From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Nihilism (from the Latin nihil, nothing) is a philosophical position, sometimes called an anti-philosophy, which argues that Being, especially past and current human existence, is without objective meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. Nihilists generally assert some or all of the following:
- there is no reasonable proof of the existence of a higher ruler or creator,
- a "true morality" does not exist, and
- secular ethics are impossible;
therefore, life has, in a sense, no truth, and no action is objectively preferable to any other.
In art, there have been movements, such as surrealism and cubism, criticised for being nihilistic, and others, like Dada and Situationism which openly embrace it. The Situationist International (1957-1972) can be considered a good example of a political/social/artistic movement that was deeply rooted with nihilistic views and ideas. The Situationists abolished the earlier concepts of both Dada and surrealism by attempting to deconstruct the whole notion of 'art' as a separate form, subject or entity. Generally, modern art is criticised as nihilistic for not being representative, e.g. the Nazi party's Degenerate art exhibit. In some Stalinist regimes, modern art is seen as degenerative, and official rules for "aesthetic realism" are established to halt its public and artistic influence.
Literature and music thematically deal with nihilism, especially contemporary literature and music, wherein the uncertainty following modernism's demise is explored in detail. The character Rorschach, from Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen, is a borderline nihilist who says: "We are born to scrawl our own designs upon this morally blank world", observing that existence: "Has no pattern, save what we imagine after staring at it for too long"; however, Rorschach abides moral absolutism, as reflected in his journal.
The term Dada was first used during World War I, an event that precipitated the movement, which lasted from approximately 1916 to 1923. The Dada Movement began in the old town of Zürich, Switzerland known as the "Niederdorf" or "Niederdörfli," which is now sporadically inhabited by dadaist squatters. The Dadaists claimed that Dada was not an art movement, but an anti-art movement, sometimes using found objects in a manner similar to found poetry and labeling them art, thus undermining ideas of what art is and what it can be. The "anti-art" drive is thought to have stemmed from a post-war emptiness that lacked passion or meaning in life. Sometimes Dadaists paid attention to aesthetic guidelines only so they could be avoided, attempting to render their works devoid of meaning and aesthetic value. This tendency toward devaluation of art has led many to claim that Dada was an essentially nihilist movement; a destruction without creation. War and destruction had washed away peoples' mindset of creation and aesthetic.
Perhaps the most commonly referenced portrayal of Nihilism in contemporary film is 1999's adaptation of the book of the same title Fight Club, in which the unnamed narrator's disillusionment with the search for meaning in a consumerist, emasculated society results at first in the antagonist (Tyler Durden) winning him over to a philosophy of antipathy, self-mutilation, and outright animosity towards life. Durden's Nihilism is blurred, however, by the Existentialist flavor of his rebellion against society. His credo that "It is only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything" reflects a Sartrean insistence on the infinite responsibility of free will, while his desire for common men to rise up and overthrow the shallow values of society is reminiscent of Nietzsche's discussion of master-slave morality.
John Malkovich's character in the 1993 movie In the Line of Fire espouses an outlook on life that could be seen as nihilistic over a telephone conversation with a secret service agent played by Clint Eastwood. Malkovich's character, a would-be presidential assassin, describes life and death as lacking any intrinsic justice and being random and meaningless, and gives his motive for the assassination attempt as being "to punctuate the dreariness".
A more fatalist treatment of Nihilism can be seen in the later I ♥ Huckabees, which includes Nihilism among other theories to develop the film's take on life in general. A similar use of Nihilism as a study in futility and meaninglessness can be seen in Jim Jarmusch's 2005 film Broken Flowers.
The 1998 film The Big Lebowski written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, without treating Nihilism as a serious thematic concern, uses several Nihilist characters as comic narrative devices. Three black-clad men with German accents confront protagonist "The Dude" (Lebowski) claiming "We are Nihilists, Lebowski. We believe in nothing. Yeah, nothing." Also, upon being told that a man sleeping on a chair that is floating in a pool with a bottle of Jack Daniels next to him is a Nihilist, "The Dude" responds "Oh, that must be exhausting."
- Epistemological nihilism
- Existentialism (Theistic/Atheistic)
- Metaphysical nihilism
- Moral nihilism
- Postmodern philosophy
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Martin Heidegger
- Ray Brassier
- E.M. Cioran
- Paul Feyerabend
- Henry Flynt
- Michel Foucault
- Edvard Munch
- Luigi Pirandello
- Arthur Schopenhauer
- Elisha Shapiro
- Max Stirner
- Ivan Turgenev
- Gianni Vattimo