Why Nietzsche Was So Important to Writers and Artists

A philosophy of art from a controversial thinker

Christopher P Jones
Mar 4 · 5 min read
Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche (1906) by Edvard Munch. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche had an enormous influence on artists and writers who came into contact with his writing. Artists like Edvard Munch and Max Klinger, and writers such as Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, responded directly to the work of the German philosopher, and countless others found inspiration in his themes.

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote prodigiously during the 1870s and 1880s. He was contemptuous of the tendency of modern cultures to value conformity over individual agency. Whether it be through religion or through political calls for equal rights and social democracy, he saw the appeal for moral norms as a subordination to — or a giving up on — the full possibilities of life.

One reason for Nietzsche’s importance to writers and artists is because he considered art to be the highest expression of a noble existence. He contrasted the nobility of the artist to the weaker forms of life which he saw as characterised by moral obedience and a convergence of societal norms. Artists were different. For Nietzsche, artists were willing to break with convention and assert their own moral values. It is unsurprising, then, that his philosophy influenced a creed of artists who also saw themselves as separate to society’s expectations.

Order and chaos

In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche described how artistic creation depends on a tension between two opposing forces. On the one hand, there is the capacity for order and proportion, of measured restraint and detachment. He used the term “Apollonian” — after Apollo, the Greek god of light and reason — to capture this side of the creative drive.

One the other hand, there is a more primal motivation of ecstatic and chaotic energy where the self is forgotten and the artist invites the possibility of destruction into their work. For this side, Nietzsche used the term “Dionysian” after Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and music who inspired a cult of sexual desire and amoral natural forces. For Nietzsche, the Apollonian and the Dionysian were both necessary in the creation of art.

Moreover, through these opposing forces, art was capable of expressing complex points of view — an individual’s personal perspective — that embraced seemingly contradictory impulses. Art could explore tragedy and melancholy as well as joy and beauty, and thereby embody all aspects of life and not just the narrow constructions of morality and politics.

One writer who was influenced by these concepts was the novelist Thomas Mann. In his story Death in Venice, Mann drew upon Nietzsche’s theme of opposing forces to explore the fate of a troubled writer. The protagonist of the story, an author by the name of Gustav von Aschenbach, undergoes moral upheaval during an extended stay in Venice when he encounters a young boy. Through the story, Mann made use of Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian-Dionysian conflict to explore the dual and sometimes destructive nature of the artist as he tussles with both his controlled and spontaneous impulses.

Of the artists who admired Nietzsche, these included the German painter and sculptor Max Klinger, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, and the Belgian symbolist painter Leon Spilliaert.

Self-Portrait (1908) by Léon Spilliaert. Source Wikimedia Commons

To pick out one of these, Spilliaert was a painter whose ethereal self-portraits and atmospheric scenes of the Belgian coastline generate a powerful and disturbing allure. He was an insomniac and would take nighttime walks along empty streets and beside the seafront. This perhaps explains why so many of his paintings are set at night under the pale light of the moon or an electric streetlamp.

Spilliaert was a keen reader of Nietzsche, which may indicate how he saw his own art. He was undoubtedly a romantic painter — evident in his self-portraits, ominous explorations of the self and potent images of solitude.

The strong and the weak

One of the difficulties of reading Nietzsche from a modern point of view is that he appears to echo so many of the most repellent perspectives of recent history. Most notoriously of all, he was the favoured philosopher of the Nazi party, whose racist genocidal politics gave a form of expression to Nietzsche’s more difficult concepts of stronger and weaker forms of life. This association is difficult to ignore, yet a true reading of Friedrich Nietzsche must go beyond this post hoc appropriation of his work.

Whilst we live in an age when the moral impulse towards socialism has found wide appeal in the structures of modern liberal democracies, Nietzsche was against any such appeal to an ideal of universal human values. To make such an appeal was, in his opinion, to succumb to a herd mentality that falsely imagined truth to be something stable and unchanging. Instead, he asserted that life is ceaselessly shaped by a force that impulses towards an increase of power, “the will to appropriate, dominate, increase, grow stronger.” In short, universal equality is contrary to the impulse of all life.

Nietzsche wasn’t advocating the eradication of the most needy members of society — he would have considered it reductionist to assert such a group — but rather a prevailing tendency in modern culture, as he saw it, to see the world as hostile, unjust, and unfair. For Nietzsche, the weak were the voices of resentment and moral outrage, belonging to people who were unable or unwilling to make a difference themselves.

By contrast, the strong are capable of living life without stable norms and universal moral values. As Nietzsche saw it, strength lies in the recognition that happiness can be achieved through personal self-control and the development of cultural excellence. “What is happiness?” he wrote. “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”

Nietzsche saw the artist as fitting into the latter category, as a strong individual who was able to embrace both the dark and light sides of life and incorporate them both into a unified system without contradiction.

To attribute art with this higher value was of great appeal to creatives who read his work, since Nietzsche gave philosophical expression to what often felt like an isolated and uncommon vocation. Under his guidance, artists and writers were emboldened to define the world in their own terms, and were invigorated by his admiration for freethinking individuals like themselves.

If you liked this, you may also be interested in my book How to Read Paintings, an examination of fifteen of art’s most enthralling images. Read it on various platforms here.

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Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”. Website: https://www.chrisjoneswrites.co.uk

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”. Website: https://www.chrisjoneswrites.co.uk

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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