Arthur Schopenhauer's aesthetics

Arthur Schopenhauer's aesthetics flow from his doctrine of the primacy of the Will as the thing in itself, the ground of life and all being; and from his judgment that the Will is evil. Schopenhauer held that art offered a way for people to temporarily escape servitude to the Will, and from the suffering that such servitude entails.

An extension of his philosophy

For Schopenhauer, the Will is an aimless desire to perpetuate itself, the basis of life. Desire engendered by the Will is the source of all the sorrow in the world; each satisfied desire leaves us either with boredom, or with some new desire to take its place. For Schopenhauer, a world in thrall to Will is necessarily a world of suffering. Since the Will is the source of life, and our very bodies are stamped with its image and designed to serve its purpose, the human intellect is, in Schopenhauer's simile, like a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulders of a blind giant.

Schopenhauer's aesthetics is an attempt to break out of the pessimism that naturally comes from this world view. Schopenhauer believed that what distinguished aesthetic experiences from other experiences is that contemplation of the object of aesthetic appreciation temporarily allowed the subject a respite from the strife of desire, and allowed the subject to enter a realm of purely mental enjoyment, the world purely as representation or mental image. The more a person's mind is concerned with the world as representation, the less it feels the suffering of the world as will. Schopenhauer analysed art from its effects, both on the personality of the artist, and the personality of the viewer.

The Schopenhauerian genius

Schopenhauer believed that while all people were in thrall to the Will, the quality and intensity of their subjection differed:

Only through the pure contemplation . . . which becomes absorbed entirely in the object, are the Ideas comprehended; and the nature of genius consists precisely in the preëminent ability for such contemplation. . . . (T)his demands a complete forgetting of our own person.

The aesthetic experience temporarily emancipates the subject from the Will's domination and raises them to a level of pure perception. "On the occurrence of an aesthetic appreciation, the will thereby vanishes entirely from consciousness. The personality of the artist was also supposed to be less subject to Will than most: such a person was a Schopenhauerian genius, a person whose exceptional predominance of intellect over Will made them relatively aloof from earthly cares and concerns. The poet living in a garret, the absent-minded professor, Vincent van Gogh in the madhouse, are all (at least in the popular mind) examples of Schopenhauer's geniuses: so fixed on their art that they neglect the "business of life" that in Schopenhauer's mind meant only the domination of the evil and painful Will. For Schopenhauer, the relative lack of competence of the artist and the thinker for practical pursuits was no mere stereotype: it was cause and effect.

Schopenhauer believed that what gives arts such as literature and sculpture their value was the extent to which they incorporated pure perceptions. But, being concerned with human forms (at least in Schopenhauer's day) and human emotions, these art forms were inferior to music, which being purely abstract, was to Schopenhauer's mind the highest and best form of human artistry. Schopenhauer's philosophy of music was influential in the works of Richard Wagner. Wagner was an enthusiastic reader of Schopenhauer, and recommended the reading of Schopenhauer to his friends. His published works on music theory changed over time, and became more aligned with Schopenhauer's thought, over the course of his life.


In proposing that art could offer deliverance from the Will, Schopenhauer elevated art from mere artisanry or decoration, and held that art potentially offered temporary deliverance from the aimless strife of the Will in nature. In effect, Schopenhauer turned art into a substitute religion by offering a doctrine of salvation through aesthetic experiences. Artists were not merely skilled hands; they were priests or prophets of this doctrine. This teaching goes far to explain Schopenhauer's appeal to members of the creative communities over the second half of the nineteenth century. Schopenhauer's doctrine of aesthetics justified artistic work as a matter of highest importance in human society.

Schopenhauer's aesthetics remain influential today, and are perhaps the most lasting part of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Their appeal to later generations of Romantics, and to all schools of bohemianism, is apparent. Wagner sent Schopenhauer a note expressing deep gratitude for Schopenhauer's discussion of music. Schopenhauer's philosophy in general left a deep impression on a number of important writers, especially Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Stephane Mallarmé, Thomas Mann, and Ivan Turgenev.

Schopenhauer's aesthetics were directly responsible for the rise of the Symbolists and their allied movements, and to the general development of the concept of art for art's sake. It deeply influenced the aesthetics of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose famous opposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is a translation of Schopenhauer's opposition of intellect against will in terms of Greek mythology. When the Marxist critique of capitalism was stirred into the aesthetic stew, Schopenhauer's essentially ascetic view of the purpose of art laid the foundation for the opposition of kitsch versus the avant-garde which is found in critics such as Clement Greenberg. Contemporary beliefs that artistic creation should not be swayed by financial gains or the demands of patrons or customers, and the belief that the greatest artists are those who create new and entirely unprecedented forms of expression, rather than those who develop already existing forms, all owe a great deal to the influence of Schopenhauer.



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