We are familiar with two contemporary schools of thought about art. We have on the one hand a very small self-styled elite which distinguishes “fine” art from art as skilled manufacture, and values this fine art very highly as a self-revelation or self-expression of the artist; this elite, accordingly, bases its teaching of aesthetic upon style, and makes the so-called “appreciation of art” a matter of the manner rather than of the content or true intention of the work. These are our Professors of Aesthetics and of the History of Art, who rejoice in the unintelligibility of art at the same time that they explain it psychologically, substituting the study of the man himself for the study of the man’s art; and these leaders of the blind are gladly followed by a majority of modern artists, who are naturally flattered by the importance attached to personal genius.
On the other hand we have the great body of plain men who are not really interested in artistic personalities, and for whom art as defined above is a peculiarity rather than a necessity of life, and who have, in fact, no use for art.
And over against these two classes we have a normal but forgotten view of art, which affirms that art is the making well, or properly arranging, of anything whatever that needs to be made or arranged, whether a statuette, or automobile, or garden. In the Western world, this is specifically the Catholic doctrine of art; from which doctrine the natural conclusion follows, in the words of St. Thomas, that “there can be no good use without art.” It is rather obvious that if things required for use, whether an intellectual or a physical use, or under normal conditions both, are not properly made, they cannot be enjoyed, meaning by “enjoyed” something more than merely “liked.” Badly prepared food, for example, will disagree with us; and in the same way autobiographical or other sentimental exhibits necessarily weaken the morale of those who feed upon them. The healthy patron is no more interested in the artist’s personality than he is in his tailor’s private life; all that he needs of either is that they be in possession of their art.
The present remarks are addressed to the second kind of man defined above, viz., to the plain and practical-minded man who has no use for art, as art is expounded by the psychologists and practised by most contemporary artists, especially painters. The plain man has no use for art unless he knows what it is about, or what it is for. And so far, he is perfectly right; if it is not about something, and not for anything, it has no use. And furthermore, unless it is about something worth while–more worth while, for example, than the artist’s precious personality–and for something worth while to the patron and consumer as well as to the artist and maker, it has no real use, but is only a luxury product or mere ornament. On these grounds art may be dismissed by a religious man as mere vanity, by the practical man as an expensive superfluity, and by the class thinker as part and parcel of the whole bourgeois fantasy. There are thus two opposite points of view, of which one asserts that there can be no good use without art, the other that art is a superfluity. Observe, however, that these contrary statements are affirmed with respect to two very different things, which are not the same merely because both have been called “art.” Let us now take for granted the historically normal and orthodox view that, just as ethics is the “right way of doing things,” so art is the “making well of whatever needs making,” or simply “the right way of making things”; and still addressing ourselves to those for whom the arts of personality are superfluous, ask whether art is not after all a necessity.
A necessity is something that we cannot afford to do without, whatever its price. We cannot go into questions of price here, beyond saying that art need not be, and should not be, expensive, except to the extent that costly materials are employed. It is at this point that the crucial question arises of manufacture for profit versus manufacture for use. It is because the idea of manufacture primarily for profit is bound up with the currently accepted industrial sociology that things in general are not well made and therefore also not beautiful. It is not the manufacturer’s interest to produce what we like, or can be induced to like, regardless of whether or not it will agree with us; like other modern artists, the manufacturer is expressing himself, and only serving our real needs to the extent that he must do so in order to be able to sell at all. Manufacturers and other artists alike resort to advertisement: art is abundantly advertised in schools and colleges, by “Museums of Modern Art,” and by art dealers; and artist and manufacturer alike price their wares according to what the traffic will bear. Under these conditions, as Mr. Graham Carey has so well expressed it, the manufacturer works in order to be able to go on earning; he does not earn, as he ought, in order to be able to go on manufacturing. It is only when the maker of things is a maker of things by vocation, and not merely holding down a job, that the price of things approximates to their real value; and under these circumstances, when we pay for a work of art designed to serve a necessary purpose, we get our money’s worth; and the purpose being a necessary one, we must be able to afford to pay for the art, or else are living below a normal human standard; as most men are now living, even the rich, if we consider quality rather than quantity. Needless to add, the workman is also victimized by a manufacture primarily for profit; so that it has become a mockery to say to him that hours of work should be more enjoyable than hours of leisure; that when at work he should be doing what he likes, and only when at leisure doing what he ought–workmanship being conditioned by art, and conduct by ethics.
