Nihilistic Art

Get the book 'Nihilism', by Freydis

Although Dada is probably the most closely associated art genre with nihilism, it's not the only one containing nihilistic elements. Nihilism can be found in the art of Surrealism, Futurism, even Pop-art. Futurism, for instance, sought to overcome the past and promoted technological elements of the future with an intent to bludgeon the public with shock effects.


We must break down the gates of life to test the bolts and the padlocks! Let us go! Here is the very first sunrise on earth! Nothing equals the splendor of its red sword which strikes for the first time in our millennial darkness." – F. T. Marinetti, 1909

Founded by Filippo Tommaso Emilio Marinetti with the publication of his Futurist Manifesto in 1909, Futurism was a response to the ossified, backwards-looking conservatism of early 20th century Europe, and Italy in particular. Intentionally provocative and inflammatory, Emilio Marinetti’s Manifesto was a call to rebellion and grand action that sought to build a new and vibrant future, while rejecting establishment culture trapped in a mythical past.

[T]he Futurist programme was based on the refusal of all closed and predetermined forms, on the exigency of a constant renewal of the arts, and the affirmation of the individual’s creative mind above all social hierarchy. [8]

In their manifestos of 1909 to 1913 the Futurists celebrated the dynamism of great cities, the energy and destructive force of modern inventions. The hectic, deafening chaos of a mechanized world would destroy the old morality, the old society, the outmoded human product. They saw the cycle of death and rebirth repeated in men's entanglement with the machine, with electric power and kinetic force. [4]


While Futurism was an unstable mixture of anarchistic attitudes and militaristic passions, Dada on the other hand was thoroughly anti-establishment and opposed to military authority. Both Futurism and dada shared a disdain for tradition. Futurism became a classic example of justified rebellion discredited by misplaced idealism; Dada outlasted Futurism because it didn't have that same weakness; nevertheless it didn't take too long before even the dadaists themselves hated dada because the art was always secondary to the emotion -- rejection, alienation, and anger. Dada was largely a reaction to the bourgeoisie nationalist carnage and fratricide of the First World War.  Dada is often referred to as 'nihilistic art', mostly because it was often devoid of rules and in direct conflict with many contemporary values.

This dissolution was the ultimate in everything that Dada represented, philosophically and morally; everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in it customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape, the screw, like man himself, set on its way towards new functions which could only be known after the total negation of everything that had existed before. Until then: riot destruction, defiance, confusion. The role of chance, not as an extension of the scope of art, but as a principle of dissolution and anarchy. In art, anti-art. [7]

Neue Sachlichkeit (New Realism)

All of the above mentioned art genres are derivatives of reality, they're perceptions and subjective interpretations, and that's perhaps the primary appeal. Personally, I tend to see the most nihilistic art as being views and depictions of things and events as they naturally are, because these objects and forces aren't good or bad, they just are until subjectively interpreted. But then again that's mostly what art is about anyway -- subjective and emotional interpretations of objective events. Enter 'New Realism':

Whereas the Impressionists believed that art should record visual impressions left by actual experience, and the Expressionists strove to reveal an inner, emotional reality, the New Realists strove to objectively catalog everyday life. Their focus was broad and unsparing, embracing all aspects of existence, no matter how sordid or mundane. [3]

Examples of this 'Neue Sachlichkeit,' (German for New Realism), also called Objectivism, can be seen in the work of Karl Blossfeldt as well as his contemporaries like George Grosz and Otto Dix (read 'Otto Dix's Theater', below). Indeed, 1930s Germany seems to have been a watershed for this, and other revolutionary forms.

Neue Sachlichkeit can be a truly remarkable art form with the capacity to convey ideas and concepts in seemingly unlikely ways. I've discovered this myself in Economies of Scale (not shown here - see the Fire Dragon Factory). Just showing a thing as it is, and even calling it what it is, has significant impact within the context of our American(ized) culture where every product and idea must be obfuscated by the smokescreen of 'spin' and propaganda; this is the reality of unreality where unintended killing of civilians on the battlefield becomes 'collateral damage', where software flaws are called 'features' and where increased consumption is not considered waste but 'boosting the economy'.

