Living life as an artist: Nietzsche on creativity

The tragedies of ancient Greece underpin Nietzsche’s understanding of what it means to be an artist. Hans Runge/Flickr

Living life as an artist: Nietzsche on creativity

The tragedies of ancient Greece underpin Nietzsche’s understanding of what it means to be an artist. Hans Runge/Flickr

Love or loathe him, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) offered a unique way of considering creativity in his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872.

Competing creative energies

In this early offering, the idea of living life creatively is embodied in Nietzsche’s idea of living life as an artist. Two conflicting creative energies are detailed: the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

The Apollonian is the cool rational intellect, while the Dionysian is the passionate emotional aspect. Nietzsche worried that the society of his time only emphasised the Apollonian and neglected the role of the Dionysian or the emotions. He thought it was important to balance the two and saw this best depicted through artworks such as the Ancient Greek Tragedies.

We may argue that this balance between head and heart is still as important today as it was for Nietzsche. We, as human beings, are creators who produce things: objects, thoughts and actions.

In contrast to those who claim Nietzsche was a nihilist, Nietzsche’s idea of celebrating life and living creatively can be interpreted as affirming; affirming life, ourselves and art in a wide sense. He writes:

We shall do a great deal for the science of esthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of intuition, that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality: just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations.

So begins The Birth of Tragedy.

Nietzsche insists that Greek tragedy achieves greatness through the inclusion of two interwoven creative energies: the restrained and rational Apollonian, responsible for the dialogue, and the passionate and irrational Dionysian, which inspires the music or chorus.

In the plays, the meaning of the words are enhanced by the accompanying melody. Using Greek dramatic artworks as an example, we can learn from great art to see the beauty in life. Tragic heroes display life-affirming values such as courage even as they face grim circumstances. The trick is not to deny one’s emotions, even as we intellectually strive to understand our lives as purposeful.

Art … wishes to convince us of the eternal joy of existence: only we are to seek this joy not in phenomena, but behind them. We are to recognise that all that comes into being must be ready for a sorrowful end; we are forced to look into the terrors of the individual existence – yet we are not to become rigid with fear: a metaphysical comfort tears us momentarily from the bustle of transforming figures.

Nietzsche speaks of truly great art as the medium through which we are unified, discussing the struggle of the tragic hero with fate, the triumph of the moral order of the world, and the catharsis of the emotions through tragedy. This is infinitely preferable to Nietzsche than the purely rational “critical barbarian”.

He believed that classical thinkers such as Socrates destroyed this harmony of reason and emotion by solely concentrating on the rational or logical aspect (the Apollonian), with little regard for the role of the passions (the Dionysian). Of course, Socrates was worried that our emotions could be misleading and give rise to false reasoning.

Yet, for Nietzsche, life without emotion, the Dionysian, is bleak.

Art and life

Great art offers us a way of conceptualising our lives as meaningful if we consider ourselves as the artist who creates our own life’s meaning by taking into consideration both reason and emotion.

In contemporary terms, we may think of the emotions as the motivating power behind our ideas. If we intellectually choose a career, we also need to enjoy it or have some kind of passion for the work we do if it is going to feel meaningful.

This idea culminates in Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power, whereby, following the existentialist mandate, we take responsibility for our choices and we act – we create – and we alone bear the full responsibility for the choices we have made. In this way, we create a unique and subjectively beautiful life.

What about everybody else?

The concern here is that the life we create for ourselves, our own actions willed to power, may be selfish and not consider anyone else. The criticism of Nietzsche is that he is a nihilist, and his subjectivism kills any sense of morality as for each it is up to them what they like, what they will and what they create. It certainly doesn’t help that Nietzsche’s later works were said to have influenced right-wing German militarism.

Yet, the life-affirming or beautiful life lived must not restrict the freedoms of others, who are also free-willed subjects trying to create their own beautiful lives. I would argue that an authentic life fails to be beautiful if it denies the freedom of other people. Nietzsche is a vocal protester against any form of enslavement, but it is also up to the individual to realise that they are free.

The naming of the two creative energies that Nietzsche terms Apollonian and Dionysian is inspired by the Gods: Apollo, God of the Sun (representing light and truth) who inspires sculpture and structure, and Dionysus, God of the Earth (representing Spring and renewal) who inspires music and drunkenness: a feeling of intoxication with the beauty of life.

It is in the coupling of the rational and the irrational that great Art is born. These artistic energies, Nietzsche claims, stem from nature herself, “without the mediation of the human artist” and are expressed in pictorial form through our dreams that create a “mystic feeling of Oneness”.

We are not used to hearing Nietzsche sound so spiritual. It is feelings of awe and pain that unite all human beings. Our challenge is to continue striving to create our beautiful lives even in the face of hardship. Nietzsche’s ultimate creative principle sees us all as Artists, creating the best life we can for ourselves. Nietzsche also refers to the importance of cultural health whereby it is not only individuals but also cultures that require a balance of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

In spite of fear and pity, we are the happy living beings, not as individuals, but as one living being, with whose creative joy we are united.

Through Art and in life we witness the power of the emotions, the transformative power of “the intoxications of passion”.

Such passion can be either constructive or destructive and therefore needs to be supported by rationality. In this way the fusion between the Apollonian and the Dionysian can transform the self, creating an artist and a lover of life.


Read other articles in our creativity series here.