Industry without art is brutality. Art is specifically human. None of those primitive peoples, past or present, whose cultures we affect to despise and propose to amend, has dispensed with art; from the stone age onwards, everything made by man, under whatever conditions of hardship or poverty, has been made by art to serve a double purpose, at once utilitarian and ideological. It is we who, collectively speaking at least, command amply sufficient resources, and who do not shrink from wasting these resources, who have first proposed to make a division of art, one sort to be barely utilitarian, the other luxurious, and altogether omitting what was once the highest function of art, to express and to communicate ideas. It is long since sculpture was thought of as “the poor man’s book.” Our very word “aesthetics,” from aesthesis, “feeling,” proclaims our dismissal of the intellectual values of art.
If we called the plain man right in wanting to know what a work is about, and in demanding intelligibility in works of art, he is no less certainly wrong in judging works of ancient art from any such point of view as is implied in the common expressions, “that was before they knew anything about anatomy,” or “that was before perspective had been discovered.” Art is concerned with the nature of things, and only incidentally, if at all, with their appearance; by which appearance the nature of things is far more obscured than revealed. It is not the artist’s business to be fond of nature as effect, but to take account of nature as the cause of effects. Art, in other words, is far more nearly related to algebra than to arithmetic, and just as certain qualifications are needed if we are to understand and enjoy a mathematical formula, so the spectator must have been educated as he ought if he is to understand and enjoy the forms of communicative art. This is most of all the case if the spectator is to understand and enjoy works of art which are written, so to speak, in a foreign or forgotten language; which applies to a majority of objects in our museums.
This problem presents itself because it is not the business of a museum to exhibit contemporary works. The modern artist’s ambition to be represented in a museum is his vanity, and betrays a complete misunderstanding of the function of art; for if a work has been made to meet a given and specific need it can only be effective in the environment for which it was designed, that is to say in some such vital context as a man’s house in which he lives, or in a street, or in a church, and not in any place the primary function of which is to contain all sorts of art.
The function of an art museum is to preserve from destruction and to give access to such ancient works of art as are still considered, by experts responsible for their selection, to be very good of their kind. Can these works of art, which were not made to meet his particular needs, be of any use to the plain man? Probably not of much use at first sight and without guidance, nor until he knows what they are about and what they were for. We could rather wish, although in vain, that the man in the street had access to such markets as those in which the museum objects were originally bought and sold at reasonable prices in the everyday course of life. On the other hand, the museum objects were made to meet specific human needs, if not precisely our current needs; and it is most desirable to realize that there have been human needs other than, and perhaps more significant than, our own. The museum objects cannot indeed be thought of as shapes to be imitated, just because they were not made to suit our special needs; but in so far as they are good of their kind, as is presupposed by the expert selection, there can be deduced from them, when considered in relation to their original use, the general principles of art according to which things can be well made, for whatever purpose they may be required. And that is, broadly speaking, the major value of our museums.
Some have answered the question “What is the use of art?” by saying that art is for art’s sake; and it is rather odd that those who thus maintain that art has no human use should at the same time have emphasized the value of art. We shall try to analyze the fallacies involved.
We referred above to the class thinker who has no use for art, and is ready to dispense with it as being part and parcel of the whole bourgeois fantasy. If we could discover such a thinker, we should indeed be glad to agree with him that the whole doctrine of art for art’s sake, and the whole business of “collecting” and the “love of art” are no more than a sentimental aberration and means of escape from the serious business of life. We should be very ready to agree that merely to cultivate the higher things of life, if art be such, in hours of leisure, obtained by a further substitution of mechanical for manual means of production, is as much a vanity as the cultivation of religion for religion’s sake on Sundays only could ever be; and that the pretensions of the modern artist are fundamentally wishful and egotistic.
Unfortunately, when we come down to the facts, we find that the social reformer is not really superior to the current delusion of culture, but only angered by an economic situation which seems to deprive him of those higher things of life which the wealthy can more easily afford. The workman envies, far more than he sees through, the collector and “lover of art”.
The wage-slave’s notion of art is no more realistic or practical than a millionaire’s: just as his notion of virtue is no more realistic than that of the preacher of goodness for goodness’ sake. He does not see that if we need art only if and because we like art, and ought to be good only if and because we like to be good, art and ethics are made out to be mere matters of taste, and no objection can be raised if we say that we have no use for art because we do not like it, or no reason to be good because we prefer to be bad.
