Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

On Friendship & Art Forms | Response Paper #5 – May 3


Professor Mahallati

May 3, 2019

On Friendship & Art Forms


Friendship has existed in a variety of art and literary forms throughout history, so it is important to recognize such examples to study friendship further. In Alexander Nehamas’ book On Friendship, he examines past and present ideologies surrounding friendship, and how they have shaped what the world understands about friendship today. A professor in humanities at Princeton University, Nehamas has studied multiple aspects of philosophical accounts regarding friendship, and the relation of friendship to art. In a Princeton University Press article published in 2010, Nehamas states that “Aesthetic features are everywhere, but that has nothing to do with where the arts can be found. Works of art can be beautiful because everything can be beautiful, but that does not mean that anything can be a work of art” (Nehamas 95). One of Nehamas’ critical arguments in his novel, On Friendship, is that friendship does not solely encompass morality, as described by many previous philosophers such as Aristotle, and that friendship is not appreciated just because it is always good, but rather that it is always beautiful. During his chapter “A Structure of the Soul: Friendship and the Arts,” he discusses depictions of friendship through art forms such as painting and literature. He also critiques their inability to portray friendship, as “it is difficult to tell whether two people are friends by looking at them as it is difficult to tell their portrait is a picture of their friendship by looking at it” (Nehamas 79). Yet this is not to say that researching friendship via different avenues is not important, since the devotion of the characters in these works “is still at the heart of our everyday attitudes toward friendship- in our sense of its nature, of the acts that sustain or destroy it, of its importance to life” (Nehamas 65).  This paper will endeavor to analyze various forms in which friendship is pervasive, specifically in the context of art, literature, and institutions based on Nehamas’ arguments. One specific field in which the presence of friendship exists is that of cinema and television. This is mainly because it goes beyond the description of literature and one can have a visual representation of facial and bodily expressions while seeing how friends interact with each other. Furthering this point, if one were to extend Nehamas’ approach to new fields, friendship studies could be much more thorough and appropriate to contemporary relationships.


Cinema is a rather new art form in comparison to the long history of painting, sculpture, and literature, as the first movie was made in 1888. Since then, it has been one of the most popular and easily accessible visual arts, which makes it essential to study the framework of friendship throughout various films. A great way that cinema represents an art form relative to that of friendship is cited by Nehamas himself, who states that “like metaphors and works of art, the people who matter to us are all, so far as we are concerned, inexhaustible. They always remain a step beyond the furthest point our knowledge of them has reached—though only if, and as long as, they still matter to us.” (Nehamas 141). Once a film is made, it lasts forever to be enjoyed by individuals to provide pleasure, happiness, and amusement, similar to the way that friends leave lasting impacts on one’s life. Certain films have highlighted friendship as the central theme, and a few of them include The Deer Hunter and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  

The Deer Hunter’s plot line focuses on three lifelong friends from working-class Pennsylvania who are all drafted to serve in Vietnam, where they struggle through war and mental illness. This 1978 drama film is particularly relevant to much of the ancient tales as described by Nehamas, since “heroic narratives generally unfold against a specific political or military background that was obvious to their original audience (Nehamas 68). Many of the older works, such as the “Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek tale of the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the medieval romance of Amis and Amile” (Nehamas 68) focus on battle, war, and life or death situations, so it is good to compare modern day film that relates to the topic of these stories. A much more modern tale, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a 2012 film based on the 1999 novel of the same name, discusses a young boy as he enters high school, and a group of unconventional seniors takes him under their wing. The boy, Charlie, suffers through mental illness after the suicide of his best friend and has a difficult time navigating these new relationships. Not only is the focus of the hardships within these friendships important to the story, but it “furthers the plot, creates verisimilitude, and illuminates character” (Nehamas 83). Although it is difficult to adapt a book into a film successfully, “the true place of friendship in the arts is not in the novel but in drama, which can give center stage to the mundane expressions of friendship and capture their repetitive form without the complications that beset the novel’s efforts to do so” (Nehamas 98). Nehamas points out that “friendship is much more complicated and ambiguous” (Nehamas 98), and deserves to be fully dramatized and expressed by human beings.

Using film to represent and teach about friendship is critical, since other art forms may have downfalls, especially in terms of visual stimulation. For instance, “the visual features of painting depicts gestures, looks, the disposition of bodies, attitudes, feelings, emotions, actions, and situations. But no gesture, look, or bodily disposition, no attitude, feeling, or emotion, no action and no situation is associated with friendship firmly enough to make its representation a matter for the eye” (Nehamas 77). Films allow the further development of friendship and portrays the physical and emotional ways that friend interact with each other.


It is vital to provide the distinction between film and television, primarily because of character and relationship development over more extended periods with the number of episodes and seasons of television programs. Because “it takes time to realize that the behavior of two people fits into a pattern that is brought about by their friendship for each other” (Nehamas 81), the evolution of friendship can be shown for a prolonged time. Not only are television programs visually satisfying with their representation, but they allow a person to have a routine of expecting a new episode, causing them to be somewhat addicting and something to look forward to. TV shows usually have rather wide audiences, and the variety of shows which portray different friendships are importance since friendship “can be manifested in all sorts of different, even conflicting, ways of behaving” (Nehamas 79). Such programs include Girls, Friends, and Sex and the City.

