Art in Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, §§ 221-3

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture, not just link to picture!

Image is of front cover of the original edition of Human, All Too Human

Art Reborn or the Death of Art?

Paragraphs 221 to 223 come at the end of Human, All Too Human, ‘From the Souls of Artists and Writers’ The paragraphs have the three following headings: ‘The revolution in poetry’, ‘What is left of art’, ‘Evening Twilight of Art’.

Classicist Rebirth of Art

This looks to me like a moment where Nietzsche counter poses views that cannot be easily reconciled. § 221 refers to a decline and rebirth of art. The decline comes from the loss of Hellenic and French classicism. Nietzsche refers to the modern French as those closest to the Ancient Greeks. He seems to be particularly referring to the Seventeenth Century tragedies of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, which follow very closely classical practices in which the action of a tragedy takes place within very tight limits of time and space, and overall unity. What he refers to most explicitly here though is Voltaire who wrote various tragedies, which do not now attract much interest. Nietzsche refers to the decline of the status of French classicism as Shakespeare’s tragedies became more elevated in status throughout Europe, despite their lack of conformity to classicist rules. Nietzsche refers to this as ‘naturalism’, as the return to the original nature of art. He looks at the reactions in Germany where the dramatist and art theorist Gotthold Lessing criticised classicism in comparison to Shakespeare, and Friedrich Schiller who follows classicist rules in his tragedies despite criticising classicism in his aesthetic theory. The English poet and adventurer Byron appears as the most thorough advocate of anti-classicism in thought and practice in which form is overwhelmed by chaos.

Nietzsche refers to Goethe as someone who follows anti-classicism in his famous verse-drama Faust but then repents of the results of naturalism: formlessness and copying. He returns to the Hellenic-French classicism of a simplicity which becomes myth, forms above pathological problems, masks, universal allegory. Goethe here gets the kind of status Nietzsche had awarded to Richard Wagner in Birth of Tragedy, the unique figure who brings back the force and unity of ancient art. The German nationalism entwined with his earlier praise of Wagner is overturned by making the French classicists Goethe’s predecessors in preserving classicism.

Death of Art

The last two paragraphs of Human, All Too Human 4 investigate another thesis, the death of art, or at least its death as the supreme form of knowledge. Nietzsche suggests that art was closely tied to the inquiry into truth, with accurate depiction of experience and attempts to portray some deep metaphysical reality, as in religious art. The most powerful aspect of art is that it shows humanity as part of nature. Science has now taken up that role. Earlier German thinkers had already suggest some link between the activity of art as an aspect of mind and nature and the activity of science which shares those aspects. Nietzsche takes a step beyond that, in suggesting that these common aspects of art and science are part of the inevitable move from the primacy of art to the primacy of science. There is some precedent for this in Hegel who had argued that art was giving way to philosophy as a way of dealing with the highest kinds of truth and reality. For Hegel, the greatest art, certainly in the sense of having a structure related to the overall nature of reality, belongs to the past, including the epic works of Homer, Virgil and Dante which could be said to present a comprehensive and unified view of an intelligible world. The novel seemed less important to Hegel, though some Hegel commentators insist that he is referring to shift from determinate to free form rather than a decline, I believe this is an evasion of the issue. Free form for Hegel means still beautiful but lacking in the cognitive and moral significance of earlier art. For Hegel, philosophy in its metaphysical/logical and phenomenological structures takes over from art. Nietzsche makes science the heir of art in a commitment to enquiry, and does not give it the kind of metaphysical and phenomenological structure Hegel does, preferring a more empiricist and sceptical approach.


I’m no offering a final view here, just reporting on work in progress. My guess though is that there is no final resolution. Nietzsche gives us two views to consider. We might prefer one to the other, we might try to find a way of unifying them, or we might see this as an inevitable problem of reason trying to reach a final universal point of view with no contradiction (somewhat in the manner of antique scepticism in Sextus Empiricus and modern empiricism in David Hume, which is to some degree informed by the ‘Pyrrhonic’ approach of Sextus. Right now, I would say that last option is Nietzsche’s general approach and the explanation behind the tension at the end of Human, All Too Human 4. This is, however, a provisional conclusion.


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