In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche creates a dichotomy in art between the Apollonian and Dionysian that he believes allows us to see the interaction between two artistic schools of thought that has persisted throughout history. The Greek god Apollo represents what Nietzsche considers the forms of art associated with dreams – painting, sculpture, form, beauty. This, he believes, has persisted as the dominant form of artistic expression for its relatively docile and uninspiring nature over the dark side of artistic expression – the Dionysian. The Greek god Dionysus, associated with music and wine, represents the forms of art associated with the feeling of intoxication, primarily music. This distinction is made both in how the works in each category are created, as well as how they are received by their audiences.
When an audience is viewing pieces of visual art like paintings or sculptures, they quietly and slowly observe the nuances of the work in a primarily intellectual interaction between the artist and the audience. In stark contrast, when an audience is experiencing an expression of the Dionysian like music, they feel the art, they dance and sing and become wild in a primarily physical interaction between the audience and the artist. This physical interaction has been repressed, Nietzsche argues, because it has the capacity to incite; it profoundly alters the behavior of those who it touches – allowing listeners to lose their inhibition, to connect with others at a deep level, to celebrate life in the universal language. These are not behaviors that a ruling establishment wishes to create in its population; these are behaviors that can upset the balance of power, that can cause violence and sex and destroy precious societal order.
Nietzsche’s categories are accurate in their distinction and highly important for the understanding and study of art. The difference becomes quite obvious when viewed in authentic contexts – compare the patrons of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art with the audience at the annual Ultra Music Festival in Miami, Florida, and one quickly understands the distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The distinction allows us to properly judge art on its merits in either category – one should not criticize a landscape sketch for not inspiring dance in the viewer nor should lyric-less electronic dance music be berated for its absence of intellectual interaction. The latter exists primarily in an emotional context where the user doesn’t see or analyze but instead feels the rhythm and melody while the first resides in the realm of the analytical and the visual and how its elements work synergistically to create a representation of beauty.
Although this distinction is useful, it is by no means absolute. In many instances art forms traditionally considered Apollonian or Dionysian can escape their categorical consideration to form a highly complex and layered assault on both the mind and the body that can elude explanation from all but the most skilled audience. This capacity is surely known by any exposed audience, but its true importance is for the artist, the creator. They must not foolishly restrain themselves to the Apollonian or the Dionysian and instead must exist in the overlapping space between that cradles many of humanity’s best artistic works, those that pass easily through the barriers of sense perception and deconstructive analysis and touch us at the deepest levels and manifest themselves through absolutely compulsive physical expression and intellectual satisfaction that satiates an oft-forgotten primal hunger for self-transcendence.