Nietzsche and Tragedy


In Section I of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche discusses two artistic drives; Apollonian and Dionysian. According to him their dialectical relationship is responsible for the development of art, or as he explains the development of tragedy.He maintains that the Greek culture operated based on two fundamental forces: Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo and Dionysos as two Greek deities signify two artistic powers in Nietzsche’s theory of art. In Section II, he explains how Greek tragedy, as a form of art, developed from interacting the two drives. Those tragedies, he believes, by portraying human sufferings in life, affirmed that existence is fundamentally painful.  Art forms do not only contain logical insights but also immediate perceptions. Roughly speaking, Apollonian drive is a tendency for giving order to a chaotic reality, and Dionysian sentiment is a tendency for creating an anarchic reality. In the context of Greek literary tradition, Apollonian drive generates orderly forms whereas Dionysian creates a reality of disordered forms. Greek tragedy is a synthesis of the dialectical relationship between these two opposing poles. However, Nietzsche does not think that there is always a perpetual conflict between the two, but sometimes these two tendencies live in a temporary harmony.

            To Nietzsche, the precondition of art is to creating world of dreams. In fact, his theory of art acknowledges the role of imitation. However, unlike Aristotle who considered art as imitation of reality, Apollonian and Dionysian powers are rooted in nature that appears even without the mediate of art. Hence, a work of art merely is the manifestation of artistic drives of nature or imitation of these two forces. Like Schopenhauer, who believes that art is the reflection of the Will, in Nietzsche’s philosophy art is the reflection of the two natural drives. As he says, the Apollonian impulse brings about “oneness with the innermost ground of the world, reveals itself to him in a symbolic (gleichnishaft) dream-image” (19). Apollo signifies deliberation and concerning for proportion as embodied in Greek sculptures. Each artist imitates one of the two natural artistic energies, either the image world of dream or intoxication that destroy individuality of the person.

Nietzsche believes that art is not imitation of reality, but creating a dream-based world or recreating reality as it appears in dreams. He attributes the dream-experience to Apollo, which was the god of image-making as well as prophecy. He states,

“The joyous necessity of the dream experience has been embodied by the Greeks in        their Apollo: Apollo, the god of all plastic energies, is at the same time the soothsaying god, He, who (as the etymology of the name indicates) is the ‘shining one,’ the deity of light, is also ruler over the beautiful illusion of the inner world of fantasy. […] But we must also include in our image of Apollo that delicate boundary which the dream image must not overstep lest it have a pathological effect […] We must keep in mind the measured restraint, the freedom from the wilder emotions, that calm of the sculptor god. His eye must be ‘sunlike,’ as befits his origin; even when it is angry and distempered it is still hallowed by beautiful illusion.”

Nietzsche attributes Schopenhauer’s account of “principle of individuation” to explain the meaning of Apollo. As Schopenhauer maintains, we live in a world of maya and images away from the true reality of things. It is through art that we understand reality in a truer sense, or as he puts it “oneness with the inmost ground of the world.”

On the other hand, Dionysian impulse can be conveyed by the analogy of intoxication and the feeling of complete self-forgetting. Dionysian power is the factor that makes the artist to unite not only with the artwork but also to become a work of art himself. These views of art, once more resonates Schopenhauer’s view on the self-forgetting impression of art through experiencing the sublime. Nietzsche maintains, “with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of maya had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity” (37). A Dionysian experience, according to Nietzsche, is similar to the mystical sense of oneness. Hence, losing self is another factor of aesthetic experience that is embodied in Dionysian part of art. As he maintains, “Even under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which songs of all primitive men and peoples speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dionysian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness.” In fact, he believes that tragedy was the offspring of the marriage between the Apollonian force and Dionysian drive; therefore, it represents a delicate balance between the two.


According to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy represents a delicate balance between Apollonian and Dionysian forces, giving chance to the audience to experience the tragedy of human condition. The music in tragic plays contained the Dionysian sentiment while the dialogues represented the Apollonian balance of the abstract nature of music. Before the emergence of tragedies, Greek culture was more Apollonian and less Dionysian. In the Apollonian era, sculpture and architecture as arts that required creating orderly forms dominated Greek culture. However, gradually the Dionysian tendencies started to emerge as a rival to the Apollonian drive, mostly through music. As he maintains, “Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed…. wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, and the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever” (12). To Nietzsche, in a healthy and balanced culture neither side should gain a decisive victory and drive out the other: hence, in a healthy culture the two opposing forces maintain in a check and balance.