Girls, an HBO series that lasted for five seasons, focuses on a group of four girlfriends living in New York City, all struggling to make ends meet and maintain their relationships. The show has gotten a large amount of negative backlash instead, since the girls may not always be the greatest or moral friends to each other, yet this maintains one of Nehamas’ critical points: that not all friendship is based on morality as described by Aristotle. As “we are all of us mixtures of virtues and vices, and all of us are aware that even our best friends have their shortcomings […] we often have no trouble excusing our friends’ failings, both trivial and, often, serious” (Nehamas 25). It is important to learn the good and the bad from all kinds of friendship, especially due to the moral variety that exists (Nehamas, 2016). Friends, one of the most popular series that was on TV for ten seasons, goes through the lives of six friends with a long history as they maneuver their ways to adulthood. Based in comedy, this show rarely highlights the hardships of friendship, maintaining rather non-serious plot lines. Although not a life or death portrayal of friendship that is often the theme of ancient art forms, it is important to recognize  “motives that emerge gradually through the ordinary, seemingly inconsequential interactions of which all friendships, from the most casual to the most intense, consist” (Nehamas 70). This show is much more relatable to general audiences and average individuals, which makes it all the more important that Friends is recognized as an art form of friendship. Sex and the City is another program based in New York City, where four women navigate the dating and relationship scene. This program is especially important when learning about friendship, as although it is thought that the mark of a woman’s social life somewhat ends when she is married or in a relationship, this show demonstrates otherwise. This show “provides a standard that determines how genuine their own commitments to their friends happen to be” (Nehamas 65), which reinforces the importance of genuine friendship.

Television series are essential to recognize as an art form of friendship. Many historical accounts that are used do not have “very much to say about the history of their friendships, their origin and development, their texture, the ordinary tangles of emotions, attitudes, motives, activities, and relations that may gradually lead to -or, for that matter- the joyful embrace of self-sacrifice for another’s sake” (Nehamas 69). By being able to see the development of characters over time, and their relationships with each other, one can learn more about the reality of interacting with those whom one considers friends, and examine the importance of friendship.


Not only is it crucial to recognize various art and literary forms that represent friendship in a multitude of ways, but the future of friendship studies depends on further research. To further Nehamas’ research, it is critical to offer opportunities in which friendship in visual media can be studied. By promoting scholars and students to engage in cinematic and media expressions of friendship, especially modern portrayals, more information regarding friendship can be obtained. Many traditional art forms can be difficult to thoroughly examine, as

“painting has trouble depicting subjects that are extended in time, we can discern friendship in painting only with the help of the sort of information supplied by a title, a conventional symbol or a third-person account” (Nehamas 82). From moving visuals such as cinema, the fever interpretations and more open storylines will help us to understand friendship on a deeper level. Contemporary friendship stories are significant, “since very few of us are ever going to face the possibility of dying for our friends, we need to turn our attention the less exalted and much more common manifestations of friendship that will never make such a demand of us” (Nehamas 70). Through television series which focus on modern people, as well as films which relate to the majority of the population, more relatable aspects of friendship can be derived. Works by those of different identities is also crucial to study since many classical art forms are about “essentially relationships between men, yet men […] are not the only people who can be friends” (Nehamas 69). Female friendship is vital, especially as movements related to feminism take off. Gathering data on contemporary art forms will allow for a deeper understanding of friendship in the arts.


Based on the above analysis, it can be concluded that television and film are necessary art forms to recognize that demonstrate friendship. Certain films, such as The Deer Hunter and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, examine varying friendship forms in different periods. They also address different means of how people become friends and maintain those friendships, as well as different problems that their friends face. In addition to cinema, television programs also help to accomplish this goal, with the additional asset of seeing friendships develop through more extended periods. Shows that address disparate friendships are critical, as Nehamas points out, as “we cannot seem to agree whether there is such a thing as human nature at all- or, if there is one, on what it is. Moreover, without such a conception, what can we say about friendship?” (Nehamas 29). By furthering this discussion, studying friendship in television and film would enhance Nehamas’ research. Throughout looking at work done by varying identities, with different stories and promoting that academics further study friendship, our culture can continue the dialogue on the importance of friendship. By learning through different mediums of artistic expression, societies can learn more about friendship, as “it is at the heart of our culture, even for those who may never have heard of it: it provides a standard that determines how genuine their own commitments to their friends happen to be” (Nehamas 65).



Nehamas, Alexander (2016). On Friendship. Basic Books.

Nehamas, Alexander (2010). Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. Princeton Univ Pr. p. 95. ISBN 9780691148656.


I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code on this assignment.

  • Gillian Chanko

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