Let us start by saying — a definitive answer to this does not exist. Every opinion on this matter is purely subjective, just like the viewer’s perception of art. But there are certain roots of this division that we can explore and follow to the art of today, and we will do so. Let us begin the journey!
Art for art’s sake
L’art pour l’art — or, how the English had translated it: art for art’s sake — was a French slogan from the early 19th century coined by a French philosopher Victor Cousin. It is a bohemian creed quoted even today — a Latin version of this phrase, ars gratia artis, is used as a motto by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of Hollywood’s oldest film studios, and appears in its motion picture logo.
Its purpose was to affirm that it is acceptable to create art just for the sake of the creation process and that it does not need to serve a higher purpose. Whether it be just writing songs for yourself or painting beautiful faces — if you found pleasure in the very process or the finished result, it was all that mattered. Additionally, it supported the point of view that art does need to carry an important message or even a purpose, to have a significant impact.
All in all — l’art pour l’art-ists valued the joy of creation over all other aspects of art. They believed in art is autotelic — its existence is its purpose, and that the only ‘true’ art is divorced from any didactic, moral, political, or practical function. Edgar Allan Poe argues in his essay The Poetic Principle that “We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake. (…) but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.”
Art for the sake of a (political) message
In that very same 19th century, the politicization of art emerged. It is the very catalyst to the movement of “l’art pour l’art,” as it was a slogan that was raised in defiance to advocates of using art as means to provide a moral or didactic message. On the opposite side of this spectrum, there were intellectual giants such as Friedrich Nietzsche, claiming that the very process of creating art is sending a message; as an artist passionately pours their emotions into their work it will, inevitably, cause a reaction. To quote him directly: “Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?”
Later, this gap was widened even further by Marxist rhetorics. They saw the existence of art as an act of politicized message due to different art being created by different social classes. Some were going as far in their critiques of the l’art pour l’art movement that they stated, “art for art’s sake is just another piece of deodorized dog shit [sic].” This quote is taken directly from an influential Nigerian author and a poet, Chinua Achebe’s collection of essays and criticism Morning Yet on Creation Day; he also criticized the movement as being limited to a Eurocentric view of art, with Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Senegalese poet and politician, supporting his views and additionally stating that in “black African aesthetics,” art is “functional,” and that there is no art for art’s sake.
In the end…
Art is what you make of it — it is that easy and, yet, complicated at the same time. As with any other tool, it serves the purpose its creator had in mind. The beginnings of this division may be the most visible in the 19th century’s art community, but it has been undergoing current for a long time — and it will continue to exist until humanity ceases to be.
In today’s world, contemporary art and political discourse are closely intertwined in the most diverse of ways. Artists with substantial social media following who live in countries with oppressive regimes started using their art and platforms to express their discontent and discomfort (the world famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, for example), as opposed to the earlier trends of simply creating art for the sake of art (and growing their following). These actions, over time, became such a norm that it is now expected of artists to react to world events or events in their homeland by creating pieces that address them.
There is another aspect of creating art in these modern times of multiple digital universes — with the internet creating a global community, there is more room and wide open audiences for the clashing of opinions on this subject. Especially if you are a person of influence with a significant following — there will always be people who will want to tell you what to do and what to think, and vice versa. For example, there have been serious backlashes at artists just continuing to post art while living in a country that is going through a political and social crisis.
But it is not up to them to decide the answer for you. The decision is up to you and you only. And one of the reasons why it is so important to know the history and the roots of this division to be able to make an informed opinion.
And, the question still remains — is art for pleasure or politics? Hopefully, this article helped shed some light on the events leading up to this question being such a compelling topic, as well as the current state of the art world!