Art for Art's Sake?!

Panoptikon logo
Panoptikon: On Contemporary Visual Culture, American University in Dubai, UAE, May 28, 2009

So, it was Immanuel Kant (d. 1804).

It was Kant who birthed the conception of “art for art’s sake,” where the significance of human creativity was said to represent little more than the product of creativity itself. It was Kant that originally conceived this reductive vision of the human imagination, starting the downward spiral that has sent art from the center of society, into the marginalized cultural eddy where it now circumnavigates its own tail. Ultimately, his ideas led to a denaturing of art’s immanent meaning to such an extent, that it spawned a cottage industry of critics, analysts and market purveyors, redefining art away from its position at the center of human spiritual experience, and into the little cesspool where it now breeds like mosquito larvae.


O.K., O.K. – Kant didn’t originally mean it this way; I’ll grant you that. He had ideas about “salvaging art from the utilitarian ideology of the conquering bourgeoisie of post revolutionary (French Revolution) Europe.” (Dr. Marcelo Lima, May 24, 2009) After all, for them, the only thing that had worth was something that could be turned into a sous. Kant – so Kant said – was rescuing art from this downward spiral, re-instilling the intrinsic sense of art by separating it from the market.

And this would all be well and good, if he’d only remembered that the human mind runs down hill to the lowest common denominator, and quickly. So Kant’s high-minded desire to save art from the market only made things worse, separating art not only from the market, but from it’s historic place at the center of the search for human spirituality, as well. And so there it hangs to this day, alone in an ever more constricted art market, the unfortunate and unforeseen outcome of Kant’s attempt to save art from the world.

Cynthia Freeland, who is a Professor and Chair at a Department of Philosophy, as well as being an Esteemed Member of the American Society for Aesthetics, and who has seen theatrical productions by Maoris, American Indians, Africans and people of color everywhere, and once even received a retail catalogue that offered goods from Bhutan, Morocco, India, Bali and other exotic places, has a very different take than me, on where Kant’s separation of art from purpose has led. In fact, she likes it!

“The beautiful object appeals to our senses, but in a cool and detached way. A beautiful object’s form and design are the key to the all-important feature of (Kant’s) ‘purposiveness without a purpose.’ We respond to the objects rightness of design, even though we are not evaluating the object’s purpose.” (But is it Art? pg. 14)

With all due respect, this is a meaningless statement – and one that bleeds the value out of art itself. Cynthia, dear, we can’t just turn out backs on 75,000 years of human creative purpose, can we? I understand all of the letters attached to your name, but neither you nor Immanuel Kant nor George W. Bush himself can operate outside of the stream of history, artistic or otherwise.

No, my dear – art has always been (and must return to being!) the ladder that helps us ascend toward our own true nature, that aspect of ourselves that lies buried within (the sirr or Divine Secret), which echoes the universal spirit. Art has always – always, until Kant came along, that is – helped lead us humans beyond cognition and logic, and towards the ineffable power of “Is-ness” that awaits outside of our conscious ability to “comprehend.”

But wait!

There’s more to this whole distressing conception: Kant’s initial ideal of an art that has no ulterior meaning, created a collective of people who tell us what is and what is not “beautiful” and “meaningful.” Since the experience that art is supposed to produce in the viewer devolved from “katharsis,” to a “cool and detached” intellectual “hmmmmm,” a group of “aesthetes” who were properly intellectual (and light on the emotional and spiritual) emerged as if from some long dormant spores dropped in dung, to tell us (the idiot public) how we were supposed to feel about specific works of art.

Again, Ms. Freeland (one of said aesthetes):

“Kant’s view of beauty had ramifications well into the 20th century . . . Art writers such as Clive Bell (d. 1964), Edward Bullough (d. 1934) and Clement Greenburg (d. 1994) . . . shared attitudes in common with Kant’s aesthetics. Bell, for instance, writing in 1914 emphasized ‘Significant Form’ in art, rather than content. ‘Significant form’ is a particular combination of lines and colors that stir our aesthetic emotions. A critic can help others see form in art and feel the resulting emotions. These emotions are special and lofty: Bell spoke of art as an exalted encounter with form on Art’s ‘cold white peaks’ and insisted that art should have nothing to do with life or politics.” (But is it Art? pg. 15)

I’m not going to waste any ink in explaining why this so disgusts me; my positions concerning art, emotion, spirituality and “having something to do with life” are outlined elsewhere, and will save me the necessity of inserting a series of expletive-laden phrases sprinkled with artspeak here.

