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The Christian Artist Responds to Nietzsche: Art that Says ‘Yes’ to this Life and the Life to Come

Madeleine Stokes

Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, and E. John Walford, in The Case for Broken Beauty, seem to present similar visions for art. Both see fundamental problems with two distinct artistic impulses; namely with art which grows out of the classical, neoplatonic tradition and art which stems from the contemporary, modern tradition. Though sharing similar visions and worries, the “alternative art model[s]”[1] they present are fundamentally distinct.

Nietzsche has his own categories for these two artistic bents, which both arise from two impulses of human nature. He refers to these as the “Apollonian” spirit and the “Dionysian” spirit. The Apollonian spirit is cool, rational, measured and dreamlike. The Dionysian spirit by contrast is wild, irrational and intoxicating. It is when one spirit operates exclusively that its inherent dangers become apparent; each spirit must “check” the other so as to prevent one “prevailing” over the other.[2] Walford, like Nietzsche, finds two particular types of art problematic. Namely, art which is dominated by idealism on the one hand and nihilism on the other. Though Nietzsche and Walford use different language, the content of their concern is similar. There exists a connection between what Nietzsche refers to as “Apollonian” art and Walford refers to as “idealized” art, and likewise between “Dionysian” art and “nihilistic” art. Nietzsche and Walford diverge, however, in their conception of the ultimate product of good art. 

Apollonian Art

Nietzsche and Walford share similar worries about idealized or Apollonian art. For Nietzsche, the Apollonian spirit manifests itself in works of plastic art such as sculptures or paintings. This art is rational, has an intelligible form and is proportionate and orderly. The art produced by the Apollonian spirit has a dreamlike or fantastical quality; it does not speak to the true nature and reality of existence. Thus art generated from this spirit jeopardizes human experience by exchanging it with chimerical semblances of the real. Walford’s objection is similar: idealized art portrays existence and human nature in a way that is not commensurate with reality. It renders art which is “devoid of the substance and grit of life as we know it.”[3] In other words, idealized art aims at an artificial beauty which is divorced from the truth of human experience.

Philippe de Champaigne, ‘The Annunciation’ Take, for instance, Philippe de Champaigne’s rendering of the Annunciation. Here, the Virgin Mary is depicted as being “harmoniously balanced” (Walford, 93) within a heavenly setting. She exudes idealized beauty and grace. That is, she is cast in an Apollonian ligh

Dionysian Art

What is to be said then of the art which tends toward the nihilistic or the Dionysian spirit? The Dionysian spirit manifests itself in works of music. Nietzsche offers Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as an example in which “the slave is free; [and] all the stubborn hostile barriers . . . are broken down.”[4] Dionysian art causes man to confront the “terror and absurdity of his own existence”[5] and consequently, “annihilate himself and his terror.”[6] Walford too has reservations with art of this particular bent; he describes it as being “infiltrated by the dangerous, transgressive, bizarre, grotesque and the horrible.”[7] Such art, thinks Walford, reeks of nihilism. Rather than portraying the truths of human experience, it annihilates it.

Alternative Visions for Art

In response to these polar artistic tendencies, Nietzsche and Walford advocate for a merging of the two. They validate an art which is neither idealistic nor nihilistic; and also, an art which affirms and yet redeems the reality of existence. Yet while the two may agree about the general nature of art, their ultimate conclusions concerning its end are fundamentally distinct.

Nietzsche and Walford begin with different understandings regarding the nature of existence. Their distinct views significantly influence their views of the ultimate function and purpose of art. Nietzsche unquestioningly presumes existence to be absurd; he frequently refers to its “terrible and questionable character.”[8] He references, for instance, The Wisdom of Silenus, which seems to offer an accurate depiction of his view of reality. In this myth, King Midas asks Silenus (himself a friend of Dionysius) about the meaning of life. Silenus responds: “What is best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you – is quickly to die.”[9] Thus for Nietzsche, appearances are commensurate to reality. That is, things appear to be meaningless and terrible because they really are meaningless and terrible.

Walford, by contrast, adheres to the orthodox Christian conception of the nature of existence. That is, the belief that creation (and thereby existence) was created by God as essentially good, but by virtue of the fall is also subject to corruption. In other words, there is dissonance between the way things are and the way things ought to be. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans remind us that, “we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.  And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”[10] Thus Walford thinks existence to be good insofar as it receives its being and existence from God, and yet we ultimately inhabit a “broken and fallen world” filled with “human imperfection and mortality.”[11] Yet, for the Christian, this notion of existence is incomplete; vital also to the Christian conception of existence, is redemption. That is, Christianity recognizes creation’s estrangement from its Creator and yet preserves the hope of it one day being restored to fullness in Christ.