Optical Art

Optical art has connections to futurism, neue sachlichkeit, and surrealism too, but it’s most widely seen as an outgrowth of Pop-art because of the chronological overlap. Bridget Riley is one of the most well known artists in the genre of Op Art, and M.C. Escher also falls into this category.

What all Op artists share in common is a relinquishment of any fixed vantage point on the part of the viewer, which, together with a multi-focal composite compells [sic] the eye to ever-fresh perception. This is under-scored by an elimination of the artist's personal touch, in an attempt to concentrate solely on the objective, optical event taking place on the surface. The visual unrest of Op Art reflects an urge not only to keep the eye moving but to set the work of art itself in motion. [5]

The popular works of MC Escher are usually referred to as Optical Art; they revealed the challenges of perspective and dimension by creating new views of common and imaginary objects or settings. Richard Estes, a Photorealist, painted everyday objects and urban locations from photographs.

"I don't enjoy looking at the things I paint, so why should you enjoy it?" - Richard Estes

Surrealism, and more...

All is not as it appears to be, Magritte is saying; the picture thus presents a challenge to ordered society and an assault on the accepted way in which people see and think. [1]

Heironymous Bosch, Delvaux, Dali, and Magritte are generally classified as surrealistic artists in its various forms. Many other artists across genres created works that strongly conveyed nihilistic themes, intentionally or otherwise. A few of them are showcased here for your edification and amusement. Edward Kienholz is a personal favorite for his use of readily available materials from junkyards and thrift stores to construct reflective commentary on society and contemporary values. The rest are nihilistic at least in the sense the artists challenge convention to create new forms and aesthetic expressions. As their methods and products become accepted, admired and even institutionalized over time, it often illuminates the fungible nature of values, the influence of authorized approval, and the coercion of conformity.

(Click on the image to get a larger view)

Escher's work testifies to the fact that things are not what they seem. Reality is affirmed as well as denied, objectified as well as made relative. That is why his world reveals itself in an atmosphere that is simultaneously cool and full of a tense strangeness. The viewer is both kept at a distance and emotionally engaged by it.
Escher bridges contrasts that many experience as complementary rather than as mutually exclusive. Without having specifically searched for this, he appears to have built a bridge from art to science.
- Jan W. Vermeulen [2]

Roy Lichtenstein: “His real work was that of a saboteur, toppling the esoteric things that art had become.” [6]

Saw Sawing in Tokyo by Oldenburg, 2001
"Dada was against art; Punk was against design."
Richard Hollis
Everything Is Wrong By Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, 1996
Sex Pistols, Album Cover, 1988
Out of Order
by Freydis, 2002 & 2005
Byrony plant tendrils (magnified 6.64x) by Karl Blossfeldt
Telephone Booths
by Richard Estes
The Thousand Year Reich
By John Heartfield, 1934

Heartfield was always categorically opposed to and impatient with any art that sought autonomy or detachment from the political and social conditions of the moment. He embodies, on the contrary, the very idea of an artist who works in critical opposition to existing social conditions. And because so much of his work still so effectively marks the presence of one passionate, angry, resistant consciousness, it holds out the possibility of reenacting such an art in the present.
From: Heartfield and Modern Art by Nancy Roth, 1992.

Otto Dix's Theater of the Grotesque

26.04.03 Long term human reaction seems to follow these stages: first people embrace the old (traditional) order and follow it to a conclusion. The old order fails so they regroup and embrace the new order. Then the new order fails because it was built on the same lies, just repackaged, and they regroup and turn away from everything into alienated isolation. Finally realizing that isolation doesn't offer any reward either they give up and drift, numbed and aimless.

What's truly profound in this cycle and what I hasten to emphasize (again!) is that nothing has fundamentally changed, only the perception of things. Anyone with some free-time and brain cells can skip the whole cycle and hundreds of years of history to read the last paragraph, to see the closing credits, to understand what it was  all really about to begin with. But even though it's technically possible to skip to the ending, few do, either through lack of brain-power to do it theoretically or the life-experiences to see it for themselves.  Nietzsche knew this, which is why he referred to nihilism as "the highest degree of powerfulness of spirit."

