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925 Silver Collection

Art for Art's Sake Should Never Go Away / Bill Lasarow

I’ve commented from time to time about how Social Practice has mainstreamed within and beyond the art world. Perhaps it has even become dominant as it has flowed conceptually into the traditions of landscape, still life, and portrait painting to a surprising degree. I have argued and experienced the turn towards social values and political perspectives not merely informing but driving aesthetic content. Art as a vehicle for achieving a heightened state of awareness, sensitivity, and emotional response was as far as artists went during the fecund decade of the 1960s. The ethos was then and is now that it must be both authentic and receptive to self-critique. That has not changed.

El Anatsui, “Strips of Earth’s Skin,” 2008, found aluminum and copper wire, 130 x 274 x 16”.
© El Anatsui, courtesy of The Broad, Los Angeles.

Social Practice does have its obvious pitfalls, as when visual rhetoric becomes gratuitous and formulaic. There is a reason that artists and other creatives are predominantly, though by no means universally, liberal. Liberalism embraces self-doubt as a necessary virtue. Conservatism at its best retains a capacity to evolve, but also favors certainty above risk. When I have condemned its primary political party as dangerously radical, it is in good part because too many Americans have reduced the formal elements, the policy preferences of what was formerly the Republican Party, to cardboard-flat signifiers. In this way of thinking, falling short of blind adherence equates with treason. Then, to make matters worse, the particulars change not via discourse and the testing of social or moral imperatives, but on the mere word of the cult leader.

It is that context that has convinced many artists that the time of art for art’s sake has passed, that it is a luxury we can no longer afford. More, it is impossible to assume that the freedom to choose that route will remain free of outside coercion. Should America choose the path of fascism at the ballot box, that comfortable option will no longer be a given. If the authoritarian or his cronies find a given style to be offensive, that the artist practitioners of art for art’s sake are free of political interest will offer no protection. Mere individuality of the wrong sort will be regarded as, to borrow the terms of a century ago, decadent, weak, disposable. Disinterest in the goings on of the world will not be an excuse; if anything, it will be a sign of vulnerability that invites forcible repression.

Sarah Sze, “Blind Curve,” 2021, oil, acrylic, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminum, diamond and wood, 84 x 118 1/4”.
© Sarah Sue, courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills.

It is easy to confuse what is popularly understood as artistic beauty with the aesthetic of art for art’s sake. The latter is bound tightly to the rise of modernism that stirred in the 18th century, awoke in the 19th century with the now beloved Impressionists, and exploded in the early 20th century. Ever since then, artists referencing images and ideas accessed from art’s history have been practicing art for art’s sake. In the decades after World War II it briefly (in the historical sense) promulgated the belief that art was reaching a dialectic (not to mention stylistic) culmination point, a belief that became orthodoxy.

I was taught, a half century ago, that political content, or content informed by public issues, necessarily lacked aesthetic integrity or gravitas, that it was inherently non-serious as art. While I meekly went along with the program as a student, I began to shift my mind-set by referencing models in the fields of psychology and Eastern religion, the latter especially one of the prevailing influences on avant garde art. Early modern interest in Theosophy, and artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich who embraced it, by then struck me as far more interesting than the formalism that Abstract Expressionism, geometric and color field abstraction, and minimalism offered. The art came to be of interest, in other words, insofar as it directed us to its informing philosophies. I once attended a lecture by the high priest of this branch of art for art’s sake, Clement Greenberg, and came away disgusted by his pedantic dogmatism, his closed-minded certainty, and most of all his authoritarian demeanor. Having read Hegel, to me his was little more than warmed over historical determinism. Time has allowed the Greenbergian theory to recede into history where it belongs.

Tara Donovan, “Untitled,” 2014, acrylic and adhesive, 10' 1/2" x 14' 2" x 12' 10-3/4”.
© Tara Donovan, courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York.

Nor did looking to the most accomplished art of the pre-modern period offer a convincing case with which to equate art for art’s sake with beauty. You cannot point anywhere during those preceding centuries, no matter how brilliant the work of this or that artist was, and not quickly see the heavy hand of political or religious patronage. The sheer volume of flattering court portraits and deeply felt crucifixions struck me then and now as a polite form of enslavement. If Michelangelo snuck in moral criticism of Church hierarchy and hypocrisy (including that of the Pope); if Rembrandt fell out of favor for the sin of his humanism; if Goya earned paternalistic tolerance to throw cold water on the abuses visited on the common man, it was all in spite of rather than due to an acceptance of art for art’s sake.

Do Ho Suh, “Home within Home within Home within Home within Home,” 2013, installation view, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea, 2013–2014. Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York.

To my mind, as borne out by my own path as an artist, what passed as art for art’s sake was shaped by fear. If an artist knowingly injecting their political or moral beliefs invalidated their art aesthetically, that artist risked being dismissed and marginalized within the art world of that day. Just so, having proven to my own satisfaction that this thinking was a deeply historic error does not mean that art free of such content is invalidated or of less potential importance. Far from it.

Megan Geckler, “A million things that make your head spin,” 2016, 17, flagging tape, wood, paint and hardware, 51.4 x 27.5 x 84.8’. Courtesy of the artist and Customs House, Circular Quay, Sydney, NSW, Australia.

The best of any aesthetic is reflected in part by the honest and passionate commitment of its practitioners. Skill and visualization meet up with the ethos of work, indeed of labor, to peel back the layers of possibility that lie at the core of art’s public value. As such, whether it expresses the value and opinions of public issues, restricts itself to personal feelings, or dedicates itself solely to the pleasures of beauty alone, art for art’s sake must always have an honored place at the cultural table. Some of the best of this in the 21st century blends all of these temperaments into an accumulated effect that emphasizes both metaphor and intensity of labor, as in the work of artists such as El Anatsui, Tara Donovan, and many others. These artists are proof that non-referential imagery requiring a scary amount of time and intensive labor conveys a transcendent joy. It may be very hard to do, but the results speak for themselves. These are cases of the makers thriving in their natural habitat.

In the end we must not only accept that art for art’s sake is not going to fade away, but we must hope that it will survive any and all historical challenges.

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