Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

The Dionysian Urge

by David Greenhalgh

02 Jul 2011

As I sit nestled amongst the art of Lisa Sammut at SLAMStudio, Waterloo, my interest is piqued by an image entitled Waiting. It shows some instrument of measurement pointing skywards, sitting atop a bent female figure. Closer inspection shows the woman to be made of grass and the pull of gravity seems unbearable for her underneath the familiar but unidentifiable instrument.

It reminded me of an article I read some time ago on Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of artistic impulses. It was more of a skim than a read, but Sammut’s image was enough to turn me back to the original text: The Birth of Tragedy.

Nietzsche spoke of two artistic impulses that play on the human mind, a dichotomous relationship existing between the two, which, beyond solely artistic impulses, also enacted itself upon the human soul. On one side sits Apollo, the Greek god of plastic and visual art. He was a god closely linked to ideas of the sky, ideals, moderation, measurement, sculpture and individual integrity. Opposing Apollo was Dionysus. Dionysus is not constant and considered like Apollo, but as the god of wine and song, a god associated with intoxication, chaos, flux, loss of self and reincorporation with the earth.

We can closely associate Apollo (with his transcendent nature) with ideas of the metaphysical: ‘The Truth’ and other immutable values. Dionysus we can associate with what Nietzsche would consider to be closer to what human reality actually is: subjective and empirical with nothing outside or beyond. Dionysus is not immutable, but associated with a sort of beauty that is relative to time and place, ever-shifting and held sway by chaos, which interrupts and ultimately changes our order. This is perhaps thetruer beauty. Nietzsche describes how our Dionysian side causes us to lose our man-in-god’s-image self and resume our place under nature.

Under the spell of the Dionysian, it is not only the bond between man and man which is re-established: nature in its estranged, hostile, or subjugated forms also celebrates its reconciliation with its prodigal son, man. 

Umberto Eco talks of Apollonian beauty being the sculptures and paintings of old in all their composed and moral-minded beauty, while Dionysian beauty is the rupturing of these stagnant forms by the onset of modernity with its varied definitions as to what beauty may be.

Looking at the images on the walls here, my spine tingles to think that such ideas may answer my constant questioning of visual art’s function in society. Perhaps the art world is like a system of visual dialectics, where everyone is entering into a conversation in a search for recognition and persuasion. Waiting certainly is a worthy example of visual art’s ability to present powerful ideas that inject a worthy ounce or two of Dionysian chaos into established order, a strong rebuttal to a hegemonic discourse.