Art for art’s sake was born to be the weakling, the easy target, the punching bag. Imagine the effrontery of the thing! If a painting, a piece of music, a poem exists for its own sake, we are dangerously near the point where any dirty sock with a hole in it can stand up and claim a vote in the household. No throwing the sock out without guilt. No throwing the sock out without a little murder.
Art for arts sake is so intolerable, so against common sense, that we immediately feel it is a provocation. Who is behind this nonsense? And our first thought is: must be the artist. Now, it isn’t true that we hate all artists. We love the celebrity ones, the Hemingway or Picasso bio-pic on HBO, which – a plus! – comes with ample script opportunities for female nudity. Click-bait, hein? But the average artist wears no HBO-able glitter, but swans his or her poor ego around, a poser, and we are secretly sure a, that this creature will fail, and b., that the best part will be watching their come-down. Unless of course they are trust-fund kids, in which case our hands are tied. But for the average artist, we have as much respect as we have for the guys in dark alleys showing their pee-pees. However, friends, say what you will about the alley exhibitionist, they don’t ever go around saying pee-pee for pee-pee’s sake.
The for-the-sake of all things was decided long ago, although, yes, we weren’t consulted. Some economist, I think it is Nordhaus, has put a nice little price tag on the end of the world: 600 trillion dollars back in 2000, I think it was. Now this is the ultimate for-the-sake of. Thou shalt have no other gods before me, says that 600 trillion, and we have made damn sure that rule is ruthlessly carried out. It has taken the place of that interior light that Descartes, quaintly, believed we harbored as cogito-s – now we know it is all hard wiring that plugs into no big lightbulb, nothing but firings and misfirings in the internal furniture.
Not of course that we don’t bow down to the price tag of some of those beauties. The lost Van Gogh that some sharpeyed person sold for millions! Now, that is something, and we can all dream of that exchange. Rich people, as is well known, have to spend their money somehow, and be sure they will resell that Van Gogh for some fantastic sum! Profit, as they say, for the sake of profit.
One of the more comic aspects of art-for-art’s sake is we are assured that it is an elitist attitude. Eurocentric, even. Temporarily, we lose our minds and think that artists form an elite. Of course, you can ask your average janitor about that, and I think the answer is no. But because the conversation is usually confined to artists themselves, much lather is put into the elitism biz.
My own humble is that the whole picture of Europe, in which every Irish and Galician peasant is a bearer of “high European culture”, is bogus. Europe, or the West, until the modernizations and wars that destroyed the mostly peasant societies of Europe, was represented by a very small percentage of the population. The population, like any colonial population, had to be “europeanized”, Westernized. Even as the peasants fled into the city, they took their Little Tradition, to use James C. Scott’s term, with them. Scott sorta conflates the little tradition with the oral and the Great Tradition – science, rationality, all the big words that flow out from the poobahs – as textual. I think that goes too far. If you scratch an aristocrat from Louis XIV’s court, you will quickly find the most peasant like beliefs imaginable, such as the belief that you can make certain sacrifices to the devil to attain your ends. As a matter of fact, when the Paris police chief, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, investigated the affair of poisons – the supposedly widespread use of poison among a certain sector of the aristocracy around Louis XIV’s court – he found a whole world of fortunetellers, street corner conjurers, and sellers of love potions in Paris, circa 1677, that would have easily be recognizable, pari passu, to Nahautl speaking villagers in Mexico in the same year.
We can romanticize that Little Tradition or not. One thing we can’t do, though, is pretend that rationality or science or any of that was the predominant mode of thought in Europe ... well, ever.
One of the archaic remnants of belief in the little tradition was that the object had a certain “personality”, a certain integrity. This integrity wasn’t simply a cost or affordance represented by the price system. It was what it was. It was art for art’s sake. And it took a long course of industrialization to beat this idea out of artisans and workers. It still hasn’t gone away: there are peeps saving their lucky socks with the holes in them, and even darning them. It happens. And there are peeps making poems because the poems want them to, not the market or the classroom. Socrates, somewhere, speaks of the conversation he is having with some antagonist as having a “life”. This broader sense of life still trickles into the art world, shamefully. In the Great tradition, we have one word for that kind of thing: masturbation! The unprofitable expenditure of seed, the self-enjoyment that we call self-abuse. You ain’t no kinda artist if somebody, somewhere, doesn’t look at what you are doing and call it masturbation.
I never have understood, by the way, and P.S., who exactly pays the 600 trillion for the end of the world. My heretical thought is ,maybe the end of the world is the end of money, and the world without any people is worth exactly zip, in terms of dollars and sense – common sense. But that’s the kind of sentiment that makes the economists laugh.