The photograph above, “Balance”, © 2015 by William B. Watkins, can be viewed in a larger format in the Chiaroscuro section of the Image Gallery. On that page, just double-click on the image to view it in a large, slideshow mode.
L’art pour l’art is a French phrase that translates to English as “Art for art[‘s sake]” and may be more familiar, particularly to movie aficionados, in its Latin rendering Ars gratia artis (more on that later).
However it’s presented, this is a mighty motto, noble in scope, affirming that art stands on its own, with its own intrinsic value. That is to say, “art” isn’t just a vehicle for sentimentality, religion, commerce, morals, or politics.
I doubt that this would have ever developed as anyone’s motto, though, had there not been a widespread conflict about the purpose of art to begin. Otherwise, why defend art’s higher end?
When I speak to college students, I often quote from a play that I first encountered as a young college student myself. The words were spoken by a powerful character in a generally cheerless play called Kennedy’s Children, written by Robert Patrick in the 1970s. At the top of Act II, the character Sparger, an actor, comes forward and finally begins to speak his truth, which begins (as he contemplates the room around him), “I used to know a place that was better . . . .” He continues to describe the wonderland he had stepped into years earlier, “a hole-in-the-wall West Village coffeehouse . . . . [where] We did plays. We — I was one of “us” . . . .
For the character, it was a life-changing experience the night as a young man he first encountered that place and it was holy ground that he spoke of: