Art for Art’s Sake

Keep me in exile the rest of my days
Burn me in hell but as long as it pays
Art for Art’s sake

Lyrics from the song Art for Art’s Sake by 10CC, circa 1975

At the recent Van Gogh 360  show, I got a better perspective of the stellar artist’s work and life. One can run out of adjectives to describe the enormity, versatility, and beauty of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings some of which give hint to the bipolar disorder that he suffered from but collectively belie the dusty end he subjected himself to. I returned from the exhibition, on one hand in awe of his work and on the other hand contemplating for whose sake was his art.

Why do artists paint or compose music? The purpose of art is a matter of perspective and depends on who you are, in which era you were born and in which part of the globe you were raised. But, before we unearth the purpose behind art, any discussion on this begs the question, “what is art?” Renowned poet and artist, Rabindranath Tagore, in a lecture delivered at Harvard University, said, “Man has taken pleasure in art without definitely knowing what it is.” How many people really know what art is, but the trickier question is: can we truly define art?

Defining art

Art is perceived as the manifestation of creativity in forms such as painting, poetry, and music. However, defining art itself is a little problematic because it is much more than the creation of beauty. According to Tagore, “Beauty in art has been the mere instrument and not its complete and ultimate significance.” Perhaps, the easier way to understand what art is, is to fathom what art is not and there is no better way of arriving at this by contrasting it with science.

Science is the breaking down of knowledge into its components achieved with the help of our intellect. A scientist will use her or his intellect to cut into a human body to generate the principles of physiology, or a botanist might uproot and axe a tree to understand how it is formed. In the process, the scientist reveals the objects of her or his knowledge, driven by a sense of utility and where personality is made subservient to the object.

The artist in comparison, eschews any analytical treatment and disregards claims of usefulness. All human beings are endowed with a fund of emotional energy which is not always employed for utility and self-preservation. When the artist looks at the human body or a tree, she or he taps into this superfluous fund to unearth the uniqueness of the object and in the process reveals herself or himself.  

Defining art, therefore takes us back to the reasons for its existence which is inextricably woven into the object of beauty.

“Beauty in art has been the mere instrument and not its complete and ultimate significance.”

Rabindranath Tagore

Art’s raison d’être

All true art has its origin in sentiment that mainstream science sees as taboo and its true principle is one of unity. The beauty of a poem lies not in its words but the way in which these words are strung together in unison.

The truth of what distinguishes a human from an animal is the former’s ability to transcend the world of necessity. It is this characteristic which gives birth to a sense of excess and in ancient and medieval India it was the abundance of the individual that gave expression to the artist’s creation. Art was primarily the expression of the artist’s personality often tied with the search for the infinite or the universal soul.

In the West, the story has been somewhat different. The Renaissance was revolutionary as it brought to the fore humanistic, ethical, religious, intellectual, and scientific messages. It also led to the birth of the celebrity artist a phenomenon which lingers on today.

It was in 19th century France that the Art for Art’s Sake movement was born. The crux of this expression was that art’s only objective was to serve as a means for self-expression of the artist, that art required no justification and was independent of any other concerns be they moral, religious, social, or political. It was a counter to the Marxists goal of politicising art. However, The Art for Art’s Sake movement lasted less than a century.

The purpose of art has evolved over the centuries. For some, the objective of art lies in its universal appeal while others have attempted using art to address social ills or as an avenue for conveying a philosophical view of life. For the artist, however, art exists because it provides a sense of immeasurable satisfaction as was the case with Winston Churchill when he took to painting as a pastime — when out of power — simply to keep himself afloat.

Art in a contemporary setting

In the Middle Ages and in the post-Renaissance period, artists were microscopic in number relative to admirers. Art was largely confined to painting, sculpture, music, and poetry and rarely were artists’ works commissioned. Fast forward to the 20th and 21st centuries and the world of art has travelled a galaxy ahead.

Today, the very scope of art has broadened to encompass a vast array of possibilities. Noted educationist, Satish Kumar, founder of Schumacher College champions a learning process which goes beyond the intellectual to include learning using one’s head and heart. In a conversation with Satish, he said, “Art is not just a painting or dancing or music. Of course, they are art and I admire that, and I want people to be artists, musicians and dancers and painters but I also want the art of living, the art of building a house, the art of cooking, of gardening, art of making clothes, art of conversation. Art should permeate throughout life. I want a society of artists, of craft people.”

Satish’s vision is a paradigm change of what art is perceived to be. It is a counter to reductionist science and its materialistic offspring. Even in the world of business, it is now commonplace to hear expressions such as “the art and science of risk management”. Clearly, nowadays, art is not confined to a gallery or museum or a wall anymore and has assumed a much broader purpose than ever before.

Art can play the role of keeping the mechanistic word in check. It is with this aim that educationists have introduced art in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and rechristened it as STEAM. While the genesis of STEAM lay in design thinking and had its roots in economics, STEAM is now being advocated to promote the ecological cause. Writes Donald Gray, Professor at Aberdeen University, “STEAM education coupled with sensory, experiential education in outdoor natural environments could be a powerful new way to stimulate changes in the way we think and relate to the natural world.”

Clearly the purpose of art has evolved considerably from the time of Van Gogh. For Van Gogh, his paintings spoke volumes of his feelings and emotions but for an artist to commit suicide is an extreme price to pay for creativity. Shouldn’t the purpose of art be life enhancing for both the artist and for art admirers? What activity is it whose exuberance can unleash creativity and yet uphold the laws of life, unity, and joy? Art will remain a grey subject despite it being so colourful.

Shakti Saran is the Founder of Shaktify, an initiative to power social and environmental change and is a Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global

6 thoughts on “Art for Art’s Sake

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  1. Shakti – first an apology – I saw your message before you put your blog out. Unfortunately it was a terrible time – was in Pune with a friend who’s husband had quite suddenly passed away – early morning heart attack at 56. Life can be so unpredictable.

    Have had time to read your blog. You touch upon an oft discussed subject. To my thinking, The DADA movement got it just right – if the world is irrational and doesn’t make sense – why should art (remember that this was a post WW1 reaction). Art of those times, by DeChirico, Max Ernst, Picasso, Dali etc. reflected their philosophy that art belongs to, and can only be understood completely by the artist (sort of the Ayn Rand version of life – man’s glory for his own self). However, as I have mellowed down over the years, I have started believing that once art is made, it belongs to the beholder to interpret and enjoy/dislike. Since the artist has no control of the narrative, his perspective should hold no water.

    So, either you enjoy the process of making art and care not about the outcome (sort of the Bhagvad Geet version) or like Howard Roark, go and blow it up coz you don’t like how it’s being viewed.

    Sorry I couldn’t reply earlier


    On Mon, Apr 17, 2023, 12:44 Shakti’s Musings: Blogs on everything under the

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Ravi for your insightful comment. You cite different perspectives on the purpose behind art and as you rightly said the answer depends on who you are. Then, why does it have to be either-or? Why can’t it be both?


  2. Thank you for this interesting and illuminating essay. I am certainly coming around to see there is such a diversity in the purposes of art from art for therapy to art for livelihood and art for social change, amongst so much else. I am also appreciating the unapproachability of the fine arts for many people. Which makes me wonder why that mindset sets in for many adults, and what that means for us. Just some quick things that have been percolating for me and came to mind as I read.

    Could you provide a source for the Donald Gray quote you shared, or a reference to resources that relate STEAM for ecological causes, and using art to facilitate changes in worldview. I’m very curious to find different ways to integrate this into my work.

    Liked by 1 person

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