The Significance of Still Life Art

In praise of still life art, through the philosophy of Schopenhauer.

There is a particular genre of painting dedicated to the depiction of commonplace objects—such as food, flowers, drinking glasses, books, vases, etc—called still life. This specific genre emerged in Western painting by the late 16th century in the Netherlands and achieved its most considerable importance in the Golden Age of Netherlandish art (ca. 1500s–1600s), and it has remained significant since then.

Still life painting occupies the lowest rung in the hierarchy of genres, where history painting holds the top. However, still life has always been hugely popular, and German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer viewed still life as the best type of painting. In his work, The World as Will and Representation, which contains his main philosophical ideas, he dedicates one part to the philosophy of art. According to Schopenhauer, the physical, inconstant world is a mere representation of the ever-persistent world of Ideas—the true, unseen reality. This philosophy is based on ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s theory of Ideas. Moreover, Schopenhauer claims that there is a driving force in all human beings, which he calls the Will-to-life. This driving force is mostly aimed at impulses and desires, which Schopenhauer viewed as futile, illogical, and directionless. To Schopenhauer, the Will is a blind force that more or less controls all individuals; thus the goal of life is to terminate the Will. Schopenhauer’s theory of the Will inspired Freud in his structural theory, where he divides the mind into three parts, the Id, Ego, and Superego. Freud’s Id bares great resemblance to Schopenhauer’s Will.

Schopenhauer saw art as a method of freeing the individual from the power of the Will, and gain a brief insight into the world of Ideas. He writes:

”For at the moment at which, freed from the Will, we give ourselves up to pure will-less knowing, we pass into a world from which everything is absent that influenced our Will and moved us so violently through it. This freeing of knowledge lifts us as wholly and entirely away from all that, as do sleep and dreams; happiness and unhappiness have disappeared; we are no longer individual; the individual is forgotten; we are only pure subject of knowledge. Then, as the pure subject of knowledge, freed from the miserable self, we become entirely one with these objects, and, for the moment, our wants are as foreign to us as they are to them. The world as Idea alone remains, and the world as Will has disappeared.”

The role of the artist, in Schopenhauer’s mind, is to overcome the Will and enter a state of will-less knowing, becoming accessible to the world of Ideas, and then æsthetically convey this state so others may perceive it. He thinks the artists of still life paintings are the most brilliant as they are able to express this state of mind through simple, commonplace objects, thus enabling viewers to truly appreciate the beauty in ordinary, everyday objects. He writes:

”Inward disposition, the predominance of knowing over willing, can produce this state under any circumstances. This is shown by those admirable Dutch artists who directed this purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and established a lasting monument of their objectivity and spiritual peace in their pictures of still life, which the æsthetic beholder does not look on without emotion; for they present to him the peaceful, still, frame of mind of the artist, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently; and as the picture enables the onlooker to participate in this state, his emotion is often increased by the contrast between it and the unquiet frame of mind, disturbed by vehement willing, in which he finds himself. ”

There is no need for Schopenhauer’s complex philosophical ideas to see the value of still life art. The most significant purpose of still life art lies in its ability to remind us of the small pleasures of life, such as the delight of a cup of tea, the pure beauty of a bouquet, the soothing capacity of nature, or the enchantment of reading a good book. We are often bad at keeping in mind the real ingredients of fulfilment. There are so many things that are at once of substantial human importance and always in danger of being forgotten. We lose sight of the value of almost everything that is readily to hand, we are prone to racing through the years overlooking the wonder, fragility and beauty of existence.

Still-life photography

That is why we need still life art. This genre of art is not limited to the paintings of 17th century Netherlands. There is a multitude of readily available still life art today in the form of contemporary photography, no less impressive than 17th-century paintings. Instagram, VSCO, Tumblr, Pinterest, and other forums are filled with great photographers doing still life photography. We are fortunate to live in a time where art is so readily available. If we only remember to appreciate this genre are art, it can reconcile us with our realities and reawaken us to the genuine, but too-easily forgotten value, of the ordinary, everyday parts of our lives.