Art for art’s sake

Art for art’s sake—the usual English rendering of l’art pour l’art , a French slogan from the early 19th century—is a phrase that expresses the philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only ‘true’ art, is divorced from any didactic, moral, political, or utilitarian function. Such works are sometimes described as autotelic (from Greek: autoteles, ‘complete in itself’), a concept that has been expanded to embrace “inner-directed” or “self-motivated” human beings.

Discerning one’s niche in life – or, as is so often urged of writers, finding one’s voice- is for some a lifelong undertaking. Speaking for myself it is a conundrum which has absorbed me fully for the space of seventy-three years give or take an hour or two. Lately however I have become less obsessed with the method and more devoted to the result. This clearly wouldn’t satisfy Georg Sand who reportedly wrote in 1872 that L’art pour l’art was an empty phrase, an idle sentence. She asserted that artists had a “duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible,” ensuring that their works were accessible enough to be appreciated. By contrast consider the following:

An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they depend less on external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.

Finding life to be a wholesome and rewarding venture must in my opinion trump any other manifestation of achievement. I will not pretend to have no preferences but that is not the same thing as admitting to equally qualified ambition.  For one thing, ambition is more a commercial focus whereas preferences are more artistic. For example being thrilled by the rich brilliance of custom made gold jewellery against the backdrop of a white sandy beach along the North Atlantic Ocean is not quite the same as pining to be a successful barrister. True, they’re both important but the one is more outwardly directed than the other.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes people who are internally driven, and who as such may exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity, as autotelic. This is different from being externally driven, in which case things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force.

We have today landed on New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Quite unexpectedly we have lapsed into the vernacular; that is, an expression of society not far removed from nearby Daytona Beach but certainly miles away from Hilton Head Island whence we came. I won’t deny that I adore the staid environment of Hilton Head Island. Yet neither will I deny I am excited by the crass and vulgar persuasion of the masses. Indeed we were by design initiated to these themes of motorcycles, beer joints, hippies, surfers and minstrels when we chose to descend from South Carolina to the Florida Keys (our ultimate goal) along A1A instead of the saccharine i95.

l instantly grew alive as we passed what I recognize as ‘50s Florida; viz., low-level turquoise buildings, clusters of small retail shops, trolley tours and endless advertisements for swimwear and lotion.

We ended our first evening in Florida with a pre-dinner swim in the hotel pool overlooking the Ocean followed by a superb takeout meal of fresh salad and fish from Breaker’s beach restaurant next door.