I’m really struggling here. This “art for art’s sake” stuff smacks of unfinished business with art history. I recently heard an African art historian (To be clear, he’s not African, but he studies African art. Is there a better way to put it? I’ve always found that confusing.) say that “Art for art’s sake is pure nonsense,” which I thought was kind of funny and thought-provoking. It appears, though, that this is nothing like a new sentiment, just one that I hadn’t heard before. The African writer Chinua Achebe put it even more dramatically when he wrote, “Art for art’s sake is just another piece of deodorised dog shit.” And in regards to African art, which is almost always functional, he’s probably right. (I learned recently that none of the 2000 or so indigenous African languages has a word that directly translates into “art.” Makes you think, doesn’t it?) Is it nonsense across the board though? Let’s back up for a sec. Art for art’s sake defined a 19th century movement in art and literature (the Aesthetic movement) which rebelled against moralizing and didactic Victorian art. They argued that art didn’t have to teach you anything. It could just be beautiful to look at, without meaning or function. A ha! This may be my issue. I don’t particularly like that kind of art. Maybe that’s what I’m struggling with.
But wait. James McNeill Whistler was part of the Aesthetic movement and I like him. The Peacock Room is amazing — did you see that they’re going to open the windows once a month and that they changed out the pottery for the type is was originally designed for? Would love to see that! And I like a lot of other works by him. What makes his work art for art’s sake, though? He can call his painting “Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge” all he wants. It’s still a painting of a bridge. I get that he wanted to emphasize the colors with this title, and he did. But it still seems to me that there’s a story here. Even just talking about why, how, when, he painted it, for me, makes it no longer art for art’s sake. But for him, I now see, as I think about it, that there was no story. This was a battle cry! Whistler could paint something without teaching anything. Just because he liked the way it looked. So there! He chose to paint this bridge, maybe for the lines or the shapes, and maybe he painted this time of day purely for the colors. Although we look back on it now and see where it falls in the history of art and ideas and what it tells us about that time, at the time it was simply, and powerfully, aesthetics.
What I struggle with, I think, is not seeing the story, not seeing meaning, being ok with art being about color and line and shape — the “formal” elements — standing alone with no context. This is why African art appeals to me so much. It has context, always, and that context is important. Art for art’s sake just doesn’t touch me, which doesn’t mean that it’s nonsense. I like to be taken through the formal elements of an artwork. You can learn a lot from looking closely. I guess that I’d say rather than being nonsense, though, it’s empty. I like much better what the art historian that I mentioned at the beginning went on to say: “All art is for life.” And to me, there’s no life in art for art’s sake.
So wait, stop, reverse that. Art for art’s sake 0, Me 1. QED, baby!