Barth, Nietzsche and Lady Gaga

Here's a bit of an essay I wrote earlier this term. It presses the question: What exactly is my relationship as an artist to other people? In this excerpt I suggest a few connections between the posture which Nietzsche assumed and that which is assumed by many artists today. If you want the whole essay, just let me know. Context, of course, is everything.

“Originally and properly within I am still alone by myself: in my freedom in relation to the whole cosmos; with my poetry and truth; with the question of my needs and desires and loves and hates; with my known and sometimes unknown likes and dislikes; with my capacities and propensities; as my own doctor, as the sovereign architect, director, general and dictator of the whole, of my own earth and heaven, my cosmos, God and fellow-men; as the incomparable inventor and sustainer of myself; in first and final solitude.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2 (231), describing Nietzsche's basic posture to the world

In this last section of the paper I want to sketch out a few, rough lines of connection between Nietzsche and what I’ll call the über-artist culture. By no means do I intend to say anything definitive. My purpose is simply to note the curious relationship between one of the great 19th-century philosophers and the touted artists of our day who appear to be playing out his ideas with remarkable consistency.

In Barth’s scheme, Nietzsche represents the exponent par excellence of the idea of humanity as autonomous creature. On the first page of his autobiography, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes: “Hear me, for I am he; do not at any price mistake me.” On the final page, in heavy type, he signs off with “Am I understood?—Dionysius against the Crucified.” As Barth describes him, Nietzsche “was the prophet of that humanity without the fellow-man.”

In the last and deepest isolation “he and he alone was the eye and measure and master and even the essence of all things” (232). In Nietzsche I, for my part, rediscover the artist of our day: pathetically misunderstood, self-determined, self-obsessed, profoundly alone and who suffers the real sickness of his or her own ideas.

“I am no man; I am dynamite”
Nietzsche believed he had achieved an existence in-apprehendable to the common man, or the scholar for that matter. He writes:

“As I see it, it is one of the most singular distinctions that anyone can evince to take up a book of my own—I myself will guarantee that he will take off his shoes, not to speak of boots. . . . When Doctor Heinrich von Stein once honestly complained that he could not understand a word of my Zarathustra, I told him that this was quite usual. To have understood, i.e. experienced six sentences of it is to be lifted on to a higher mortal plane than ‘modern’ men can reach” (233).

Funnily enough, Nietzsche reminds me of that absurd bumper-sticker dictum: “The fact that no one understands you does not make you an artist.” I have seen plenty of artists misunderstood for the wrong reasons. I have pleaded their cases against Christians who do not wish to understand. But I have also seen plenty of artists wear this misunderstanding as a kind of prophetic robe, which, while assuaging their hurt feelings, keeps them in a worsened state of isolation and vulnerable to their own (and Satan’s) self-deceptions—like this one:

“The memory of something dreadful will be linked with my name, of an unparalleled crisis, of the most profound clash of conscience, of a decision conjured up against everything that has so far been believed and demanded and held sacred. I am no man; I am dynamite” (235).

Nietzsche was right. His names conjures, still today, a powerful sense of dread, fear, respect, fascination and, quite frankly, ballsiness. But there is also something awfully ridiculous about his statement, which we hear repeated often enough in people like glam-rock musician Adam Lambert.

He, like the Sex Pistols, Lady Gaga, Jim Morrison, Eminem or Rihanna, when push comes to shove will simply say, as he did on November 23, 2009: “I’m not a baby sitter. I’m a performer,” with the implication that a) I am not, finally, responsible to my audience and b) if you don’t get that, that’s your problem, not mine.

“I look in the mirror and it’s my career and my life”
Summarizing Nietzsche’s fundamental posture, Barth writes:

“‘I am’ means that I stand under the irresistible urge to maintain myself, but also to make something of myself, to develop myself, to try out myself, to exercise and prove myself. . . . that I may and must in my own place and within my own limits—and who is to say where these are to be drawn?—have my share in the goods of the earth” (230).

This is the posture of the self-determined, self-constructed man. This is also the posture which Heidi Montag, the reality TV “personality” and recording artist, has taken. As the (disturbingly named) Celebrity News Service (CNS) reported back in January:

“With a new set of breasts, chin, jaw, nose, cheeks, lips, waist, hips, and thighs, Heidi Montag's plastic doll transformation is almost complete. "The Hills" personality said she now looks like a "different, improved version" of herself after 10 cosmetic procedures in one day. The 23-year-old aspiring pop singer, as we are all aware, isn't exactly the best role model for younger girls, but she doesn't care because she is just doing what she thinks is right for her. She told "Good Morning America," "I'm living in my skin, and I look in the mirror and it's my career and my life, and you only have one. So, I want to take advantage of everything and be the best me, in and out, every way."”

Read flatly on the page, this is as bizarre a statement as you will find. What is more bizarre is way in which Montag’s behavior is taken as quite normal by the average American (cf. “Jersey Shore” and “Real American Housewives”). Sure, it’s a tad extreme, but how many artists will disagree with her final verdict: “I’m in a different industry,” she told People magazine, “and I have to do things that are going to make me happy at the end of the day.”

Famous and Lonely
Nietzsche penned a little ditty that went like this:

And who would dare
To be a guest,
Thy guest?

