Thursday, January 03, 2008

Art For Art's Sake

All my sources dismiss the Aesthetic Movement as a sort of transitional phase, moving out of Victorianism and into other styles; a fairly minor blip on the radar of artistic history. In furniture and decorating, it apparently served as a bridge to "Arts & Crafts," and that is as far as my very limited knowledge of those subjects takes me. In literature, its best-known representative is Oscar Wilde.

I mention this movement mainly because their motto, "Art for art's sake," has great appeal to me. This is the part where I may be transmogrifying how the Aesthetics actually thought, but I'm purposely redefining their phrase to suit my ends.

The idea of "Art for art's sake," as far as I can tell, is that art need not have a purpose outside of itself. That is, it need not exist to instruct, inform, promote, change, protest, etc (though art can do all these things): it need only exist to be enjoyed, admired, even loved. (This was a rather anti-Victorian idea: to Victorians, for example, all stories should have a helpful moral.)

In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says something like this about God: that He need not have created us, that is, there was no necessity in the existence of human beings: we were created to love and to be loved. So in creating something that exists simply to be loved in one way or another, the artist is a reflection (however imperfect and fallen) of the Creator.

This is one of the things I like about the film Napoleon Dynamite. There is no moral to that story, no earth-shattering message it's trying to get across (granted, there is little to no story at all). The movie exists simply to make people laugh. (It says some subtle and true things about our generation at the same time, and they are things we may or may not want to be proud of.) In a sense, it really doesn't matter whose artistic standards it does or does not live up to, or whether individual critics (paid or amateur) like it: the movie was a huge success if it made one person laugh. And it did, millions of times over.

I'm not saying here that all art is good, or that just because one person thinks something is worthwhile that it is worthwhile. Rather, as Wilde said, "The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is useless."

In the White Stripes song "Little Cream Soda," there's a line that goes: "And every beautiful thing I come across tells me to stop moving and shake this riddle off, oh well." As usual with the Stripes, this could be interpreted in several ways. It could easily be talking about art: good art demands to be stared at or read or listened to, demands that you shake off all the riddles that plague you daily and widen your eyes and receive it, like a child listening to a story. (I also think Jack White could easily be a follower of "Art for art's sake."

I don't know if I had a point, or if this was simply a conceptual ramble. Ah well, draw your own conclusions.


Bruce Gee said...

It is interesting that the AM was transitional to the A&C movement, especially as its motto was "art for art's sake". I guess artists got tired of that motto, because the A&C movement was characterized by a more utilitarian view of art. Much of the art was incorporated into furniture and architectural designs, as opposed to stand-alone, traditional art forms.

As for "art for art's sake", I mean. Who's Art? He used to be a black man who hung out on State Street, but I think he died.

Bruce for Bruce's sake. Now we're talkin'.

Ethan said...

Yeah, that is interesting. The AM is considered to have ended with Wilde's famous trial for sodomy, and the movement itself always had the air of decadence about it, so maybe the artists in A&C were trying to distance themselves from all that, or something?

I have heard the stories of Art the window washer. If anybody could inspire a movement, it would be him.

Hmm... Bruce for Bruce's sake. Do I get a free visor if I join?

Nat said...

I agree with your thesis, that is, its quintessence, but all this "art for art's sake" business runs close to being too abstract in my opinion. Art can and sometimes must exist outside of ulterior purposes of education, entertainment or influence, but is it really art for art's sake? Isn't it art for our sake, for humans' sake? Or if it is to praise God, then arguably for God's sake?

Ethan said...

Mm, the argument I believe is that it exists simply to be beautiful, and that while humans may admire it, that is a secondary function, rather than a primary one.

Anna said...

I think it depends on the art. ;) As an artist/designer, or at least aspiring artist/designer, sometimes I do find art pleasing just because it's there and it's art. Then there are other times when art really does have a purpose. In the design sense, posters, container designs, even logos are art for a different reason: communication of ideas.

The idea of abstract art being entirely for art's sake is more pleasing. Then again, there's more than one kind of abstraction, and it depends on what you're looking at.

I'm reading Dorian Gray right now. I almost think that the Aestheticians took it too far. It's scary in a sense, even as an artist, to read some of the ideas within the book. It's still good literature, and it's Wilde.

And this comment is long enough now. :P It seems I may become a regular reader of your blog, Ethan.

Ethan said...

Well, I certainly don't deny either the place or the value of art for other sakes, either in fields like design, or fields that can be more abstract, like literature.

And yes, art purely for its own sake is more pleasing, especially (in my opinion) because there are too many people creating art and far too many people consuming it who think it should always have some larger purpose. I'm talking about the types I'm most familiar with here, movies and books: maybe it's less in other fields.

I am sadly lacking in the 'having read Dorian Gray' department, but I hope to correct that... soon. <_<

Excellent, I'll be glad to have you. ;) Though it may be pretty dead until about March, my next long break. Anyway, now there'll be... six regulars, or so. :P