Art for Whose Sake?

What is the value of art? Some esteem it as gold, others as paper, others as something of less value yet. “What good is art?” they ask, “what has art ever accomplished?”


I suppose the best answer to this later expression is to answer the question with a question. “Why is anything worth accomplishing?” After all, nothing man does truly lasts. And yet despite this eternity is, as the bible say, in ours hearts – the need to understand and feel connected to the past and the need to feel we are making some contribution to the future. For many art — its study, its creation, and its appreciation, is the greatest tool (apart, perhaps, from family) in our accomplishing this.

“Art,” it has been said, “is in the eyes of the beholder.”  And this is true.  Time, experience, culture and community  all apprise our judgement of art — what it is and how it is to be valued. And some appreciation of art is common to all societies of men.  As novelist Jane Austen wittingly commented on one such – the art of dance.

Sir William: “Do you dance, Mr. Darcy?”

Mr. Darcy: “Not if I can help it!”

Sir William:  There is nothing like dancing,..  I consider it as one of the first  refinements of polished societies.”

Mr. Darcy: “Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.”

Point, set and match to Mr. Darcy.

Yet even if we agree that “art” itself is deemed of some universal value, we still may disagree on what exactly “art” is.


Are folk arts – and by this I mean those created by average, everyday, people the equal of “Fine Art” – that which is created by the especially gifted and talented, that which is based on study and thought more than a mere outpouring of human feeling?

For many years folk arts were, from today’s standpoint, undervalued.  In part this is because in most societies the common man himself was, by today’s standards, undervalued.  The world, in these earlier appraisals, belonged to the titled few.  And in this world view art was to be created  by them, or at least for them and them alone.

This changed in part during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, but it is still not a settled affair. Nor, in my judgement, should it be. The principle of equality under law – that all men are created equal in their natural right to pursue life, liberty and their own happiness – this I think worthy of universal esteem. But the idea that all men’s minds are equal and that thus all their creations are of equal worth – this I do not believe holds up to thoughtful scrutiny.

A favorite story of mine — one that captures the changes in thinking that comprised the Age of Enlightenment — concerns a man who in my eyes has few peers among great artists – the composer and musician Beethoven.

Beethoven was a man of common birth and equaly common manners. He was  seen by his “betters” as coarse and brusque. But he insisted that his real worth — his “nobility” as it were — was not to be judged upon such shallow grounds.


The story goes that once, when walking with his friend, the esteemed writer and thinker, Goethe, a nobleman passed by. Goethe bowed, as was expected in their society. Beethoven did not. When questioned by his somewhat shocked friend Beethoven is said to have responded “My nobility is here” as he pointed to his head.

I’d argue that his music — his “art” — proved him correct. Who was that “nobleman” to whom Beethoven had been expected by both law and custom to bow?  Is he remembered for anything at all? What, I wonder, if anything did he do with his life? What, if anything, did he pass on to posterity?

Today few in our society would argue with Beethoven’s right to insist on his own worth. But we do argue with the basis on which he made his judgment: The worth of his creative genius.

Is Beethoven’s “art” really “greater” than that of an everyday folk artist?

This is not a small and unimportant question. At least not to me. And in this I know that I am not at all attuned with our times.


Not that modern society truly believes in “equality.” No, what it assumes is that each of us is somehow obligated to accept and call “good” what our society accepts as such.  In the visual arts this includes paintings where the paint has been simply thrown at a canvas without forethought or design, coarse renderings of common objects such as soup cans and — most of all — of anything that shows the spirit of sneering at the values upon which western society was built.


In music this means acclaiming the greatness of songs without melody or harmony and lyrics that are little more than adolescent prattling.

In dance — an art form to which I am sadly virtually blind — it seems to mean equating gyration with carefully thought through movement requiring equal measures of grace and control.

I personally value art too highly to accept any of these common points of view.  And this is nothing new for me. Even as a student in my late teens and very early twenties I infuriated some of my teachers at the N.Y. School of Visual Arts by expressing similarly outrageous views.

Arts for arts sake?  Yes.  But more important art for our sakes. For the sake of values, meaning and the passing on of the best of man’s past and present to an increasingly uncertain future.


image via shutterstock / FikMik


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