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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Art for Art's Sake: an Apology

I believe that my poem says that Art for Arts Sake is morally purposeful and/or subversive.  I deny the possibility of cutting art off from spirit and assert that pure art is spirit.

Yesterday I posted a poem called "Let this be my epitaph" which said to my readers that I am in the "Art for Art's Sake" camp of writing.  Here I am making an Apology: I just read through the poems I have written since April 2012--six months of almost a poem a day.  Few--if any--of them are "Art for Art's Sake." Indeed, this poem opens a paradox while actually redefining this very term.  Did I know this when I wrote it, or discover the riddle later?  


This must sound funny--that I had to reread my poems to discover this meaning and this question--but it is not a joke.  I do not mean to say that I write in some kind of trance state.  There are stages of writing, however, and then stages of performing which fall into the realm of prayer in the same sense that a person, an action, words--all we do in the name of God or that God does through us--can be seen as prayer.  Here I want to discuss this spiritual action in three steps: (1) what my poem actually "says," (2) what "art for art's sake" is, and (3) poetry as spiritual action.



In "Let this be my epitaph,"  I wrote:

I make art; I go to art for its aesthetic alone 
and find vacation from play and work and giving 
that nourishes  all three

What seems a direct claim for "art for art's sake" contains a paradox.  If art "nourishes" it has purpose, and--if it has purpose--the art is not art for art's sake.  In these lines I compare the purpose of art to the purpose of vacation, which is, I assert, to nourish "all three": "play and work and giving."  Vacation is for refreshing vocation, not for escape from vocation.


In fact, it is a fallacy to say that since p (play) = P and w (work) = W and g (giving) = G, then a (art) = A.  Instead, the truth is that a (art) = p + w + g = PWG = A.  Perhaps logicians can tell me in formal terms what I am saying here.  


In informal terms, I am saying that by making and enjoying art--by definition outside the context of necessary daily occupation--I find new meaning in daily life.  When I can, I use poetic and other forms of writing to pass on the truths and questions I find.  That is my art.  It may also be a paradox to find art necessary and useful and powerful--not at all a luxury.  Government censorship of the arts--and of the kinds of free public education that encourages the arts--is proof of its power.  I believe that creating and enjoying art is a way of training independent thought and creative solutions in every imaginable context.



I wrote the poem "Let this be my Epitaph" for the challenge "Arts gonna art" at Poetry Jam.  For her prompt, blogger Dani clarifies three stances on the merit of poetry as (1) "for poetry's sake," (2) "to serve some moral or didactic purpose," and (3)  "to be morally subversive."  She directs her readers to the Wikipedia article  Art for Art's Sake for more information, but also concludes, "Perhaps all viewpoints are valid."  She asks us to write a poem which takes a point of view on these merits by commenting on or debating one or more of these stances or by illustrating one of them.  I believe that my poem says that Art for Arts Sake is morally purposeful and/or subversive.  I deny the possibility of cutting art off from spirit and assert that pure art is spirit. 


For example, what if I paint one colorful and textured blob or write a poem all sounds and nonsense--in each case foregrounding artistic means and form but not content.  My only purpose might be to pass the time, or to play with elements and to avoid any purpose.  But, how subversive!  An audience member has to think, even in asking, "What is the artist doing, and Why?"   Dada--an artistic movement that engaged writers, artists, and performers in nonsense--was subversive in this way in the second decade of the 20th century as it acted against war, authority, and even museum-hogging of culture.  


Modern arts including "Art for Art's sake" picked up from there.  The spirit of "no" often arises, the spirit of "yes" often does too as well as more complexity.  I have not used the word "political" yet, but you can feel it coming.  All choices are political, even those NOT to align with any one system.  



In studying, teaching, and directing theatre most of my life, I learned that anything that advances the plot is action and often character in action.  Indeed, every element of the theatre and drama can be used strategically (politically) by actor, designer, and director to advance the story's plot and thought.  Words, looks, gestures, stance are action filled with intention.  Color, line, decor, balance, and the entire physical apparatus of the stage has active intention.  And then the actual movement and dialogue acts, as does stillness, groupings, comings and goings.  Everything.  


This is true of poetry as well, whether a poem lies on a page of a book waiting for discovery or whether sounded into words, phrases, juxtapositions, and voice.  All is action.  A tree stands, OK.  But, in a poem that tree also stands, placed there and framed by a poet.  Does the reader see the tree?  Does it matter?  Does the reader see it now but not later?  How does the reader change the tree?  That too is action for the theatre and for poetry.  


