In his article “Art as Redemption,” Friedrich Nietzsche attempts to explain why he feels human beings participate in the practice of creating art. Essentially, his argument boils down to the concept that we make art because it is the only way we have of making life bearable. However, in making this claim, he also suggests that there are two distinctly different approaches to how we create art. The first is called Apolline art, which is art created to celebrate an ideal existence, the best of all possible worlds of human life.
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This is contrasted against Dionysiac art which is intended to overwhelm the spirit in a rush of sensations that cause us to feel as if we are merely a small part of something bigger. In his comparison of these two kinds of art, Nietzsche eventually concludes that Dionysiac art is the more redeeming of the two forms although Apolline art is necessary to temper its messages.
One of the first important considerations he gives to his assessment of why humans engage in art is the constant oppositions he finds in nature – the male/female opposition being the strongest of these as they are epitomized in the ancient Greek gods of art Apollo and Dionysos. “There exists in the world of the Greeks an enormous opposition, both in origin and goals, between the Apolline art of the image-maker or sculptor and the imageless art of music, which is that of Dionysos” (86).
His analysis of Apollo illustrates his understanding of the god as a hopeful dream of the individual while his analysis of Dionysos illustrates it as a reconnection of human life with the plethora of life all around it that emerges as an intoxication in the natural exuberance of spring. In his analysis of these forms of art, as they became expressed through the ancient Greeks, Nietzsche points out how the Apolline held full sway at first, as evidenced in the Doric styles of the early Greeks, and then tempered and was tempered by the Dionysiac as it filtered in from the outside world, creating an artistic expression that had not been formalized previously. However, delving into the creation of the Apolline, Nietzsche suggests that this dreamlike order was itself a reaction against the horror of the realization that life was a terror in and of itself. By establishing the Olympians, the humans on earth were able to identify with a more powerful, more perfect version of themselves giving them a reason to look for the best they could be within.
However, the Dionysian broke this understanding apart and created a sense of connection with the rest of creation within the individual. Through the medium of Greek tragedy, with its combination of solid images and intermittent choruses, the Apolline and the Dionysian were brought together, discovering the dream-ideal self as well as that self’s connection with the greater world.
Considering Nietzsche’s comments, it is difficult not to agree with him regarding the coming together of two opposing approaches to art. How he describes them, the Apolline discovery of the individual dream, and the Dionysian discovery of transcendence interconnections, seems fully understandable particularly as he applies them to drama and life. However, it is difficult for me to fully buy into the concept that these are reactions to and means of coping with the horrors of life’s realities. It seems incorrect to assume that all of life is a tragedy with only art and dreams as the reward. I would suggest that the dream is perhaps our means of recognizing that life has something worth cherishing and that the dream enables us to prize it out from its secret hiding places while the song enables us to find our connection with it.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Art as Redemption.” The Nature of Art. 2nd Ed. Thomas E. Wartenberg (Ed.). New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 2007.