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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Ars Gratia Artis–Is Any Art Created Just For Its Own Sake?

Ars gratia artis has always been the motto of the creative artist.  The question, “What does it mean?” is irrelevant, because art is the most intimate and unique expression of the individual. It has no social purpose, no personal agenda, nor any significance other than an artist’s vision – that complex of environmental, historical, genetic, and cultural influences which determine what he creates.  A painting is a momentary reflection of personality, character, perception, and intellect.  It is an apercu into the mind, heart, and soul of the artist who created it.  Meaning stops there.  A  work should never be subjected to external exegesis – a deconstruction of the work as a product of cultural determinism only.

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Yet this view is not universally shared.  According to the postmodern canon the value of a work is but a function of its success in illustrating the world which has conditioned it.  Individual creativity, inspiration, intuition, and insight have no place within it.  The canon is uncertain about the merits of Picasso’s Guernica a work depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War because it was deliberate social commentary although presented within a unique characteristic way.   If postmodern critics were to grant the painting special exemption, considering its portrayal of the inevitable slaughter, inhumanity, and mayhem of war to be more accurate than any more photographic representation, cracks in the philosophical wall would be exposed.  If they were to deny any such status, they would ignore a powerful, inimitable, and uniquely insightful expression of their own philosophy. 

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What to make of Anselm Kiefer whose wall-size tableaux have been interpreted as chilling depictions of a post-apocalypse?  They are not about war itself but about the frightening results of it.  Or are they? They can be also seen as landscapes of the artist’s mind – as tortured, desolate, bare, and hopeless as a world after an existential war.  Again the deconstructionist canon is equivocal.  If one interprets Kiefer’s works as objective reality – conclusive evidence of inevitably destructive social forces – they must disregard the uniqueness of that evidence.  Artists with Kiefer’s emotional intensity, thematic purity, and graphic power come along once in a generation if that, and like Picasso, emerge from a cohort which is anything but creative and insightful.

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The truth lies somewhere in between.  While no one denies the influence of factors beyond the artist’s control – his parents, his genes, his home, and his community – few would deny artistic insight.  Artists of the Renaissance were no less creative and uniquely personal because of patronage and the universal ethos and unquestioned authority of the Church.  The Bernini doors, the Sistine Chapel, Caravaggio, and The Last Supper were products of the age, but undeniably personal and intimate.  Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, and Raphael were all products of the same European culture and faith; but painted Jesus, the Holy Family, and Biblical myth in very distinct ways.  To address these works as no more than particularly well-calibrated lenses of the 16th century is tenuous at best.

More fundamentally the answer to the question of ‘What is art’ underlies the question “Is there such a thing as art?” raised by postmodernists.  If the works of Dale Chihuly – elaborate, fanciful, and colorful works of blown glass – are considered art, then surely he is creating art for its own sake.  He has no ulterior motive, no grand social purpose, nor desire to explore his own psyche.  He creates because of a feeling of accomplishment, working with his hands; because of particular appreciation of light, form, and color; or because of a desire to please others, to add pure beauty to a suspicious world.

Yet few critics consider him an artist, for the historical criteria of the conservative canon (as contrasted to the radical, deconstructionist one) have always considered ‘an ennobling quality’ as a prerequisite for greatness.  The great works of this canon, although painted as expressions of personal vision, inspire religious faith, force uncomfortable but necessary existential questions, and demand personal reflection, intellectual analysis, and emotional response.   Dale Chihuly, as popular as his works may be, and as pleasing and appreciated as they are, is not an artist in any classical sense.  He may create in the spirit of art for art’s sake, but he is not an artist.

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Contemporary art today befuddles both classicists and postmodernists.  Reductionism, while certainly an intellectual position, is neither here nor there.  It may provide some insight into popular culture; but its installations are so peculiar and so attenuated, that it is almost impossible to determine what it might be.  For those schooled in classicism, and despite their conviction that the nature of art is art, find these works arrogant, self-important, intellectually narrow and emotionally barren.   Many installations are so remote that their meaning is ascribed either by the artist or by those who share his non-representational, abstract, linear vision.   Criticism is made up as it goes; and like postmodern works of literature – beginning with Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida but continuing with their academic advocates – there is no prerequisite for criticism, no historical foundation on which to derive meaning.  The very assumption that all works are equivalent removes the obligation of critical meaning other than for those who share the deconstructionist lexicon.

‘Art for art’s sake’ has been limited to the plastic arts.  Literature by necessity requires an accepted ‘canon’ – grammar and vocabulary.  Even the most abstract thinker must express his abstractions linguistically.  A book which is nonsense to all but the artist, must be classified as nonsense; and no artistic license granted.  The structure of language – logical, rational, with rarely-challenged rules of order – does not prevent intellectual meandering but guarantees consignment to the dust bin. 

The most radical pronouncement on the subject of ars gratis artis is “You’ll know it when you see it”.  If you are attracted by, interested in, or moved by a work you consider art - regardless of either canon, the artist’s intent, or popular criticism – that is enough.  It is the eyes of the beholder which permit the only valid criticism.  Whether Giotto, comic books, abstract installations, film posters, rock formations, or random arrangements of toys in the attic, it is art – not for art’s sake but for the observer’s sake.

At the same time, the very logic that defines us as human beings – that rationality which insists on order, classification, and demarcation – can never be absent from artistic criticism.  We need schools of though and reject intellectual anarchy and worse, a total popularization of ideas.  There will always be a tendency to define and to judge, and once art is fully democratized – everyone and anyone can be an artist – art itself disappears.

Postmodernism, deconstructionism, and the progressive social canon have accelerated this disassembly of art as a discipline.  Although there is pushback in some areas, the movement has been so comprehensive and so pervasive, that it will take some doing to dislodge it or remit it. 

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