This morning, I read the essay Art for Art’s Sake: There’s No Such Thing by Doug Borwick. In it, Borwick basically discusses the benefits of art. He forwards the argument that both instrumental (economic, behavioral, cognitive, etc.) and intrinsic (pleasure, empathy, etc.) benefits “do” things and impact lives. I believe it’s just a matter of perspective.
I don’t have a background in visual art or art history. My introduction to the visual arts came in my Museum Education graduate program and through years in the museum as an educator. I curated interpretive experiences in a city where the population was approximately 38% African American and 40% Latino. However, the museum’s audience was predominately white. The art on view in the museum was predominately Western. The struggle for my African American cultural arts organization (housed at the museum) to effectively market our exhibitions and programs to more diverse groups was significant. The real or perceived exclusiveness of the visual art in museums limits how we imagine its usefulness. I’ve seen art with themes that are (or appear to be) specifically created for the sake of creating art. What Borwick ignores in his essay is the relationship between “art for art’s sake” and a third (not necessarily benefit) element of art: intellectual.
Unlike the instrumental and intrinsic benefits mentioned in the Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts study (upon which Borwick bases his essay), “art for art’s sake” can only be understood when considering the intellectual philosophies that encourage new ideas and criticisms. In this framework, there IS such a thing as art for art’s sake as artists continue to experiment with material and meaning. Artists create conceptual art that doesn’t neatly fit into the instrumental or intrinsic. Perhaps, the benefits of art and the purpose of art are mutually exclusive. But if the benefits and purpose aren’t aligned–there is no cultural or intellectual element to connect them–then art simply exists for its own sake.