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The Uselessness of Art: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Literature

The Uselessness of Art: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Literature

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The Uselessness of Art: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Literature

Longueur:
327 pages
4 heures
Sortie:
Mar 1, 2020
ISBN:
9781782846789
Format:
Livre

Description

Oscar Wilde's famous quip "All art is quite useless" might not be as outrageous or demonstrably false as is often supposed. No-one denies that much art begins life with practical aims in mind: religious, moral, political, propagandistic, or the aggrandising of its subjects. But those works that survive the test of time will move into contexts where for new audiences any initial instrumental values recede and the works come to be valued "for their own sake". The book explores this idea and its ramifications. The glorious Palaeolithic paintings on the walls of the Chauvet Cave present a stark example. In spite of total ignorance of their original purposes, we irresistibly describe the paintings as works of art and value them as such. Here we are at the very limits of what is meant by "art" and "aesthetic appreciation". Are we misusing these terms in such an application? The question goes to the heart of the scope and ambition of aesthetics. Must aesthetics in its pursuit of art and beauty inevitably be culture-bound? Or can it transcend cultural differences and speak meaningfully of universal values: timelessly human not merely historically relative? The case of literature or film puts further pressure on the idea of art valued "for its own sake". Characters in works of literature and film or finely-honed emotions in poetry often give pleasure precisely because they resonate with our own lives and seem (in the great works) to say something profound about human existence. Is not this kind of insight why we value such works? Yet the conclusion is not quite as clear-cut as it might seem and the idea of valuing something "for its own sake" never quite goes away.
Sortie:
Mar 1, 2020
ISBN:
9781782846789
Format:
Livre

À propos de l'auteur

Peter Lamarque is Professor of Philosophy at the University of York, UK. His many publications include Work and Object: Explorations in the Metaphysics of Art (OUP, 2010), The Philosophy of Literature (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), Fictional Points of View (Cornell University Press, 1996), and Truth, Fiction and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective (with Stein Haugom Olsen, Clarendon Press, 1994). He was Editor of the British Journal of Aesthetics from 1995 to 2008.

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The Uselessness of Art - Peter Lamarque

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The Uselessness of Art

When Oscar Wilde, in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1891, wrote, All art is quite useless, his words heralded not the beginning, not even the heyday, but arguably the end of Aestheticism. Four years later, in 1895, after his last trial and conviction, an English newspaper proclaimed with evident glee, The aesthetic cult, in the nasty form, is over.¹ Indeed, Aestheticism, in the form exemplified by Wilde and Pater and Swinburne and Gautier, did seem to die in the 1890s, even if vestiges of it reappeared in Bloomsbury and Cambridge in the 1920s.

Although my theme is taken from Wilde—the uselessness of art—it is not my aim to try to revive Aestheticism. In the end, as was recognized by its protagonists and its enemies, Aestheticism was not ultimately a view about art, but a view about life. T. S. Eliot rather archly criticized Pater’s view of art, saying that it impressed itself upon a number of writers in the ’nineties, and propagated some confusion between life and art which is not wholly irresponsible for some untidy lives.² Even W. B. Yeats, who might seem less troubled by untidy lives, said of Pater’s novel Marius the Epicurean, It taught us to walk upon a rope tightly stretched through serene air, and we were left to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm.³ The most damaging condemnation, however, came, famously, in 1936, when Walter Benjamin proposed, perhaps a bit unfairly, that the logical consequence of Aestheticism is Fascism: all efforts to aestheticize politics culminate in one point … war.

Even applied more narrowly to art, Aestheticism is unappealing in many respects: it overemphasizes beauty in art (indulgent or decadent beauty at that), it inclines toward formalism in art criticism, and in art making it tends to prioritize appearance and design over substance and seriousness. However, closely related to Aestheticism—some say they are identical—is the doctrine of art for art’s sake. In fact, that phrase was already becoming cliché ridden by the early 1870s (the French l’art pour l’art had been coined seventy years before then). The terms aesthetic and aestheticism had largely supplanted talk of art for art’s sake after 1868, the year of Swinburne’s study on William Blake and Pater’s essay on William Morris, which both used the latter phrase.⁵ Nevertheless, art for art’s sake, for all its irritating tautologousness, has never quite gone away. Perhaps it says so little that no one could reasonably reject it. Who but the most philistine would suppose that art might be valued for being something other than art? Yet, of course, in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons, the slogan has been rejected. It has been condemned as dangerous, decadent, immoral, and a rejection of all that makes art important. Indeed, Benjamin, in the passage alluded to earlier, is associating Fascism not just with Aestheticism and the aestheticizing of politics, which is at least understandable, but with art for art’s sake, which, to my mind, is preposterous. Fascism, he says, in the "culmination of l’art pour l’art."⁶

The case I want to build on behalf of the uselessness of art rests not on Aestheticism (even if that was behind Wilde’s own thinking), but at least partially on a reworked notion of art for art’s sake. The first thing to note is that art for art’s sake makes no mention of the aesthetic. It does not, for example, say that art should be valued for the sake of aesthetic qualities alone, even if that is a commitment of Aestheticism. The point is important, for it shows that although art for art’s sake and Aestheticism have strong historical links, they can be pulled apart conceptually. By doing so, it can be shown that many of the standard objections to art for art’s sake fall

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