Hegel and Nietzsche on Art

Early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and his later counterpart, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), had different views on art and its purpose. Both philosophers believed Classical Greek art was art in its highest form, but disagreed over who it served–man or nature.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

According to Hegel, art, along with religion, science, and philosophy, are all expressions of our mind’s need to know itself, or its need to reconstruct the world in its image. He believed this is realized through practical activity, activity that, for art, includes painting, sculpture, etc. It’s through these mediums that absolute spirit (everything real, including the external world and human minds) expresses itself in sensory form. Because it is a power of spirit to externalize all internal things, and internalize external things, art must be an expression of some internal aspect of the artist.

In the broad case of art through the ages, the “artist” is spirit working itself out through history. Hegel believed the internal aspect of spirit is truth; therefore truth must be what is externalized in an artwork. The truth of art is inseparable from its physical form. Hegel also believed the ideal of beauty is perfection of form, which for him expresses the most spiritual truth. Since, for Hegel, art reaches its technical perfection (in other words, in perfect form) in Classical art, Classical art is therefore the most beautiful art form. The goal of art is to unify content and form.

Beauty, according to Hegel, unfolds through history in three stages of art: Symbolic, Classical, and Romantic. Classical art, he said, is superior to Symbolic art, but not Romantic art. It’s important to note for Hegel that art is inseparable from religion, because in each stage it is expressed in a religious context. Because Symbolic art uses natural forms to represent spiritual meaning, the aim of unifying content and form is not achieved.

Crucifixion (1822) by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon
Crucifixion (1822) by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon

Hegel used the Symbolic art form of the half-man, half-animal to illustrate how the human is trying to free itself from the primitive and unify content and form. Content and form are finally united in Classical art, when the Greek gods are embodied in a human form that expresses physical perfection. This shows the truth of spirit for that time, but there is still dissatisfaction with the lack of internal depth of a Greek statue.

Romantic art goes further than Classical art by separating content and form again, and trying to express the next stage of spiritual truth. Unfortunately, Hegel tells us, Romantic art ultimately fails at this, because beauty must be sacrificed in order to show the depth of human suffering. What was lacking in Classical art was the deep, internal subjectivity of spirit, and also a unification of spirit, which was realized by the figure of Jesus.

Religious paintings of Jesus most exemplify these concepts, with very unbeautiful depictions of the embodiment of spirit suffering just like normal humans. But Romantic art could not also show the plurality and beauty of spirit that classical art did, so spirit had to move onto expressions other than art to show its truth.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

For Nietzsche, there are two impulses that drive the creation of art: Dionysus and Apollo. Dionysus, god of intoxication, ecstasy, and the destruction of definite forms, is best represented in artistic form by music. Nietzsche thought that through intoxication humans are no longer the artists, but become the art. Music most expresses this because it is a copy of the primal oneness with nature that Dionysus represents. Music can be structured and Apollonian, but it began as something free flowing. It was used in religious ceremonies to whip the participants into a Dionysian frenzy of figurative intoxication or drunkenness.

Apollo, god of dreams and the creation of forms, on the other hand, is best represented by sculpture. Apollo, for Nietzsche, is also the god of appearance and illusion, which is different from Kant’s interpretation of Apollo as truth. Nietzsche believed that humans need the illusion and dreams that Apollo represents, which allow us to create visually and poetically. The real artist in all of this is nature, and speaks through human beings in the creation of this art. But these different aspects that Apollo and Dionysus represent cannot truly justify nature and life on their own, so they must combine.

The impulses that Dionysus and Apollo represent are best combined, according to Nietzsche, in the Greek tragedy. Apollo lends himself to the tragedy by providing the structure and the style, including the costumes, the stories being portrayed, the lines being recited, etc. Dionysus provides the life-affirming aspect that allows the audience to become one with the tragedy. The Greek tragedy is almost always about a great hero who falls and then returns to glory again, just as Dionysus was born, destroyed, and born again.

Dionysus and satyrs. Attic red-figured cup interior, ca. 480 BC
Dionysus and satyrs. c. 480 BC

Nietzsche tells us the Greek tragedy began as a religious ceremony in which the audience fully participated. He interpreted the Greek word “tragedy” by its literal meaning, “goat dance”, and he imagined the audience being transformed into satyrs (half human, half goat creatures) that represented the Dionysian aspect of art. The chorus of the tragedy was essential to this, because it was what Nietzsche thought remained from the earlier days when the tragedy was nothing more than a Dionysian drunken revelry that transformed the participants into works of art and affirmed their lives among pain and suffering.

Ancient Greeks knew pain and suffering more than moderns, and weren’t the carefree and innocent people that his contemporary academics portrayed. Because of this, they needed the chorus of the tragedy to give them reason to live among all the suffering.

One of the biggest differences between Hegel’s interpretation and Nietzsche’s interpretation of Greek art is what art form is the most influential in Greek culture. Hegel believed Classical Greek statues embodied everything that was historically important about Greek religion, whereas Nietzsche believed the tragedy was the most important art for the Greeks and their religion.

For Hegel, the Greek statues represented their gods’ victory over the Titans, a group of nature spirits that could not be captured in definite form. It was symbolic of classical art’s victory over the symbolic half-man, half-animal art form. Hegel also believed the beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature, and revealed truth about the spirit, which the Greek statues revealed with their perfect form.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, believed that nature was the artist. The Greek tragedy served the purpose of uniting humans and nature, which is something that humans need to validate their lives and forget about their everyday suffering. Nietzsche believed that Classical Greek art, such as later versions of the tragedies and the Apollonian statues, represented a kind of death of religion by drawing out the life-affirming Dionysian aspects of the original tragedies. Nietzsche would say that the replacement of ‘symbolic art’ by classical art wasn’t necessarily an advancement, but a decline.

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