Friday, August 16, 2013

Harvey Dunn on "Art for Art's Sake"

American illustrator Harvey Dunn had this to say about the philosophy that true art should be divorced from any moral, practical, commercial, or didactic purpose. 

“We still hear some talk of ‘art for art’s sake.” The expression is about as sensible as ‘beefsteak for beefsteak’s sake.’ The artist who falls back upon any such refuge in explanation of poor work might just as well be shown the door.”

The term 'art for art's sake' is often attributed to Théophile Gautier. In its Latin form "Ars Gratia Artis," the saying appears as the motto in the banner around Metro Goldwyn Mayer's roaring lion. 

Samuel Goldwyn is often alleged to have said to screenwriters trying to convey moral ideas, "If you have a message, call Western Union." Many movies don't have much of a moral purpose, but the big ones certainly have a commercial one. 

While I'm on the subject of the MGM lion, here's a photo of how they filmed it. 

The notion of 'art for art's sake' doesn't make much sense to me. Art has many levels of purpose, whether to to sell soap, to decorate a home, or to articulate shared dreams. There's really no category of purpose that's intrinsically more elevated than another. Great artistic achievements have sprouted up, fertilized by the most unlikely of purposes—such as writing music to help someone with their sleepless nights.

Most art has the sake of the viewer or listener in mind. So in that sense it's not done for its own sake at all. Even if a work of art were to be painted in chalk on the sidewalk of a dead end street to be erased by rain—it would presumably be made for the sake of the mental well-being of the creator. 

I know what Dunn means—lazy students have used the line "art for art's sake" to justify poor work. I agree that great paintings are usually more than the sum of their brushstrokes. However, art is different from beefsteak. It can feed us on so many levels, from the eye candy of gorgeous shapes, to the indulgence of violent or bawdy entertainment, to the expression of the loftiest ideals.  
Wikipedia on Art for Art's Sake


David Glenn said...

I think things are better when done for a purpose and not for the sake of doing them. The telephone came about because someone was trying to help deaf people and Walt Disney was always looking for ways to make animation more entertaining for people.

Unknown said...

I agree that the art for art's sake statement doesn't make a whole lot of sense... but sometimes my "purpose" for creating a particular piece of art is not in the finished product. My purpose is to experience the process of creating it.

Anonymous said...

I suspect Dunn's comments have to be interpreted in the context of the rise of Modernism in his time.

armandcabrera said...

I'm of mixed feelings about this, plenty of talent wasted making stuff to sell for corporations or other people. It gets even worse when its design by committees of non-artists. While I agree that usually the best art has a purpose to it or for it, there is a point of diminishing returns when the creators intent is diluted by too many outside influences.

Steven Powers (SMP) said...

Whether ART is a movie, music, still image or in written form there should be a Reason, Purpose or Message that the audience can relate to or appreciate. Not to say that ART can't be done for the Artist's sake ...that is different.

Kim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kim said...

I don't think art that's done for "art's sake" is done for purely "art's sake." And actually, I don't think even post-modern art is "art for art's sake," because artists from post-modernism realized that trying to remove all outside influence (a la modernism) doesn't work.

Back when you made posts about Semir Zeki's book, Innner Visions: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, I checked it out at my library and read the whole thing. Based on his speculations and his knowledge of neurobiology, it seems that artists during the avant-garde movement (starting with impressionists) were embarking a long experiment to deconstruct how our brains see the world around us visually and how they work.

So, I guess a more accurate term is "Art for Deconstruction's Sake."

Also, it is sad to see that lazy art students can easily get away with doing "art for art's sake." The ones who really can do this type of work well actually do put in the hard hours. Their work requires a set of skills that are completely different from that of commercial artists and artists from the traditional school of thought. It's just that currently, society doesn't really see a necessity for these skills.

Mikell said...

There seem to be two separate notions that come to my mind about Dunn's quote.
The first being what you mentioned as the widespread use of 'art for art's sake' like a "Get out of jail free" card some people use in order to forgo having to explain a piece.
The second being that if an artist would have to resort to explaining a piece in order for the audience to 'get it' means that the piece isn't strong enough to stand alone to begin with, no matter what words and captions dress it.

When Dunn referred to the questioning of the term "Art for Art's sake" as being nonsensical, I'm not sure if he is advocating that art should not have a reason behind it.
I think he's pointing towards more of the act of having to explain those reasons and feeling that if the piece cannot do the talking, then we have failed to communicate.

There is definitely a laziness from not wanting to find ways to explain ourselves.
However, I also wonder if the use of "art for art's sake" as an explanation is also a result of anxiety from artists (especially students) who feel that they 'just aren't good with words' to explain themselves, even if their pieces actually mean something.
I see a lot of fellow students say this because they feel that they aren't 'good enough'. They feel if they can't leave everyone awestruck, they will come off as pretentious by trying to dress it up with fancy and elaborate explanations.

