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HOUDINI Magazine

Erik Houdini

Art for Art's Sake | An Opinion

As a fiction writer, poet, and artist, I often find myself in conflict with the concept of "art for art's sake." Although my major influence, Edgar Allan Poe, denounced didacticism as the gravest of "heresies" in his essay The Poetic Principle, I respectfully dissent.

Firstly, I maintain that no art is entirely disconnected from the socio-economic conditions and societal systems in which it is forged. Secondly, the concept of "art for art's sake" has been criticized for perpetuating capitalist and colonialist ideas, serving as a tool for capitalist powers to commodify, reproduce, and monetize art, thereby divorcing it from the true spirit of the artist. This paradigm is evident when we observe the preponderance of artists creating derivative fan art of mainstream films and media.

I want to clarify that my intention is not to disparage artists who create fan art. Nevertheless, it disheartens me when I encounter an artist with a unique style and intriguing backstory, only to find their portfolio filled exclusively with fan art for high-profile franchises like Spiderman, Pokémon, Star Wars, or Marvel. Technically impressive these works may be, but they often lack intrinsic meaning and soul. At worst, they resemble advertising; at best, they provide room for co-optation.

There's nothing inherently artistic about fan art spawned from a billion-dollar capitalist franchise, particularly when it lacks inherent meaning. The masses are flooded with inexpensive reproductions, fan art, and capitalist derivatives, while the privileged acquire high-end art, exhibitions, and the education required to comprehend it. This dichotomy resonates with Diego Rivera's critique. A member of the Mexican Communist Party and an advocate for revolutionary causes, Rivera argued that the theory of art for art's sake further stratifies wealth and poverty. He posited that the elitist nature of "pure art," which can be appreciated by only a select few, depreciates art's social value, reducing it to a form of currency exclusive to the affluent. Mao Zedong's words echo this sentiment: "There is in fact no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes, art that is detached from or independent of politics."

Let me be clear: I don't advocate for art to always bear a grandiose revolutionary message. But, I do maintain that pop culture and the derivative "art" it spawns can potentially snuff out the revolutionary embers in art. Art is no longer about conveying a message or connecting with human experiences or class interests. Instead, it often seems more about fattening capitalist pockets.

Many artists are shying away from thought-provoking works, opting instead to create Star Wars fan art or other similar derivatives. This loss of creativity, replaced by safe and nostalgic media franchises—franchises the artists don't truly own—reflects the overarching influence of late-stage capitalist concepts such as "content." In a world of content, individuals are easily subsumed into a fandom, forsaking individuality for a seemingly dubious sense of community (which requires financial buy-in). Art linked to these franchises is bound to gain more attention, possibly yielding more income for the artist, while original creations—genuine expressions of the artist's inspiration—are relegated to the upper class with the resources, time, and connections to showcase them in major galleries.

In a society where content is endlessly consumed and regurgitated amidst a barrage of advertisements, the concept of "content" reduces art to a commercial device, a never-ending soap opera serving the sole purpose of selling a product. I acknowledge the irony in criticizing this system as I sell my art on clothing. However, in a world where living costs are skyrocketing, the reality is many artists, myself included, resort to creating fan art to pay the rent. It's not an indictment of the artists, but a critique of the system that obliges us to engage in it, while the elite indulge in art for art's sake at Met Galas and amass fortunes from abstract pieces.

When we strip art of meaning, we strip it of its humanity. One common counter-argument, "I just want to draw something that looks cool," implies an unnecessary dichotomy between aesthetics and meaning. This premise neglects the fact that many historically significant and aesthetically pleasing works of art are imbued with profound meaning. Heironymous Bosch's striking paintings, for instance, brim with layers of meaning. Another argument, the idea of "art therapy," in my view, supports my stance—it's art for therapy's sake.

In an era marked by unchecked capitalism, climate crisis, daily mass violence, and hundreds of thousands of poverty and drug overdose deaths annually, perpetuating the mantra of "art for art's sake" isn't merely irresponsible—it reinforces the status quo of the capitalist class. It echoes an ethos of "apathy for apathy's sake."

This is just like, my opinion man.