Is Life Like a Work of Art?

I’m a great admire of philosopher Bence Nanay’s work on perception and aesthetics. But I am less enamored with this brief article  he wrote for Psychology Today about the thesis that life ought to be lived as a work of art.

Nanay is skeptical of this idea. Taking a quote from Robert Musil as his starting point, he writes:

Musil is making fun of the breathtakingly popular and influential idea that we should turn our life into—or treat our life as—a work of art. Everyone who is anyone in Western modernity endorsed some version of this metaphor, from the Earl of Shaftesbury to Goethe, from Nietzsche to Duchamp. And these days the self-help industry also tries to make the most of it. For my part, I’m on Musil’s side and think that this is one of the most overhyped ideas in Western thought.

But his arguments are thin:

If you squint, you could see how this life as a work of art idea could make some kind of sense in the 19th century, when works of art were well-constructed coherent wholes. I can see someone striving to turn their life into a Stendhal novel. But turning your life into a Robbe-Grillet novel, where literally nothing happens, or a Bolaño novel, where lots of terrible things take place, would be a very dubious enterprise.

Indeed. But I don’t think advocates of life-as-art are committed to the view that life must resemble all works of art. Grabbing two extreme examples is not persuasive; there are surely many contemporary works that are “coherent wholes.” He goes on:

In a general sense, the problem we face is that art has become too much like life. In fact, the big slogan of the art movements in the last half century or so (at least since fluxus and pop art) has been that art should not be cut off from life. So if art becomes like life, then turning your life into a work of art either makes no sense or it becomes a pure anachronism.

But, again, the art world is much larger and more diverse than the genres influenced by the pop art or fluxus movements. Furthermore, if the trend in contemporary art is to be more of a representation or expression of ordinary life, it doesn’t follow that our lived experience has become more “art-like.” From the fact that life has transformed art, it does not follow that art has transformed life. Lived experience is one thing; the representation of lived experience quite another.

He then considers another way of interpreting the thesis that life ought to be lived as a work of art:

Maybe the main idea here is not that our life should be turned into a work of art, but rather that our attitude towards life should be like our attitude towards a work of art.

However, the only attitude he discusses is contemplation. Since art invites contemplation, we can make our lives more “art-like” by taking a more contemplative attitude toward life. Nanay’s critique of this inference is compelling. He points out that many works of art do not invite contemplation and there are many things other than art that do invite contemplation. Thus, the connection between art and contemplation is too tenuous to support the claim that life ought to be lived as a work of art.

I agree. But few of the advocates of life-as-art think contemplation is the relevant art-like attitude we should adopt toward life. Surely someone like Nietzsche, who sees much art as bound up with Dionysian reverie, did not have contemplation in mind at all when he proclaims that art is an affirmation of life.

With mountains of papers to grade at the moment, I don’t have time to dive more deeply into this question. But I’m inclined to think that what advocates of the life-as art thesis have in mind is that genuine art is fundamentally creative, uniquely so amongst all the activities in which human beings engage. Thus, advocates of life-as-art, want life to have the free-floating inspiration, distinctiveness,  and norm-breaking in generating “the new” that we have come to associate with art.

I still have reservations about the life as art thesis. For one, the point of creativity in art is to put it on display. It isn’t obvious that the point of creativity in life is to be on display.

But as for now, I will take some solace in the promise contained in Nietzche’s thought that art is life affirming, for the task of grading papers is anything but.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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