Apollonian and Dionysian Art

In the Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche came up with the concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian. According to him both originate in Greek art and religion and are Nietzsche’s way of exposing what he sees as two opposing natural tensions in art.

The terms correspond to the two Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus who were both gods of music.


Apollonian

Apollo, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, 1718, Mauritshuis 

Apollo is the god of Sun and light. He represents the calm harmony of an ordered reality as well as rational thinking. Nietzsche sees the pure expression of the Apollonian in the plastic arts (mainly in sculpture) which appeal to our rationality.

Apollonian art is a way to a higher calming and soothing truth that makes life worth-living. Nietzsche also argues that there is no better Apollonian expression than a dream and more specifically a dream where someone is aware that he is dreaming but wants to keep on living the dream (just like a lucid dreamer). Apollonian art leads to individualisation and carries the wisdom and beauty of the illusion that is the world.


Dionysian

The triumph of Bacchus (Dionysus), Nicolas Pussin, The Nelson Atkins Museum

Dionysus is the complete opposite. He is the god of wine, fertility and above all, the god of ecstasy and madness. The purest form of Dionysian art is music, as it appeals to our emotion instead of our rationality.

Dionysian art is a ritual art. It allows us to access mystifying powers that tear down the walls of the subject and lead to a unity of nature and man. The Dionysian finds its best expression in intoxication. While the Apollonian dream is a personal experience, the Dionysian intoxication is a state of divine madness within which the self is lost in the unification with the other.


Apollonian and Dionysian Illusions

Apollo and Dionysus, Leonid Ilyukhin

Nietzsche thinks that reality is something partly inaccessible to us as our senses are not giving a complete image of really. In that sense our sensuous understanding of the world is an illusion.

According to Nietzsche, the world is chaos. In the course of history man first discovers that this chaotic existence is meaningless and there is no difference between living and not living. This is the realm where the ecstasy of Dionysus works to its full potential. This pessimism about the world is that makes a transcendent and unifying experience almost a necessity. Dionysian art makes the truth about existence bearable. This is the first illusion (since reality itself is unattainable this first understanding though close to the truth is not exactly real).

However man still does not feel at ease with this first truth and seeks to create a life that is worth-living. Here comes Apollo and his soothing dream to create a second illusion on top of the previous one. The Apollonian dream establishes a reality where chaos is replaced with harmony and order. This is the illusion of the illusion.

You can also read here a blog I wrote a few months ago discussing the way Nietzsche explained the illusion of the illusion using a famous painting by Raphael.


The Balance

Starry Sky, Attempt, Wenzel Hablik, 1909, Wenzel Hablik Museum

The relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian is dialectic. They are in constant struggle initially seen as polar opposites and incompatible. After a first examination though, we discover that they can coexist. Nietzsche thinks that the two artistic forces found their perfect balance only two times in history; in Greek tragedy and in Wagner’s operas (or so young Nietzsche thought).

Nietzsche eventually changed his mind on Wagner. In Attempt at Self-Criticism he wrote that his influences from Schopenhauer, Hegel and especially Wagner throughout the book were “embarassing”.

Setting aside the discussion of whether Nietzsche’s ideas on Greek tragedy are valid or not (disclaimer: they are not), I think his theory is thought-provoking. I like that Nietzsche sees these two tensions within the realm of art and creation, i.e. a path towards rational individualisation and a path towards mystical unity. I think on this part (his aesthetic theory) at least Nietzsche is spot-on.

Truly art can potentially both bring us closer to understanding humanity as part of a collective being, and towards exploring the psychology of the individual. My personal belief though lies with the first one; art as the emancipation of the individual from the constraints of individuality and art as the freedom to assert a universal subject. This, I think, can be a first step towards some kind of a social theory for art.

Nietzsche however is not advocating for one or the other but rather their dialectic synthesis. This can be thought of as the Apollonian expressing itself using the language of the Dionysian or the opposite. In this we can imagine an individual immersed in ecstasy and frenzy exploring the depths of his own psyche.

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