Art for Art’s Sake

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 treesI 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.

15 Comments

  1. Well said.

    Maybe the most important thing is how the artist feels when creating art…..not how other people respond to it. And if a simple painting makes those feelings come back when YOU see it, it’s a better mood enhancer than alcohol, drugs, chocolate or whatever.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Even when art is for ‘arts sake,’ it provides so much more than just a compelling and expressive image. For example, art is always teaching us about ourselves and our collective culture. I love how your blog provides such an intimate look into your own process and artistic development.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Art can be so many things and, yes, it teaches us about ourselves and about our relationship to others. Reading art history has been fascinating, and of course, learning from my personal experience has been quite a process of discovery. I’m glad to have others following along with me. I could not have come as far as I have without the support I’ve found from the online community.

      Like

  3. Hi Judith, thanks so much for liking my post about Charles Baudelaire and for following my vlog. It’s great to have a fellow artist aboard.

    M. Baudelaire, as the bosom friend of Théophile Gautier (who popularized the phrase) was also an advocate of ‘l’art pour l’art’. But the sense that these gentlemen had of ‘art for art’s sake’ is less that anything can be art, but that the work of art itself is exquisitely worked—to the point of useless embellishment.

    If you trace the lineage of this phrase through the nineteenth century, from France across the Channel to England, where it becomes the credo of the Arts and Crafts and Decadent movements (from John Ruskin and William Morris through Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde), it becomes clear that the point when art becomes art for its own sake is when masterful skill of the medium meets an extremity of Romantic sentiment. The Romanticism of the masterful artist embellishes the work of art with what Poe called ‘arabesques’: designs within the structure of the work of art, whether it is a poem, a painting, a sculpture, or what you will, that are gratuitous, which serve no function related to the form of the piece, and are, one might say, ‘needlessly beautiful’—that is, beautiful for their own sakes. They are, in effect, excessive.

    In using the word ‘arabesque’ to describe this exquisite excess, Poe, I think, seemed to intuit an implicit parallel current in the Franco/Anglo concept of ‘l’art pour l’art’, for travelling across the Channel with it is the French obsession with Orientalism which took root during the colonial adventures of the Second Empire, and which would later be taken up by the Victorians when they had their turn to conquer the Far East. To French artists (as later to British artists at the fin de siècle), the art of the Orient was an art of exquisite excess—of art for its own sake. In its ‘femininity’, Oriental art, to their minds, was essentially a decorative art, one where excessively beautiful forms bear little if any discernible relationship to practical function. The art of the mosque as much as the exaggerations of space and simplifications of form in the Japanese print, being inscrutable in their function to the European mind, struck these artists as being examples of art pushed to this irrational extremity of beauty for its own sake.

    And the point where these two courses of thinking converge is in the apparition of ‘decadence’ in art in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. For an art that pushes itself beyond the classical limits of a perfect form to satisfy a perfect function, an art that strives to perfect form for its own sake without regard to elegantly and proportionately satisfying a practical function, is really an irrational, mad art, and now becomes ‘decadent’. It becomes an art for its own sake and no other. The essence of rationality is probity and proportionality. We say that something is ‘decadent’ when it is indecent or excessive, and when there is ‘too much of a good thing’ in art, when it becomes ‘art for its own sake’, we can safely call it decadent. Baudelaire, aided and abetted by Gautier, announces the apparition of decadence in France with poetry that combines mastery of classical form with an extremity of Romantic sentiment that sounds perverse, indecent, immodest and excessive to the ears of those who hear it. It jangles with a useless, inscrutable beauty to French ears like Chinese music.

    Later, across the Channel, the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts-and-Craftsists and the Decadents announce their dedication to art for its own sake in strident reaction to the artless mechanization of traditional labour. They all late Romantics, and there is nothing more quixotically romantic than to champion the useless labour of exquisite handicraft in the face of encroaching economic rationalism—the same rationalism that is creating a British Empire in Asia, bringing back the ‘exquisitely decadent’ art of the Orient to inspire these artists and poets in their own uselessly beautiful projects. Walter Pater is the Huxley to John Ruskin’s Darwin in this movement, and dissipated, degenerate figures like Wilde, Dowson and Beardsley—artists who proudly proclaim that they are ‘Decadents’ who believe in art for art’s own sake—are the inevitable logical progeny of the intellectual rigor of Pater and the modest elegance of William Morris when pushed to exquisite excess.

    So the apotheosis of ‘art for art’s sake’, which begins as technical mastery of form combined with the exquisite personal feeling of the artist, and is modified by the discovery, importation and artistic reaction to Asian art in Europe, comes about in reaction to the political and economic problem of emergent capitalism in Britain: the destruction of artisanal handicraft and the guild system which enabled the development of technical mastery over form in the first place. It is essentially a cyclical problem, for mechanized capitalism has the rational means to mass-produce objects where form elegantly and proportionately solves the problem of function, but at the cost of that irrational, human element, which is the love of beauty for its own sake. At that point, where certain artists possess the technical skill to create objects that are both functional and beautiful, whether they are books, or paintings, or sculptures, or clothes or furnishings, but are driven out of the market by the competition of cheap mechanized labour, they have no economic choice but to make the beauty of their skill the chief selling point, the reason to do what they have, in their soul, to do—at which point you have the creation of art for art’s sake.

    I apologise for this long comment, Judith! Once again, thanks for liking and following me!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for visiting and sharing your knowledge with me and my readers. Yes, there is much to “l’art pour l’art”. As a relatively new artist, I’m choosing to see it in ways that reflect who I am and what my experience in art has been. I’ll never gain “mastery” in any art form, and I’m working to achieve the emotional awareness that is part of great art. One of the things I’ve learned is that, as artists, we sometimes need to see things in our own way, to re-imagine, re-invent, re-think, and re-interpret ideas from the past. In fact, throughout the month of December I did a project whereby I “re-interpreted” 31 tonalist paintings. It’s helped me learn to make my own judgments, to trust my own instincts (even through they’re often wrong) and to recognize elements of my own developing style. In a similar way, I suppose you can say I’m “re-interpreting” the concept of “art for art’s sake” so that I can make it more meaningful and more applicable to who I am. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. If mine had to have meaning or grand statement then I could probably count my artwork posts on my fingers, most likely without resorting to the other hand.

    I’m just making art because I want to and choosing my designs based on nothing more than “want” as well.

    In fact, thinking about it, whenever I’ve taken on a commission for a subject which didn’t particularly interest me I’ve never been that happy with it so I don’t do that these days. I’m not being picky because I don’t need the money, it’s more that I don’t think I could do justice to something that doesn’t interest me.

    Those sunflowers brighten up a space which previously contained nothing so to me that is a 100% success of the core of creation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you completely. I sometimes do art “assignments” that don’t really interest me, and it makes it very difficult. More and more I’m learning to stay with things I want to draw or paint. I don’t know that I learn a lot from completing a project that really doesn’t interest me.

      Liked by 1 person

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