Schopenhauer’s philosophy of art can only be understood when we have a little look at his philosophy in general. In order to get to know this fundamental philosophy, we can just look at the title of his most influential work: the World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung).
In his work, Schopenhauer does not see the term ‘will’ as the human faculty we normally understand by it. Instead, he is talking about a ‘mysterious and deaf force’ that is ‘far removed from everyday immediate consciousness’ – a force that constitutes reality as it is in itself. When understood in this particular sense, ‘will’ is the present in the whole world and forms the essence of every thing.
In the mineral world, the Will is the force that makes the volcanoes erupt their lava. It is the force that makes the herbs grow of the flowers blossom. in the animal world, it is the Will that forces the blind mole to create its tunnels or the tiger to run to its prey. In its turn, it is the same Will that makes the prey run from the tiger. In the human world, according to Schopenhauer, the Will is accompanied by consciousness and desires.
The Will is the guiding force of the world, and it that sense it is also unique and omnipotent. It has, however, also a very strange inherent absurdity: nothing outside of it is able to justify the Will and nothing can give it any meaning. It is also irrepresentable, since it exists outside the forms of representation – which are time, space and causality.
This is why the world is both Will and Representation. When we look around us, we never see the Will itself; we only see walking or flying individuals, running tigers or flowering blossoms. We only see things going around their business without any knowledge of the guiding Will.
And all these individuals are also in constant battle with each other, because of this same Will, the roots of the tree fight with the roots of the flowers for the scarce resources, and both roots are in battle with the blind mole that want to consume either.
The will in homo sapiens
In homo sapiens, the Will takes the form of needs and desires and in this way condemns him to pain and suffering. Needs and desires lead to a sense of deprivation (one form of this suffering) – and when this deprivation is momentarily fulfilled, it immediately leads to other needs and desires. And even if this is not the case, according to Schopenhauer, we suffer from a sense of boredom.
However, Schopenhauer envisages a way out of this eternal and continuous suffering. Since this all finds its origin in the omnipresent and omnipotent Will, we have to cut ourselves loose from this Will. But how do you cut yourself loose from this fundamental principle? He sees a possibility in our sense of self: our consciousness – the possibility of detaching ourselves from something and to look at it from an analytic point of view.
More precise, we can liberate ourselves from the Will in three stages: the aesthetical stage, the ethical stage, and the metaphysical stage. In the remainder of this text, we will look at the first of these three.
Art as a way out of the suffering
When we experience a work of art, Schopenhauer states, we cease to be a passive and impotent subject of the Will; we become instead its spectator. This has two consequences. The first is that this aesthetic experience removes the suffering that is caused by the Will. When we read a book, regard a painting or listen to a piece of music we are thrown in a world that is not a world of action and therefore a world in which the Will has no effect. The pleasure we experience in an aesthetic experience changes us into a being of pure consciousness, free of Will, of time and of suffering.
The second effect of the aesthetic experience is closely related to the slightly later development of the romantic vision on art. According to Schopenhauer, the aesthetic experience also produces a superior form of knowledge.
Normally, he writes, we view the world as divided into separate objects and it is the role of scientific inquiry to come up with the relations between these objects, in the forms of formulae and laws of nature. However, in the aesthetical stage we can come up with a different form of knowledge. A knowledge that is only possible for someone who is transformed completely into a knowing subject – a subject that places itself for some time at a distance of the Will. And the object of knowledge of this knowing subject is nothing less than the guiding principle of every being: the Will itself.
But how is art capable of such a feat? How can a reproduction of flowers in oil on canvas or a play on the dramas of human nature demonstrate anything else then the objects it is a copy of? What is the extra the arts have to offer in lieu of the original phenomena that we see only inn the real world?
Aesthetics as a form of knowledge
According to Schopenhauer, the arts make the Ideas of these particular phenomena visible. This term is not to be taken in a platonic sense; for Schopenhauer it means something different. He talks about the ‘objectivication of the Will itself’, or the ‘General Forms’ in which the Will manifests itself.
So when I contemplate the vaults of a cathedral, in these put-together stones I am actually experiencing two tireless forces (of the Will) that put them together and takes them apart, the force of cohesion and the force of resistance. When I read Un Amour de Swann by Proust, I go through the Ideas of jealousy – a sentiment that in normal life tears our relationships apart but in this case remains impotent. The tragedy, which is for Schopenhauer the most elevated art-form, we can see the Will as it does its working on human nature without, however, being subjected to it.
These Ideas, that only the arts can make accessible for us, are thus neither the indifferent forms of the Will, nor the absolute and particular phenomenon of everyday life. In contemplating art (and these Ideas) we beget a form of knowledge that is neither philosophical nor scientific.