Although it may seem a simple concept, l’art pour l’art — art for art’s sake — is actually a serious topic with a lot of philosophical thoughts and opinions wrapped around it. You’ll find that there is a great deal of history behind the phrase, which became a bit of a “Bohemian creed” in the late 1800s.
I’m not going to get into a lengthy dissertation of l’art pour l’art, how the concept developed, and how various artists have applied the idea. I will say, though, that it is an interesting topic, and if you’re interested in art history and philosophy, you might enjoy reading and learning more about the idea that art can be devoid of meaning, purpose, sentimentality and all its other trappings yet still be art. A work of art need not have a narrative, need not make any political or historical statement, need not even express personal thoughts and feelings of its artists. Art for art’s sake means that art can simply be whatever it is and that whatever it is can be art.
I find this a very intriguing area of study largely because of my own naive impressions about “art”. When I began learning to draw back in 2015, I had a very simple, yet somewhat rigid, view of what “art” actually was. Art was something beautiful, something real artists created. In my narrow-minded viewpoint, “artists” were people who had a natural talent for drawing. They might move beyond drawing and representation, but it was still that ability that made them artists, in my mind.
I could not draw. I could never be an artist. It was as simple as that.
But that was five-and-a-half years ago. I’ve learned to draw reasonably well. I’ve learned the basics of landscape painting. I’ve studied color theory. I’ve played with pastels, charcoal, watercolor, ink, and more. I’ve learned a lot about art, and I’ve also learned a lot about being an artist.
The most important thing I’ve learned, perhaps, is that art can’t be neatly classified and defined. Every artist has his or her own voice — I’m beginning to find mine — and art can be created in too many different media, with too many different inspirations, and with too many different narratives, for anyone to forthrightly declare, “This is art”, and “this is not art.”
Art is what we make it to be. For me, that means seeing art now as something anyone can create. Art is something that can become whatever we want it to be, and if what we want is merely an enjoyable creative experience — with no thought of making serious art, no concern about the outcome, no deep search for meaning — what’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all.
As a new student of the arts back in 2015, my greatest concern was that my efforts at drawing would look clumsy and childish. My “art” — such as it was — would be ridiculed and laughed at. I wanted to draw realistically. I wanted my trees to look like real trees. I wanted to draw roses that looked like roses, rocks that looked like rocks, and never mind trying to do animals or buildings. Mine were wonky beyond belief.
Now, while I can create somewhat realistic “illusions” in art, both with graphite and oil, I have discovered the fun of art for art’s sake, the idea that it is the creative process itself that becomes this intangible thing we call art. Art has a spirit of its own, a spirit that comes not from the artist’s skill or deft use of color, not from carefully-drawn lines or meaningful attempts to share thoughts and feelings, but from the simple act of doing art.
Recently I picked up my set of watercolor pencils. I’ve never really learned to use them properly, and beginning next week I’ll be using them for a project series at The Virtual Instructor. Time to get them out, play around a little, learn more about them, right?
I began following a short video tutorial at The Virtual Instructor, making marks on a sheet of paper, adding water, getting familiar with how to blend colors. All the basics I needed to know. I was having fun.
And then the video went on to show step by step how to create a gorgeous painting of sunflowers using watercolor pencils. The first step, of course, was to draw the sunflowers — which I could have done. But at that moment, I wasn’t so concerned with creating a gorgeous painting as I was with quickly trying out the “how-to” ideas demonstrated.
Accordingly, I grabbed a sheet of watercolor paper and did a 30-second sketch of three very primitive, very childish-looking sunflowers. There’s nothing close to accurate about these sunflowers other than maybe the fact that they have petals, stems, and leaves. There’s nothing precise, nothing realistic. Basically, this was exactly the sort of “terrible drawing” I once lived in fear of making. And now, here I was, gleefully drawing something so awful… well, certainly it could never be considered art!
But it is. I saw it. I saw not only my misshapen flowers but the spirit of art behind the drawing. I saw the pleasure of playing with watercolor pencils. I saw that indefinable something that is part of all art.
Here it is.
Yep. Five years ago, I would have been ashamed of this drawing. I would have hidden it away. I would have pretended that it never existed.
Now, I’m proudly showing it off because I can see — with my own eyes — that this, too, is art. It is art simply because it is. It needs no other reason. It is plain and simple, l’art pour l’art. Art for its own sake and nothing more.
I’ve fallen in love with this little watercolor. I want to frame it, to hang it somewhere, to see it often, to smile and realize how very much this very simple drawing taught me.
Of course, you might look at it, shake your head, and lament that I’ll never be a real artist, that even after five and a half years, I’m still turning out childish-looking sunflowers. I could have done better, of course, but that’s not the point.
The point is that art can be art, simply for art’s sake.