The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

"Art for art's sake"; what, then, is art's sake?

Art is a difficult subject to cover, partly because it is a difficult term to define. Like beauty or truth or lunch, almost any definition we propose has some ready counterexample on hand to explode it. Even the origin of the word in the Latin ars betrays a certain ambiguity or changefulness, for ars more properly means “skill, craft, trade.”

However, this affords us a place to begin: most if not all of the things we call arts are still skills, the sorts of things you can “learn how to do,” irrespective of what æsthetic value we assign to the end product. We might, for a number of reasons, prefer an entirely uncut piece of rock to a sculpture by Bernini, and we might even be right to do so—but that doesn’t change the fact that what Bernini has made is the product of a skill (or more exactly, a set of skills) which we call sculpting. The same goes for all the fine arts: drawing, dancing, painting, playing an instrument, writing poetry, acting—all of them are skills that a person can learn, the same way a person can learn to write computer software or speak French.

This fact tends to run into tension with a certain theory of artistic inspiration, if one that tends to be found more often among “fans” of art than among artists themselves (at least in the present writer’s experience). This is the theory that art is primarily an expression of the artist’s individuality, and thus all rules—artistic, social, moral—must bow before the great spirit, Originality. It is of course true that any work of art that just slavishly copies another work or artist is probably going to be quite dull. However, at the same time, two problems with this theory emerge. One is that the vast majority of art produced by the human race to date has very much understood art as a craft the artist learns; we would not equally appreciate the originality of a medical doctor whose prescribed treatment preferred expressing his individuality over making us healthy. The other is that even those artists who come to mind as innovators and rule-breakers—the Igor Stravinskies, Pablo Picassoes, and T. S. Eliots of the world—not only also showed great facility with the conventional forms they typically defied, but expressed themselves in terms that depended on the old conventions for their special impact. Eliot’s free verse does not arrest the ear unless we know to expect meter; Stravinsky’s discord will not much strike us if we have not been trained to expect concord. Without dismissing the “individuality” theory as having no value, we must at minimum say that the value of an individual is always going to be visible only in a social context.

For to the second realm I tune my tale,
    Where human spirits purge themselves, and train
    To leap up into joy celestial.
Now from the grave wake poetry again,
    O sacred Muses I have served so long!

Mention of the fine arts above invites a discussion of what they are. The generally recognized list includes painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry; some lists also include calligraphy, dance, theater, and more recently photography and filmmaking. How many we enumerate depends both on what we admit to the status of a fine art (e.g., does cooking qualify?), and what distinctions we draw (such as whether painting also includes drawing or not). Of course, it is also open to us to challenge the distinction between fine art and whatever its opposite is—typically “vulgar” art. The traditional qualification for fine art is that it is art not made for a utilitarian purpose, but for its own sake. This differentiation between things done only for the sake of something else and things done for the mere pleasure of doing them goes back to Aristotle, who said that philosophy was the “freest” of all pursuits because it was the only one undertaken purely for its own sake. However, readers may have noticed that, of the fine arts listed, architecture most certainly has a practical use, and an exception has always been made for it. It’s easy to see why, insofar as, while four walls and a roof may make a house however ugly they are, making the house pleasant to look at is indeed an art in the “fine” sense; but this suggests that the real distinction in whether arts are fine or not lies not, maybe, in the disciplines themselves, but in which parts of them are done for practical reasons and which for the mere pleasure of creation. Returning to our passing example above, cooking is obviously a highly utilitarian pursuit, but the exact style and presentation of a dish are obvious opportunities for the fine-artistic flourish.

But why do humans make art in the first place? Insofar as it is a skill, of course, many people create art for money. But it seems, for some people at least, to be almost spontaneous, an expression of some kind of need to create. In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers connects this with the Judaic and Christian doctrine that human beings are (in whatever sense) “made in the image of God,” and that creation is therefore natural to us in the same sense that it is natural to him. He does not need a reason; to give things being is a delight.

Obviously one could go on endlessly about artistic theory; wherever one stops is bound to feel a little arbitrary! But it is better to experience art than to talk about it in any case. We have, accordingly, a slightly longer list of suggested reading than usual, including both artistic criticism and works of art. We can also recommend a couple of small showcases we’ve hosted here at the Journal, from both staff and students. Enjoy!

Suggested reading:
Homer, The Odyssey
Plato, Timæus
Aristotle, Poetics
The Thousand and One Nights
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Dorothy L. Sayers, Introduction to the Purgatorio
C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Liza Dalby, Geisha


Matt McKeown is a proud uncle of seven nephews and a staff writer and editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this post, check out some of our other material here at the Journal, like these profiles of Virgil, David Hume, and Hannah Arendt; you might also like our seminar series, Journey Through the Author Bank, and our podcast, Anchored.

Published on 9th June, 2022. Page image of Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) by Johannes Vermeer.

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