The life and experiences of the German artist Otto Dix form a perfect story arc for illustrating this concept. Otto Dix (self-portrait with machine gun below) was born in Eastern Germany in 1891. He started out with expressionist painting but today is best known for his work in the 'disturbed' genre. But of course I'm only partly serious. Otto Dix was really a shell-shocked war-veteran that traversed the spectrum from idealist to nihilist, reaching his artistic peak during the turbulent Weimar period. Dix was an intriguing artist that used his visual expression mostly as personal catharsis but also political and social commentary. He likely suffered from a low-level schizophrenia exacerbated or perhaps activated by war trauma; he often spoke of being unable (or barely able) to control violent and anti-social urges.

Dix's worldview was deeply influenced by Nietzsche and the vitalism in life's 'will to power'. He, like the majority of his contemporaries, saw World War I as an opportunity to achieve both personal and national greatness through struggle and battle. In this spirit Dix intentionally signed-up with the German Army to fight, to experience life and action as it happened. But he ended up getting far more than he bargained for, experiencing a radical transformation of values during his years in the trenches as a machine gunner.

Few events change minds like war.

Dix was immune not only to technological utopias of which the post-war period offered so many varieties, but he had apparently also lost all faith in a better world. He was embittered and disappointed that the war, in which he and many others of his generation had placed such great hopes of vital change, had altered neither men nor their environment. In his pictures of cripples and invalids, Dix attacked with a bitter anger only a veteran could feel, the indifference of civilians to the suffering of the war-victims.*

The Great War was disillusioning to say the least. Piles of rotting corpses, poison gas attacks, and Dix never saw things the same again - his idealism and nationalism were as dead as the ones on the wrong side of the line that he slaughtered with his own machine gun.

When Dix began to record the consequences of the great slaughter, the fundamental rejection of society which he had taken from Nietzsche turned to hate.*

The triggering event for Dix's progression into nihilism was his realization that Nietzsche was right about life as a struggle but wrong about its progressive climb to higher planes; life and the universe do not operate teleologically. Nietzsche and Marx were both wrong, and this is one, if not the, most critical divisions demarcating the nihilist view from that of every other world-view.

Though he still believed that Nietzsche was right in seeing life as a vicious circle of birth and death, he no longer saw it spiraling upwards, urged on by human liberty, to some higher, better state. There emerged from the part of this process called war not the free, liberated superhuman but the cripple. All the rest remained as it had always been. The realization led Dix to retreat from the actions of men and society. He was beginning to see the process of life as an inescapable, horrifying and yet fascinating rhythm which free will, and therefore human morality, was incapable of influencing. What remained was a mere survival instinct, grotesquely impelling all forms of life including mankind.*

And there you have it, the last chapter, the final credits. Now you know what it's all about too.

* World War I and the Weimar Artists by Mathias Eberle, Yale Univ. Press 1985 (italics added).

 Symbolic Evolution

Symbols are a consistent thread throughout human history. But although the creation of symbols is consistent the intention has changed dramatically. Some 30-40,000 years ago in land the French occupy today, groups of humans with brains at least as formidable as our own (if not more so judging by size) created elaborate carvings and paintings. Some of the paintings in the back of caves have survived to the present. No one knows exactly what purpose they served, however artistic expression is an inadequate explanation because it was far more than a simple effort by subsistence survivors to decorate a dank and interminably dark hole in the ground.

Old world symbols were meant to represent something else, and so to become abstract, intangible, mystical and religious concepts. To mystically control what could not be controlled, from wildlife to weather. To the popular perceptions at the time an idol and the actual god were one and the same; the culture and mentality of these people is so far from our own in chronology and lifestyle that we'll simply have to make educated guesses. Most of these point to the fact that cave 'art' was really symbolic, it was an intentional effort to depict a preferable reality. But the thinking was that by creating it in symbol form one could manipulate the real form, 'sympathetic magic'. This concept is typified by modern voodoo where the symbol instead of reflecting reality actually creates it, or so they believe.