For my poem's opening lines I chose three of the many things that engage my conscious and unconscious mind: play, work, and giving.  I might have chosen eating, sleeping and loving or any of myriad actions, but I didn't.  I took the first three that entered my head and penned them in a new order: playing became first because I used to leave it out, I was such a workaholic.  And giving--which characterized a lot of my work--stood out as I am retired from teaching, so I am questioning how giving--ministering--will still be part of my life.  In each case I wrote a phrase parallel to art for art's sake:

I play for the sake of playing (and all my troubles stay away)
I work for the sake of working (and lose myself in its hours)
I  give for the sake of giving, ego–free, (and I gain more than my mind can comprehend)


I thought that if these phrases made sense I would know WHAT I had to write about art for arts sake.  They did make sense once I added a phrase clarifying the result (in the parenthesis above).  Therefore, my 4th line, quoted in Part (1) above, addressed the same question about art and simultaneously compared and redefined it.  What remained was to describe the art/vacation, and that came out as a mash-up of poetry I have written, spirit-filled yes, no, and thank you. Is it also a paradox to say that  "Yes, no, and thank you" are the only three answers I have ever received to my prayers?  It feels to me that the poems I--we--write are questions or answers to our moments in a

mash-up of “what if” with 
“is” and “was” that at best 
touches soul and opens spirit


This is, at best, the action of my poems in the world, and it was the action of this poem on me.  While writing.  While sifting thoughts and reaping between the lines.  And I thought wouldn't that be a wonderful epitaph?  And I made it so.  Would it be so.  It is, in this poem, a definite yes.






  1. I too feel that art and spirit are symbiotic. You share beautiful, necessary thoughts here and in the poem that sparked the article. Thank you so much for linking me to them.

  2. first, let me say that i LOVE your poem!

    second, i am humbled that my prompt ignited the thoughts which led to your post above. i really struggled with this prompt as it required not only research, but trying to achieve understanding myself.

    my personal belief is that there is NO ONE "purpose" in poetry or any other art but that there can be many purposes, both for the artist/writer and the viewer/reader. many times i write something thinking that my meaning is perfectly clear then not one person commenting sees my words the way i do.

    the wonder and beauty of any art to me is ever-fluid and does not require a definition or classification. i don't believe in "good" or "bad" either, but what each person LIKES is what works for them.

    thank you for the time and creativity which you devoted to this! {smile}


  3. To touch soul and open spirit sound like perfect reasons to me!!!! Thought-provoking post, Susan!

  4. Thank you all for joining in the conversation here.

    Anna--the word symbiotic is a perfect descriptor of the relationship of art and spirit. It also describes the relationship between spirit and each of play, work, and giving. I think the spirit/art relationship always has another partner in experience. Yes?

    Dani--I Love that you Love. Don't be surprised that so much thought/spirit of your own generated a grateful response! I love to think, and I write to think. I enjoy your "fluid" description of Art which lifts it out of any debate at all. I agree.
    BUT! I also like debating the questions every now and then because of (1) the action generates self-knowledge and (2) the debate prevents answers from becoming rules and set forms that prevent thinking. Thank you!

    Sherry--Thank you for reading and responding Sherry. I see in your writing that soul and spirit are central to you!

  5. pshaw....there is no heart in art...

    ha, ok so that was just a bit of attention getting...smiles...i tried to write art for arts sake and struggled...adding a purpose in the title and in my closing lines....

    i think even capturing a moment we give it meaning and purpose so truly art for arts sake i dont know how it exists outside a vacuum...

  6. Timing may be everything. Something may start out with a meaning or as moral instruction of some kind but when its references are lost to society that views it, it become art for its own sake. Take the intricate carved images that grace so many Mayan columns. To us they are art to the people who created them they were writing and even the figures had specific cultural meaning.

    Perhaps art for arts sake has some meaning or purpose of expression for the artist or writer but if no one can read the meaning inside the finished work is art for the sake of art.

    I think this is applicable to most art forms. Even if no one ever guesses my personal reason or meaning for a painting I do or piece I write, it still had purpose for me of some kind. Purpose cannot really be separated from art expression, but purpose can be lost.

  7. Peggy, Thank you for sharing your wisdom here. We'd have to wait for a context to obscure to have no --or weakened--relevance. Purpose can also be seen as the spectator wishes only. I am thinking if the multiple productions of Hamlet over the centuries that have each expressed very culturally specific situations--perhaps the Warsaw, Poland one of protesting gov censorship and terror being the most significant. But theatre is so easily adaptable.

    Brian--there is plenty of art in heart, and that my be why what you say is true. IF you could create something without engaging your heart, you might have an equally detached art.


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