The subject of art for art’s sake was taken up the other day by an editor of The Nation, who quoted with approval a pronouncement by Paul Valery to the effect that the most essential characteristic of art is usefulness, and proceeded to say that “no one is shocked by the statement that ‘virtue is its own reward’…which is only another way of saying that virtue, like art, is an end in itself, a final good”. The writer also pointed out that “uselessness and valuelessness are not the same things”; by which, of course, he meant, “are not the same thing”. He said further that there are only three motives by which an artist is impelled to work, viz., either “for money, fame, or ‘art’”.
We need not look farther for a perfect example of the class thinker stupefied by what we have called the whole bourgeois fantasy. To begin with, it is very far from true that no one is shocked by the statement that “virtue is its own reward”. If that were true, then virtue would be no more than the self-righteousness of the “unco guid”. That “virtue is its own reward” is actually in direct opposition to all orthodox teaching, where it is constantly and explicitly affirmed that virtue is a means to an end, and not itself an end; a means to man’s last end of happiness, and not a part of that end. And in just the same way in all normal and humane civilizations the doctrine about art has been that art is in the same way a means, and not a final end.
For example, the Aristotelian doctrine that “the general end of art is man” was firmly endorsed by the medieval Christian encyclopaedists; and we may say that all those philosophical and religious systems of thought from which the class thinker would most like to be emancipated are agreed that both ethics and art are means to happiness, and neither a final end. The bourgeois point of view to which the social reformer in point of fact assents is sentimental and idealistic; while the religious doctrine which he repudiates is utilitarian and practical! In any case, the fact that a man takes pleasure, or may take pleasure, in doing well or in making well, does not suffice to make of his pleasure the purpose of his work, except in the case of the man who is self-righteous or that of the man who is merely a self-expressionist: just as the pleasure of eating cannot be called the final end of eating, except in the case of the glutton who lives to eat. If use and value are not in fact synonymous, it is only because use implies efficacy, and value may be attached to something inefficient. Augustine, for example, points out that beauty is not just what we like, because some people like deformities; or in other words, value what is really invalid. Use and value are not identical in logic, but, in the case of a perfectly healthy subject, coincide in experience; this is admirably illustrated by the etymological equivalence of German brauchen, “to use”, and Latin frui, “to enjoy”.
Nor can money, fame, or “art” be called explanations of art. Not money, because aside from the case of manufacture primarily for profit instead of for use, the artist by nature, whose end in view is the good of the work to be done, is not working in order to earn, but earning in order to be able to go on being himself, viz., to be able to go on working as that which is by nature; just as he eats to be able to go on living, rather than lives to be able to go on eating. As to fame, it need only be pointed out that the greater part of the greatest art of the world has been produced anonymously, and that if any workman has only fame in view, “any proper man ought to be ashamed for good people to know this of him”. And as to art, to say that the artist works for art is an abuse of language. Art is that by which a man works, supposing that he is in possession of his art and has the habit of his art; just as prudence or conscience is that by which he acts well. Art is no more the end of his work than prudence the end of his conduct.
It is only because under the conditions established in a system of production primarily for profit rather than for use we have forgotten the meaning of the word “vocation”, and think only in terms of “jobs”, that such confusions as these are possible. The man who has a “job” is working for ulterior motives, and may be quite indifferent to the quality of the product, for which he is not responsible; all that he wants in this case is to secure an adequate share of the expected profits. But one whose vocation is specific, that is to say, who is naturally and constitutionally adapted to and trained in some one or another kind of making, even though he earns his living by this making, is really doing what he likes most; and if he is forced by circumstances to do some other kind of work, even though more highly paid, is actually unhappy. The vocation, which it be that of the farmer or the architect, is a function; the exercise of this function as regards the man himself is the most indispensable means of spiritual development, and as regards his relation to society the measure of his worth. It is precisely in this way that, as Plato says, “more will be done, and better done, and with more ease, when everyone does but one thing, according to his genius; and this is justice to each man in himself”. It is a tragedy of a society industrially organized primarily for profit that this justice to each man in himself is denied him.
The basic error in what we have called the illusion of culture is the assumption that art is something to be done by a special kind of man, and particularly that kind of man whom we call a genius. In direct opposition to this is the normal and humane view that art is simply the right way of making things, whether symphonies or aeroplanes. The normal view assumes, in other words, not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that every man who is not a mere idler and parasite is necessarily some special kind of artist, skilled and well contented in the making or arranging of some one thing or another according to his constitution and training.
Originally published in The American Review, January of 1937
Ananda Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and influential historian of Indian art and culture.