Beautifying the Ugly Truth: Art, Religion, and Nietzschean Aesthetics

In my previous post, I discuss the idea that we do not need authoritative versions of stories in art–that, for any specific franchise (e.g., Star Wars), the grand narrative of “canon” need not be taken as the final word on the subject.

So as not to be misunderstood on this point, I am speaking here only of art.  For example, I am not suggesting that religion can be taken as a non-canonical alternative to the grand narrative of science, and I am not saying that science has crushed religion with a tyrannical fist and that we should mourn the death of God.  No–religion involves self-deception about the nature of reality as proven to us by science and our senses; artistic imagining does not.  (I understand that there can be some exceptions to this, e.g., religious art, but bear with me.)  In his appendix to The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus recounts a fable that best captures my meaning here:

You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub.  A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.”

Indeed, (most?) artists are not self-deceivers (at least not in regard to how they believe their creations correspond to reality).  They do not expect bites when they go fishing in the bathtub.  This is why we can happily debate all claims to authority in art.  We recognize that our valuations come from within and are prone to error and bias; we understand (and actually enjoy) the fictitiousness of the whole affair.  This is not the case with religion.

With religion (and certain philosophies, such as Platonism and German idealism), one mistakes the powerful abstractions of his or her mind for reality.  The resultant schema, or weltanschauung, corresponds in no way to the reality of which our senses and the natural sciences offer verifiable testimony.  Unlike an art audience (which, hopefully, can discern truth from fiction), a faithful believer will take this mental fabrication and accept it as real.  There is no playfulness in the fictitious; there is no recognition of the imperfect human agency involved in the creation of the religion and the values that arise out of it.  The “creator” is imagined as existing outside human agency.  And it is imagined as authoritative and unchanging–as being.

In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche explains the process this way (the translation of which I have copied from Verhexung, where the editor, Carlos Narziss, also provides a clear and helpful commentary):

The other idiosyncrasy of the philosophers is just as dangerous: they confuse what comes first with what comes last.  They take what comes at the end (unfortunately! since it should not come at all!), the ‘highest ideas’, which means the emptiest, most universal ideas, the last wisps of smoke from the evaporating end of reality–and they put it at the beginning, as the beginning.  But again, this is just their way of showing respect: the highest should not grow out of the lowest, it should not grow at all…Moral: everything from the first rank must be a causa sui [self-caused].  It is an objection for something to come from something else, it casts doubt on its value.  All the supreme values are of the first rank, all the highest concepts, Being, the Unconditioned, the Good, the True, the Perfect–none of these could have become, and so they must be causa sui.  But also, none of these things can be different from the others or opposed to them…This is how they get their stupendous concept of ‘God’…It is the last, emptiest, most meagre idea of all, and it is put first, as cause in itself, an ens realissimum [the most real thing]…Why did humanity have to take the brain disease of sick cobweb-weavers so seriously?–It has certainly paid the price!…

That being said, I am willing to recognize a similarity that religion shares with art.  Both make life bearable by offering form and meaning to what is otherwise an ever-changing material existence devoid of inherent value.  But they do this in different ways.  Nietzsche, interestingly, at times even used the word art to describe both.  But he clearly favored one over the other.  And his reason, as I have hinted, is that one is more honest.

In an essay titled “Honest Illusion: Valuing for Nietzsche’s Free Spirits,” Nadeem J. Z. Hussain writes:

What is special, for Nietzsche, about art is that it is honest about its use of illusion.  Art is in the business of generating honest illusions.

And why do we need these honest illusions?  According to Nietzsche:

Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.

In “Perishing of the Truth: Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Prophylactics,” an article published last year in the British Journal of Aesthetics, Aaron Ridley explores the meaning of this famous statement.  The article begins:

It is tempting to read this as if it meant that art saves us from perishing of the truth by–somehow–saving us from truth’s ugliness. And it is tempting to understand this as saying that art saves us by–in one way or another–falsifying the truth. Certainly this is the way that most of Nietzsche’s commentators have read him. And they have been encouraged in doing so by Nietzsche himself. His published works contain a number of remarks that can appear to lend support to this reading, such as: ‘[A]rt, in which precisely the lie is sanctified and the will to deception has a good conscience’; or: ‘Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us to avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance.’ The role assigned to art in these places would appear to cast it as some sort of remedy against truth, a role that it performs by peddling lies, deceptions, and (mere?) appearances–that is, or so it seems, by falsifying what is true, or what ‘honesty’ would reveal.

As Ridley will demonstrate, this is hardly the whole story.  But, before we go any further, we must attempt to answer this one question: what does Nietzsche mean by truth?

