Often, the work being accused is not really nihilistic. It might simply be exploitative or ugly, or factually exploring an ugly or exploitative topic, or it might be another thing altogether.
Nihilism is a complex philosophical idea, but the label is usually applied by accusers in Homer Simpson-like fashion to suggest that the paintings or other art in question are not really art, or that they are in some way lesser art than the accusers own value system represents. I doubt there is any label more misused than “nihilist” when 'traditional' painters criticize 'contemporary' representational painters.
There are many flavors of nihilism; metaphysical nihilism, mereological nihilism, epistemological nihilism, probably even low-fat nihilism, I’m not sure. Nietzsche and other philosophers have thought and written about nihilism a great deal. As this is not meant to be a post on nihilism itself, I refer you here or here for a starting point on the topic. For purposes of this conversation, I’ll use perhaps the most commonly understood form of nihilism: existential nihilism, or the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Pessimism, skepticism, hopelessness, despair, recklessness, rebellion are some traits found in an existential nihilist’s behavior.
Existential Nihilism has been around a long, long time. It is reflective of the human condition. The darker, brutal, blinded, instinctual side of life and its by-products can contribute to the reinforcement of nihilistic thinking and behavior. The ancient philosopher Hegesis(c.250 BC) argued that “miseries vastly outnumber pleasures” and happiness is impossible, therefore, he advocated suicide. No, nihilism is not singular to our time or society and it is not a product of the 20th Century.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio(1571-1610) was one of the greatest artists in the history of Western painting. He was rewarded and acknowledged in his own lifetime, fell into obscurity, and is once again today recognized for the high art that he produced. Apprenticing first with Simone Peterzano(a student of Titian) then later working in other studios, Caravaggio elevated the practice of Chiaroscuro painting to a level of expression that had a profound impact on the Baroque era, and future painters.
A Tenebrist painting depicts a strong light, often Divine light, emitting from no visible source. In Tenebrism, darkness and shadow is the very foundation of the painting, it holds and supports the light. Darkness is of equal importance to the light. Physically, a viewer is always drawn to the light but the shadow is always present, unnoticed and unconsidered. Without the dark, the light will not be held and cannot reveal form or meaning. The fact that Caravaggio understood and expressed this so vociferously through magnification of the extremes was not necessarily an isolated painterly device, but perhaps a metaphorical choice for the very way he viewed existence. In Tenebrist paintings, the dark takes up more surface than the light, "miseries vastly outnumber pleasures.”
Beyond the extreme dark, if you study Caravaggio’s choices for the depiction of his subject matter you can easily recognize nihilistic tendencies. A cheating cardsharp, worm-holes in his apples, his unique portrayal of the execution of John the Baptist with his own signature in the puddle of blood, and his self-portrayed execution and self-destruction in one version of David and Goliath. These were not necessary or usual conventions to include in these works and can be said to reflect Caravaggio’s personal world view. The visual clues are there. Skepticism, recklessness, despair, hopelessness; reality understood from how he lived, with "one foot in the light and one foot in the dark".
Caravaggio's existence itself could elect him a poster-boy for nihilism. Early in his years, Caravaggio ran the streets of Rome with a group of like-minded individuals who adopted the motto “Nec Spe, Nec Metu” which means “Without hope, without fear.” If there is a motto that could better express existential nihilism, I do not know what it is. In Rome, Caravaggio rejected the accepted "point of art" as perfect form and ideal beauty.
He refused to make these "celestial mysteries" visible in his work, or to convey this vision of "perfection" in the "Holy War for souls".
Much to the dismay and criticism of Classicist standard bearer's such as Gian Pietro Bellori, Caravaggio refused to draw sculpture or copy master works. He used models from the street. He portrayed the immediate, the raw, the here and now. His self-portrait as "Sick Bacchus" could not be a clearer denial of idealized beauty or meaning. Bacchus, the eternal god of pleasures such as wine, the "symbol of youth and beauty, the inspirer of poetry, song and painting" is depicted by Caravaggio as a sickly, raw, dirty, humanized Bacchus. Pure visual nihilism. He denies art as transcendent celestial Beauty and paints reality, Nature, as lived through his eyes.
Was Caravaggio a Nihilist? The label can certainly be applied and will fit more snugly than it fits some painters accused as such in 2010. If Caravaggio can be labelled a nihilist whose paintings express nihilistic qualities, then it follows that great art can indeed be nihilistic. This does not suggest that all nihilism is great art any more than all beauty is great art. It simply illustrates that great art is not about transcendent beauty alone.
Embedded below is a fun movie about Caravaggio's life from the BBC series 'The Power of Art'.