Art for Art’s Sake Revisited

AfASOne of my most widely read (and/or infamous) posts is Art for Art’s Sake: There’s No Such Thing. The thrust of that essay was that art always does something and is always for someone and so the concept of art for art’s sake, while it is an acknowledgement of the power of art is, taken at face value, a meaningless and perhaps unhelpful concept. Before I go on let me reiterate that I am wholly in sympathy with the phrase’s intent of celebrating the vital importance of the arts.

Over the last year I’ve seen a number of references to on the one hand the importance of maintaining the purity of intent that AfAS conveys and on the other hand the potential dangers of promoting the concept. Coming down (substantially) on the latter side, let me present here a brief segment from one of my presentations that address the question.

When I taught music, I would use one of the profession’s most closely held truisms to challenge my students’ understanding of the field. “Music is the universal language” is a sentence repeated with the reverence of scripture. It also happens to be false. Music is universal, but its language, grammar, and syntax are not. Traditional Chinese opera is as foreign and incomprehensible to Western ears as Strauss’s tone poems are to aboriginal peoples. That does not diminish either. It simply forces us to question what we mean by “music is universal.”

Similarly, a truism we all hold precious is the merit of “art for art’s sake.” It is a shorthand for art being important, art being meaningful. With that I whole-heartedly agree. Unfortunately, it can serve as an inadvertent barrier for those who have not felt art’s power in their own lives. For them the notion is so incomprehensible it can be off-putting the way rabid sports fans can be intimidating to those not similarly minded.

I understand why we are attracted to the concept. It springs from our appreciation of art as transcendent experience. Beyond the secret handshake aspect of it, however, the real danger is that it has led some to lose sight of the fact that the arts provide transcendent human experience. The “art for art’s sake” mindset can imply that it is the art that is important. It is not. This perspective can also function as an excuse, conscious or not, for ignoring community. These “artcentric” views need addressing.

The question, as I would frame it in this context, is “Do we serve a what or a whom?” Many of our mission statements are mostly or entirely focused on a what–the art that is the medium of our work. Consider this, while serving art may be what’s in the front of our minds, doing so

1) is not at heart what many of us really want to do,

Most artists are invested in their work because they want other people to share the joy they experience in it. While this may look or feel like focus on the art, their core purpose grows out of the impact of that art on people.

and 2) is a pretty strange thing to do.

Divorced from art’s impact (or potential impact) on others, serving art is–let’s be frank–a kind of idolatry.

The concept of art for art’s sake is a self-evident truth for all of us (and, again, I include myself here) for whom it is self-evident. However, for the many who are not true believers the concept is either incomprehensible, off-putting, or both. I worry that emphasis on this much-loved, long-held concept can get in the way of them taking advantage of the benefits and the value that the arts can provide. And that would be a tragedy.



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  2. I think you fail to present a fair portrait of the ‘art for arts’ concept. But more importantly you level an unfair criticism against Art. Should we change science because many “are not true believers the concept is either incomprehensible, off-putting, or both”? Should history be a type of education that focuses on what happen in the past or rather should it be a basis for what the majority of people would like to think happened? I could argue that in an attempt to engage with community politicians pretend climate change isn’t happening. Should engagement be the end -all be- all goal?
    You want the arts to be something it’s not. That’s your right. But changing it’s definition to suit your idea-that would be a tragedy.

  3. Doug, I appreciate your emphasis on connecting art with a larger sense of purpose and impact, and ensuring we’re not blocking access to that purpose with the language we use. But you’re playing fast and loose with some definitions here, or at least conflating things without saying that you’re doing it.

    First off, I would disagree that the phrase “art for art’s sake” is necessarily “a shorthand for art being important, art being meaningful.” That’s certainly one interpretation. The other is that an artist is often concerned primarily with the integrity, connection, and expressive power of the work. Many artists choose to focus that energy toward a social issue, a community goal, or an audience. Successful artists find an audience, sometimes through intent, sometimes through the resonance of their vision (and the help of the arts system to connect the dots). Some artists don’t find an audience in their lifetime, and in fact don’t look for one (Emily Dickinson is but one example).

    If you haven’t read E.M. Forster’s essay titled “Art for Art’s Sake” (Harper’s Magazine, August 1, 1949), it’s worth reading. He says the above much more elegantly than I do.

