Art for Art’s Sake? There’s No Such Thing

So here is a bit of heresy for the New Year. A recent post by Clayton Lord on his blog New Beans, This Is Your Brain on Art (sizzle, sizzle), reminded me of my first exposure to the Rand Corporation’s 2005 Gifts of the Muse study. A distinction was made there between instrumental and intrinsic benefits of the arts. I remember feeling a bit uncertain about its reasoning at the time. I’ve remained so. Its central premise is that there are two kinds of benefits provided by the arts, intrinsic and instrumental. The latter have (and had) been highly touted as rationale for support for the arts, both public and private. The study claimed, rightly, that the instrumental benefits had been over-hyped at the expense of valuing the arts’ intrinsic benefits. So far, so good, especially when one evaluates the two categories. (The following is excerpted from the Research Brief linked above.)

Instrumental benefits were identified as:

  • economic (employment, tax revenues, spending; attraction of high-quality workforce)
  • cognitive (academic performance; basic skills, such as reading and math skills; learning process)
  • behavioral and attitudinal (attitudes toward school; self-discipline, self-efficacy; pro-social behavior among at-risk youth)
  • health (mental and physical health among elderly–especially Alzheimer’s patients; reduced anxiety in face of surgery, childbirth)
  • social (social interaction, community identity; social capital; community capacity for collective action)

Intrinsic benefits were in three categories:

  • immediate benefits, such as pleasure and captivation
  • growth in individual capacities–enhanced empathy for other people and cultures, powers of observation, and understanding of the world;
  • benefits that accrue largely to the public–the social bonds created among individuals and the expression of common values and community identity.

Where I had and have a question is what the fundamental difference is between the two categories? In each, the arts do things. They enhance or improve lives. They also overlap. For instance, how are “behavioral and attitudinal changes” different from those listed as examples of  “growth in individual capacities” or “social” from “benefits that accrue largely to the public”? Certainly, the economic and cognitive categories of instrumental benefits are outliers. They are the (relatively) new kids on the block for arts advocates and, particularly with economic benefits, were arguably the least unique to the arts. (How does the economic impact of the arts differ from–how is it better than–the economic impact of professional sports?)

But my point here is not a critique of the Rand report. It is simply a way in to the title of this post. What do we mean when we talk about “art for art’s sake”? I harbor a suspicion that some of the enthusiasm for the Rand report was rooted in the arts community’s preference for viewing the arts as transcendent experience. I do not differ. What concerns me is the fact that we can forget that the arts provide transcendent human experience. In other words, the value of the arts is in the impact it has upon people. As I sometimes say, if art took place unobserved in the woods, would it still be art? (We will now let the aestheticians hold forth.)

I worry that “art for art’s sake” sometimes leads us to believe that it is the art that is important, less than the impact the art has on people. It is the capacity for impact that led me to a career in the arts and it is a big piece of my commitment to engagement. As a result, I am uncomfortable with the “art for art’s sake” argument. Give me “art for people’s sake” any day. That is, in essence, what I see both instrumental and intrinsic benefits as supporting.


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    • Ariel,

      Is that as articulate as you get? Whether you agree or not, the article does well in articulating a position. Could [you] explain what is “laughable” about Art for people’s sake?

      • If one reads carefully “Art for Art’s sake….the response was as articulate as was necessary considering the
        article … a “well articulated article” with minimum thought does not give it validity .It may all sound or read well put bread on the table and please like minded that serious thought is in progress but misses the point of
        what “art ” or the artist is all about which makes it “laughable ” .

  1. Yes, I think the “art for art’s sake” idea had some bad side-effects–or maybe the idea itself was a side-effect of certain attitudes. Perhaps the idea was a reaction to excess in the other direction. Whatever. Of course art has social aspects and social purposes, and I am happy to see our hyper-individualist culture getting in touch with them. Strange that we even have to explain the importance of art’s effect on people, but I suppose this necessity is one side-effect of the idea that art exists only for its own sake. While that idea may have seemed to elevate art, it also distanced it from the rest of life and the rest of nature–just the sort of thing one might have expected from a specialist, materialist, human-centric culture.

    The current diversity of artistic styles, purposes, and goals underscores that art can have a multiplicity of different purposes and agendas. Even one work of art can have multiple agendas, and they may seem to conflict. I don’t think it’s possible to name “the point of what ‘art’ or the artist is all about.” There’s rarely just one point.

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  4. My teacher gives me this question “Is Art For Art’s Sake or Art for Public’s Sake”. She wants me to write an essay about that case. It sounds confusing but not after reading your essay. Now I know what I should write. Even though, it sounds ugly to say that Arts exist is because public support it to be exist but that’s the fact.