The bottom line is this: Writing by non-artists about “art as form” should be declared illegal, punishable by 20 lashes with a wet noodle. Period. As Tennessee Williams averred: "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem who know how its done and make sure it's done right every night, but can't do it themselves." But instead of my trying to convince you of this fact (of the eunuchary of art critics), I will turn to someone who's ideas are beyond reproach, Fernando Pessoa (Portuguese modernist writer, d. 1935) for confirmation of my repulsion. Pessoa wrote an essay entitled “The Uselessness of Criticism,” which should shed some (much needed) light on this subject, even as art critics have proliferated like rabbits in the wild:

“That good work always comes to the fore on the course of its futurity is true; that second rate work always comes to the fore in its own age is also true. How competent is the competent critic? Let us suppose that a deeply original work of art comes before his eyes. How does he judge it? By comparison to works of art in the past. If it is original, however, it will depart in something – and the more original, the more it will depart from works of art in the past. Insofar as it does this, it will not seem to conform to the aesthetic canon that the critic finds established in his mind.”

Pessoa notes, and I concur wholeheartedly, that the act of art “criticism” is by its very nature reactionary, and therefore unable to appreciate true, groundbreaking work. Because the critic is in no way creative him or herself, a truly original work of art is literally incomprehensible to them. They only canonize that which they can understand, which is usually some minor “advancement” in a line of work that they already “like.” Of course, this artist is then sucked up into the art “market” and used to bludgeon an ever-less interested public with absurd and circular artistic “forms” “messages” and, most importantly, inflated monetary valuations.

One needn’t dig too deep into recent art history to see how this dynamic plays out. An art critic is, by the very nature of their role, but a guardian of the status quo. Like the secondary artist upon whom they shower their paeans, they cannot see beyond their own “knowledge” into the realm of true art, where the incomprehensible points the audience towards immanence. To identify the truly creative work of art, which departs from the accepted cannon of contemporary culture, is beyond the abilities of these institutional opinion makers.

A quick example will illustrate the point. Here is a quote from the pre-eminent art critic of the era of the 1960s, Peter Schjeldahl, who wrote for the New Yorker. This is his reminiscence about a truly great creative event, the first exhibit (1970) of a radically personal series of figurative works by the previously abstract expressionistic painter, Philip Guston (d. 1980):

“Philip Guston in the sixties, when I was new in New York, had the most refined sort of existential abstract expressionist style, the quiveringly intelligent. And I revered him and then he, at the end of the sixties, he switched to this raucous, cartoony style of Ku Klux Klan and did self-loathing self-portraits, and I hated it, I just hated it. It was like the priest of my religion defrocking himself. At the same time I know a lot of people, particularly younger people, were very moved by it, but I resisted it. And then, I don't know, one point maybe in my sleep, I changed my mind and realized, ‘Live with it, Peter.’ The job of an artist is not to make you comfortable with your ideals. I've since become an enthusiast for the late Guston.” (Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and Art, interview of Peter Schjeldahl, by Mary Flinn)

It should be noted that Philip Guston was deeply embittered by Schjeldahl’s intitial rejection of his work in 1970, and although the critic eventually expanded his canon and imagination to include Guston’s later work, probably due to the fact that it was positively received within the general art community, the wound for the artist never healed. And the critic, in the end, pats himself on the back for having eventually stretched his aesthetic sensibility enough to post-facto include the sublime work of the visionary artist!

Kant started this lunacy.

And because of him, we have such late 20th century wonders as Warhol and Schnabel, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst – all healthy (or dead), wealthy and not-too-wise, but certain to be forgotten by the time the next century rolls around, except as footnotes in some huge art history tome. They represent the accepted mediocrity that is comprehensible by the art world eunuchs – while the true purpose of art, to engage the general society with itself and hidden spiritual aspirations, lies fallow, testament to 75,000 years of human history relegated to the dustbin by the end of true purpose, and the beginning of art criticism.

Thanks, Immanuel!