    You also glance over a rather bold assertion about what artists do, and why they do it by saying “most artists are invested in their work because they want other people to share the joy they experience in it.” That’s certainly true of many artists I know (and I tend to know the artists who are driven by this impulse, because their work tends to find an audience and a public eye). But I’d challenge your assumption about “most”.

    You also seem to be conflating artists and arts organizations in a rather hazy way. This feels a bit like clumping water and pipes into the same group. Admittedly, the distinction between artist and arts organization is more complex than that, but only a little.

    I completely agree that saying something like “you should care for and support the arts because you should,” is limiting and damaging. But I would ALSO support the effort to make something beautiful simply because you choose to…because the impulse and the work is justification enough. That’s what I hear in “art for art’s sake.” And I’m all in.

    • Andrew, short blog posts are not well suited to addressing the full complexity of any issue. In this case, particularly, your response has helped me better understand what I was attempting to do here. There are two points I was trying to make. First and by far the more important one in the context of this blog was that AfAS is insider baseball that is mystifying to outsiders and, potentially, an impediment to bringing them to an appreciation of the power of the arts.

      Second–and I see this now as something I perhaps should have addressed separately–is an observation that we should examine our insider use of the phrase AfAS like I was suggesting with my observations about “music is the universal language.” The words AfAS do not really mean anything that most people who use them intend: art for the sake of art. I continue to believe the face value meaning of those words is not what we are trying to say. Our allegiance to AfAS as a truism is rooted in our understanding of what the phrase represents. I did not intend for my framing of “art being important” as being the only meaning of it, though I see how it can be read that way. I could also make a case for your view of some artists being “concerned primarily with the integrity, connection, and expressive power” of art as something included in “art being important,” but that’s, to me, a minor difference.

      With regard to many/most about artists’ intent, OK. My interest here is not, as some seem to believe, to address the issue of artists and their relationship with the community. (I will continue to suggest that there may be ways of expanding opportunity for as well as the depth of artistic expression in artists being more community aware, but that’s a very different topic.) My concern is with arts organizations and there again you make a good point. I conflate subconsciously because I come to this work from having been a composer and conductor. The artist frame of reference is easy to fall into. But my work in this blog and in my books, except where otherwise stated, is intended to focus exclusively on the relationship between arts organizations and their communities.

      Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful comments.

      • Thanks Doug. This is a great series of clarifications about what you were intending to say. So helpful to me, and to the conversation.

        I agree that “art for art’s sake” is problematic, both internally among art communities and externally in more public discourse. I still believe there is an internal and external importance to the idea that the focused pursuit of aesthetic expression has extraordinary worth. Full stop. It is one of MANY worths, or potential values. But it is one.

        At the same time, I often advise artists and arts organizations that their best path to achieving what they might define as a “pure” artistic goal is NOT to ask for other peoples’ money (taxpayers, donors, foundations, corporations, even friends and family), nor to consume public resources that might be put to other use. That request demands a different definition of worth, sometimes aligned with aesthetic intent, sometimes not. It also invokes a comparative conversation…this dollar could go here or there, which is better?

        Also grateful for the artist/arts organization clarification. It’s such a sand trap to conflate the two. I frequently step into it myself.

        • Shoot. Now I should clarify. I think artistic effort is well worthy of other people’s money, and public resources. God yes. I’m just saying that asking and receiving those things changes the conversation required.

    • An interesting analogy about pipes and water. Flint, Michigan is having a severe crisis because lead from the city’s water pipes has leached into the water supply. Between 6000 and 12,000 people are suffering from severely elevated levels of lead in their blood. The problem evolved when the city switched to using water from the Flint River which is highly corrosive. Pipes and water strongly affect each other.

      In the same way, arts organizations can deeply affect the art they produce. The Met orients itself toward its wealthy patrons and produces expensive, lavish productions. Money is concentrated on that one house while the USA ranks only 39th in the world for opera performances per capitia.

      Orchestras have become so expensive that contemporary works are given only glorified sight-readings. Jet set conductors and soloists are flown and work with so few rehearsals that superficial, perfunctory performances have become common. To rethink the relationship between the arts and community will also require changing the relationship between the arts and the organizations that present them. The relationships between all three are deeply symbiotic.