Art for Art’s Sake is Idolatry

by John Ellis

Borrowing and, as his objective suited, warping Aristotle’s aesthetic disinterestedness, Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) helped create the notion of art for art’s sake. The aesthetic ideals of John Locke’s famed pupil prioritized the enjoyment of beauty for beauty’s sake apart from utility. A true response to art does not broach the admittance of usefulness and, in the words of Daphna Ben Chaim, “It implies no desire to possess or use the object, nor to relate the object to any purpose other than perceiving it.” With this level of aesthetic disinterestedness, Ben Chaim explains, “selfishness is transcended.”[1]

However, for a Christian, art cannot exist for art’s sake; beauty cannot exist for beauty’s sake. Art either exists for God’s glory or it exists as a Tower of Babel casting illuminating shadows on the feeble flailing of created beings who are attempting to usurp the Creator’s right.[2] The aesthetic distance of Lord Shaftesbury (as mediated to us via Edmund Burke, Kant, Edward Bullough, Sartre, et al.) spoils art and drags it into the immanence of the un-sublime. Selfishness isn’t transcended. Instead, believing that humans deserve glory that only belongs to God, art is ripped out of God’s “selfish” hands and transferred to the response of the individual. Paraphrasing Feuerbach, in knowing art, we know ourselves, or so we are led to believe as our first parents were led to believe that they, too, could be like God.

True art possesses utility. Utility, even unwittingly, in the service of glorifying God is doxological. Utility, even if purported otherwise, in the service of self-perception is idolatrous. The question remains for all art: is its utility in the service of God or in the service of humanity’s rebellion against God? Unfortunately, regardless of the work of art we’re interacting with, too many of us are too busy elevating our own experience above worship to ever ask the question.

[1] Daphna Ben Chaim, Distance in the Theatre: The Aesthetics of Audience Response (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984), 1.

[2] Paradoxically, there are numerous examples of art created in the spirit of rebellion that still points to the Creator, giving Him glory – think the music of Mozart, the paintings of Louise Bourgeois, the theatre of Eugene O’Neill, the philosophy/novels of Camus, the poetry of Wallace Stevens, etc. On the flip side, there is much art created with the adjective of “Christian” intentionally attached that is in outright rebellion against the Artist.

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