Friedrich Nietzsche identifies art as a way to gain perspective on our existence and ease existential nausea, writing in Gay Science 107 (full text available here), “As an aesthetic phenomenon existence is still bearable to us,” creating a front between us and the “nausea and suicide” we realize due to honesty. Honesty (and thus nausea) finds its source in the realization of the inherent meaninglessness of the world of appearances as its witnessed through science and empirical observation — the naturalized perspective Nietzsche argued for throughout his work — instead of a religious lens. Nietzsche’s human is “filled with Dionysian joy and pride in his own artistry,” because without intrinsic order he is led to “the absence of a designing god [leading in turn] to a heightened joy in the artistic possibility of man” (Nussbaum 58). Art helps to bridge the gap between the role of religious order and the chaos that comes once the order is revealed as a delusion (see: “God is dead”); however, the art cannot just exist for its own sake. Art — the right kind of art — and an adaptation of its techniques in the creation of our own identities allows some room for optimism about the human condition because it permits us to create meaning.
An issue remains: Exactly how can we make ourselves into an “aesthetic phenomenon,” as Nietzsche writes in GS 107? The primary solution is self-styling: the use of artistic techniques to craft the self. To make the world, including the self, into an aesthetic phenomenon, not just must the techniques of artists must be copied, but their effects must be integrated into the self as well. Thus, not just the world but the self must be made aesthetic (Young 99). Artistic means are able to achieve this through self-styling, which allows self-deception and artistic perspective, countering honesty and meaninglessness.
Self-styling requires the use of artistic techniques to shape the self. Using, for instance, the idea of artistic distance, one can attain eternal perspectives (GS 107, 78). Nietzsche writes that we should be grateful to artists for they allow eternal perspectives by allowing man to see himself “from a distance as something past and whole” (78). Eternal perspectives of art are important in part because “true pathos of every period of our life” is unclear when we pass them (GS 317). Thus gaining some distance from our current outlook allows us greater perspective.
To what end can this artistic distance be utilized? Self-reflection, allowing contact with the ‘base’ of ourselves by distinguishing foreground from background, is a significant effect —without art we are only foreground (GS 78). The foreground is the existential state that most immediately occupy’s one’s consciousness: the selfhood one constructs, imposed upon the backdrop of the world. Only artists deserve our gratitude, for they give men perspective on selfhood, experiences, desires, heroes hidden within characters, “art of viewing ourselves as heroes” (GS 78). Art then gives us the liberty not only to reflect upon ourselves as we are, but facilitates the construction of a mythos of a possible future self.
How can we learn to see ourselves as heroes? Self-styling is a means by which an individual can allay some of the nausea that comes from the honesty thus the realization of imperfections and meaninglessness that are a result of the naturalized perspective through deception, perspective, and forgetting. Self-styling involves crafting oneself as an artist crafts their work, including concealing the unattractive and making beauty out of necessity (GS 290, 299; Young 107; Ridley 217-8). Self-styling allows acceptance and appreciation of the self, especially by strong characters who are able to appreciate their ability to “give style” to their characters (GS 290).
Self-styling is a significant force for self-deception, an artistic initiative Nietzsche sees as essential It is necessary for humans to attain satisfaction with self through art – only then is man tolerable (GS 290). Self-styling is using art to evaluate strength and weaknesses, with the ugly transferred to the sublime (GS 299). Strong natures are made happy by the necessary style constraints, while the weak are unhappy because they lack power, and thus hate constraints. Weak characters welcome constraint (Ridley 210). The self-stylist imposes necessity onto themselves. Learning to see “what is necessary in things” as beautiful is itself an art, bringing pleasure if one’s character is strong enough (GS 276, Ridley 211). The stylist is able to use the constraints of style to make “a beauty out of necessity,” using the “compulsions shirked by the weak” to achieve self-betterment by realizing the determined character of the law he sets for himself in the process, thus also realizing his freedom (Ridley 217-8). So although self-styling promotes deception, it favors the strong.
Nietzsche writes, “We . . . want to be the poets of our lives” (GS 290). Crafting oneself is analogous to the penning of a Bildungsroman story. Such a self needs to be constructed not too greatly from the world of appearances to avoid nausea and suicide (Young 107). The art can transcend the creator’s comprehension of it (GS 369). An artist, e.g. poet, may be more attractive in their imperfections – holding lust or a vision that won’t come to fruition (GS 79).
