The Genealogy of the Artist’s Morals
Without a doubt, Friedrich Nietzsche remains one of the most misunderstood philosophers in history. To many, Nietzsche was a perennial nihilist who saw very little bright spots in the human experience. Honestly, if one were to take a cursory examination of his works this might very well be the end summation. However, it would be quite the inaccurate summation. The “nihilism” Nietzsche’s philosophy is really an honest insight into humans and how they act. At the core of the way people act is their moral code. Nietzsche did not mince his words when he examined the moral beliefs at the core of most people. In the work The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche examined a host of personality archetypes. One of the most interesting archetypes that are discussed is that of the artist.
In the same way Nietzsche is misunderstood, the artist is often misunderstood as well. Often, the artist is presented either as obtuse or self-absorbed. In reality, such assessments are little more than descriptions of personality disorders. Then, there is the other side of the proverbial coin which professes artists has great insights and passions than others. Such a description is no better the first assessment. It is little more than a stereotype. While it seeks to preserve a positive sentiment, it is a stereotype nonetheless. For Nietzsche, an artist is a more complex animal than most assume. The artist’s moral code makes this so.
The moral code of the artist derives from the concept of asceticism. (Nietzsche, 2007, Third Essay) This refers to a single-minded approach to self-discipline to develop a rejection of materialism. Within this realm of non-materialism, an individual will be free to pursue a clear understanding
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of morals. For the artist, this is found in the ability to craft and create art. From this, the creation of “art for art’s sake” removes the artist from the common material pursuits of life with the hope of developing a higher level of consciousness as a result. This will hopefully lead to the personal evolution that allows a moral life to become attainable. Well, this is the hope….
While Nietzsche is specifically referring to classical artists, the assessments he put forth can be applied to artists of all time frames and discipline. Nietzsche’s theories are timeless and that is why they are well worth exploring.
Additionally, the definition of morals can be somewhat ambiguous. To a degree, Nietzsche is drawing from the notion of Christian morals but this does not exclude humanist morals as well. (That is, there is no assumption that only a specific type of individual possesses morals) However, there is also the notion of the self-imposed morality present as well. (Nietzsche, 2007, First Essay) A sociopath may define his own set of morals although they would have destruction, immoral ramifications. In a sense, morals are perpetually ambiguous and this is an aspect of moral thinking that Nietzsche acknowledges. His is, after all, a realist and an existentialist. Therefore, it is clear to understand that the artist is a flawed character no matter how hard he or she tries to live a moral, devoted life free of materialism.
Actually, the life of the artist makes any pathways to moral enlightenment difficult. Artists – like other humans – are merely the sum of their experiences and the experiences of an artist are far different than those of others. For example, artists have a
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tendency to work in isolation (many forms of artwork are not collaborative) and pondering the creation of art often forces the artist to “live inside his/her own head”. Needless to say, this creates a very limited outlook on the world and any assessment of morality will be based on a limited assessment. This is not to say that an artist’s outlook is inherently flawed or doomed to failure. However, it is obvious that such an outlook will possess certain obvious limitations. (Nietzsche, 2007, Third Essay)
This is even further confounded by the fact that art also does not live in a vacuum. That is, art is often inspired by things it agrees with or finds influential. This is a critical point because it infers that the artist does not completely free him/herself from the outside world since external factors are creeping into the influence of the artist. Hence, there is no true non-attachment to the outside world.
Then, there is a further inverse of this notion in terms of those things that the artist opposes. In other words, if the thematic concerns of a work of art are a response to something then the artwork exists in the material world. That is, if the artwork seeks to explicitly reject materialism it must acknowledge materialism. As a result, materialism is present and it is not removed from the ascetic pursuit. Furthermore, when the artist is unaware this is occurring and then internalizes the impact of it his outlook on morality becomes skewed. No, this does not mean the artist’s work is completely without moral value. However, the moral aspects of the artwork may possess certain limitations even the artist is unaware of.
One of the reasons it is important to be wary of the artist centers on the fact the artist is very selective in terms of his presentations. In other words, what exists in the
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frame of a painting, in the duration of a play, or even with the formations of a sculpture are there due to the artist’s decisions. The depictions in a work of art are not reality. They represent the artist’s perception of reality. Now, this does not meant there is anything inherently wrong with such a perception. However, it is important that one viewing the art understands that the moral presentations within it are based on an artist’s interpretation. (Nietzsche, 2007, Third Essay)
While the artist may possess a deep feeling of emotional internalization, the fact remains that a worldview or an emotional attachment will derive from outside influences. So, the morality of the artist is not self-decided. It is simply received and decoded to create a perception. Again, perception may or may not be reality so the moral codes presented by the artist can be flawed.
Does this mean that a path to morals is impossible under the work of an artist? In Nietzsche’s opinion, it would be quite difficult to find true morality in the work of an artist since the artist’s path to non-materialism is loaded with stealth materialism. But, in a way, Nietzsche is a little too hard on the artist. While the artist’s work might be “morally skewed” there are moral lessons that can be found in many works of art. It would seem Nietzsche glosses over this in his attempts at warning others about the true nature of an artist.
Ultimately, Nietzsche does not endorse the artist as a source of morality. The arguments Nietzsche puts forth in terms of supporting this assertion are often quite valid. However, it would appear he is a little too hard on the artist as well.
Nietzsche, Friedrich.Keith Ansell-Pearson, ed. Carol Diethe, transl. On the Genealogy of Morality and other Writings.Student Edition..2nd edition. Cambridge University Press.