Barth finds Nietzsche’s life aptly summarized in the phrase “azure isolation.” Nietzsche is the man, according to Barth, who is “admired and honoured and loved” yet lives “six thousand feet above time and man” (234). He had infinite things to give, yet existed in the indescribable wealth of his isolation. This simultaneous need and repulsion for humanity, this push-pull, this adulation and isolation, describes a great deal of contemporary artists.

Tila Tequila, yet another musician and “reality star,” serves as the perfect example. She achieved “fame” for acquiring nothing less than the most MySpace “friends”: 1.5 million. On January 11 of this year her purported fiancée Casey Johnson died of medication-related causes. Tila tweeted about the tragedy at least 160 times in the immediate aftermath. After people told her to get off Twitter and to grieve “off-line,” she tweeted yet again:

"PPL say I need 2 get off twitter & grieve with friends & family...WHERE? I DONT HAVE ANY! Casey was my only family & my Dogs! Worst day ever."

If it were not a cause for genuine compassion, this is as bizarre a statement as you will find. She has 1.5 million internet “friends,” yet manically asks where her “friends” are.

The lie that many contemporary artists live with, in Barth's vein of thinking, is that my neighbor has nothing to do with me. The lie for the artist is that she is not responsible to her neighbor. What Nietzsche refused to believe, but that the Christian must believe, however, is that “The neighbor is transfigured into a God . . . Jesus is the neighbour transposed into divinity, into a cause awakening emotion” (239).

My neighbor has everything to do with me, because Jesus, as representative humanity, as the God-Man who exists for and with my neighbor, shows me the only way to be truly alive. Saving grace heals the human soul and frees it from sin to receive its neighbor gladly. In Christ we are freed from the “inexplicable apostasy of man” and our “inconceivable revolt” to love our neighbor in vulnerability, gladness, gratitude and freedom (273-274).

“So the real truth about Lady Gaga fans, my little monsters, lies in this sentiment: They are the Kings. They are the Queens. They write the history of the kingdom and I am something of a devoted Jester. It is in the theory of perception that we have established our bond, or the lie I should say, for which we kill. We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we perceive ourselves to be or rather to become, in the future. When you are lonely, I will be lonely too. And this is the fame.” –glam-rock musician Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta


Jason_Mathis said…
David, this post is really awesome. I'm interested in the interaction of theology, philosophy and the arts, so your post was especially insightful. I just read about you in Christianity Today; as an artist and fellow resident of the Triangle (I live in Raleigh) it's really exciting to know that someone else has the same interest in the church and the arts in this area. Thanks for your blog!
Jason, many thanks for your kind words. Glad to find a fellow pilgrim in the area. Where do you go to church in Raleigh? And do you have vocational interests in connecting theology, philosophy and art?
Jason_Mathis said…
I go to Summit Church in Durham and attend seminary at Southeastern.
Vocationally, I'd like to write books about the arts from the Christian perspective and teach something like a Christian Faith and the Arts class at a seminary or something like that. I just feel like Christians don't really understand or perhaps even sometimes don't care to understand the importance of worship beyond singing on Sunday morning.
What about you? After your doctorate is complete will you go back to being an arts pastor in the local church? or maybe write books?
I, too have interest in Christian perspectives regarding the arts.... Music is widely accepted, but churches seem to be less open, and Christians in general more guarded when it comes to the fine and performing arts.... I work with children now, helping them to see that since we were made in Gods image, we all have a bit of creativity, so we need to find it and in return use it to Glorify God. I am just unsure what is next for me... I would love to see an annual Arts fest for Christians, and my dream is to have a camp for summer arts, and leave it open for artists the other months as a retreat
Jason, I live half a mile from one of the Summit Church campuses (the one on Cole Mill road). That's fun. Your interests sound great and I hope you pursue them wholeheartedly. We need folks like yourself out there. For myself, I'll either land back in the church or in the academy. We'll see. I have three years left to make that decision. God knows.

Ann: hang in there. There are a lot of people like yourself, with kindred desires. You should check out CIVA, CITA and IAM (google the acronyms and you should find the groups easily). You may find your people there. I love your idea of a camp and a retreat center. That's fantastic. Go for it. I hope some measure of it works out. By the way, where do you live and what church are you a part of?
Hannah said…
Hi David, I'm fascinated with what you've written here and would love to read the full essay. I'm from New Zealand and have recently started a group in my church for arty people to meet up, connect and discuss the questions of; what is the role of the arts in church and; how are we to show our faith through our work in the community.

I'm a composer and therefore need other people to share whatever vision of have for each of my works, this is difficult to grapple with and makes it impossible to create on my own. Music is a shared vision - composer, performer, audience.

Is there anywhere that I could find the full essay to read it? I'm very interested in finding more out about this topic.
Hannah: glad to meet you and to hear of your artistic interests. I have a good friend, Jo-Anne White, who's a Kiwi and a multi-talented artist. She also happens to have a heart to shepherd artists. If you don't know her already or would be interested in meeting another fellow artists, please let me know. Also, I'd be happy to share my paper with you. If you'll send me your email address, I'll pass it along. I would also love to hear more details about the things you're doing in your home community. In the meanwhile, God bless you as you pursue his calling on your life.
Hannah said…
Hi again David, I have met Jo, just last week in fact! It was her who told me to have a look at your blog. My email address is Thanks very much, God bless.
anagasto said…
But why always the older Nietzsche? Why not the young professor who did not yet have any dark side and was lucid all through?

Nietzsche acts like a kitten I had that kept going to the mirror to see himself and then got awfully scared, but held out in front of the mirror growling and menacing.

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