One 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.