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‘Art for Art’s Sake’ a Sign of Social Privilege?

Friday 24 June 2016

In Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Pankaj Mishra and Rivka Galchen discuss who gets to make art for art’s sake.

By Pankaj Mishra

Artistic endeavor has become democratic opportunity: art for artists,’ if not art’s, sake.

The insistence on creating art for art’s sake may appear to be aimed at rich connoisseurs. But it originally expressed the frustration of artists with nouveau-riche consumers. In the early 19th century, artists had been, if not unacknowledged legislators, then high priests of a sacralized art — the replacement for transcendental ideals in a secularized society. Schiller produced a grand theology of the new aesthetic religion, claiming that art was essential to the growth of moral and rational faculties in human beings. Poet-prophets such as Lord Byron, Adam Mickiewicz, Victor Hugo and Sandor Petofi ambitiously imagined new political communities. Contrary to Auden’s belief, poetry made much happen, briefly at least.

But then liberation from royal and ecclesiastical patronage, and integration into a market society, turned out to be an ambiguous affair for many in the modern world’s first creative class. The new technologies of printing and mass journalism did make wealthy men out of some novelists, such as Dickens and Trollope. The audience for art grew among the rising middle classes. But the latter appeared to be fickle in their tastes, and largely “philistine” — an old word of German provenance that was frequently deployed in the 19th century. Many artists felt they were being forced into a demeaning balancing act: extracting money and applause from their new patrons — the bourgeoisie, who liked easy-listening and easy-reading — without compromising their creative freedom.

Musicians and poets in particular found themselves chafing at the demands of a cultural marketplace run by and for the well off and the ignorant. In Balzac’s “Lost Illusions,” the aspiring poet-protagonist makes the cruel discovery that “books are to publishers what cotton nightcaps are to drapers, goods to be bought cheap and sold dear.” Théophile Gautier, an industrial-scale journalist but very precious poet, may have been recoiling from his own diligent hackwork when he wrote in 1836, in what is considered the first full manifesto for art for art’s sake, that “nothing is truly beautiful unless it is useless.”

The angriest artist-rebel of course was Wagner, who identified the comfortable opera-going philistines of the bourgeoisie as the cause of all evil. “I desire to shatter,” he declared, “the power of the mighty, of the law, and of property.” During the 1848 revolutions, Wagner was accused of setting fire to his own opera house in Dresden. Flaubert, the poet among novelists, transmuted disgust with the bourgeoisie into a monastic dedication to his austere art. Thomas Mann worked up a stern vision of the artist’s necessary isolation: “He is mistaken,” he wrote in “Tonio Kröger,” one of his many fictions about tormented composers and writers, “who believes he may pluck a single leaf from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with his life.”

This may sound a bit melodramatic today. The 19th century’s tension between the artist and his commercial society has been largely defused in rich countries. Artists in America and Western Europe have been allotted a share, however small, in their nations’ wealth and power. A vast infrastructure of grants, awards and fellowships has turned artistic endeavor into democratic opportunity: art for artists’, if not art’s, sake.

Mann’s warning resonates ominously elsewhere: in countries where art and artists are threatened by political upsurges or economic emergencies. “This land does not need artists,” says the protagonist of a popular play staged in Iran these days. “Even if it does, it wants them humiliated and laughed at.”

Even many formally democratic countries suffer from aggressively philistine and anti-intellectual governments. Israel’s minister of culture threatens to withhold state funding from the country’s artists unless they show “loyalty” to the state. Liberal-minded artists and thinkers in India and Turkey confront fundamentally antagonistic regimes. Art itself in such inimical circumstances may seem the prerogative of the socially privileged; but it has to flourish for the sake of much more than art.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of several books, including “The Romantics: A Novel,” which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and “From the Ruins of Empire,” a finalist for the Orwell and Lionel Gelber Prizes in 2013. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and contributes essays on politics and literature to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Guardian of London and The London Review of Books.

◆ ◆ ◆

By Rivka Galchen

Because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time.

Of late, in part to lower my blood pressure after reading the news, I turn for bedtime reading to “The Collected Poems” of Zbigniew Herbert. The book often falls open to a poem titled “Pebble” that begins like this:
The pebble
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning. ...
its ardor and coldness
are just and full of dignity

The lines read almost like a piece of philosophy, or a fragment of a mathematical proof. Though the poet was born in Lwow, Poland, in 1924, there is very little directly visible in this poem — or in a majority of Herbert’s poems — of the Nazi or subsequent Communist rule under which he lived, or of his odd jobs, ill health, loves, meals.

“Art for art’s sake” might be a term used for something that appears simply to look inward, at its own process and material, rather than outward; it might be something in which an interest in form seems to have eclipsed interest in the larger world, or in social justice, or in content of any kind.

Since art categorizable as “art for art’s sake” is usually produced tangentially to hopes of making money, of reaching a large audience or of being immediately useful, it tends to be the darling of the many-degreed. And because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time — usually the wealthy, occasionally the poor. But there is a way in which art for art’s sake is the art most open to all comers, and the most (potentially) ethical.

The latter half of “Pebble” shifts perspective and sentiment:

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
— Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

The remorse the poet feels holding the pebble first reads as counterintuitive; here the cold pebble is noble while the heat from the poet’s hand — human warmth! — is described as “false warmth.” After six stanzas of looking at the pebble, the pebble then looks at us “with a calm and very clear eye.” The pebble isn’t tamed, as an animal (including a human) might be, by what we give it.

Herbert believed the arts had a moral responsibility. How does that play out in “Pebble,” a poem that doesn’t solicit our empathy for any group of people or situation? “Pebble” feels less about pebbles than about a way of thinking. It reads more as a meditation on or model of seeing, than about what is seen. In that way, like the laws of gravity or the ratio of a circumference to a radius, it is at once specific and abstract.

A pebble can be an irritation in a shoe or something whose smoothness we might remember is the result of wave after wave after wave. While it seems morally valuable to work to increase our empathy — a much praised aspect of (some) art — that which most easily animates our sentiments will almost never be what most merits them. Art for art’s sake avoids false warmth; it is untamed, but orderly.

Art that directs our feelings about contemporary events, even when well intentioned, quickly reads as dated, corrupted, almost always wrong. Herbert offers us none of the comfort of assurances or clarities; his model is the model of not being absorbed by another model, instead working to improve vision itself. These days I find Herbert’s poems, more than any emotionally pitched images and phrases, models of ethical thinking.

Rivka Galchen is a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Berlin Prize, among other distinctions. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including Harper’s and The New Yorker, which selected her for their list of “20 Under 40” American fiction writers in 2010. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed “Atmospheric Disturbances,” was published in 2008, and her second book, a story collection titled “American Innovations,” in 2014. Her next book, “Little Labors,” will be published in May.

A version of this article appears in print on June 26, 2016, on page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review.

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