The Nihilistic Art

By Jin-yeong Yi

In discussing the marketability of nihilism, philosopher Vijay Prozak wrote, “In theory, nihilism could even be used to sell products, but only of the entertainment type. ‘This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!’ somehow fails a basic test of credibility.”[1]

Some weeks ago, it was my turn to clean one of the restrooms at the company I work at. Armed with a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a mop doused in watered-down Lysol, and a ream of paper towels, I set to work, clearing the filth that had been accumulating on the sink, floor, and toilet.

As my rubber glove protected hands moved back and forth, carefully scraping away the dust, dirt, and dried urine, at some point it occurred to me that cleaning was not only an art, but also the most nihilistic of arts. In the same way that nihilism is about stripping away that which is unreal, cleaning is about stripping away that which is unnecessary. A cleaning tool, whether it be a broom, a mop, or a vacuum cleaner, is the artistic equivalent of a philosophical hammer. Ultimately, nothing is added to the thing that is cleaned–it’s all about subtracting, eradicating, erasing the unessential. Whereas most arts entail putting a picture on a canvas, cleaning entails removing superfluous and undesirable bits from an already-completed picture. To clean something means to restore it to its original state, nothing more.

In conclusion, I daresay that, pace Mr. Prozak, “This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!” can not only be a credible promo, but also a most fitting one.


[1] “Reality is Nihilism”


Art and the Artist

By Jin-yeong Yi

HAL 9000

The naked eye

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

—Pablo Picasso

“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

—Jackson Pollock

“Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”

—Paul Klee

The Victorian Bedroom at DalgarvenVincent van Gogh - Bedroom in Arles

In my view, the point of art isn’t to perfectly replicate something. If it were, cameras and computers would be the best artists. As artists like Eugène Delacroix, Remembrandt van Rijn, Henri Matisse, and Vincent van Gogh demonstrated, the “point” of art, if there is one, is to express one’s unique perspective of something. It’s sort of like the difference between typing and writing by hand in that one’s personality comes through in the latter. That, for me, is the beauty of art: the subjective human eye sees something that the coldly objective camera eye does not…one might go so far as to say that all humans are artists simply by virtue of being human. One doesn’t need to be a virtuoso in order to capture something and make it one’s own. In this respect, the clumsiest scribble of a small child has more artistic value than a snapshot of the most powerful digital camera.

Theotokos of VladimirLeonardo da Vinci - Madonna Litta

Consider Frithjof Schuon’s discussion of art in The Transcendent Unity of Religions:

“The majority of moderns who claim to understand art are convinced that Byzantine or Romanesque art is in no way superior to modern art, and that a Byzantine or Romanesque Virgin resembles Mary no more than do her naturalistic images, in fact rather the contrary. The answer is, however, quite simple: the Byzantine Virgin—which traditionally goes back to St. Luke and the Angels—is infinitely closer to the truth of Mary than a naturalistic image, which of necessity is always that of another woman. Only one of two things is possible: either the artist presents an absolutely correct portrait of the Virgin from a physical point of view, in which case it will be necessary for the artist to have seen the Virgin, a condition that cannot easily be fulfilled—setting aside the fact that all purely naturalistic painting is illegitimate—or else the artist will present a perfectly adequate symbol of the Virgin, but in this case physical resemblance, without being absolutely excluded, is no longer at all in question. It is this second solution that is realized in icons; what they do not express by means of a physical resemblance they express by the abstract but immediate language of symbolism, a language that is built up of precision and imponderables both together. Thus the icon, in addition to the beatific power that is inherent in it by reason of its sacramental character, transmits the holiness or inner reality of the Virgin and hence the universal reality of which the Virgin herself is an expression; in suggesting both a contemplative experience and a metaphysical truth, the icon becomes a support of intellection, whereas a naturalistic image transmits—apart from its obvious and inevitable falsehood—only the fact that Mary was a woman. It is true that in the case of a particular icon, it may happen that the proportions and features are those of the living Virgin, but such a likeness, if it really came to pass, would be independent of the symbolism of the image and could only be the result of a special inspiration. Naturalistic art could moreover be legitimate up to a certain point if it were used exclusively to record the features of the saints, since the contemplation of saints (the Hindu darshan) can be a very precious help in the spiritual way, owing to the fact that their outward appearance conveys, as it were, the perfume of their spirituality; but the use in this limited manner of a partial and disciplined naturalism corresponds only to a very remote possibility.”[1]  

Vincent van Gogh - Paul Gauguin's ArmchairHenri Matisse - Fruit and Coffeepot

William Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Aldous Huxley spoke of how mescaline made even commonplace objects, such as chairs, vivid and enchanting.[2] Art is not so much about the subject itself, but the way in which it is rendered on canvas, because the way in which something is perceived and interpreted is more important than the thing itself. In this way, we can see how everyday objects or scenery, no matter how mundane, can be worth painting or drawing. Art, like dreams, is one of the means by which the ordinary can be made into the extraordinary.


[1] From Chapter 4 (“Concerning Forms in Art”)

[2] The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley

The Other Artistic Contribution of Christianity

By Jin-yeong Yi

Inverted pentagram (black)

“Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

“Rebellion is the salt of the earth.”

—Joseph McCabe

Who says that good things haven’t come out of Christianity? Many artistic geniuses have utilized its symbols to yield what are widely hailed as great achievements, such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, to name a few. But there is another, lesser known breed of art that this religion has produced: death metal and black metal. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these musical forms would never have existed if it weren’t for Christianity.

Writing in 1905, Christian philosopher and apologist G. K. Chesterton observed:

“Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”[1]

Writing 102 years later, atheist conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple protested against the increasing hostility toward religion:

“The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.”[2]

In the same year, atheist feminist and cultural critic Camille Paglia argued that “only religion can save the arts”:

“Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.”[3]

When one listens to diabolical masterpieces[4] such as Morbid Angel’s The Altars of Madness, Incantation’s Onward to Golgotha, Necrophobic’s The Nocturnal Silence, Profanatica’s Profanatitas de Domonatia, Havohej’s Dethrone the Son of God, Cryptopsy’s None So Vile, Demoncy’s Joined in Darkness, or Immolation’s Close to a World Below, and imbibes and delights in their unholy glory day after day, one is tempted to agree.

Would the world have been better off without Christianity? Maybe, maybe not. Part of the answer depends on subjective values and the other part depends on whether it is possible to travel back in time and conduct historical control experiments. Either way, I, for one, am thankful for the art that has been made in rebellion against it. Along with classical music and cathedrals, death metal and black metal are part of the legacy of the most beloved and most hated religion that the world has ever known.

Ah, ’tis verily a good age to be a blasphemer.


[1] Heretics by G. K. Chesterton

[2] “What the New Atheists Don’t See” by Theodore Dalrymple

[3] “Religion and the Arts in America” by Camille Paglia

[4] See the article, “The most blasphemous devil metal,” for more recommended listening.