Wednesday, April 11, 2012

History According to Nietzsche and Art

Friedrich Nietzsche
History is a subject that I've touched on a little bit before, when talking about Aristotle's idea of history in relation to art, but today I want to explore the idea a bit further drawing from a text I've been reading lately called "On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life" by Friedrich Nietzsche (alternatively titled "The Use and Abuse of History")

History is to most people simply the collection of facts and dates of events past; the battles, the revolutions, and the people who shaped the world in which we live in today.  But not everyone can know the whole of all of the historic facts, but people can know for instance that Washington was the "Father of the nation", and that Lincoln freed the slaves.  These simple statements in themselves are histories, small, not very complex, but history nonetheless.  But history is not just the simple collection of facts, but rather it is the summary of those facts into a cohesive narrative.

History is not just collected memory, but collective memory that is taught, and is for Nietzsche something that ordered towards a specific end.  In the Advantage and Disadvantage Nietzsche makes the claim that history is there for a purpose, that it is put to use to promote "life" and he says they are used in so far as man:  1) "is active and striving" 2) "preserves and admires" and 3) "suffers and is in need of liberation"   The three types of history then correspond to these needs or ends, as 1) monumental, 2) antiquarian, and 3) critical histories.

Christopher Columbus Monument, Washington DC
In the following series of posts I will be looking at each of these parts of history in how they relate to art, particularly art that is created by and for the polis.  The fact that art is in itself makes use of history is not immediately evident, but upon reflecting that a great many works of art, indeed almost all art, has had people of history as its subject.  Most all of the stories we tell, through poetry literature and film  as well as monuments, memorials and public buildings we erect all tell a history.  And as such each of these works of art can make use the different kinds of history monumental, antiquarian, and critical.  How they apply those histories, and whether or not they have used the form of history proper to the subject will become clear after we have looked at each of the forms of history in detail.  Then we will be able to see clearly how a great many works of art truly abuse history to serve their ends.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Back to Writing, and a Short Manifesto

It has been a long time since I have written, due to a number of things, a vacation, a busy work schedule, working toward a more appropriate Eisenhower Memorial, and teaching students at Hillsdale College.   But I am back now, with a great deal to write on for the upcoming weeks, I hope all of you will be reading and giving good comments.

The primary purpose for this blog is not to provide commentary and criticism of the architectural issues of the day in regards to specific issues or projects.  Rather its purpose is to explore the philosophical principles underlying those artistic debates, both to provide a laboratory for my own thoughts and writing, but also to provide a foundation for others to debate these issues, today and in the future as well.  

Sadly, even at the best of schools, much of today's artistic and architectural education is entirely lacking in philosophical training.   This lack of a philosophy education leaves students and practitioners of art an architecture adrift without an anchor, giving their beliefs no more justification than their own taste or opinion.   Thus most architectural debate today is much like political debates on cable news, whoever speaks loudest and most hysterically grabs the biggest headline, but few are convinced and little is really changed.

I've embarked then on trying to discuss the arts, what they are, what they are for, in a purely philosophical manner so that we can see a real renaissance of beauty in the arts, both private and public.  What will be necessary to this task of rejuvenating a sense of beauty is to look at the principles underlying the mainstream thought both in the art world and the culture as a whole, and to refute what is false, nurture what is true and in need of growth, and to plant seeds of truth wherever we can.

So to that purpose I will be looking at a short work by Friedrich Nietzsche translated as On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life but alternately titled in English: The Use and Abuse of History.  The critical points I will be discussing will  be his the three-fold division of history into monumental, antiquarian, and critical history.    Each of these senses of history is entirely active in our public debate today about the state and future of art and architecture, though few realize how they are at work.  It is my hope that by looking at what Nietzsche means about each historic sense we might come to understand a bit better how to make the right choices in art.