What’s Wrong With Art? Art For Art’s Sake

Tabish Khan loves art and visits hundreds of exhibitions a year. But every now and then he comes across something in the art world that doesn’t meet his approval.

Part of Helen Marten’s work for the 2016 Turner Prize.

Art for art’s sake is an ideal based on 19th century French philosophy. But it’s still strongly felt in the contemporary art world today, and in fact it’s the theme of this year’s Venice Biennale.

The idea is that art exists just to be art. I.e. it doesn’t serve any function or purpose, it just is.

Many people who would consider themselves ‘art purists’, including curators, art historians, critics and collectors love this idea of art for art’s sake. This is because it keeps the small world of contemporary art bound and isolated.

When art is starting to blur lines with fashion, architecture and design, those efforts may be dismissed as functional and therefore it isn’t art. As art becomes more political and populist, those efforts may also be dismissed as well with a similar line of argument. An art’s sake philosophy may be merged with the murky world of artspeak to keep art away from the masses.

By sticking to a mantra of art for art’s sake the art world remains insular and closed, take last year’s Turner Prize winner for example. Helen Marten was seen by many visitors to be the least accessible work but still won out. Even though I like her work, it’s an example of art for art’s sake.

There’s nothing wrong with creating art for art’s sake but it should never be the dominant philosophy within art, otherwise we as the audience for art only get to see a small slice of what art is capable of.

This is why the upcoming Venice Biennale has me worried. It may receive glowing reviews, but many of those can’t be trusted as most of the critics will be those who already prescribe to the art for art’s sake philosophy.

I’ve enjoyed the last two Biennale so I’m hoping I’m wrong. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

For more in this series, see my thoughts on CondoHow performance art is presented in museumsFrieze week floozies, too much respect for an artist’s legacyopinions not being welcomean exhibition across three countriestackling race and gender in artartist-curatorsart fair hypetop 5s and top 10sour political art is terriblegap left by Brian Sewellhow art never learned from the Simpsons, why artspeak won’t die, so-called reviewsbad reviews are bad for business, the $179m dollar headline, art fairs appealing to the masses, false opening hours, size matters and what’s wrong with video art.

About Tabish Khan

Art Critic for both FAD and Londonist. See as many exhibitions as possible and write reviews, opinion pieces and a weekly top 5 for FAD.