Dionysus Reawakened: Art History as Symbolic Ritual
In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche formulated the idea that “the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality.” The art historian Aby Warburg made Nietzsche’s duality the basis of his own research, which no longer merely explained its object of inquiry, but also reproduced it. For Warburg, the art historian’s craft was a recurrence of the same mythical forces that gave rise to art, and thus was governed by the same laws. The duality both Nietzsche and Warburg recognize in art is embodied in the festival of Carnival. At once tradition and rebellion, Carnival laid bare the antagonistic powers underlying society, by transforming that same society into a spectacle. The social inversions and sexual burlesque that comprise this festival gave visible expression to the Apollonian and Dionysian forces governing both man and nature, and thus offer a paradigmatic form of representation, for not only practice of art, but also that of art history.
The Edinburgh International Arts Festival provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the practices of art, and those of art history, particularly at a time when this discipline is attempting to redefine its goals and its methodological models. While its both apologists and detractors believe art history is a discipline that deals exclusively with either the iconographical or formal analysis of “high” art objects, a brief review of its narrative will demonstrate that this assumption is false. From its inception as a formal discipline during the nineteenth century, art history’s founders, such as Warburg, recognized the significance of visual or material culture to the theories of art history. Following in Warburg’s footsteps, I will explore the rituals of Carnival as both an object of inquiry, and a methodological model. The contradictions underlying Carnival correspond to those that currently confront art history. Just as Carnival mediated the dialogue between man and nature through representation, so too does art history, like art itself, mediate the relationship between object and image. My analysis focuses on that period in which Carnival, as a peasant festival, declined during the nineteenth century, just when art history emerged as a formal university discipline. Through the spectacular rituals played out across the space of the city, Carnival transmitted knowledge through the reproduction of the sexual and social tensions found in Dionysus’ mythical bacchante. As art history seeks to reactivate itself by coming to terms with its own tensions and dualities, Carnival—with the emergence of the Dionysian into the Apollonian—might serve as a dynamic model.
Keywords: Carnival, festival, Warburg, Nietzsche, Apollonian, Dionysian, bacchante, duality, art, art history, spectacle
Prof. Lori Nel Johnson
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, State University of New York at Buffalo