Recently, I have been quite interested in the intersection of ethics and aesthetics, or to be more specific, ethical criticism of art.

What would or did Nietzsche say about the following two problems?

  1. Is an artwork a subject of moral judgement? For example, can we deem disturbing movies like Pasolini's Salo or 120 days of Sodom "immoral"?

  2. Can "immoral" details of a piece of art diminish its aesthetic value?

  • 2
    Thanks for the question! It's definitely interesting territory (+1!) but maybe a little confused to my mind -- if only because I would consider ethics/aesthetics and morality here being opposed -- in other words, Nietzsche's "superior" ethico-aesthetics of intensive forces (versus a transcendent 'moralism' of 'proper' forms.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 16:39
  • 2
    That is Nietzsche is so far from the "censorious" spirit it's difficult to imagine how such a hypothesis can be meaningfully asserted about his aesthetics. (In his early work in particular this is very clear; his metaphysics is an "artists" metaphysic, aesthetics being the only means of any 'eternal' justification of existence.)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 16:41

1 Answer 1


What is Nietzsche's opinion on ethical criticism of art? Is an artwork a subject of moral judgement? Can "immoral" details of a piece of art diminish its aesthetic value?

To Nietzsche justification of existence was all but impossible if one approached life in the perspective of morality, “because life is [. . .] essentially amoral” (The Birth of Tragedy, preface, 5); and with the possible exception of the period associated with Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche always approached the problem of justification of existence in some measure in terms of art and the concept of the aesthetic. No higher significance could be assigned to art than that which Nietzsche assigns to it in the opening section of The Birth of Tragedy: ‘The arts generally’ are said to ‘make life possible and worth living’ (Birth of Tragedy, 1). Art is never far from his mind, even when he is dealing with matters seemingly far removed from it. Thus, for example he later characterized his ‘view of the world’ not only as ‘anti-metaphysical’ but also as ‘an artistic one’ (The Will to Power). The cult of intelligibility embodied in morals, in science, in contemporary philosophy, and in realistic art, fails to offer a justification of existence. Hence it is central to Nietzsche’s purpose in Birth of Tragedy to undercut rationalism.

Artists are by no means men of great passion but they often pretend to be, in the unconscious feeling that their painted passions will seem more believable if their own life speaks for their experience in this field. One has only to let oneself go, to abandon self-control, to give rein to one’s anger or desires: at once all the world cries: how passionate he is! But deep-rooted passion, passion which gnaws at the individual and often consumes him, is a thing of some consequence: he who experiences such passion certainly does not describe it in dramas, music or novels. Artists are often unbridled individuals [...]
Human, All Too Human

On the morality of the stage. – Whoever thinks that Shakespeare’s theatre has a moral effect, and that the sight of Macbeth irresistibly repels one from the evil of ambition, is in error: and he is again in error if he thinks Shakespeare himself felt as he feels [...] The tragic poet has just as little desire to take sides against life with his images of life! He cries rather: ‘it is the stimulant of stimulants, this exciting, changing, dangerous, gloomy and often sundrenched existence! It is an adventure to live – espouse what party in it you will, it will always retain this character!’ – He speaks thus out of a restless, vigorous age which is half-drunk and stupefied by its excess of blood and energy – out of a wickeder age than ours is: which is why we need first to adjust and justify the goal of a Shakespearean drama, that is to say, not to understand it.

[…] Schopenhauer speaks of beauty with a melancholy ardour – why, in the last resort? Because he sees in it a bridge upon which one may pass over […] It is to him redemption from the ‘will’ for minutes at a time – it lures on to redemption for ever […] He values it especially as redeemer from the ‘focus of the will’, from sexuality – in beauty he sees the procreative impulse denied […] Singular saint! Someone contradicts you, and I fear it is nature. To what end is there beauty at all in the sounds, colours, odours, rhythmic movements of nature? what makes beauty appear? – Fortunately a philosopher also contradicts him. No less an authority than the divine Plato ( – so Schopenhauer himself calls him) maintains a different thesis: that all beauty incites to procreation – that precisely this is the proprium of its effect, from the most sensual regions up into the most spiritual […]
Twilight of the Idols

[...]‘That is beautiful,’ Kant said, ‘which pleases us without interest.’ Without interest! Compare with this definition that other provided by a real ‘spectator’ and artist – Stendhal, who once called the beautiful une promesse de bonheur. […] Of few things does Schopenhauer speak with so much certainty as he does of the effect of aesthetic contemplation: he says of it that it operates precisely against sexual ‘interestedness’, in a similar way, that is, to lupulin and camphor; he never wearied of glorifying this liberation from the ‘will’ as the great merit and utility of the aesthetic condition. […] But supposing Schopenhauer was a hundred times right with regard to himself, what insight could that provide into the nature of the beautiful?[…] the sight of the beautiful obviously affected him [Schopenhauer] as a releasing stimulant to the chief force of his nature (the force of contemplation and penetration); so that this force then exploded and all at once became master of his consciousness. But that does not in any way exclude the possibility that that peculiar sweetness and plenitude which is characteristic of the aesthetic condition might have its origin in precisely the ingredient ‘sensuality’ (just as the ‘idealism’ characteristic of nubile girls derives from the same source) – so that, with the advent of the aesthetic condition, sensuality would have been, not abolished, as Schopenhauer believed, but only transfigured and no longer enter consciousness as sexual excitation. […]
Genealogy of Morals - What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?

Kant and Schopenhauer had described the aesthetic experience as definitively free from interest—and their main reason must be sought in their conviction that interests are essentially utilitarian, hedonistic, or moral, while the concern for beauty is not. It is also noteworthy that in the relevant passages only the receptive experience is considered and no reference is made to the creation of works of art. Nietzsche, on the other hand, concentrates on the creative aesthetic experience.

Dionysus is the Ancient Greek God of Festivals. According to the young Nietzsche, Dionysian festivals ‘centred in extravagant sexual licentiousness’, where ‘the most savage natural instincts were unleashed’ (Birth of Tragedy) The figure of Dionysus emerges as an expression of the feeling of ecstasy that accompanies the sense of loss of the individuated self (the socially constructed identity of the ‘I’). In the festivals of Dionysus, such a state was brought about by, for example, the use of narcotic draughts, which gave rise to intense emotions that caused ‘everything subjective’ to vanish ‘into complete self-forgetfulness’. Dionysian intoxication, Nietzsche argues, reaffirms the relation between humanity and nature. the Dionysian is contrasted with the Apollinian. The bringing together of these two opposing principles, Nietzsche argues, underlies the greatness of Ancient Greek tragedy. All art, according to “The Birth of Tragedy”, can be comprehended in terms of the Dionysian–Apollinian opposition: ‘every artist is an “imitator”, that is to say, either an Apollinian artist in dreams, or a Dionysian artist in ecstasies, or finally – as for example in Greek tragedy – at once artist in both dreams and ecstasies’. “Dionysian wisdom” articulates the “gospel of universal harmony.” It comes across as neither religious nor moralistic, but rather aesthetic.

  • 1
    +1, very nice breakdown! It might be worth bringing out here that Nietzsche's 'joyous' science is a reunification of art and science (once they have become sufficiently mature or ripe for the integration.) To my mind this might help situate the work on science -- and the 'meaning' of science.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 1:24

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