Art for art’s sake

Today I went with a friend to visit the new American wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which is organized chronologically. The ground floor houses art from the late 1700s (such as Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington), the second floor is devoted to the later nineteenth century (eg: John Singer Sargent and his contemporaries) and the top floor races through the 20th century.

The experience was a veritable study on the changing meaning of “art” over the last two hundred-odd years. The earliest work seems to be devoted entirely to the affirmation of social status. Large paintings featuring rich people in idealized dress and attitude alternate with heroic portraits of war heroes. In gallery after gallery, just about every work is an advertisement for someone’s personal wealth, social status, or political importance — and in some cases all three.

But then, around the mid-nineteenth century, artists started to become subversive. Yes, they still took money from rich people to paint their patrons’ portraits. But these portraits were becoming far more psychologically nuanced, even contradictory, as they began to reveal the emotional complexity of their subjects, the darker and more hidden shades of personality. Renderings became rougher, as painterly styles slowly turned impressionistic, and the perfect renderings of idealized portraiture gave way in favor of something far more interesting and modern.

Then in the twentieth century all hell broke loose. The subject itself lost its place as the primary reason for a painting, becoming merely an excuse — and in some cases even this excuse fell away. Artists were now far more interested in the possibilities of visual representation itself. Art was becoming pure: Art for art’s sake.

Cubism arrived on America’s shores, and one thing led to another until the apotheosis: the abstract expressionist movement, a pure inward journey that looked toward nothing in the outside world, but rather toward the infinite possibilities within our own minds and perception.

In several breathtaking hours my friend and I had journeyed from Stuart and Copley to Sargent to Weber and Pollock, and in a sense had experienced the full historical sweep of the American artistic journey. It was an overwhelming and wonderful experience. Now I need to rest my head.

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