『예술로서의 삶』 한국어판 출간 기념 저자 화상강연회의 강연문입니다!

by 김정연 posted Aug 01, 2016


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"예술로서의 삶과 그 너머 : 자기 자신과 타인을 위하여 예술적으로 살기"

Life as Art and Beyond: Living Artfully for oneself and Others

강연 : 재커리 심슨 (Zachary Simpson, 『예술로서의 삶』 지은이)

7월 30일 토요일 오전 11시 다중지성의 정원에서 진행된 

『예술로서의 삶』 한국어판 출간 기념 저자 화상강연회의 강연문입니다.

저자의 허락을 받아 공개합니다.

* 화상강연회 영상은 아래 링크에서 보실 수 있습니다.


Western philosophy, at least since Plato, has long been concerned with determining the criteria for the “good life.” From Plato through the Cynics and Stoics, this meant an existence in which truth and self-restraint helped to order one’s life and create a self that could endure hardship and the perils of time.

             Throughout the Christian period in the West, this more self-regulated mode of ethics was replaced by a religious mode of existence, which saw the rise of religious codes of conduct as determining the good life. Another mode of thinking arose in the modern period of the 17th and 18th centuries in the West, where individuals came to see themselves as part of democratic and economic projects that may or may not be religious in nature. The state, the church, and the material world became competitors for determining how people should live their lives.

             This was not without its problems, however. In the 19th century, a group of thinkers, most of them Romantic or post-Romantic, arose in opposition to the religious, political, and economic ways of talking about ethics. Instead of seeing these ideas as helpful, they turned to a new way of envisioning existence and living well. This new way was art and the aesthetic.

             Beginning in the late 18th century, many thinkers, such as Friedrich Schiller and Arthur Schopenhauer saw art as a way to heal the human condition. Indeed, art often seemed to function similar to the religious, in that it provided a kind of “redemption” for individuals and a way to live.

             This movement had its extremes, too. In Britain and France, a group of individuals, dandies, came to think that the best way to live was to turn themselves – body, mind, and spirit – into living works of art. Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and others, saw in the dandy a powerful impulse to use art to make themselves into living works of art, with a sincere attention to every detail of their own lives.

             For many thinkers, the equivalence between life and art was too literal, though. Beginning with Friedrich Nietzsche, a number of French and German philosophers began to see the aesthetic, that is, the essence of art, and not simply art itself, as a way to inspire a better way of living. As with other thinkers, this form of thinking was often resolutely anti-religious, anti-materialistic, and anti-political, though it would steal from all three domains. Instead, individuals were to use aesthetics as a way of thinking about how to best live their lives. This more general form of using the aesthetic to live one’s life, particularly as it came to be theorized in the late 19th and 20th centuries, is what I call “life as art.”

             This does not say much about what life as art is, though. In fact, if we just look at Western philosophers who use art to think about ethics during this period, there is little, if any, agreement. Critical theorists, like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse think that art’s primary function is political and revolutionary; phenomenologists like Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty think that art should introduce us to a romantic vision of the world as it truly is; and others, like Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Michel Foucault, think that art is a tool we use to make our lives into something different. These ideas, while not necessarily contradictory, see art as doing different things, and therefore the good life as something different, too.

             My attempt, in the book Life as Art, is to attempt to construct a coherent philosophical outline of what the aesthetic life might look like by using each of the above thinkers as tools. Indeed, I would offer that life as art is the attempt to weave the political and sensual dimensions of existence into one integrated whole, where one’s life is the medium to express these aesthetic values. In doing so, one’s life might become a total work with certain aesthetic features – resistance, beauty, and, quite possibly, self-perfection. For these thinkers and myself, life as art does not offer the redemption of religion, but it may offer a way of living a better and more meaningful life.

             In the few short minutes that we have together, I want to sketch some of the features of life as art that I think are important, and then discuss both what they mean and how they can be improved upon. I’ll begin with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.



In order to begin addressing the questions surrounding life as art, we must first begin with a simple question: what is art? Or, in more contemporary aesthetic language, what is it that art expresses? And, thus, what do we find in art that is so helpful to us when we think about making our lives into something new and different? This is the central question within life as art.