Ontology of Art


David Davies in his article, “The Primacy of Practice in the Ontology of Art,” tries to defend Julian Dodd’s “simple view.” Although he thinks that Dodd’s position on simple view is articulated and persuasive, but he believes that Dodd’s reasons for defending the simple view is insufficient.
The simple view tries to answer two fundamental questions; 1) To what ontological categorical artworks belong? 2) Identity question, i.e., under what conditions an artwork is the same. According to the simple view, the musical works are type-token, which is, eternal “sound-sequence event.” Since musical works are viewed as eternal sounds, then the act of composition and notation are not created but are a matter of discovery. To the second question, it states that, as Dodd affirms, “according to sonicism, when it comes to the individuation of works of music, all that matters is how they sound” (Dodd 9).

Davies brands his ontology of art as “aesthetic empiricism,” a view that maintains an aesthetic experience is consists of an immediate encounter with an instance of work of art and a “knowledge of the category of art to which the work belongs” (161). This view contrasts with the view of Dodd, with endorses type-token theory. Dodd believes his theory has an advantage of two essential feature of music, which is repeatability and audibility. Davies believes that Dodd’s ontology posits what he calls it “pragmatic constrain,” according to which “it does not require that ontology conform to our practice per se, but to those features of our practice that we deem acceptable on reflection” (162). The role of pragmatic constrain is normative, and its role is to correct our practices of art by showing us what kind of properties we can rightly ascribe to artworks. Hence, it gives us an evaluative tool to exclude works that do not meet true ontological requirements. In contrast Davies believes that ontology of art should make the artistic practices its primacy.

For Davies, the problem of individuation can be solved on the bases of the identity of the of the properties normative for their proper appreciation” (170). Despite what Dodd assumes, Davies states, the starting point should not be categorical questions and then consider the questions regarding individuation of works. Davies’ approach starting point is to understand what is already established as artwork. Then tries to build an ontology of art based on observing what is already established. However, one problem with Davies, if I have understood him correctly, is that we see artwork through our aesthetic lenses that direct our attention to a certain ontology of art; consequently, those lenses ascribe the properties to the artwork. As a result, in the artwork we see what we want to see. Therefore, we appreciate what we already had in mind rather than what the artwork represents. I found Dodd’s position more realistic for it acknowledges the fact that we do not look at artwork with a mind without a theory; therefore, we need to have a set of normative tools to show us how to appreciate the work of art. Indeed, a normative ontology can help us to individuate artworks in a more effective way. Furthermore, if we merely rely of primacy of practice, we would have hard time to appreciate innovative art since it is not part of what is already established as art.

What is Art?


Philosophers for a long time have contemplated the question of “What sort of things are artworks?” In one one the recent attempts to respond to this fundamental question, Amie Thomasson in her article “Debates about the Ontology of Art: What Are We Doing Here?” revisits the ontological questions regarding works of art. In her inquiry, she wants to know what sort of thing is the artwork and what are the conditions of identity and conditions of persistence of the work of art?

To answer these questions, Thomasson’s makes a fundamental assumption, i.e., artworks are not content-specific. Philosophers have located artworks in a variety of categories, such as objects, events, actions, abstract objects, and so on. Which ontological view do we need to accept? Thomasson’s answer is that “the rules of use for sortal terms like “painting” and “symphony” establish what ontological sorts of thing we are referring to with those terms.” Consequently, to resolve the ontological debates about these sortal terms we need to employ a form of conceptual analysis.

Since artworks are not content-specifying entities; locating artworks in either of these possible categories would be misleading. Artworks can be physical or abstract objects, performances, or combinations of both. This quality of artworks makes the ontological status of art complex. The view that sees artworks as physical objects fails sees a piece of music, a novel, or poem as art. By the same token, the reductionist view that sees artworks as purely abstract objects excludes a wide range of artworks. However, a more comprehensive method will include physical and abstract objects.


Thomasson admit that some artworks are abstract, but she defines abstract in a new way. Abstract, despite what philosophers thought, she asserts, are not eternal and detached from human activities. They are created and are spatiotemporal.

She believes before answering questions like “When does a painting survive?” and “Must a novel be created?” we need to know what kind of ontological sort of things the terms “painting” and “novel” pick out. We can answer this latter question by an analysis of concepts of those who ground and reground the reference of the term. The grand question such as “what is the ontological status of artworks?” is not answerable, to Thomasson.

