Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Art and Friendship

Rachel Wolchok

Professor Mahallati

RELG 274

May 1, 2019


Friendship and Art


In his book On Friendship, Alexander Nehamas examines the nuances and common patterns of friendships through comparison to art. Nehamas uses other philosophers in his definition of friendship, looking specifically to Pahl and Aristotle. The basis of friendship for Nehamas is the motivation of friends when doing and being together. Rather than define friendship by the activities friends engage in, Nehamas finds that Pahl’s emphasis on intention is rather useful. This distinction plays an important role in comparing friendship to art; everyone can agree upon what is the subject of the painting, but the artist’s intention and interpretation is subjective.

Nehamas names and details his friendship analysis of a few genres of art: epic literature, painting, theatre, and novels. Interestingly, only one of these art forms is explicitly concerned with aesthetics, the rest are verbally-oriented. Aesthetics enter art into Pahl’s discussion of friendship, in that art “may look like anything in the world” but it is “an interpretation that accompanies it and turns it into something with a meaning.”1 Epic literature and novels, the more literate of the art forms chosen, serve different roles for Nehamas in art’s representation of friendship.  Whereas novels tend to “show the ordinary behavior of friends,”2 epic literature “manifests friendship during critical and tragic episodes where sacrifice and loyalty are at point.”3 Ordinary behaviors are significant to friendship, as they are the majority of interactions between friends, yet Nehamas concludes that novels are too complicated a setting for friendship. The heightened plot of epic literature creates the right environment for friendship to develop, be challenged, and ultimately thrive or end. Drama theatre is special in its visible portrayal of emotions through “Looks, gestures, tones of voice, and bodily disposition”,4 and these are the ways, Nehamas argues, in which friendship is best represented.

I have chosen to analyze Nehamas’ arguments surrounding painting and friendship to answer this question: how does painting both communicate such deep meaning and nothing at all, similar to observing friendships? Likened to the novel, painting also conveys much ordinary behavior, but it has the ability to capture the chaos of epic literature and the expressionism of drama theatre. Nehamas begins his discussion on painting with early Italian portraits of friends. Returning to the Pahlian distinction of friends, this form complicates any portrayal of friendship. Portraits have a clear intention: they demonstrate one’s wealth and are a reflection of how the person (or people) want to be viewed. This is where the relationship between aesthetics and intention becomes complicated in painting; Nehamas’ use of Kirchner’s Two Friends and Raphael’s Self-Portrait with a Friend exemplify this.5 Neither of the paintings explicitly elicit ideals of friendship, only their titles imply such intention. How did Raphael intend to portray the men? Are there expressions and gestures ones of friendship? The serious temperaments of the models contrast the happy-go-lucky attitudes of Kirchner’s friend subjects, in my opinion.  As aforementioned, Nehamas states that the interpretation, not the aesthetics, imbue the meaning.

What differentiates painting from the other discussed forms of art is the inseparable relationship between aesthetics and meaning. Metaphors can be used in drama, novels, and epic literature to obscure literal meaning and emphasize. The aesthetics and apparent meaning of the vehicle in a metaphor do not always indicate the intention of the statement communicated through the tenor. Art without words allows for more interpretation and personal influence because each figure does not have a set definition, as words do. This extends to friendship in analyzing interactions. Nehamas discusses how friendship is inherently visual as it is “irreducibly visual,” and “no description [of looks, gestures, and tones] can communicate whether these belong to act of friendship or not.”6  However, as seen in the Kirschner and Raphael, visual representations of friendship are not always clear and can be subjective. The temporal nature of friendship is where Nehamas objects to painting being the sole art form for conveying friendship, finding that drama theatre is the best in this venture.

Nehamas uses the play Art to reach this conclusion, in which two friends find their relationship unravel over a painting. The painting, bare and white, is a point of contention as one friend finds it beautiful and purchases it, whereas the other is awestruck and furious about the purchase for they do not understand how someone could find that painting desirable. Paintings are unique in that the consumer is not swayed by the artist’s interpretation and intention via words but visuals, which have less inherent meaning. The white painting takes this feature even further in comparing it to friendship, almost emblematic of friendship to Nehamas. Just as the words and actions mean something to two friends and something totally different to a third party, the white painting, in its clean and plain nature, leaves room for multiple interpretations.7 The white painting is void of visuals since it is basically blank, yet it still draws comparison to displays of friendship. The white painting returns the reader to Nehamas’ comment that art “may look like anything in the world.” Friendship may also look like anything in the world, communicated by any action, behavior, expression, speech, etc. What makes it an act friendship is the intention for it to be out of care and love for the other. Pahl’s intention theory elevates the comparison between painting and friendship; while painting may not be the easiest representation of friendship, it demonstrates the relationship between aesthetics and visuals and implicit, deeper meaning.

I would like to extend Nehamas’ analysis to music and friendship. Music is similar to painting in that its meaning can be extraliteral; lyrics are text that communicate the emotion and plot of a song, but the instrumental music adds another dimension that may take on a vastly different attitude from the lyrics. Music is visual, aural, and physical. Sheet music conveys how the music is meant to be played, the sound is the actual interpretation of the art, and music is made by moving things and consequently makes the audience move in response. An artist may be frowning while playing a delightful Haydn quartet, again showing the impact of intent in art. Music can evoke friendship through its text setting and story, but the genres of music making are inherently friendship-based as well. Nehamas did not explore the art of art making, which would be an interesting way to incorporate performance art in the discussion of friendship. Performance adds another layer to intentionality and displays of friendship that would be interesting to explore, especially as drama theatre is only discussed in its literary form in the current version of On Friendship. A further discussion of music and other performance arts, especially lyric-less music, would add to the original questions posed about friendship and painting. Lyric-less music is just as a blank slate as the white painting, waiting for the audience to project their own interpretation on to it. And so too are the interactions between friends, quite up to interpretation. Adding a Nehamian analysis of music and friendship to On Friendship could serve to transition between literary forms of art and extraverbal genres as well as deepen the assertions made about aesthetics and intentionality.


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



  1. Alexander Nehamas, On Friendship, (Ingram Publisher Services, New York), 103.
  2. Nehamas, 35.
  3. Nehamas, 36.
  4. Nehamas, 176.
  5. Nehamas, 74-75.
  6. Nehamas, 179.
  7. Nehamas, 177.


Works Cited


Nehamas, Alexander. On Friendship. New York, NY,  2016.

Shunso, Katsukawa. Couple by a Writing Desk, no. 41 from an untitled series of illustrations from Tales of Ise. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin. 1770s.


Leave a Reply