Not only does deception allow the ugly to be transferred into the sublime, but it aids with forgetting. If we remembered everything we’d be depressed and overwhelmed (GS 367, 170). Art provides a better option than the philosopher’s analytical desire by allowing forgetting (Young 99). Through forgetting, an individual is able to selectively focus on what is important, instead of being overloaded with input.
If Nietzsche desires a naturalized point of view (GS 109), what is the purpose in reveling in the delusions self-styling promotes? Nietzsche clearly positions himself “Against the slanderers of nature,” and states that artists conceal naturalness by shielding his perspective from nature and instead living in the world of dreams (GS 294, 59). Self-styling and even art itself promote lies: distortion of the world of appearances and one’s true selfhood. The logical consequence of moving beyond religious deism and mechanistic anthropomorphism seems to be a complete embrace of the natural world, not immersing the self in yet another realm of dream and delusion, especially since we can know for certain the existence of the real world. As Janaway writes,
In the ideal of self-affirmation (or so we assumed above) things were different: the acceptance of the whole truth of one’s life — what was and is — was to be embraced without flinching, without escape or erasure. But now the self-satisfaction to be attained through artistry consists in actively making one’s character pleasing by falsifying it. We seem to have struck upon a deep-lying vein of ambivalence towards truth in Nietzsche. (25)
Even moving beyond the contradiction in arguing for both art and a naturalized perspective, in arguing for art to replace the metaphysical comforts of religion, isn’t art just becoming a replacement for religion – a placeholder for the metaphysical void?
Janaway identifies three responses to the worries about the delusional nature of self-styling, and how this “aesthetic self-satisfaction” seemingly stands in opposition to the “self-affirmation” of naturalism. First, that affirmation and aesthetic satisfaction are not opposed to each other (25); second, that aesthetic self-styling “presupposes truthfulness about oneself” (27); and third that these ideals are opposed, but the tension doesn’t diminish Nietzsche’s views. I find the first position to be the most logical. The criticism of Nietzsche’s portrayal of art’s anti-nausea misconstrues art as being a placeholder for religion or mechanism. On the contrary, art won’t directly replace religion or science. It provides different goals but holds a similar role in seeking to comfort nausea but doesn’t purport to explain the world, instead admits its dream-rooted nature and source within human perspective.
Nietzsche is clearly in favor of a naturalized ontology, and doesn’t say one should view the world as aesthetic — which would create another ontological bias like the God and human biases he has dismissed — but he instead calls for making the self an aesthetic phenomenon (GS 109, 107). Art can be a “deviation from nature,” a way to style ourselves into heroes, and “At this point nature is supposed to be contradicted. Here the vulgar attraction of illusion is supposed to give way to a higher attraction” (GS 80). Affirming a naturalistic mindset doesn’t conflict with an aesthetic satisfaction because making oneself an artistic phenomena, unlike mechanism and religion, doesn’t lead to a devaluation of the natural world, only an acceptance and a positive illusion.
The aesthetic self-styling and artistic creation are essential paths towards self-satisfaction in the face of great nausea. Thus in order to be comforted and still hold a naturalized perspective, it is a less dangerous path than religion or anthropomorphism, neither of which hones up to their delusional nature and instead tries to replace the naturalized perspective. Self-styling compliments a naturalistic outlook, it doesn’t destroy it. Art will not replace religion, but it can provide partial cures for the nausea we are exposed to in a world of honesty and nihilism. While it may seem to be opposed to naturalism, self-styling is indeed the most pragmatic way to balance aesthetic satisfaction and naturalistic affirmation without compromising a scientific perspective by purporting to represent the self and the world as they exists, only as we might imagine them to be.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974.
Janaway, Chris. “The Gay Science.” The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche. Oxford, GB, Oxford University Press.
Nussbaum, Martha. “The transfigurations of intoxication: Nietzsche,
Schopenhauer, and Dionysus.” Nietzsche, Philosophy, and the Arts. Eds. Kemal,
Gaskell, Conway. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2002.
Pothen, Philip. Nietzsche and the Fate of Art. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002.
Ridley, Aaron. “Nietzsche on Art and Freedom.” European Journal of Philosophy 15:2, pp. 204-224. 2007.
Young, Julian. Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art. New York: Cambridge, 1992.