             For Friedrich Nietzsche, the answer to the first question – what is art? – is simple. Art is an illusion. Art resembles something we know, but is different. In many ways, art is a fantasy. Or, in his more honest moments, Nietzsche will even say that art is a lie. Art takes what we know and transforms it into something that it is not.

             Yet we should not see the “lying” nature of art to be a problem, according to Nietzsche. Rather, art can be a noble lie, one that helps us to see the world in a new and interesting way. Greek theater, for example, was a lie, but a good one: it got the Greeks to see the world in a different way, perhaps even as it truly was – rough, painful, and full of suffering. only art, and its accompanying illusions, could do this.

             It is clear throughout Nietzsche’s work that this dimension of the aesthetic is both helpful and part of the good life. Art is a form of experimentation, one that allows us to try on new ways of seeing and living.

             But we should not adopt this form of thinking uncritically. Indeed, to be wholly committed to the aesthetic would be to live in a world rife with illusions. one also needs to know the truth and to be able to criticize and tear down those illusions that are not longer helpful. Hence, according to Nietzsche, we also need the ability to think critically. (He calls this Wissenschaft, which is often translated poorly into “science.”) one should not let illusion get the best of us. Thus, critical thinking is needed to temper the irrationality of the aesthetic.

             Nietzsche has many metaphors for this balance between science and art, but I have two favorites. In Human, All Human, he refers to the notion of a “double brain,” the ability to have both science and art in one’s head at the same time. one should be able to think in two ways. Or, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he frequently refers to the art of dance. People have often wondered what he means by this, but, on my reading, “dance” for Nietzsche refers to the ability of individuals to move gracefully between the illusions of art and the hard knowledge of critical thinking.

             Nonetheless, the relationship between art and science, and how it affects our lives, is of the utmost importance for Nietzsche. Indeed, for this relationship, Nietzsche often reserves a second idea of art to explain it: it is, to his mind, the “art of living.” In often poetic tones, particularly in the Gay Science, Nietzsche discusses the art of living as a way in which we blend together all the different elements of our life into a single work. In this way, it takes wisdom and artistry to weave together the illusions of art with critical thinking. Further, Nietzsche thinks that all of this should be done with an intentional “blueprint” for how our lives should take shape. Like a sculptor in marble or a choreographer of dance, we should know what shape our lives should take and what values they should express. This should all be informed by art and hard thinking.

             There is much in Nietzsche to like, and much to oppose. But I think that these reflections on art and living give us the essential framework for what I call life as art. There are three things to take away here:

1.          Art is an illusion, one that gets us to see something we hadn’t seen before;

2.          Art is always related to some new form of thinking;

And 3.   Art is not just found in artworks, but is also a process that we can bring to our lives. Art is the craft of working on ourselves.

             In the thinkers I discuss in the following, keep this general structure in mind. For, though many of the thinkers I discuss do not follow Nietzsche’s precise thoughts, I do believe they follow this general structure. As we’ll see in the coming moments, life as art is both the desire to see the world differently, and the art of creating a structure within which this can happen.


Critical Theory

Life as art, as we’ve seen with Nietzsche, is built on the balance between the aesthetic and critical thinking. I’d like to take these next few minutes to discuss the role of critical thinking within life as art, using the critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse as my resources. As with Nietzsche before, we can situate an analysis of critical thinking for both thinkers within the general category of how they think about art and aesthetics.

             As with Nietzsche before, Adorno and Marcuse both think of art in terms of illusion and transformation of consciousness. For them, this is an inherently political transformation, one that makes you desire turning the world into a better place.

            This occurs primarily through the ability of art to show us an image of what might have been or what could be. According to Adorno, when we see a work of art we view how an artist has changed reality. We should be saying, to some extent, “oh, that’s how she sees the world, and how it appears to her.” Of course, when we do this, we recognize that the world of art is different than our own world.

             In a moment of reflection, according to Adorno, this should get us to see that our world is not the same as it is in works of art. This critical difference is what raises our consciousness: how is the world different? What’s missing in our world that is present in the world of art? In this way, art becomes the vehicle of a new consciousness of the world as broken and not the way it should be. Art tells us where these ruptures and dislocations are.

             To Adorno, this is art’s primary, and perhaps only, function. It gets us to think about the world in new ways. But to his friend, Herbert Marcuse, this is not the only function of art. Of course, Marcuse will argue, art is to make us think differently, but it should also get us to act differently.