Bruce Herman, “Body Broken” — “Unlike the early Christians who felt the need to distance themselves from the pagan artistic traditions of physicality, I feel that it is in and through the physical – it’s even in the very earthiness of the human form and story that our redemption happens.”

Art, Redeemed

How then, do these distinct views of nature affect the Nietzschean and the Christian[12] understandings of the end of art? For both, art serves a redemptive purpose. Yet insofar as they differ in their views of nature, they differ also in their views of what redemption entails. For Nietzsche, art is meant to save us from the absurd. By merging the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses, art (as Nietzsche thinks it ought to be) neither idealizes nature nor imitates it; it does not capitulate a fantasy nor a harsh reality. He compares art to a tonic: it “increases strength and kindles desire;”[13] it makes our experience of the world bearable. Art casts existence in a light that is believable and yet not entirely true. Thus, art, in raising man above the terror and absurdity of existence, serves a “metaphysical purpose.”[14] Yet its purpose is redemptive only insofar as it enables man to “say yes”[15] to this life. It does not call man to a greater end than himself.

Walford also understands the redemptive nature of art. Yet for him, redemption pertains not only this life but also to the redemption of all things in the age to come. This thinking is rooted in the Christian understanding of existence; the appearance of existence is and yet is not commensurate to the reality of things. Art ought to depict the reality of human nature as we experience it; reality as conceived by Gerard Manly Hopkins: “dappled . . . brinded . . . pierced . . . freckled . . and dim.”[16] This depiction resonates with the dissonance of our own experience and yet is not vacant of the hope for redemption. Thus the primary task of the artist is to communicate the reality of the disfigured, yet also its capacity to be transformed. For the Christian, the reality of the “not yet” is just as real as the reality of the “now.” Walford articulates this feature of Christian art as the “intersection of the human and the divine. . . the mixture of human frailty and divine grace.”[17] Therefore, the end of this art (as Walford presents it) is twofold: It invites the viewer[18] to confront the reality of his own sinful nature as well as the broken world that he inhabits, while simultaneously offering him a vision for what it may be like for such sin to be transformed and brokenness to be made whole.

In Conclusion

The product of Nietzschean art is ultimately tragic. The merging of the Apollonian and the Dionysian spirits are after all what he claims give birth to tragedy. His conception of art, which also weds the Apollonian to the Dionysian, is intended to incite a tragic disposition in the viewer. While art gives us the means to make our existence bearable, this is not to say that it wholly denies the absurdity of it. It issues a “yes to life” but only that – a yes to this life and only this life. It permits the viewer to feel justified in the midst of his own absurdity but also recognizes that things will indeed ultimately end in tragedy. The product of Christian art, by contrast, is ultimately comical.[19] It too affirms the present reality of things yet also anticipates the day that all things will be made anew and aright. This art recognizes that creation is indeed broken and disfigured and yet also “embodie[s] the essence of the gospel of redemption.”[20] In Walford’s own words, this art “acknowledges suffering while preserving hope.”[21]



[1] E. John Walford, The Case for Broken Beauty, The Beauty of God, 89.

[2] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 12.

[3] E. John Walford, The Case for Broken Beauty, The Beauty of God, 89.

[4] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Philosophies of Art and Beauty, Page 501

[5] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Page 209 (from Beardsley, page 276)

[6] Beardsley, Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present, Page 276

[7] E. John Walford, The Case for Broken Beauty, The Beauty of God, Page 103

[8] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Page 286 (from Beardsley, page 278)

[9] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Philosophies of Art and Beauty, Page 505

[10] Romans 8:22-23, ESV

[11] E. John Walford, The Case for Broken Beauty, The Beauty of God, Page 93

[12] By “Christian” I am referring mainly to how Walford presents and understands theology and art

[13] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Page 252 (from Beardsley, page 279)

[14] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Page 286 (from Beardsley, page 277)

[15] Nietzsche’s idea of being a “yes sayer” to life. Found in his The Gay Science: with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs

[16] Gerard Manly Hopkins, Pied Beauty, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume E, Page 1551

[17] E. John Walford, The Case for Broken Beauty, The Beauty of God, Page 104, 105

[18] Or shall we say participant

[19] I mean comical here in the classical Shakespearian sense of the word – that which ends well or happily.

[20] E. John Walford, The Case for Broken Beauty, The Beauty of God, Page 109

[21] E. John Walford, The Case for Broken Beauty, The Beauty of God, Page 109