Great Critics and Their Ideas: Friedrich Nietzsche

on Julian Stallabrass. Interview by Matthew Collings

By Matthew Collings

Lou Andreas-Salomé, Paul Rée and Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. Courtesy the Granger Collection/Topfoto


What were your aims?

Freidrich Nietzsche

The transvaluation of all values -- to provide a thought system by which humanity could rid itself of traditional religions and all metaphysical ways of thinking – that is, those that are transcendent, out of this world, celebrating a higher realm of which earthly being is a mere shadow. I was also keen to rid the world of nihilism, the inevitable consequence of the abandonment of all of that. How are we made? What is God? What is reason? How can we be our own creators? These were questions posed by the onset of modernity. My own efforts at answers initiated further enquiries by Marx, Weber, Freud, existentialism, structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure’s explanations about language and meaning, poststructuralism, Foucault’s tracing of genealogies of power, postmodernism -- well, after that deconstructive sequence there's not much left of divine predetermination.

Were the Nazis right, are you are one of them?

FN No I’m not a nationalist or a fascist, I'm not a denigrator of individuality, and I don’t want to spawn a new caste of master bosses. These are lingering misconceptions caused initially by my sister tampering with some of my papers. They were merely scraps in the creative process, provocative notions, which needed to be spelled out only to see if they had any rational content. Most did not. But she released them in the form of an enormous incoherent work, called (after one of my concepts) The Will to Power. Scholars have since found it to possess a certain value, because, being made up of material I had rejected from my books, most of which were produced during a few short years, it indicates how sane (rather than insane) I was during that period. My sister was married to a rabid anti-semite, whose views she found mesmerising. She hoped, through this pseudo-work by ‘Nietzsche’ to recast me as the originator of National Socialism's racial ideas. You can see her in a photo, an old woman by her doorstep, being embraced by Hitler.

What's the Übermensch?

FN My name for a state humanity has yet to achieve. It is contrary to the Christian ideal, the power drive disguised as humility, Freud’s term for which is passive-aggressive. As he puts it, primed by my theories, we all seek to rule and dominate, or at least hold our own, behind whatever mask of false humility we find it expedient to wear. In my books I said we are earthly beings after all, animals, but – and this is the crux – equipped with the ability to create art, which alone transcends animality.

You rank art very high?

FN The ultimate authority is creation, it is art; or rather, art represents the absence and the impossibility of an ultimate authority.

Do you like it to be emotional or just dry concepts?

FN An ‘emotional response to art’ is only another illusory desire in an age of nihilism, another expression of futility, a desire for comfort and a retreat from hard tasks. Not knowing what to believe in about art or much else, many contemporary people appeal to emotion as the key. Recently they heard Robert Hughes used to be in charge of it.

He was full of insights and sharp as a tack.

FN He is praised in a great spirit of enthusiasm, yes, but when you ask what exactly these insights are, the results are disappointing. It’s a can of beans I don't want to open here. I'm content to allow those whose interest in art is limited to conversational power moves at dinner parties to have their idol.


FN Producing a familiar hollow sound as when the bowels are inflated. Compared to Hughes’s exhausting lurid pronouncements, analysis of art’s social meaning is a breath of fresh air. Sadly even here, though, you've got to put up with delusory notions of a higher truth that really only serve the author's own needs.

Who are you thinking of?

FN A perfect example is provided by the astounding interface of piety and vanity, each fired to a perfect finish, in the intellectual creations of the one who calls himself Stallabrass. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy this professor’s engagement with the issue of art’s place in society. But if we are talking about art as such there are many errors. He says Chris Ofili seeks attention from the mass media by presenting a picture of the Virgin adorned with crotch shots from a pornographic magazine. This supports a contention that at a certain point art in Britain tries to solve problems of low audience interest by being crudely sensational. He persuades himself that it is only on this level that the painting in question has any identity. It solves a lot of problems for him, understanding the painting’s formal logic perhaps being the main one. In this Stallabrass is being human, all too human, since we find significance where it suits us.

Then what does Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, which was controversial around the world 15 years ago, really mean?

FN It can be interpreted in any number of ways. A painting by Manet doesn't say, ‘This is a chunk of reality that I saw’. Its statement is ‘This is reality’. For Manet, the event in time (a bar, a barmaid, a man meeting her blank stare) is the thing through which he's presenting his expression of reality. But also ‘painting’ is the thing: its meanings both as a discipline and a practice, and as a history of forms. No doubt if Stallabrass had to interpret A Bar at the Folies-Bergère he would see it as a collection of disembodied signs much in the same way as he sees the Ofili. He might bring in some form of words to indicate he has heard of brush strokes, since this is a convention of Manet scholarship. However, he is incapable of seeing with his own eyes the same things in the Ofili, even though they are clearly what the Virgin is made of, together with collage additions that disturb the reading of the surface (such a disturbance being a continuation of the visual tradition initiated by the painters of Manet’s generation). He cannot see dung and cut-up magazine images as components within a formal arrangement, continuous with the language of, say, Cubism. They can only be dumb provocation, as anyone ignorant might interpret them -- but Stallabrass is not ignorant, it’s just that his interest is exclusively in the role he needs this painting to play in an exciting description of new societal formations. ‘Surely I can connect this to neoliberalism!’ he tells himself. Ofili presents a painting of a contradiction: a Virgin and crotch shots. But he is content not to tell his audience ‘what side they should come down on’ as Stallabrass put it, with disdain, in an interview some years ago, as if Manet couldn't be charged with the same refusal -- his own representation of an obscene Madonna hangs permanently only a few metres away from Stallabrass's office in the Courtauld Institute.

I'm still not hearing your own clear interpretation of the Ofili.

FN Refusal to render meaning in as limited and obvious a way as Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is part of this religious/non religious icon’s achievement. It communicates as any sophisticated painting does, through its own rhythms, its abstract values. That these are insignificant to Stallabrass is a problem of his psychological system for giving himself confidence, rather than a problem of the painting. The same problem relates to his credulity, his taking of the bait, as it were, whenever art he comes across simply states in the most direct and childish manner that it is concerned with politics.

With one of your own books, Thus Spake Zarathustra, it is hard for many students in art school seminars today to respond positively to such a remark as, ‘Do you go to women? Don’t forget thy whip!’

FN Contradictions abound; we must deal with them. I posed a photo of the philosopher, Paul Rée and myself, with Lou Salomé, a young Russian thinker with whom we were both in love at the same time. You will agree it says something about the ironic intent of some of my comments about the war between the sexes. It is clear who is whipping whom.

You'll never get anywhere with this Stallabrass line, everyone loves him because he looks at ideology, and it’s old news about Ofili anyway, he long ago recast himself as a millionaire Gauguin, painting paradises in the Caribbean. No one cares what paintings do in a grand historical scheme. They want to know if they are capable of doing the same thing as installations and performances, which are hot.

FN As for ideology, a painting isn’t a set of behaviours, it is a constructed thing, and in its construction it exposes ideology as well as serving it. This is by virtue of its own inner necessity, since painting as a form can't help but constantly process and reprocess its own means.

And bitter ridicule of a critic whose cultural analysis continues to enlighten many young people?

FN Sometimes in society it is helpful to have gone insane.