             This is, like Nietzsche, a second theory of art. Art not only raises consciousness, but it can be a different way of relating to things. For Marcuse, this idea of the aesthetic should be more sensual and less dominating. This would play on the idea of the aesthetic as feeling, not as knowing. So, for example, Marcuse would see a new relationship to animals as not one of domination, but of caring for and helping them, instead of seeing them as simply bodies that give us meat.

             Marcuse takes this idea to its maximum extent when he argues that we can begin to form something new, something he calls “society as a work of art.” In such a society, we would have both a recognition of the way things should be as well as a new relationship to others and things. Instead of treating things as instruments, we would treat them as ends. Instead of treating things and people as centers of profit, they would be given the ability to experience pleasure on their own terms.

             This is an explosive concept for Marcuse, as it turns the conversion experience of art from Adorno into a concrete political concept. For Marcuse, this should transform our relationship to people, food, our jobs, and our families, not just politics, per se. It means, in some way, that the individual should see living aesthetically as a constant act of political revolution. When we live artfully, according to Adorno and Marcuse, we both see the world differently and act on that difference, creating new ways of earning a living, living with others, and living on the earth. This political activity can be either socially or individually located.

             Like Nietzsche, then, the critical theorists see art as functioning in two ways, as both consciousness-raising and as a vehicle for overt political action. Art gets us to think critically about our world and find new ways of living in that same world. Art is, in large part, the inspiration to change our lives.

             As with Nietzsche, though, this notion of the aesthetic is not left alone. It must be balanced, I would argue, with another way of seeing the world as the source of pleasure and beauty. Thus, from critical theory we will now turn to phenomenology and a different way of seeing the world.



The second part of life as art, as I conceive it, relates to the ability for art to help us see a world we had forgotten or lost. Yet, instead of being a political recovery of sorts, this stage in life as art is more about the ability for art to get us to see something vivid, original, and perhaps even beautiful, at the heart of all our experience.

             In order to see this part of life as art, we look to the work of phenomenologists Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. I’m not sure how “phenomenology” translates into Korean, so I would briefly define phenomenology as the attempt to see how the world appears to us before we begin to impose our own frameworks of meaning onto it. Many have seen phenomenology as having similarities with Buddhism for this reason.

             What this philosophy amounts to, for Martin Heidegger, is more of an attitude than a particular concept about who we are. The problem, as Heidegger admits in his later work, is that we often do not see how things really are because we are too busy seeing them as we want them to be. As a result, we need to learn how to see things differently. This ability to see things as they are, Heidegger calls the poetic. (There are some long reasons for this, but I don’t have the time here.) For Heidegger, the essence of poetry – and therefore of good art – is the ability to see things as they are, or to present them as they really are. Poetry and art do this really well.

             If we open ourselves up to experience the world as it really is, not simply through our own interpretations, then, according to Heidegger, we can begin to do real justice to the experience of other things. Moreover, this would be a vivid and original vision of the world – much like the final experience of Zen after achieving Enlightenment. We see the world as it has always been, though we’ve forgotten it.

             I don’t think this attitude of openness is enough, though. This needs to be made more concrete. As a result, I think the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty is helpful to get us to see how Heidegger’s more abstract vision can be made real. To that end, Merleau-Ponty sees perception not simply as an act of thinking, but a matter of how our bodies move and experience the world around us. We don’t just see a room; our body immediately attempts to feel its way through a room and how it might move. This, to Merleau-Ponty, is simply how we perceive space.

             It’s also what art gets us to see. A great painting, for example, might manipulate our eyes and how we see depth. Or we can be seduced by a painting of lemons and flowers because we love the smell of them both, even though we can’t smell a painting. We experience art with our whole body, according to Merleau-Ponty.

             And this is where Merleau-Ponty can add to Heidegger’s idea of poetic thinking. Poetic thinking doesn’t just have to be an act of thought or a belief, but it can be an embodied practice of experiencing the world in new ways. I would offer that it is through certain concrete and embodied practices that we can begin to see the world for what it is, both as sensual and as possibly beautiful.

             Take, for example, drinking a glass of wine. We can, of course, think we know what the wine will taste like before we even have a glass. It tastes like cherries, or peaches, or has notes of pepper, and so on. Or, according to Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, we can allow the wine to structure our experience, to feel it with our tongues and noses and see it with our eyes. We can say similar things about food or the grasp of a child’s hand. We can allow the world to show itself to us through the way we slow down our bodies and allow them to receive experience.