For a brilliant exploration of this topic, I suggest reading “Nietzsche and the Value of Truth” at Verhexung.  From that essay, I take this excerpt from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

We, however, want to become who we are–human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves! To that end we must become the best students and discoverers of everything lawful and necessary in the world: we must become physicists in order to be creators in this sense–while hitherto all valuations and ideals have been built on ignorance of physics or in contradiction to it. So, long live physics! And even more long live what compels us to it–our honesty!

From this statement, we learn that Nietzsche values honesty, and we learn that honesty involves seeking truth.  And truth, apparently, is the testimony of physics–of science.  And the testimony of science, at least in terms of our place within the cosmos, is that we live (as I have already stated) “an ever-changing material existence devoid of inherent value.”

Also from The Gay Science:

Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature–nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present–and it was we who gave and bestowed it.

This is the ugly truth.  Hussain confirms Nietzsche’s point of view:

In his notes from the period right after The Birth of Tragedy, we see him returning again and again to the thought that art might be an antidote or a response to the threat of practical nihilism generated by the natural sciences and their depiction of the world as lacking value in itself.

Returning to Ridley’s article, we will now see just how art–a specific, honest kind of art–might make truth endurable.  According to Ridley, Nietzsche’s statement about “possessing art” can be interpreted three ways:

[…] our possession of art is of service to us because either: (a) art somehow makes false, or at any rate not true, a proposition or prop­ositions whose truth would, in the relevant sense, be ugly; or (b) art somehow prevents or reduces awareness of ugly truths; or (c) art somehow permits or even facilitates awareness of (putatively ugly) truths while minimizing or even abolishing their ugliness.

Of the first interpretation, Ridley writes:

Nietzsche’s most basic conception of art–or artistry–is that it is a matter of giving form; it is a matter of imposing form upon something that had been formless (or in some other way unsatisfactory: formlessness, for Nietzsche, is one way of being unsatisfactory: it implies meaninglessness).

Thus, in a very broad sense, art can simply be form-giving.  Ridley continues:

So form-giving–artistry–strikes him as indispensable. In transmuting chaos into order, the artist creates living structures which, because they confer meaning upon their constituents, offer the prospect of redemption for a life and a world that threaten otherwise to be devoid of sense: and ‘any meaning’, as Nietzsche puts it, ‘is better than none at all’: the ‘door [is] closed to…suicidal nihilism’.

The second interpretation, that “art somehow prevents or reduces awareness of ugly truths,” is where we come to Nietzsche’s view of religion:

For example, it is, he claims, part of the priest’s ‘distinctive art’–his ‘essential art’–to present to his flock a vision of the world so compelling that certain ugly truths (for instance, that death is the end, that fortune is capricious, that morality is ours) become al­together invisible.

Art, in these first two interpretations, is clearly not the type of art that Nietzsche praises for its honesty (though he recognizes its service in preventing despair).  To be sure, Ridley comments:

Nietzsche himself makes little or nothing of the first two of these protective measures–perhaps not altogether surprisingly, since the former relegates art to the status of (mere) entertainment, a devaluation of which he would have disapproved, while the latter seems at odds with his insistence that strong, admirable characters seek rather than evade the truth.

Thus, the third interpretation, which suggests that “art somehow facilitates awareness of (putatively ugly) truths while actually abolishing their ugliness,” is the one that is closest to Nietzsche’s aesthetics.

Once again, from The Twilight of the Idols:

One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life; does it not thereby spoil life for us? And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: “liberation from the will” was what Schopenhauer taught as the over-all end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its “evoking resignation.” But this, as I have already suggested, is the pessimist’s perspective and “evil eye.” We must appeal to the artists themselves. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing? This state itself is a great desideratum; whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it–must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication. Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread–this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. Before tragedy, what is warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalia; whoever is used to suffering, whoever seeks out suffering, the heroic man praises his own being through tragedy–to him alone the tragedian presents this drink of sweetest cruelty.

In conclusion, for those to whom reality, truth, and becoming are too unbearable, religion remains a viable option.  Life, after all, should supersede pessimistic nihilism.  But for those of us who accept the testimony of our senses, of science, who recognize that the world does not possess value in itself, that we must create our own meaning lest we perish without one–for us, it is art that is our saving grace.

Indeed.  And the best art, for Nietzsche, is not the kind that would falsify, ignore, or hide the ugly truth (though this art is still preferable to none at all). No–it is the art that beautifies it.

Further reading:

Brains in jars: artists’ fascination with anatomy


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