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.

1 comment:

  1. I am certainly looking forward to these posts and I think Nietzsche's work has a lot to recommend it. But let me also suggest that he only captures one aspect of history, namely its utility. While he analyzes well the question "What can one DO with history?" he essentially skips the prior question, "What IS history?"

    Let me go ahead and offer an answer, from R. G. Collingwood (following Benedetto Croce): History is not what happened in the past, but rather the re-thinking of past thoughts. By studying decisions made in the past, and the context in which they were made, we recreate past thoughts, and think them for ourselves. This is, then, a profoundly human act, and no mere scientific observation of phenomena!

    I don't mean to derail the next few posts; I'm eager to see Nietzsche applied to art and monuments. But perhaps we can play around with Collingwood in the comments as well.