Can we enjoy and appreciate ‘Art for Art’s sake’ or do we need to take into account the maker’s beliefs?

This was brought to my attention this morning by The Guardian’s excellent article, Mary Wigman: a dance pioneer with an awkward past, would this modern dance pioneer be better known had she not fallen in step with the Nazis?
And here the ‘Art for Art’s sake’ argument enters. ‘Art for Art’s sake’ has been a phrase floating about since the early 19th century in France. ‘L’art pour l’art’; it expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only ‘true’ art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function. As Owen Edwards put it recently, in 2007,“Art should be independent of all claptrap —should stand alone […] and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.’ In other words, the art speaks for itself and the context in which the art is made does not, and should not, affect the way in which we perceive the work itself.
This philosophy is laden with counter-arguments and accusations that such a standpoint is elitist, creates social barriers and champions the elite community who has exclusive knowledge of, and access to, art. For this philosophy assumes that the recipient has a wide ranging prior knowledge, a range of artistic reference points to draw upon and an understanding of the social behaviour associated with that particular art form. Put simply, it’s not accessible for ordinary people. Further, Postcolonial academics and writers such as Senghor and Achebe have also criticised this philosophy; based on its limitations as having a solely Eurocentric view on what art is. In “Black African Aesthetics”, for example, Senghor argues that “art is functional.”
Interestingly, the Arts Council has had a significant impact upon the way in which art is viewed, perceived and valued within the UK, where the intrinsic value of art was pushed further; offering the view that art had a social value and function as well. There was a recent trend, for example, where interactive, community theatre projects which created social cohesion and drew communities together were granted funds whilst others, based in the performance art realm for instance, were not as supported financially. This naturally, had an effect upon the direction of the work which theatre practitioners took; for even well established companies who produce exceptionally well received work and are very much part of the theatre canon, are committed to facilitating projects which have an emphasis upon social cohesion. This shift then, in part, can be attributed to the allocation of funds, begging us to ask the question, ‘how far does the government’s involvement in Arts Council funding dramatically shift the artistic landscape in the UK?’
Perhaps the most interesting point though, is if we view art in its purest form, intrinsically, then we separate it from what can often be the most fascinating; the context in which the art was created. The experiences of war photographers, such as Eddie Adams, for example, certainly add another element to their work if we consider their personal experiences and the context in which that one photograph was taken. What did the camera not select at the edges of the frame? What personal sacrifices had the photographer or those photographed taken?
Similarly, wildlife documentaries have shown an inclination towards showing their audiences how the final product was created; the camera operator who camped out for 3 months in the bush in order to get 3 minutes worth of film. The Foley expert, who adds custard powder to a stocking which they then squeeze to sound like polar bears skidding on ice. There is a focus upon process, which I think as a theatre practitioner is fantastic and which we can exploit!
Which brings us to the core of this piece; what about the ethical and moral context? The choreographer who has connections within the Nazi party? The film director who has been accused of sexually abusing of a minor? Famous and influential figures within the arts are widely known to have been aggressive people who have caused distress to members of their team. Certainly, re-watching Hitchcock’s The Birds after discovering that the actor, Tippi Hedren was repeatedly instructed to re-film the scene where she is attacked by birds for days on end. What we’re actually watching then, is not acting with the use of props, but someone being attacked. Reportedly, she was so traumatised that she experienced a mental breakdown. Inevitably, such knowledge will change how we perceive the work; our reception of it will dramatically alter. But this begs the question, should this knowledge affect our enjoyment or appreciation of the work itself? Art for Art’s sake, Art for social value’s sake or Art which is inseparable from the context in which it was created…?


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