"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Way of Happening: Some Thoughts on "Art for Art's Sake"

It seems to me that people often quote W. H. Auden’s poem, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," as saying "poetry makes nothing happen," but they ignore completely the positive assertion he makes about poetry at the end of that stanza (in the same sentence, in fact!) when he calls poetry "a way of happening." (Not everyone ignores it, of course; see Don Share's 2008 blog entry about this poem, for instance.) This is not a diminishment of art, but a valorization of it and a clarification of its most basic function. It makes nothing happen, perhaps, but it is itself a way of happening. Here is section II in its entirety:


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

[emphasis added]

The 19th-century idea of "art for art's sake" has become not only a clichĂ©, but a joke in common usage, eliciting rolling eyes or smug chuckles whenever the phrase is heard. This is unfortunate, because it means that we, in general, have stopped considering the implications of adopting the alternate view that art must necessarily serve some "outside" purpose. Auden, in his elegy for Yeats, is espousing precisely the "art for art’s sake" view, which is worth expounding: "Art for art's sake" means, for instance, that a poem is valuable as an end in itself, rather than merely as a means toward some other end. If a work of art is viewed as purely causal—that is, if its value is predicated on its effecting additional, exterior, tangible phenomena—then it means that we have forgotten that the work of art is, itself, an effect. This is more than academic lingo. A poem (Auden’s elegy for Yeats, for instance) is valuable already, in itself, as a work of art. If it causes no additional effects, it is still valuable as an effect that we, as readers, can experience firsthand. Another way of putting it is to say that the poem is valuable as an aesthetic work and a record of ideas—as something that can be experienced for its own sake, rather than for the sake of any pragmatic function it may (or may not) serve. That is not to preclude the idea that art can have pragmatic function; but I would caution against locating art’s primary value in pragmatism, at least insofar as “pragmatism” implies tangible effects on the so-called "outside world" (politics, society, etc.).

If poetry (and art in general) is "a way of happening," then we can value a work of art for the very experience of engaging with the work. Art is an effect to be experienced rather than a cause to be tested for its utilitarian impact on the world at large. The irony is, if we view and engage with art in this way, it is far more likely to in fact have a tangible effect on the levels of society and politics. However, we should never look to those effects as the primary source of art’s value.


  1. Yes. Well put. In a day & age swamped with (mostly useless, if not toxic) polemics, & ideological lit-theory, & self-righteous political chatter from all sides... this is the voice of reason...

  2. Nice post!

    "However, we should never look to those effects as the primary source of art’s value."

    I think the end goal of utilitarian value is one of the key differences between design and art, and I agree that art shouldn't be burdened with the expectation that it "do something."

    But I'd also argue that utilitarian design can be rather souless without the influence of art; I wonder, is art likewise souless without being accessible to some degree? Does it become "artless" if it makes no attempt to engage the viewer, and moreover, to borrow a term from the previous poster, would an overabundance of inaccessible art become worse than artless--mere "chatter?"

  3. @Jackson: Thanks for your comment. I'm not sure I understand your point about accessibility. I didn't at all intend to imply a dichotomy between "art for art's sake" and accessibility. In fact, my claim that "if [a work of art] causes no additional effects, it is still valuable as an effect that we, as readers [or viewers or listeners], can experience firsthand" is predicated on the idea of the reader/viewer/listener having "access," in the sense of being able to engage meaningfully with it. True, one could think of a person's meaningful engagement with a work of art as an "effect," but I'm using that term to imply what many would call an "outside" effect--that is, an effect on a larger (societal) scale.

    So, in response to your question (rhetorical though it may have been!), I'd say YES -- "inaccessible" art (truly inaccessible, not just difficult) is mere "chatter." Perhaps it will help to also clarify that I don't think "art for art's sake" in any way implies that all works of art are valuable ipso facto, simply because someone calls them "art." Perhaps I will post some thoughts on what it means for art to be "valuable"...

  4. Here's a bit from Michael Wood's swell new book, Yeats & Violence:

    "Of course many provisos and restrictions leap to mind. If a poem isn't any good, nothing will happen. Even if a poem is a masterpiece, nothing will happen if we don't allow it to. And most important of all, it is characteristic of this sort of happening that we find it very hard to say what has happened - that is why it sometimes seems as if nothing has happened."