It is Time for “Art for Our Sake”

chris sloan
Feb 28 · 6 min read
Transverse Line by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Have you ever visited an art museum or gallery and found yourself wondering what the hell you are looking at? Have you thought that perhaps art has lost its way? Then you might want to read on.

One of the reasons you are reacting to the art in this way is that you live in an art world that celebrates the notion of “art for art’s sake.” At first, this sounds great. We all want creative freedom. But the reason you aren’t appreciating the art might be because “art for art’s sake” has evolved into “anything is art.”

I reject the idea that anything is good art simply because an artist says it is. I also feel that art can be more than just beautiful for beauty’s sake. History shows that art can have a high purpose that corresponds to what humanity needs at the moment.

The idea that art should have a purpose is not alien or new. Art has had a purpose for most of its existence since artists first carved figurines and painted caves in the Paleolithic. To this day, a lot of modern art has political, religious, social or other sorts of messages. A lot of modern art doesn’t, however, and the “anything is art” works get mixed together with more purposeful and thoughtful art in the public consciousness. The result is that art has lost much of its potential power as a voice for purposeful change and enlightenment simply because people no longer expect it to do that.

I think we can change that. We can reestablish the powerful role of art in influencing the course of human history, but to do this will require a cultural readjustment.

That may sound daunting, but if there are enough people who want to see change, it will be simple. We just need to undo some damage caused by a philosophical virus unleashed on art in the 19th century. That virus was the notion of art for art’s sake.

To understand what happened, it is useful to contrast two opposing views of art from the 18th and 19th centuries.

On one hand, there is 18th century German playwright Frederich Schiller’s perspective on this problem. He wrote voluminously on the purpose of art and explored classical, romantic and Enlightenment concepts of beauty. He suggested that there are lower and higher forms of art. The higher forms are those that serve to raise individuals or humanity as a whole to a higher purpose.

In distinct contrast are the views of 19th century British writer and leader of the 19th century Aesthetic Movement, Walter Pater. Pater was one of the foremost articulators of the art for art’s sake perspective. According to Pater, true art should be free of moral, utilitarian, educational or any other purpose.

It was art for art’s sake that came to dominate in the 20th century. The idea that art should have a purpose fell out of fashion like old luggage.

The rise of art for art’s sake accompanied the birth of modern art. Purpose and narrative in art gave way to experimentation with ideas and materials, including abstraction. Any modern art museum provides ample examples of this sort of art.

Why did the classical perspective fail and art for art’s sake prevail? It was the result of a conscious attack by artists and writers.

The modern expression of “art for art’s sake” emerged in the early 19th century France as “l’art pour l’art.” French writers and art critics, including Theophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, and Stéphane Mallarmé championed l’art pour l’art as an antidote to classical traditions in art, which they perceived as obstacles to unfettered artistic expression.

The work of these French writers created the space within which later movements, including the Symbolists and Decadents, could exist. These, in turn, inspired movements, such as Cubism and Surrealism. One can follow the thread of art for art’s sale influence all the way through to contemporary art.

After originating in France, art for art’s sake became a central concept of the British Aesthetic Movement. In England, artists and writers, such as Oscar Wilde, Algernon Swinburne and James McNeill Whistler advocated for it. The basic idea of the movement is that art needed to be beautiful and nothing else.

Whistler provided an explicit statement reflecting his art for art’s sake views. He is famously quoted as having said, “Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it…”

I don’t intend to get into the details of the philosophical perspectives of these different artists or movements here. I believe it is clear from just the brief history that I have presented that “art for art’s sake” is itself a contradiction. Writers and artists advocating for art for art’s sake had a purpose. Their art had a purpose. That purpose was to fight the moralizing, bourgeoisification and rigidity of society prevalent in post-Napoleonic Europe and Victorian England. One of their key targets was classical academic art, which they saw as complicit in perpetuating these social problems. They felt the trajectory art had been on since the Renaissance had to be destroyed. To do this, they unleashed the virus of art for art’s sake.

The result of all this is that here we are, a century and a half later, standing in front of art we don’t understand and that has no purpose. If this virus was a biological one, the havoc it has created would make a scary science fiction story, because it has infected so much.

For those of us who are unhappy with the current state of the art world, there is no reason we should accept it. Just like the writers and artists who fought for art for art’s sake in the 19th century, we must fight its lingering influence now if we want to see things change.

When classical perspectives like Schiller’s were trampled by artists and writers in the 19th century, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. The classical perspectives of Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and others, even though they were associated with academic traditions, had great value and deserve another look. This does not mean we need to go backward. Instead, we need a synthesis—a new synthesis—combining the advances art has made over the last 150 years with a new perspective for art that has purpose at its heart. This new synthesis will take us forward.

The world is facing problems today that are arguably worse than what artists in the 19th century faced. It is time to think about what needs to happen in order for the art world to welcome artists who create with purpose in mind—artists who have something to say about where humanity should be going. Artists and writers in the 19th century fought to change the status quo and won? What can we do? The answer may be really simple. We do what they did—create art and talk to each other.

We have far better communications tools than 19th century artists had. If we really want to change the status quo, we need to use these tools to convince growing numbers of artists to produce art with a purpose, urge more patrons and collectors to support art of this sort through socialization and purchases, and encourage more galleries and museums need to welcome the new art.

Introducing a new artistic paradigm into the vast complexities of the modern art world may seem like trying to move a mountain with a toothpick at first, but we have to start somewhere. Artists have a key role to play in the global discussion about the future well-being of humanity. It is time for art for our sake.

—Chris Sloan, Feb. 28, 2019

Written by

An artist passionate about exploring the zones where art meets science. Former Art Director of National Geographic magazine.

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