“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, June 08, 2004


Well, my post about elites seems doomed to perpetual postponement. First Reagan dies, which I had to lament; then there was Schlegel to explain; and lately I’ve been getting epistles from my friend T. honing in with an evil eye on two sentences from the essay of Chaouli’s I quoted. The offending passage reads: “The line of reasoning I propose assumes that romanticism, far from furthering a mutual implication of art and politics (or art and religion, or art and philosophy), promotes their differentiation. With romanticism, art (and not politics, religion, or philosophy) increasingly decides what art should be.”

To which my friend, knowing that I was slyly inching towards some beret headed affirmation of the autonomy of art myself, the dangerous doctrine of art for the sake of art, made the following crabby but just remarks:

the “for the sake of" is in my craw (wherever that is)....either (i) the artist knows for what it is that the item is executed and such knowledge is not articulated in any way save for the item executed - this in the sense of 'I have been to the promised land and return with this mere indication of what is the bounty to be had there'; and perhaps (ii) I am merely a vessel for that which generally flows - in the sense of 'I have no choice but to make that which is made merely through my hands'. Each in its own way a narcissism which is ever reproached for it lack of accountability (read: dichotomously claiming authorship and messengership). "For the sake of" as a justification beyond formal terms of evaluation (yes, I'm thinking of Clem Greenberg) and/or execution.”

Well, T. had caught me. I was hoping to sneak through this without running into that cursed slogan. I agree with my friend that it is a wretched idea, and replied:

“… But here is what I was thinking. Politicians and artists appear, historically, about the same time in the early modern period. Their appearance is all about social folds unknown in the medieval period, such that a man could seek power independently of his rank -- like Walpole or Ben Franklin -- just as a man could write or paint or compose independently of his institutional patronage.
Okay, now what you say about for the sake of sticking in your craw -- well, it sticks in the craw of every artist, partly because it is a misplaced generalization. Art is not for the sake of art, but for the sake of this or that artwork. It eradicates, in other words, the punctum -- the now of the artwork, within the confines of which one works -- in favor of the universal -- where there is no confining, and no work, and no fun.
But that is also not entirely true. Art absorbs art. Now when you make the choices i and ii, I think: hmm, does the artist know? I like the ineffability of the known object -- it is the earth, it is promised, and don't bother me with the contracts and the lawyers -- but I keep thinking, knowing about art is not the business of the artist, but the critic or the philosopher.”

That’s a shifty reply, I admit it. My move – to highlight the cognitive side of the word “know” – is not completely above board.

T., as a matter of fact, had a premonition of my move, and wrote me back:

“…not what the artist knows, but what the artist does (thinking, at this very moment, of Twombly's pencil marks on pigment adjacent to raw canvas). “

This discussion made me wonder about the phrase art for art’s sake, which I vaguely attributed to Gautier. I looked it up and found, on this site, some interesting background:

“The expression,” the site claims, “of art for the sake of art appears for the first time in Frence in 1818, in series of lectures by Victor Cousin, entitled ‘on the foundation of the absolute ideas of the true, the beautiful and the good.”

A few paragraphs down, we come to Gautier:

But it is the preface to the novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1834) that appears to be the first manifesto of the art for the sake of art school. Of course, a flagrant desire to shock the bourgeois is no stranger to Gautier’s attitude, with the “multiple love affairs of the diva, Madeleine de Maupin (Garnier: 1930,. p. 42). But at the same time he wants to vindicate his opposition to certain moralizing clichés of romanticism. Gautier reproaches the “moral journalists” with their hypocrisy, for, on the one hand, contemporary literature has nothing approaching the licentiousness of certain comedies of Moliere and Marivaux, and, on the other hand, “Books follow the morals of the time and the morals don’t follow the books.” But he really gets indignant at the utilitarian critics who ask, “what purpose does this book serve?” : There is nothing really beautiful that can serve anything else, for everything that is useful is ugly, being the expression of some need, and the needs of men are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor and infirm nature. The most useful place in the house is the bathroom. ( « Il n’y a de » vraiment beau que ce qui ne peut servir ; tout ce qui est utile est laid, car c’est l’expression de quelque besoin, et ceux de l’homme sont ignobles et dégoûtants, comme sa pauvre et infirme nature. – L’endroit le plus utile de la maison, ce sont les latrines » (p. 28).”

Perhaps it is an appropriate fate that the apostle of such a high brow doctrine should be generally known, in this country, as one of the fathers of the Mummy story – Gautier’s Novel (or Romance) of the Mummy was one of the first uses of the mummy returns motif in the 19th century. This site, with its story of the typically arrogant English amateurs entertaining Victorian audiences by ‘unrolling” mummies in front of them, ought to contextualize Gautier’s orientalism. I never found the Mummy a frightful creature when I was a boy. But I’ve always found the decay of the human body frightful. The Mummy, all trussed up with bandages like the cartoon of some Dagwood in the hospital, seemed terminally silly. It would be hard to mistake this genre for anything remotely highbrow – although I admit that I haven’t read the novel. I’m going to, though – it occurred to me that I should read at least one of Gautier’s novels. I’ve downloaded it – as you can too, gentle reader, here .

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