Good art is … the root of all civilized ills (Nietzsche)

This week covering the modern philosophers I feel like I’m hitting the dry, crunchy bit.

The last essay for the Modernism and Post-Modernism Course was crafted on the edge of the desk in Istanbul.

But the next night – I’m caught up in a protest on the street and the unexpected is happening.

The ideas of these past writers start really rattling about in my head. What is going on? Why are people acting like this? Why am I here? What is my reaction to being here? What does this action mean more generally?

So this is the next output … as ever dashed off …

Nietzsche and Freud propose disconcerting concepts in their writings linked to social as well as clinical observations. At a personal level their fundamental dissection of societal structures remains an affront to both the State and the individual.

Both men tend toward a non-redemptive view of humanity in its civilised state, ie they set out a stated view and offer little real solution to our ills or a utopia towards which we can progress. Unlike Marx, there is no revolution or (as for Rousseau) a retreat to an ‘earlier’ state.

In relation to the Arts it is compelling that both men draw heavily on their founding in classical education. Nietzsche offers a model of a the Greeks’ simple rationale through the Gods – Since then man has been included among the most unexpected and most thrillingly lucky rolls of the dice in the game played by Heraclitus’ “great child,” whether he’s called Zeus or chance. For Freud the uncovering of the civilization of Rome provides an opportunity to mull over his understanding of the functioning mind (which he then abandons),- ‘Now let us by flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity.’ In this way both writers suggest a former Arcadian view of order which today is lost.



Nietzsche describes the inescapable nature of society as ‘the greatest and weirdest illness, …, the suffering of man from man, from himself.’ In his clinical observations Freud described the ‘pleasure principle’ as one of seeking out a substitute for sex or maternal bonding. In this pursuit, art could be included as a satiating measure, either in its production or appreciation. In describing life as ‘too hard for us‘, Freud concludes, ‘we cannot dispense with palliative measures.’

For the individual, both men propose that the foundations upon which we believe our place in society is set are at best void,  at worst, rotten. For Freud the Church is a dead entity – a delusion which society clings to and the family is a construct balanced on a base of self destruction. For Nietzche – the view that God is Dead, reveals that even the core of religiosity is a falsehood. Even the notion of self-denial set as society places it as an example of religious virtue is merely an expression of an individual’s ego.

In Nietzsche’s discourse, he places the artist as the creator of this State and (thence) main proponent in its very ills – a terrible tyranny, (as) an oppressive and inconsiderate machinery. He states – ‘in them (the ‘Masters’) that fearsome egotism of the artist is in charge’ and assigns the terms cruelty, power and the concept of the bad conscience to the artist. He points to the creativity of punishment and self-inflicted torture as something – ‘we have had the longest practice doing, that is perhaps our artistry;.. it’s something we have refined, the corruption of our taste.’ (in this way he aligns with Rousseau’s view on the arts as a destructive force.)

In Freud’s writings he includes a treatise on Leonardo da Vinci who he clearly admired. Freud made a clinical assessment of da Vinci and saw his great creative output as the ultimate artistic expression and statement of (celibate) pacifism. However despite da Vinci’s well described geniality, Freud noted that his creativity was also put to the use of his patron in the design and oversight of machines of war. (from Freud, Writings on Art and Literature).  While Freud didn’t necessarily hold that sadism was a part of man’s fundamental nature as Nietzsche implied (ie da Vinci was not an aberrant sadist) – he concedes this was a complex area of analysis and that ‘impulses of cruelty …(can be).. independent of sexuality.’

While Nietzsche here (in Genealogy of Morals) looks to use the term ‘artist’ in the way we might use the word ‘player’, it is clear that he holds little hope in the creative arts. His reference to literature points to the enjoyment the public derive of the arts by their ability to see suffering within it  – ‘today we read all of Don Quixote with a bitter taste on the tongue; it’s almost an ordeal.’ Similarly he sees the arts as we might today perceive the festival as an outlet for human cruelty (sports carnivals would suffice etc.)Without cruelty there is no celebration: …and with punishment, too, there is so much celebration.

However both Nietzsche and Freud reserve an artist’s view when describing their own output –

‘Of course, in order to practice this style of reading as art, one thing is above all essential, something that today has been thoroughly forgotten—and so it will require still more time before my writings are “readable”—something for which one almost needs to be a cow, at any rate not a “modern man”—rumination’ (Nietzsche)

In writing about da Vinci, Freud lamented that it had been left up to him to make a proper analysis of the life of the artist on things that no-one had observed properly before.

Happy for any comments, outrage or points of order, but to read a proper writer on this area on wordpress go to

Kenan Malik from the BBC Radio in his blog Pandaemonium


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