The notion of "art for art's sake," that visual art should have no utilitarian purpose, was proposed by Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant in his 1790 Critique of Judgement (Fenner 7) and was echoed by many others in the following century. "During this period, 'the fine arts' were those that fit the aestheticist criteria for art for the sake of art and for the sake of nothing else," writes author David E. W. Fenner (7). This Enlightenment era philosophy still echoes among those would haven't studied any art theory in the last century.
A certain cadre of European and European-American thinkers strove to separate art from the banality of daily life, then subsequently, others have spent the last hundred years attempting to re-integrate art into people's lives. The Arts and Craft moment, John Dewey's book Art as Experience (1934), happenings of the 1960s, Thomas Crow's Modern Art in the Common Culture (1998), public art, street art, relational art, community art, etc.
My tribe never signed up to follow Kant or separate our art from our the rest of our lives. Aesthetics and content are interwoven in our artistic creations, ranging from installation to gig-making to basketry to digital art to featherwork.
Martin A. Berger sums up the situation with rare lucidity: "...trac[ing] our modern conception of art back to the eighteenth-century separation of the fine arts from crafts, of artists from artisans, and of aesthetic pleasure from entertainment. These divisions broke a two-thousand-year-old Western convention that art was any activity practiced with skill and grace. In the modern West, art came to be defined by the product created, the person making it, and the experience it generated in audiences rather than the quality of what was fashioned. [Larry] Shiner notes how this new definition of art helped consolidate relations of power: 'To elevate some genres to the spiritual status of fine art and their producers to heroic creators while relegating other genres to the status of mere utility and their producers to fabricators is more than a conceptual transformation.' He points out that 'the genres and activities chosen for elevation and those chosen for demotion reinforce race, class, and gender lines.'" (Berger 99–100).
Berger continues, "Since cultures outside of the West had never divorced aesthetics from utility, it was easy for European-Americans to devalue even visually alluring objects nonwhite peoples produced, given that such object always served a practical function" (Berger 100).
- Berger, Martin A. A Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
- Fenner, David E. W. Art in Context: Understanding Aesthetic Value. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.