Dionysian and Apollonian Elements in David’s The Tennis Court Oath
By Christian Warner '20
PHIL-290: Philosophy of Art
This assignment required that the students describe in detail some work of art, analyze a short philosophical text relevant to the work, and show how the ideas in the text apply to the work they described. For his essay, Christian chose Jacques-Louis David’s unfinished painting, The Tennis Court Oath. After giving a brief analysis of the Apollonian and Dionysian forces in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Christian shows how these forces are in play in David’s painting.
– Mark Thomas
Jacques-Louis David’s Le Serment du Jeu de Paume, or The Tennis Court Oath presents us with a chaotic scene. In this unfinished painting, there are hundreds of people clustered together, seemingly in a frenzy. Yet, there is no physical violence in the painting. Although there is a sense of chaos from the sheer volume of people crammed in the tennis court, there is also a sense of communion—communion in the sense that all the people in the painting are together and regard each other as brothers or allies. In the front center of the painting, we see men of three different social groups: a priest, a merchant, and another man of some other class standing. These men, even though they come from different classes, are shaking hands and embracing each other. When we look to the left and right of the painting, we see that both sides are pointed towards a common middle. The people on both the left and the right seem to be possessed, stricken, or in awe of the person who is in the dead center of the painting. The person in the middle is standing on a table holding a piece of paper, which is certainly the paper on which the Tennis Court Oath was written. The man holding the Tennis Court Oath seems to be in the process of reading it: his arm is outstretched, with his palm facing outward towards the viewer. We see that this gesture is repeated amongst the many people inside the painting. When someone stands with palm faced outward, it is a symbolic gesture showing that the person has nothing to hide. When we look to what is behind the man in the center, we see more or less the same as we see in the front—except that individual elements become much more difficult to identify. There is an impression that the people in the back have all morphed into a single element.
After observing the bottom part of the painting, where most of the action is located, we notice a very empty top half of the painting. Why the painting is so empty in the middle requires further examination, but the emptiness leads the eyes to seek more detail, and the eyes find it on the top left and right of the painting. On the left, we notice a lot of movement. The curtains and umbrella are being violently pulled by wind. Looking more closely, we notice that there is even lightning present. Outside, there is a violent storm that is sweeping into the tennis court. In a sense, the storm fills the empty space that was left by the painter. In the top right, we notice less movement. Things are more orderly and there is less happening. While there are people still celebrating what has happened in the middle, we also notice that there are people casually observing. What is it that these people are thinking as they observe the storm that is happening outside as well as inside? Overall, the movement of the painting all points to the middle, and the middle leads us to realize the emptiness of the top. Yet, the storm from the outside seems to fill the empty space in the middle. Although it is empty, it is charged with the unstoppable forces of nature. Perhaps David is implying that whatever is possessing the top of the painting is also possessing the people in the bottom of the painting: some inevitable force of nature.
How do we further understand the essence of this work? Nietzsche proposes a metaphysics of art in The Birth of Tragedy, and this metaphysics of art can help us ‘fill in the space’ that David leaves empty in his painting. According to Nietzsche, the gods Apollo and Dionysus symbolize opposite realities. The Apollonian is analogous to illusion, and the Dionysian is analogous to intoxication. Nietzsche further develops the essence of the Apollonian by describing a “frail bark” that protects the individual from the vastness of the sea, which otherwise would swallow him whole:
Just as in a stormy sea that, unbounded in all directions, raises and drops mountainous waves, howling, a sailor sits in a boat and trusts in his frail bark: so in the midst of a world of torments the individual human being sits quietly, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis (Nietzsche 36)
This frail bark is Apollo, who embodies order, surety, and the principle of individuation. The individual is necessarily an abstraction from the whole—human beings, believing in nothing but themselves, in their own project, can take comfort in the beautiful illusion that nothing is beyond them. Hence, they can take shelter from the terror of an inconceivable whole. Dionysus, on the other hand, embodies the opposite characteristics:
Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man. Freely, the earth proffers her gifts, and peacefully the beasts of prey of the rocks and desert approach. The chariot of Dionysus is covered with flowers and garlands; panthers and tigers walk under its yoke. Transform Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy” into a painting; let your imagination conceive the multitude bowing to the dust, awestruck—then you will approach the Dionysian. (Nietzsche 37)
In Dionysus we find revelry, the melting of the individual, intoxication, and chaos. While the Apollonian art is symbolized in the intelligible images of forms and shapes, the chaotic essence of Dionysian art is portrayed in music. This is not to say that a painting cannot be Dionysian, or a piece of music Apollonian; it is instead the case that the Apollonian and Dionysian interact with each other to create art. It is analogous to any heroic story: the hero embodies the intelligible, the on a quest to slay some sort of beast that is causing problems. We are quick to think that the beast is unequivocally evil, yet the hero has no quest and has no journey unless there is some beast to slay. The hero’s quest, which is the quest for creating order, is symbolized by Apollo, while the beast that must be slayed is symbolic of Dionysus, the unknown, the thing of nature. It is also not necessarily Apollo defeating Dionysus, but the battle between the two that creates art.
