For Art’s Sake

January 4, 2010

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as

long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for

making a useless thing is that one admires it in-


All art is quite useless.

The above passage is the end of the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The preface itself is a sort of manifesto on art, regarding both its creation and its interpretation. Wilde was a firm believer in the notion of art for art’s sake and is generally placed at the forefront of the Aesthetic Movement, and I believe the preface to Dorian Gray serves as the best indicator of what that movement was all about. There is an elitist tone to his ideas, and one may even claim that what I call a manifesto others may call an indignant defense of his controversial book, but I don’t think any of that detracts from the work itself or the ideas it espouses.

Of course, it makes sense that I wouldn’t. Anyone who is a proponent of Wildean thought would naturally focus on the work as a self-contained entity and ignore the outside influences such as the historical context and the author’s personal life and attitudes. I do not mean to say there is no value in such criticism—one would be ignorant to discount all other methods of interpretation in stubborn support of one’s own preferred method. For one reason or another, though, I feel that the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement have been largely forgotten or disregarded by critics and consumers (not that there’s any way to separate those two groups), and while I do not intend on subscribing to those ideas as if I were a living relic from the end of the nineteenth century, I do find that my own method of interpretation derives most heavily from the Wildean school.

To bill myself as an art critic, however, would be somewhat misleading. There are many different ways one can define art, and there are many different media in which art can be produced. There is also no definite delineation between art and life; indeed there are many aspects of one’s life that can be considered art. Maybe I do maintain a rather broad definition of art, but that is only because I do not want to eliminate the possibility of something being art before it is given its due attention. Also, I’m a fan of liminality—I like to explore the spaces between life and art and try to determine where a particular work or event might fall, or if it is somehow capable of existing somewhere in between.

My main area of interest, however, is pointlessness. My mission is not to convince the world that useless art is useful because it’s useless—that’s the sort of notion that goes without saying for me. I think it’s pretty easy for anyone to revel in something pointless simply because he enjoys it, but I’m not really out to justify guilty pleasures, either. I like the thought that all art is useless or pointless, but that does not mean that all pointless things are art. This is what I plan on exploring: what is it that makes something pointless a work of art? Does a work’s pointlessness somehow make it more artistic? What about works that people consider to be not so pointless—are they still art? I’m certainly not above challenging my own beliefs, either: I’m willing to explore the dangers of art for art’s sake, of seemingly harmless works with insidious undertones and harmful messages. This is exactly the kind of morality that Wilde was seeking to eliminate from art, but there’s no denying that the debate surrounding art and morality still rages today.

Employing a broad definition of art also allows me to maintain a wide field of study in my examination of pointlessness. I’m open to pretty much any form of media—literature, film, paintings, theatre, music, video games, web videos, etc.—and even aspects of life outside of media (life being a form of art and all). I’m also new to this whole realm of blogging, so, who knows? Maybe even other blogs will find their way into my study of pointlessness…

And in case anyone is wondering how pointless it is to have a blog about pointlessness…well, that’s the point, now isn’t it?


2 Responses to “For Art’s Sake”

  1. Bryan G Says:

    I enjoyed this reading, and look forward to your future study of pointlessness and art. I wonder though- do you mean to say that someone who is inspired to create a sculpture not setting out to create art is of more artistic value than say, The Mona Lisa? I am sure La Jaconde has her critics, and I am sure there are some truly inspired non-artists out there who have the capacity to create truly wonderful art; but I think it is dangerous to quantify art’s value by the intention behind it, and not the impression that it makes on people. I am eager to follow your explorations of this and other topics. Consider me part of your official readership.

    • djswank Says:

      Thank you for your interest and your input! Hopefully I can clarify a bit, though I make no apologies if I contradict myself. Intention is something an aesthete would not necessarily consider at all, whether it be the artist’s intention or the reader’s (to interpret something in a particular way). Art exists outside of intentions; it is not meant to do something, it is only meant to be, and, ideally, to be beautiful. The Mona Lisa serves no function, unless you’re using it to cover up a crack or conceal a safe. It is simply a beautiful painting painted beautifully.

      Intentions are not something I will shy away from discussing, however, because it is usually the blatant and heavy-handed intentions behind certain works that cause me to dislike them immediately. I don’t believe that works require a message in order to be good, but I don’t always believe that works are bad if they do convey a message. My main concern is execution: if the artist had a statement she was trying to make, did she make it in a way that does not detract from the beauty of the work, or did she provide a red flashing arrow jumping off the screen or the page in order to draw attention to her political/moral/ethical standing?

      Art is certainly going to make impressions on people, but I prefer works that allow people to draw their own conclusions rather than force-feed them an opinion of the artist’s. People will always create personal interpretations of The Mona Lisa, but the interpretation should not supersede the work itself. If a critic believes The Mona Lisa carries a political agenda, then that agenda most likely belongs to the critic and not Leonardo. There’s nothing political about The Mona Lisa–it’s a painting. That is all.

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