Philosophy…Not Exactly 101.

Caravaggio, "Sick Bacchus"

Oh, Philosophy. I don’t think I love or hate another discipline more. Art and philosophy are by nature very strange bedfellows – art history and philosophy possibly stranger. Art historians and philosophers both, to some extent, claim expertise in discussing art. An overly simplistic way to put it would be We show you how to see it, they show you why you see it that way.

So, of course, philosophy can be pretty important to us art historians. It can give us insight into why a particular work of art (or entire movement) was judged a certain way by the public, the motivations of artists, etc etc. I also hate philosophy because it doesn’t make me feel as smart as I usually do. And I sincerely hope art historians and philosophers don’t often date…because all they would do is argue and nobody would win.

Anyway, with the caveat that I might sound like a idiot, I want to talk about philosophy and art. Specifically, about a fun game called “Apollonian or Dionysian?” It’s a lot like boxers or briefs, really. I’m guessing briefs are Apollonian and boxers are Dionysian. In Nietzsche’s* Birth of Tragedy, the German philosopher delves deeper into this dichotomy than any before him. While the contrast does have a lot to do with order vs. chaos, there’s a lot more that goes into it. Namely, the motivation (or artistic drives) to make art and the experience of the viewer.

Nietzszhe describes Apollonian art as “dream-like” but also rational. Oxymoron? No! If we view dreams as a way to work out our emotions, we can see how dreams can be a rational activity. Nietzsche is primarily concerned with how art relates to the emotion/experience of suffering. The Apollonian, dream like drive is a sort of suspension of our own lives – a suspension that contains our suffering, but doesn’t threaten us. His best example is the creation of the Olympian pantheon. The Greek gods are very human, and often not very nice humans. By creating gods who embodied, even parodied human drama, the Greeks could outsource their suffering.

Dionysian art, on the other hand, is much more subjective. Meaning as viewers of such art, we throw ourselves into the experience. Apollonian art values the separation of the viewer from other people and from nature, where the Dionysian thrives on the obliteration of those boundaries. I guess it would be a bit like doing immersion therapy with our suffering.

Fillipo Lippi, "Annunciation"

As I left class, with my art historian hat back on, I thought about how this dichotomy could be practically applied to my own field. Seriously, it does get fun after a while. But the immediate comparison that came to my mind is one of art history’s most famous feuds: Renaissance vs. Baroque. In short, everything changed in the 16th century. Art Historian Heinrich Wolfflin is the best source on these changes, though his observations are mostly technical. We can all agree that even these changes in technique and style hint at a bigger “order vs. wild” problem. The “multiplicity to unity” point especially sticks out to me as being indicative of an Apollonian vs. Dionysian tension. The separate, self contained parts of a renaissance painting go hand in hand with the separateness of the viewer and others/nature in Apollonian art. The same goes for the “whole picture” paradigm of Baroque art in relation to the Dionysian.

Over the course of art history, the distinction can get a bit less clear. As you might guess, the best sort of art has its foot in both the Apollonian and Dionysian waters (and I think Nietzsche thinks so too). But if you think of art in relation to your emotions, it’s a new and interesting thing to ask yourself. When you look at a painting, are you processing your emotions or are you, for lack of a better word, wallowing in them? Or a bit of both? How does that mesh with the actual style of the art? Even curators can use this question to help determine the impact an exhibition might have and the sorts of reactions a work or grouping of works might illicit. Who said philosophy was impractical?

*That’s pronounced nee-chu. My professor is determined to create a new generation of students who can say it right.

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5 Responses to Philosophy…Not Exactly 101.

  1. Rob says:

    “That’s pronounced nee-chu.”

    But if God is dead, nee-chee is permitted.

  2. PD says:

    I have to say that my philoshophy subjects in my degree of history of art, were my best marks and that is something that I will never ever understand, even when I really liked them (specially the ones about Tudinga and the germans in the XVII-XVIII, don’t you just amazingly love Schelling?).
    Nice work about apollonian/dyonisian, it’s not easy to explain it clearly!
    Could you please explain some day how the american university works? It’s hard to understand for an european all about the majors!
    Thank you, and good luck!

    • Haha, thank you. About two hours after I wrote this post, I started thinking about how stupidly I explained it. I want to come back to Nietzsche soon, but I must decompress after finishing my philosophy course.
      At my university, we have several colleges that are “umbrellas” of sorts for type of study. I’m in the college of arts and sciences. Within that is the school of art, that houses Studio Art, Art History, Art Education, and Media Arts. A lot of students don’t declare their majors until their second year, but I’ve always been in Art History. So I take a certain number of requirements (both for the university in general and my major). I also have requirements for my minor – French – but far less than for Art History. I hope that helps.

      • PD says:

        I know, philosophy is much more difficult to explain to somebody else most of the times (tell me, I had an exam that was a painting by Caspar David Friedrich and through it you had to explain Kant, Schelling, Hölderlin and Hegel…), maybe it was because I knew the ideas previously but I think that would work for a person who didn’t know a lot.

        About the organisation of colleges, it helps, quite a lot! As far as Greek tv show is the closest explanation I had until now! XDDD Well, also a girl from Arizona who studied here for some months, and she was doing subjects of philology and medicine, what, in fact made me feel a lot more confused!!!
        Thank you, starving art historian! We will never starv anyway, at least we have all the books we can’t stop buying, so we have paper to eat! Just a bad joke!

        Good luck with your finals!! (I leave you my website, it’s in spanish but if you ever need something, about art or anything, you can comment me in English)

  3. Pingback: Why Nietzsche would have been a gamer | The Starving Art Historian

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