This short essay is the best piece I’ve read on philosophy of art in some time. Rivka Glachen’s contribution bears reading more than once, and I reproduce it below in full.
Is the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ the prerogative of the socially privileged?
Comment by Rivka Galchen
Because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time.
Of late, in part to lower my blood pressure after reading the news, I turn for bedtime reading to “The Collected Poems” of Zbigniew Herbert. The book often falls open to a poem titled “Pebble” that begins like this:
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
with a pebbly meaning. . . .
its ardor and coldness
are just and full of dignity
The lines read almost like a piece of philosophy, or a fragment of a mathematical proof. Though the poet was born in Lwow, Poland, in 1924, there is very little directly visible in this poem — or in a majority of Herbert’s poems — of the Nazi or subsequent Communist rule under which he lived, or of his odd jobs, ill health, loves, meals.
“Art for art’s sake” might be a term used for something that appears simply to look inward, at its own process and material, rather than outward; it might be something in which an interest in form seems to have eclipsed interest in the larger world, or in social justice, or in content of any kind.
Since art categorizable as “art for art’s sake” is usually produced tangentially to hopes of making money, of reaching a large audience or of being immediately useful, it tends to be the darling of the many-degreed. And because art takes time to make, its makers are often those with a luxury of time — usually the wealthy, occasionally the poor. But there is a way in which art for art’s sake is the art most open to all comers, and the most (potentially) ethical.
The latter half of “Pebble” shifts perspective and sentiment:
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
— Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
The remorse the poet feels holding the pebble first reads as counterintuitive; here the cold pebble is noble while the heat from the poet’s hand — human warmth! — is described as “false warmth.” After six stanzas of looking at the pebble, the pebble then looks at us “with a calm and very clear eye.” The pebble isn’t tamed, as an animal (including a human) might be, by what we give it.
Herbert believed the arts had a moral responsibility. How does that play out in “Pebble,” a poem that doesn’t solicit our empathy for any group of people or situation? “Pebble” feels less about pebbles than about a way of thinking. It reads more as a meditation on or model of seeing, than about what is seen. In that way, like the laws of gravity or the ratio of a circumference to a radius, it is at once specific and abstract.
A pebble can be an irritation in a shoe or something whose smoothness we might remember is the result of wave after wave after wave. While it seems morally valuable to work to increase our empathy — a much praised aspect of (some) art — that which most easily animates our sentiments will almost never be what most merits them. Art for art’s sake avoids false warmth; it is untamed, but orderly.
Art that directs our feelings about contemporary events, even when well intentioned, quickly reads as dated, corrupted, almost always wrong. Herbert offers us none of the comfort of assurances or clarities; his model is the model of not being absorbed by another model, instead working to improve vision itself. These days I find Herbert’s poems, more than any emotionally pitched images and phrases, models of ethical thinking.