Coming from university and fine arts, I can see why many students are conscious about it when school projects have to be accompanied by pages of explanation. Many colleagues I've come across feel themselves trying to stretch a word count and pull reasons out of thin air even when they don't want to. It's one of the reasons I had felt my work to not feel genuine back then, especially when I had to tack on these long drawn-out papers to the works.

I completely agree with you, James. There's always meaning and reason behind art whether it is to satisfy our curiosity, to console us in times of need or to try to translate our innermost dreams. I do think we owe it to ourselves to find out and be able to explain why we want to do art. When we can explain to others why we do the work we do, it's invigorating and reassures us that we are on a path that we chose. When I see friends of mine say, "I can't explain it! It's art!" I'm sure they know why they do it and what reasons are behind it, but they either haven't found the right words or they don't want to be scrutinized for their reasons.

Apologies if I went off on a tangent.
A great contemplative read as usual, James!


jonathanpaulmayer said...


I believe there is one purpose that is intrinsically higher than any other—the purpose of glorifying the Creator. God gave the gifts of music and art to man, and participating in them is itself a reflection of God's role as creator. But when we turn those arts specifically to the purpose of proclaiming God's goodness... that is an especially high calling.

Rubysboy said...

Another reading of "Art for Art's sake' might be: art made to satisfy others versus art made to satisfy oneself. In this formulation neither side seems superior or inferior.

Keith Parker said...

I like this post. :)

Unknown said...

This widely used term has meant different things at different times. I think it is important to make the distinction of its frame of reference: is it intention, process or product?

The term easily loses meaning the closer it gets to product without a firm belief in the 'spirituality' of art.

While it can be recognized as a catharsis that becomes an almost voyeuristic event...I mainly see the relevance in the process and its application to the artist: not the art.

Craig Banholzer said...

"Art for art's sake," or, in Gautier's formulation, "L'art pour l'art," has certainly taken a well-deserved beating over the years, but, strangely enough, I stand by it. After all, it was the de facto motto of some pretty significant artists, including Gerome, Whistler, Albert Moore, Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Circa 1840, when it was first coined, the phrase represented the liberation of artists from the age-old task of preaching public morality and propagandizing for the powerful and the mighty. It was all about the freedom to delight (or provoke) the senses without any ulterior motive. Even successful "commercial" artists have followed its call. No one dictated to Norman Rockwell the subjects he chose for his Post covers, or how he painted them. He found a niche there that suited his temperament and talents. Mark Schultz loves to draw dinosaurs and Cadillacs, so he created plot lines that allowed him to do just that for issue after issue of "Xenozoic Tales." Need I go on? I, for one, would not have had the nerve to tell Frank Frazetta that he was not his own man....

Unknown said...

There are some really interesting viewpoints on the phrase " Art for Arts Sake" and I'm glad to hear them. I had always thought that it meant simply making art for the sake of art being made. For me it separated the commercial aspect of the industry and gave liberation to the artist's viewpoint and license to create as that artist felt lead to.

For those that create art poorly and use this phrase to justify it, it should not reflect badly on the phrase. I suspect these lazy artist will always use something to explain away their less than stellar work.

Anonymous said...

Seth Godin talks about this in Lynchpin. He says it's not art unless there's an experience gifted from art-maker to viewer.

Also, I suspect that some have used the "art for art's sake" as an elegant euphemism for "would you people leave me alone so I can work?"

Those that privately and sincerely embrace the "art for art's sake" dogma have an uphill battle if they think they can justify putting their work out into the world. They'd be hard pressed to justify not locking their art in a safe.

No safe? No Ars Artia Gratis.

mp said...

I began hearing the phrase "art for art's sake" in high school art classes, then at community college and later from some of the fine art instructors at Art Center. While the meaning seems obvious, art without rules and limitations imposed by outsiders, I guess that interpretation can be so broad that it can spawn many more interpretations and applications.

My favorite line from the movie, "Hope Floats" is spoken by Harry Connick, Jr.'s character: "You're talkin' about the American Dream - You find something that you love and then you twist it and torture it, trying to find a way to make money at it, you spend a lifetime doing that and at the end you can't find a trace of what you started out lovin'."

I think "art for art's sake" comes from such a feeling.

mp said...

Bernice Polifka used to say art is "showbiz" so maybe "art for art's sake" is like the performer who loves to perform whether or not there's an audience, a rarity indeed.

Interesting that such a huge commercial enterprise as MGM used that motto.