(updated: I had to revise this post. I conflated the concept of "Art for Art's Sake" with art that has art as its subject or theme. This isn't entirely accurate. In the future, I should perhaps write a scathing condemnation of the concept of "art for art's sake" while defending art about art. But this is Costanza's Book Club. Anytime something seems a little academically sloppy, read this blog's description. Intellectual sloppiness, which is something different, should be called out and critiqued. Perhaps, though, my entire thesis should be thrown out. "Art for Art's Sake" is, in my estimation, just masturbation. Art that has art as its subject or theme is often fully mand meaningfully engaged in the world. But I will leave this for now--this is a fluid blog, and our artistic sensibilities will evolve).
Works of art that are themselves about art can be beautiful, moving, inspirational works of art. Indeed, as somebody who got a Masters in examining the meaning of art, and as somebody who started this blog to continue examining the meaning of art, as as somebody who is at this very moment of typing examining the meaning of art, it would really be ignorant of me to criticize art for examining itself. Literature that takes up literature as its subject or theme is important.
Art about Art, at its best, can be great, but it is great in the way masturbation is great. It is pleasurable, useful, and definitely has a role to play in human existence, but in most cases, real engagement with the world is better.
A lot of art about art (either the process of creation, or the role of it in society, or something else) does engage in the world. John Fowles' two great novels, The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Magus, are about the process of art, but they are also about society, philosophy, history, and individual freedom. They engage in the meaning of art while simultaneously engaging in the meaning of human existence (even engaging in the meaning of art on human existence). So the best art about art (such as Fowles' novels, or Shelley's "Ozymandias") really isn't art that exists solely for the sake of art and nothing else. It does engage in the world.
Engaging in the world can mean many things. It can include art about individuals or art about groups; it can even include art about how art affects and is used by individuals and groups.
I have no intention of demeaning the concept of art about art--it has a place and can be great. What bothers me is if people create a virtual hierarchy of literature, with pulp, popular literature at the bottom, political literature slightly about that, art about social interaction and meaning, then works that examine individual spiritual or intellectual or emotional struggle, and finally art that is about art at the pinnacle. (Am I imagining that there are people who would create such a hierarchy? Am I setting up a Straw Man? Perhaps). I simply don't see it that way. All subjects (of plot or theme) are acceptable to me as material for art. I don't see a hierarchy but a flow chart, where different subjects and themes of literature have an important spaces in the lifelong spiritual, cultural, intellectual development of individuals and groups.
It's a heavy question, examining the purpose of art. I think great art should inspire one to be something more than what one is. I believe art has an active, utilitarian (though abstract) role in our lives. I feel that art that is about itself, that focuses too greatly on form over meaning, fails. If the work does not inspire one to be something more than what one is...then to me, it may be very good, but it is not great art. At the very least, great art requires us to look at the world in a different way than we had previously done.
Rilke's "For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life" is a poetic phrase that continues to haunt me.