To further understand Apollo and Dionysus, we must understand a little bit about Schopenhauer, who greatly influenced Nietzsche’s early philosophy. In his magnum opus, World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer divides mere appearance and ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is the will underneath appearance, while what we see in appearances is representation. In Apollo we take enjoyment out of the intelligibility of the appearances that we see, while in Dionysus, we take part in something underneath the appearance. Describing the Dionysian is elusive, because conceiving it requires a state of mind that is inherently difficult to describe; only when in the drunken state and when our individuality is melted away can we start to perceive the things underneath the mere appearance, but when these things happen it becomes difficult to remember or describe in orderly terms what actually occurred.
If we return to Jacques-Louis David’s painting, Le Serment du Jeu de Paum, what elements of the Apollonian and Dionysian can be identified? In the middle front of the painting, Apollo is embodied. We have a man in the center with his piece of parchment, and there is nothing that is unintelligible. His own identity can be readily identified. Also, to the left of the man holding parchment we have three individuals who embrace each other, apparently from different walks of life. They are not blended together in any way, despite them embracing each other. Their appearances can be identified, and they seem to be in a happy disposition. To the left of them we even have a man who is writing, completely entranced in his work. He does not notice the chaos that is going around him. This man is entranced in his own veil of māyā: his frail bark, represented by the act of writing, keeps him assured in the midst of the hundreds who are possessed by something. In the top right of the painting, we again have mostly Apollonian elements. We have people observing the action of the floor: they are detached because of their vantage point. The very act of being placed higher has both a symbolic and a literal effect. It was often the case that, whenever kings wanted to see the state of their city, they would place themselves at a higher point. From this higher point in the painting, the people in the painting can observe the action on the ground. They can perceive more, and at times, can perceive the whole of what is happening at the ground. Naturally, they are also detached from the action of the ground. While they are still in danger of being possessed by the spirit of the ground, if they wish, they can simply detach themselves from the action, still enjoying their own spirit, their principium individuationis. This vantage point serves as their frail bark—and frail indeed is their bark, for if they are not careful, they will be swallowed up in the sea of the action on the ground. These are the Apollonian elements, and it is important to note that these are not exhaustive. The Dionysian elements can be most easily identified in the background. In the front, we have easily perceivable individuals, but in the back, we have a sea of people, melted and possessed: they are many but one—a single blob of chaos. Nature also is reconciled with the men in the painting. From the Apollonian perspective, nature is something to be manipulated, turned into art or to into tools. It is principally a detachment from nature, and often degenerates into viewing nature as standing-reserve (a term from Heidegger). The Dionysian, however, is the celebration, the joining and embracement of nature’s pleasures. At the top left of the painting, we have a violent storm that can be seen through the windows. The movement of the curtains shows that the storm has swept into the building. It fills the emptiness of the top half of the painting, and more importantly, it takes part in the central action of the painting. It dances and rejoices with men.
While I have at length described Apollonian and Dionysian elements in the painting, I have not mentioned a what for. What are these men possessed by, and what does the storm represent? The storm is the inevitable force of democracy which seeps into the ground and possesses the men. This painting was created in 1791, in the midst of the French Revolution, and it was David’s way of commemorating the pivotal Tennis Court Oath, where the Third Estate, the commoners of France’s Ancien Régime, took a defiant stand against the First and Second Estates, the clergy and nobility respectively. One cannot control the storm of democracy, one must simply take shelter in some form. Democracy is inherently Dionysian: where the egalitarian principle exists, the distinguishing of higher and lower is reduced. All men are equal, and all men can sing and dance together. It is this equality that reconciles nature with man, for no man is above nature; no man is above man. However, even in this storm some are able to hold on to their individuality. They partake in a practice—either writing, doing history, or taking shelter in solitude. All these things are Apollonian. The Dionysian needs the Apollonian, for it is the Apollonian that writes and records, and in turn immortalizes the principles of democracy. It is often the case that the spirit of Dionysus gets out of hand, and it needs Apollo to bring forth an individual who will bring order so that the drunken festival does not extinguish itself through orgiastic frenzy. And that is The Tennis Court Oath: the inevitable storm of democracy must be preserved by the individual, it must be ordered, or else that violent spirit will extinguish itself.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Basic Writings of Nietzsche: Birth of Tragedy: Beyond Good and Evil: On the Genealogy of Morals: Ecce Homo. Translated and Edited by Walter Kaufmann, Modern Library, 2000.
David, Jacques-Louis. The Tennis Court Oath. 1790-1794. Palace of Versailles, Versailles. Château de Versailles, http://en.chateauversailles.fr/discover/estate/royal-tennis-court. Accessed 22 April 2019.