So a symbol is only as meaningful as the entity for which it represents; a voodoo doll is just a bag of rags without the culture and the religion to turn it into something more. Merely recognizing a symbol without understanding that which it represents is an exercise in futility. This is because symbols themselves are totally relative, they merge and evolve as they migrate from culture to culture even as many of the concepts and entities they represent stay unchanged.

The effort to symbolically impose rational order to the seeming disorder of nature goes back at least to ancient Babylon where scribes created specific symbols to keep track of grain harvest and storage. Our number system of Arabic numerals comes from that same part of the world, a symbol system so effective it has outlasted even the Romans. So the new world of science and reason, typified by Newton's algebra, still uses symbols but in a diametrically different way to the superstitious old. It's an effort to simplify, to understand and make predictable concrete ideas through the use of abbreviations and simplifications. But here instead of the mystical we deal with the concrete, or at least so we've come to believe through the idea that if a formula predicts something we can't detect yet it is only a matter of time until we build a better sensor that will. So far this has invariably proven true.

These symbols are an effort to mimic the real and the substantive instead of create it. Instead of fighting to define it through human standards we've had greater success through acceptance and understanding of far more important non-human standards, but flaws still exist. Particle physics is a useful example. Particle accelerators are being built bigger and more powerful, while the more the energy put into the collision the more particles are created. Apparently the task of cataloguing particles has no end because energy levels are infinite.

Most physicists think that these particles being manufactured are true substance in a physical sense, or at least as much as particle matter can be. That's the simple and perhaps overly superficial answer. A more accurate, but tougher to prove conclusion, is that particle physics is simply detecting what it wants to detect. Are they conveniently viewing things in just the right way as to support the mathematical predictions, an overuse of symbols? Perhaps it's merely a tiny portion of the same thing from many different angles due to a fundamental limitation of our three dimensional being, a perception limitation. Likely all the particles are connected as different energy levels on a single string and particle accelerators are plucking that 'musical' string to get different 'notes' at higher and higher energy levels.

But if everything really is connected, and scientist have already exploited the connection between energy and matter (E=mc², nuclear energy, atomic weapons, etc.) then everything else must be connected by some invisible thread as well. Hence the effort to mathematically unify the four fundamental forces of nature, the strong (nuclear) force, the weak force, gravity and electromagnetism. There seems to be no insurmountable barriers to discovering this all unifying formula fittingly referred to as the Grand Unified Theory, and forming a typically asinine acronym - GUT. A deeper question might be, what if we do find it? When the entire universe can be described with one math formula, what do we do then?

Such is the evolution observable in the midst of all the ancient worships, and which still continues, often unconsciously, in many a contemporary religion. It implies, as a last conclusion, the belief in the equivalence of symbols, that is to say, the conviction that symbolic representations are all inadequate, inasmuch as they attempt to explain the inexplicable, but that they are all justifiable, inasmuch as they aim at bringing us closer to the Supreme Reality; and, moreover, that they are all beneficial in so far as they contribute to awaken ideas of the Good and of the Beautiful. - Count Eugene Goblet d' Aliella

So we could interview a mathematician or a witch-doctor and we'd find both are equally convinced of the powers of their symbols. And here we see the historical conflict between two opposing world views, a battle not yet over. One is faith-based and superstitious based upon unverifiable connections of perception and the other is a critical mentality based upon verifiable connections. But only one set of symbols has predictable and descriptive powers - not because it is trying to create reality but because it is attempting to objectively reflect it. 2002


  • The Oxford Illustrated history of Prehistoric Europe, by Barry Cunliffe, 1994.

  • The Migration of Symbols by Count Eugene Goblet d' Aliella, 1894.