             To be sure, this is about an attitude, one that offers up a different way of seeing the world. But it is an attitude informed by the openness and embodiment that we feel in certain works of art. Just as a dancer experiences space, we, too, can feel the world around us in a new and interesting way. For Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, this is the inspiration that art offers us.

             I would offer, too, that what thinkers like Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty offer is a different way of seeing art. Instead of the overt political implications of the critical theorists, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty show us what we already knew about art: that it can be about pleasure, too. Art isn’t just about how we think, it’s also about how we feel. And, most of the time, those feelings come to us best when we aren’t anticipating them or when our bodies are open to receiving them. This stage of life as art both accepts and endorses this concept of the aesthetic: that one of the key functions of art is to get us to see something surprising and vivid, perhaps when we least expect it.


Putting It all Together

At this point, I’d like to take a step back and recognize the two very different ideas of art that we’ve discussed thus far. on the one hand, we have a committed notion of art that is highly critical and revolutionary in intent. Art is to create a critical political consciousness. on the other hand, we have a notion of art as sensual and surprising, opening us up to new experiences and a sense of wonder. These are both similar and different. In terms of similarity, they both contend that art is a medium that creates a transformation in an individual. In terms of difference, one is engaged and political, while the other is sensual and even mystical.

             To return to Nietzsche’s “double brain” idea, life as art contends that these two strains of the aesthetic are essential to how we might come to live artfully. And, in the same spirit as Nietzsche, we need a “poetry of living” that might unite these two different ideas. How do we blend together politics and pleasure? How do we live a life that is both externally significant and internally meaningful? Again, I would offer that a different theory of art helps us in this regard, too.

             In the book, I discuss both Michel Foucault and Albert Camus in this respect. For our discussion today, though, I want to focus on the literary work of Camus, as it helps us to see what this poetry of living might amount to. It also gives us some hint as to how we might go beyond the picture of life as art that I’ve painted thus far.

             Camus, unlike the theorists discussed above, does not have a highly detailed theory of art. Instead, what he says about art and artists is largely channeled through characters in his novels, particularly during and after World War II.

             Three examples from Camus’ work interest me here. First, in his wonderful novel The Plague, Camus examines the work of a group of men trapped in the Algerian town of Oran who decide to combat a plague infestation with sanitary squads. Like most existential novels, the men do not expect to win, but they keep fighting nonetheless, even when most of the people they treat, including their comrades, die.

             In The Plague, we see two characters, Joseph Grand and Jean Tarrou, who exemplify certain aesthetic values that Camus believes to be important. Tarrou, for example, fights tirelessly against the plague, striving for, as he states, “sainthood without God.” He joins fellow humans in suffering and distress. And yet, in one of the more beautiful scenes in the book, he also goes for a perfect late evening swim in the Mediterranean with the book’s narrator, Dr. Rieux. Similarly, Joseph Grand gives what he can in the fight against the plague, but he also, somewhat absurdly, tries to the craft the perfect opening sentence to a novel throughout the book. The book ends with him stripping the sentence back to its verbs and beginning again. Perfection is hard.

             one more literary example will do here. In a short story, “The Artist at Work,” Camus creates a character, Gilbert Jonas, who paints canvases in a small corner of his home. He is often besieged by others, including his family. In a bold move, he secludes himself for weeks at a time to work on his final masterpiece. When it is finished, all that one can see on the canvas is a word, but we don’t know if it says “solidary” or “solitary.” (I’m not sure if this play on words will translate well into Korean.)

             In each of these characters, there is a delicate balancing act at work. Each character blends solemn fraternity and empathy for others, often in the midst of struggle, with the demands of individual meaning and fulfillment. In his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize for literature, Camus discusses this precise dynamic. Though I have not quoted anyone yet, I think this is worth quoting at length:

“The loftiest work will always be . . . the work that maintains an equilibrium between reality and man’s rejection of that reality, each forcing the other upward in a ceaseless overflowing, characteristic of life itself at its most joyous and heart-rending extremes. Then, every once in a while, a new world appears, different from the everyday world and yet the same, particular but universal, full of innocent insecurity—called forth for a few hours by the power and longing of genius.”

