Nihilism in Art
Nihilism is a complex philosophical idea, but the label is often applied in Homer Simpson fashion to suggest that the art in question is in some way a lesser art than the accusers own value system represents. There are many flavors of nihilism; metaphysical nihilism, mereological nihilism, epistemological nihilism, probably even low-fat nihilism. Nietzsche and other philosophers have thought and written about nihilism a great deal. For purposes of this conversation, I’ll use a commonly understood form of nihilism: existential nihilism, which is the essential belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Pessimism, skepticism, hopelessness, despair, recklessness, and rebellion are some traits found in an existential nihilist’s behavior.
Existential Nihilism has been around a long time, as it reflects a part of the human condition. The darker, brutal, instinctual side of life and its by-products can contribute to nihilistic thinking and behavior. The ancient philosopher Hegesis(c.250 BC) argued that “miseries vastly outnumber pleasures”, so happiness is impossible. Therefore, he advocated suicide. Nihilism is not singular to our time or culture, and it is not a product of the 20th Century.
A tenebrist painting depicts a strong light, often a 'divine' light emitting from no visible source. Darkness and shadow is the critical foundation of the painting, as it holds and supports the light. Darkness is of at least equal importance to the light. Physically, a viewers vision is always drawn to the light, but the shadow is always present, unnoticed and unconsidered, anchoring the light. Without the dark, the light cannot be held to reveal form or elicit meaning. The fact that Caravaggio understood and expressed this so dramatically through heightening the extremes was not necessarily an isolated painterly device, but perhaps a metaphor for the way he viewed existence. In Tenebrist paintings, the dark takes up more surface area than the light: "miseries vastly outnumber pleasures.”
Beyond chiaroscuro, if you study Caravaggio’s choices for the depiction of his subject matter you will notice 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 usual conventions to include in these works and reflect Caravaggio’s world view. The visual clues are there: skepticism, recklessness, despair, hopelessness. A reality understood from how he lived, with "one foot in the light and one foot in the dark".
In his early 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''s a better motto to express existential nihilism, I'm not sure what it is. In Rome, Caravaggio rejected the accepted viewpoint for art as perfect form and ideal beauty. He refused to employ these devices in his works or to convey a vision of divine perfection.
To the dismay and criticism of Classic 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 here and now. His self-portrait as "Sick Bacchus" is a clear denial of transcendent beauty and spiritual meaning. Bacchus, the eternal god of pleasure, is depicted by Caravaggio as sickly, dirty, raw, human. Pure visual nihilism.
Was Caravaggio an existential Nihilist? The label can be applied and might fit more snugly than it fits other painters accused today. If Caravaggio can be labelled a nihilist whose paintings express actual nihilistic qualities, then it follows that magnificent art can indeed be nihilistic. This does not suggest that all nihilism is magnificent art any more than all beauty is magnificent art, but it supports the fact that powerful art is not about transcendence alone.