don’t exclude each other, but any predominance of one over the other has educational consequences.
Dialogue 1 started with negotiating the presence of the work of art as an exchange between artist and material. For a long time this was an authoritarian relation. The artist took the role for granted, but had to prove the ability to master materials to the point of virtuosity. The reference for evaluation was the precision in rendering, and the administration and editing of the information rendered. Visual information was processed and downloaded into the object. With this process ended, the public consumed what could be seen. All this led to the emphasis on craft training in art schools.
During the period of romanticism, the processing of information became more complex because it also included introspection. This meant that personal neurosis, suffering, and the feeling of being chosen all became part of creation. What was taking place could be described as an exploration of the personal “black box,” the unreachable mental areas from where our need to make art springs. Information was now processed both visually and emotionally, and was still downloaded through the material into the object. In schools the black box was left alone to do whatever it does, and except for occasional recommendations to meditate, the notion that art can’t be taught took a stronger hold than ever.
Later, with the modernist isms, things were taken a step further. It was clear that nobody knew exactly what art was, and the search for an understanding was extended to include an analysis of the components that make artworks art. This generated the variety of art styles that were constructed around singular qualities, such as space, movement, dreams, and expressions. The production of art objects as ends in themselves continued. It made sense to have formal art education prioritize craft, but a better knowledge of the history of art was also added. The elusiveness of the inside of the black box was accepted and referred to with words like “inspiration” and “intuition.” Assignments in schools started to focus on self-enclosed problems closer to design than to art. They were more teaching props than learning conditions.
Dialogue 2 coincided with the mid-’60s push to blur the distinction between art and life. From the art side it took the form of happenings, political activist art, interactivity, documentarism, and, more recently, social practice. From the non-art area there was a demand for thinking “outside the box,” lateral thinking and creative entrepreneurship. Maybe it was thanks to Claude Shannon’s writings about information theory, or to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about media, or just to an awareness of the impact that mass media and advertising were having on our culture. Seeing art as information and communication brought the viewers’ “black boxes” to the fore. This shift became so strong that in spite of the embargo against Cuba, in 1988 the U.S. Congress declared Cuban art (in line with all art) “informational material” as opposed to commercial objects, and so allowed it to travel freely across the U.S. border.
The shift had both bad and good effects. Viewers were often patronized. Art became spectacular and the time needed for consumption was considerably shortened with the rise of visual one-liners. But art also became overtly recognized as part of cognition. The object stopped being admired merely for its execution or presence and started being read as the solution or response to a problem. The importance of the piece was judged on the problem’s interest and how well or elegantly it was solved. Execution became a matter concerning presentation, and generally the idea of quality had the possibility of becoming clearer for both artists and the public. That it isn’t as clear as it should be today is only because quality is still associated with maintaining the canon and not with the validity of the cognitive process.
Traditional education is based on a functionalist position where knowledge is dealt with as dis-embedded from context. In its dis-embedded stage, skills are highly simplified and are expected to transfer easily from situation to situation and to maintain their applicability. That is the pedagogical ideology that emphasizes the teaching of technical skills in their most basic and easy fashion, like reading, writing, mathematics, and logic. In art schooling one would include brushing, carving, photographing, and any skill before it becomes contaminated by any concrete application. The approach neglects to see that art, on its creative level, is clearly a fully context-driven activity. In the expressive phase of Dialogue 1, it’s the subjective context that both originates the work and serves as its resonance box. This makes art already a prime example for context-sensitive “situated learning.” In Dialogue 2,where the relation with the audience becomes part of the work, its context has to be included as well and, depending on the situation, will even override the artist’s own
Not all the results, however, succeed in expanding or generating knowledge, and often don’t go beyond modest hybrids, examples of applied art, or experiments in new media. In Dialogue 1, there was the possibility of an expansion of knowledge often categorized as “mystery,” and addressing the unknown was a personal task that drew energy from hunches. This is one of the reasons that inhibited the “teaching” of art. Teaching meant trying to get into the student’s “black box,” and nobody knows how to do that effectively. In Dialogue 2 it’s about exploring the limits of knowledge and helping the viewer/community to exceed them.
In the merging of art and life one would expect that art would benefit from contributions in other areas. Yet, mostly, art schools today are chaotic playpens with technical and behavioral instruction, and with an overlay of amateur psychology and sociology. The playpen environment is conducive to explore the unknown, but uncontrolled it also leads to mystification and self-indulgence and keeps artists in the Dialogue 1 mode. The addition of serious critical thinking, problem formulation, administration of information, presentation, social studies, and ethics, paired with rigor and responsibility, could make Dialogue 2 more socially effective. This description, however, applies not only to those who want to be professional artists, but to everybody. We all should stake out what we know in order to face the unknown, we all should play with connecting what supposedly cannot be connected, we all should challenge systems that order us, and we all should do this and communicate it rigorously and ethically. Maybe then we will start down the road to a socialism of creation.
- Coaching, a third term often used in the arts, is a hybrid concept taken from sports lingo and directed at honing presumed existing excellence.
Luis Camnitzer is a Uruguayan artist born in Germany in 1937 and has lived in the U.S.A. since 1964. He is a Professor Emeritus of Art, State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He graduated in sculpture from the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and studied architecture at the same university. He received a Guggenheim fellowship for printmaking in 1961 and for visual arts in 1982. In 1965 he was declared Honorary Member of the Academy in Florence. In 1998 he received the “Latin American Art Critic of the Year” award from the Argentine Association of Art Critics and in 2011 the Frank Jewitt Mather Award of the College Art Association and the Printer Emeritus Award of the SGCI. In 2010 and 2014 he received the National Literature Award for Art Essays in Uruguay. In 2012 he was awarded the Skowhegan Medal and was a USA Ford Fellow. He represented Uruguay in the Venice Biennial in 1988 and participated in the Liverpool Biennial in 1999 and in 2003, in the Whitney Biennial of 2000, and in Documenta 11 in 2003. His work is in the collections of over 40 museums, among them Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Whitney Museum, New York; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Sao Paulo; Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires; and the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo de Costa Rica. He is the author of: New Art of Cuba (University of Texas Press, 1994/2004); Arte y Enseñanza: La ética del poder, (Casa de América, Madrid, 2000); Didactics of Liberation: Conceptualist Art in Latin America (University of Texas Press, 2007), and On Art, Artists, Latin America and Other Utopias (University of Texas Press, 2010).
THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART by Karen Archey
Dorine, Barbara, Kathy
DEC 17-JAN 18 | Art
Before working at a large art institution, like many people I thought of museums as slow-moving machines that are slightly out of place in history; anachronistic titans that are too big to fail.
THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART by Marika Takanishi Knowles
JUL-AUG 2017 | Art
The French model of painting seemed prescient, because of its insistence that history and passion go hand in hand. Immediately following the election, I looked to French painting as a school of affect, a repository of figures whose emotions provided a series of lessons in how to behave as a historical agent and how to respond to historical events.