Thomasson replaces the question of ontological status of art with a linguistic question. For she believes that the question of ontology of art is not answerable. The category of art is like a gift, which encompasses a wide range of entities, including physical or abstract. Hence, she defends a pluralistic ontology of art, which its content is determined by the competent user. She maintains that her methodology can answer identity conditions and persistence conditions better than its rival theories. Furthermore, if we divide the question of ontology of art into smaller questions such as ontology of symphony or ontology of painting, the problem is that these inquiries will go beyond the limit of traditional philosophy and are more problematic.

The question that Thomasson’s approach raises is that how we can correct our ontological belief if we make defective judgments about either artworks or art kinds? Is there any other criterion, beside the artistic practice, to show us if we go wrong? If the ontology of art is determined by the rules of use, it is not clear how we can make judgment about the rules of use themselves, since the rules of use do not provide any criteria for determining the rules of use.


Ontology of Art?

What Art Is by Arthur C. DantoArthur Danto in his paper “The Artworld” (2003) discusses the nature of art. His starting point is criticizing what he calls the Socratic notion of art, which views art as an attempt to mirror appearances of objects. According to Danto this notion of art, or as he calls it “imitation theory of art (IT),” has dominated the history of art. The merit of this theory is that it simplifies the complexity of art history by bringing a wide range of human creations under a conceptual umbrella as artworks; however, it has its own defections. Domination of IT throughout history, Danto maintains, has led to prejudices against new artistic creativities, considering them as deviant, pervert, or even inept art, for instance, in the case of post-impressionist paintings. Accepting the post-impressionist artworks was due to a theory change.

A major paradigm shift in the  history of art was when the imitation theory of art was replaced by an opposite theory, which posited that art is not imitation of reality but creating a new reality. In this respect, the artist’s creations had the same ontological status as reality itself, and the artist viewed as a person who had a godly power to create new things ex nihilo. Danto maintains that the way we need to understand today’s art is not through IT but the non-imitative theory that is the theory of art that emerged in the post-impressionist era.

However, if imitation of reality is not a necessary condition for art, Danto asks, then what distinguishes between a piece of art and an artifact? For example, is Rauschenberg’s bed hanging on a wall a mere artifact or a piece of art? His bed in fact imitates bed in real life. According to IT, his bed is imitative, though, imitation of an artifact. However, according RT, his bed is a piece of art real, which has the same ontological status as a real bed. In fact, Rauschenberg’s bed has no similar function as an artifact bed. However, it does not have similar function since people do not ascribe this function to it, or they do not use it as an artifact. So it seem that an element of identification of a thing as artwork is recognition of the artist or audience. Therefore, the social and cultural context of artworks becomes a determining factor whether an object is an artwork or not, a notion that give birth to art as a socially constructed phenomenon. As Danto puts it, “ To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of history of art; an artwork” (580). What makes something art is the previous contexts that allow it to be viewed as a piece of art. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes are a good example of this ontology of art. In 1964, Warhol placed bunch of Brillo boxes on top of each other in the corner of exhibition as a piece of art, which made many wonder about the nature of modern art.

Brillo Box by Andy Warhol

The same issues arise when we take Andy Warhol’s display of Brillo boxes. What make us to think that they are art? I think when we rule out the fact that there is nothing intrinsically about a thing that makes it a piece of art, then we are inclined to argue for subjectivity or intersubjective of ontology of art. In fact, this path that Danto takes is the predominant ontology of modern art. In the case of Warhol’s Brillo boxes, he maintains that there is no difference between a Brillo box and Warhol’s Brillo boxes, and what makes us to consider Warhol’s boxes art is “a certain theory of art” (581). It is the theories of art that enable us to locate certain things in the realm of art, or as he calls it “worldart.” Without these theories, objects will fall into the realm of brute objects. Danto’s analysis of artworks reminds me of Heidegger’s hammer example. Heidegger says that a hammer for a different culture that does not have exposes to it, a hammer can be an artwork, while for us it is a tool with certain functions. For Danto theories of art, like Midas that by touching objects turned them into pure gold, transform objects into artworks.

If Danto’s subjectivist ontology of art is true, then a piece of art is nothing but an appendix to intertwined historical and theoretical contexts. To Danto, if an object fits in these contexts, and they are displayed in respectful galleries, then they are art. This reductionist ontology of art strips off many valuable and essential features of art that those theoretical and socio-historical contexts fail to recognize.