Each of the lives crafted by Camus manifest this equilibrium between resistance and joy. We are not only called upon by Camus to create a new world, but also to celebrate the one in which we live. Our own lives are a manifestation of this simultaneous desire to make the world a better place, but also to have a reason for doing so. We change the world because we love it.

             In a fitting way, this is the work of the life-artist for Camus. The artist is someone who finds a way to blend these two drives and desires. Foucault will call this ability to find those dimensions of life which allow us to be both political and sensual the “aesthetics of existence.” For, what we’re really doing when we blend these elements is the stuff we do already – trying to live lives that mean something to others and give ourselves pleasure. Or, as Foucault and Nietzsche would say, it is about “giving a coloration” to one’s life. Camus’ characters do this through acts both large and small, by risking their lives and by writing absurd sentences. Camus’ message is clear here: the artful life is one that is both extraordinary and banal.



What Camus gives us, then, is another way of thinking about art and life as art. Of course, he’s not talking about art, but about the artistand what she does. And it is this transition that is significant, I think, for how we should come to think about life as art. Life as art is not just a reflection on the nature of art, though that is important, but, rather, the attempt to see every individual as an artist who is capable of making something out of her own life. The stuff of everyday existence – friends, career, home, family, food, sex, etc. – are the raw materials the artist can use to create an artful life, one with elements of both resistance and enjoyment. It is the sincere attempt to use the everyday to create a life built out of two desires – politics and pleasure – that marks the life artist.

             As Camus shows, though, doing so is not easy. His figures are literary for a reason: such lives are rare. The same goes for James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus. Or are they? Is living one’s life artfully so rare? Or are we doing it all the time?

             Contemporary ethicist Susan Wolf, in her book, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters, has discussed the two elements of meaningfulness: engagement with communities and people that think you are doing something important, and doing things that give you a sense of joy and fulfillment. She believes that many of us live such lives. I would agree. But are these not the elements of the artful life, too? A life animated by a political consciousness and the need to find joy in that world is life as art.

             Of course, what life as art adds is the demand that such a life be animated by a new consciousness and follow certain aesthetic criteria, like perfection, imagination, and a poetry of living. The journey to the good life, in life as art, must go through the nature of art itself.

             Life as art, as I started this talk, is also remarkable for what it is not. Note here that life as art is not necessarily religious, though it does not exclude religion. Nor is it necessarily economic, political, or simply living according to one’s own society. If anything, life as art is the continual attempt to create a self that is removed from these ways of creating a life. Because resistance is built into life as art, it is necessarily marked by the desire to stand apart and to create a life that is both for others and for oneself.

             I am occasionally asked what the artful life might actually look like. Who does this? And, to that, I would say that anyone that thinks about their life in aesthetic terms (as a continuous and unfolding work) and who lives the kind of meaningful life discussed above, is probably living artfully. We know such people. They are our mentors, friends, and perhaps even children. What life as art does, in a sense, is give philosophical justification for those lives we already know to be beautiful, but we do not know why.

             I would also add, on an interesting philosophical note, that life as art is an interesting historical and philosophical development. Why do we Westerners come, in the past 200 hundred years, to think of humans in terms of aesthetics and not religion or myth or something else? I think life as art gives some answer to this, though I’d be interested to hear your responses: it happens, I think, because art is such a powerful medium to expressive the creative human activity of making a life, and, additionally, because art, like religion, is always open to interpretation. Moreover, we no longer think of our lives as given to us, but as something to be made. In this way, life as art may be a better expression for how we think about ourselves than religion or culture can provide.

             I’d like to close on a somewhat critical note here. Life as art, while interesting, also has its shortcomings. Perhaps most notable in life as art is the fact that much of the philosophy here centers on the individual and what he or she makes of her life. Yet it is precisely this individualism that may be a problem. How do we make meaningful lives, if not with others? Hence, I think one way we may begin to move beyond life as art is to envision an artistic life that not only includes others, but is based on the intrinsic human togetherness that we all know and experience. This may generate new metaphors and resources for how to live our lives that go beyond art, but may draw from parenting, friendship, and collective experience. Integrating those into the artful life will be a new task for all of us.

             Thank you all for your time. I look forward to questions and comments.


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