Monday, August 25, 2014

Ars Gratia Artis

It's an odd phrase, really:  "Art for art's sake."  Most may know the Latin version now from its disconcerting use as a motto by MGM, in combination with a roaring lion.  Presumably, the lion roars for the sake of roaring.

What does it mean?  It's easy enough, I suppose, to know what art means, even to those at MGM.  But what is "for art's sake"?  Can art have a "sake"?  It would seem so, as that word can mean "end" or "purpose" but surely this isn't what is intended by the phrase, as the general idea behind it was that art need have no purpose or has none.  In particular, those who conjured it and used it took the position that art need have no moral purpose; art need not make us nobler or better (perhaps even should not) in order to be art or in order to be good art.

"Sake" can also mean "enhancement" according to the dictionary, or "good" or "advantage" or "benefit."  We speak of doing something for some one's sake.  Does it mean, then, that art enhances art or should be for its benefit or advantage?  Is the intended meaning that each new work of art adds to the quantity of art already existing, or to its quality, or that it should do so?

We don't often speak of things as being for their own sake.  "War for war's sake" might mean that a war is without a purpose.  "Sport for sport's sake"?  Could that be a motto for amateur sports?

It's difficult to think of a novel or short-story, or even a poem, as being art for art's sake.  That seems to be because language is by its nature a means of communication, a way of saying something--telling a story--describing something.  It's easier to think of a piece of music or painting as art for art's sake, or perhaps it's more accurate to say it's easier to accept them as such...certain music or paintings, in any case; certain instrumental music and abstract paintings, for example.

I suspect the truth is it's one of those phrases that are essentially negative, which are intended to express not much at all beyond the fact that something else is not the case.  There is a purpose behind all art, even the purpose to have no purpose.  Something is always being done, for some reason.  There is no entity "art" separate from works of art, for which a work of art is created.  The phrase is simply a neat, tidy, evocative way of saying that art has no special purpose of the kind envisioned by such as Ruskin, for example.  But like all phrases which seek to express complex ideas, it can be at best hazy and at worst misleading.

We seem to have a need to categorize, and this is unfortunate.  It's unfortunate because it inclines us to think of things, or people, as though they should be placed in particular groups and thought of as being representative of or a part of a group.  This leads us to underestimate people, which can be dangerous, and to ignore or fail to observe things, which can also be dangerous.  Most of all, it's unfortunate because it encourages us not to think critically.  Regrettably, the tendency to think of things, or people, as not being subject to valuation or comparison also encourages thoughtlessness.  We must guard against both.

To the extent "art for art's sake" induces us to carefully and thoroughly consider an individual work of art on its own, without any preconceptions regarding what it is or should be, it's a phrase which has a worthy purpose.  But it has also been construed to mean that a work of art cannot be considered critically, cannot be assessed, because its wholly personal and without meaning or purpose and not subject to any analysis as not subject to any rules or criteria.  Art then becomes something which cannot be subject to any kind of valuation or comparison.  De gustibus non est disputandum writ large.

If art is purely a matter of taste, though, regarding which there can be no dispute, it's hard to understand why we take it so seriously, or more seriously than we do flavors of ice cream, for example.  Why bother in that case to complain about the manner in which it is perceived, or argue about its purpose or lack of purpose? 

If it isn't purely a matter of taste, however, than how can art be solely for art's sake?

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