Order & Chaos - Patterns, Science, and Nihilism

From particles to planets we can find strikingly similar patterns across the spectrum of scales, times, and places. The Standard (atomic) Model has been used for a long time to illustrate how the electrons circle the atomic nucleus similar to the orbit of planets around the 'nucleus' of a sun in the solar system. Despite the fantastic difference in size both models have proved to have remarkably useful predictive powers. Similar evidence of unseen common structures can be found everywhere. The sphere is representational of everything from a particle to an atom to a planet, why? Because it's simple, it's the perfect geometry - one dimensional - it only has one side! And fractal geometry for instance can graphically depict complexity from simplicity using math.

So when we look at different scales, times, or places, these useful similarities can be found because fundamental algorithms, simple formulas and repetitive structures, are creating the complexity we exist within. This is the physical parallel to the social mechanisms of primary human concern. The Nihilist should always be asking, what are the roots? What is the simplest common element to explain the evidence? Remember the principle of Occam's razor, the simplest answer is usually correct.

This is the science in nihilism, it's an understanding that complexity is just the interaction of multiple simplicities. Roots lead to the superstructure. And when you divide nothing you get two entities, one positive and a matching negative - for instance an electron and an antiproton. Everything, in a literal sense, is actually the fractured symmetry of nothing.

One of the most powerful appeals of nihilism is its use as a tool for understanding life, reality, and your own place within it all.  So think about it - one common element often overlooked is the fact all human life comes from the same source gynecologically speaking, or that an electron is the same anywhere and anytime in the universe; these elements have both consistency and universality.

Tune out the noise, eliminate the chaff, and seek the substance

Most look at the universe in bewilderment wondering how God created such depth and complexity. Yet "God" didn't build anything, with the parameters defined everything else built itself by filling in the blanks. It's all defined by very concise algorithms, geometric and dimensional boundaries. Similarly most gawk at society and world events only to quickly give up in exasperation – ‘it's so complex and so confusing, how did it get this way?’ Sociologically speaking, it’s all just filling in open space between the artificial boundaries.

The populace is trained by TV and pop-culture to remain unfocused and incapable of the coherent thought so threatening to authority, for any length of time, or figuring anything out besides which button changes the volume and which the channel. Those ones are lost, they're enjoying the rapids of the mainstream on the ship of establishment headed for the waterfall. But the ones reading this, the ones able to think and act, they will survive and prosper because they're not on the ship. So don't be blinded by the bright lights of muddled immediacy and the short-lived products of panic and desperation. Focus on the boundaries themselves, the errant parameters continually creating confusion and disorganization. Most everything that has been built up, packaged and marketed - the values, the limits are just fraud and sham. If you attach to that system either willingly or by default you'll inevitably sink with that ship of lies and plastic promises.

December 31, 2001

Art Production Notes

[2001] As a side note for those interested, the background picture on the front page features the particle tracks from a pion-muon death cycle, you know what a muon is right? The logo spheres were colored with images of planetary surfaces. To name a few - Mars, Venus, the Sun, Jupiter's moon Io, and I think Ganymede is in there too, oh and the asteroid Eros with a red tint. Bonus points if you can guess which is which. The planet / particle duality theme is partly incidental, partly segue into the above prose, but mostly it just looks cool.

1. The Art book, Phaidon Press Ltd. ©1994

2. Exploring the Infinite (Escher on Escher), 1989 Abrams publishing, translation of original book: Het Oneindiga

3. Natural Art Forms by Karl Blossfeldt (originally printed in 1932)

4. World War I and the Weimar Artists by Mathias Eberle, Yale Univ. Press 1985.

5. Art of the 20th Century Volume I, by Karl Ruhrberg, page 347, Taschen GmbH, 2005.

6. Roy Lichtenstein, by Janis Hendrickson, pg. 72, Taschen GmbH, 2006.

7. Dada - art and anti-art, by Hans Richter, pg. 48, 1964, 1965, 1997, Thames & Hudson Ltd.

8. The Italian Sources of Futurism, by Giovanni Lista; extracted from Futurism, 2009, Centre Pompidou, first edition, page 51.

"Let the resistance of this social framework weaken, and ideas which could have had no force before will germinate and develop." – Gustave Le Bon


Content & Design By Freydis
Updated: August, 2015
Created: 2001