“[O]ne does well to separate the artist from his work, which should be taken more seriously than he is. Ultimately, he is no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows—and thus, in most cases, something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed. Insight into the origin of a work is a matter for physiologists and vivisectors of the spirit: but never one for the aesthetic men, the artists!”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals
It’s easy, reading Nietzsche, to fall into anachronism: to consider his comments about divorcing the author from the text as indicative of something akin to the New Criticism, a hermeneutic that isolated texts from externalities such as authorial intent and that treated the aesthetic object as self-contained and autonomous. That is not at all what Nietzsche meant. For Nietzsche, the text, or the aesthetic object, is not isolated from externalities, but merely removed from and, in a way, prior to the author; the text is plugged into externalities, shaped and molded by them, so much so that the author is but the incidental medium through which the text speaks. The text, in other words, has its own authority apart from its creator, who, through the will, channels social and cultural energies to generate aesthetic output. The writer or artist is “no more than its pre-condition, the womb, the soil, possibly the manure and midden upon which, from which it grows.” Discourse impregnates the writer or artist, who, thus implanted with ideas and alphabets, carries vocabularies through their prenatal stages and into a rebirth—or new expression—in the form of art.
According to Nietzsche, the objects and ambitions of the writer or artist as a thinking actor are not, or ought not to be, overstated because the writer or artist is the ultimate example of the effect of action and will. For the writer or artist is not independent from discourse and ethos—indeed, he is constituted by them, and so, by extension, is his textual production: the aesthetic object. We may forget the author; if anything, he or she only impedes the pleasure we derive from texts and aesthetics. The author is “something which must be forgotten before the work itself can be enjoyed.”
Why does Nietzsche posit this view? What is he after? Among other things, he’s criticizing the writers and artists who would have us believe that they are above and beyond others, somehow able to divine the real and the eternal. These writers and artists treat the ascetic ideal as part and parcel of aestheticism—i.e., they conflate the ascetic with the aesthetic to maximize their feeling of power. Although writers and artists promote themselves in this way, as if they had privileged access to universal yet remote knowledge, they realize, Nietzsche says, that on some level their ascetic ideal is an unreality or falsity—what Baudrillard might have called a hyperreality or simulacrum. The ascetic ideal is escapism: a fleeting respite from the reality of the will to power, the impulse that the writer or artist seeks to evade, suppress, and disguise. The conflict of the writer or artist lies in the desire to escape both to and from asceticism; for the intoxicating powers of the ascetic ideal are sobered by the boredom and angst of knowing that the ideal is but therapy and relief. That realization means that therapy and relief are themselves, paradoxically, the grounds for further escapism—for further therapy and relief.
All of this suggests that ascetic ideals do not signify. As Nietzsche says, ascetic ideals “mean absolutely nothing!” What is so remarkable about these ideals is that they are contingent and contextual such that they amount to nothing and everything at once, and that we will, despite ourselves, and despite our longing for meaning, chase after nothing rather than not chase at all. That, alas, is why the artist lacks independence in this world. That, alas, is why no artist is disinterested.