Barnett Newman, Onement, I, 1948. Oil and masking tape on canvas, 27" x 16."
“Some twenty-two years ago in a gathering, I was asked what my painting really means in terms of society, in terms of the world. And my answer then was that if my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism and totalitarianism. Because to the extent that my painting was not an arrangement of objects, not an arrangement of spaces, not an arrangement of graphic elements, was [instead] an open painting; to that extent I thought, and I still believe, that my work in terms of its social impact does denote the possibility of an open society.”
-Barnett Newman in a 1970 interview with Emile de Antonio for the Film Painters Painting.
I believe that there is no such thing as "art for art's sake." Art has no eyes with which to enjoy art, people do. And art needs no justification for its own existence; it's continued presence is itself proof of its necessity. Things that pertain to culture, like art, language, and religion never die by law or declaration; they die when they no longer have utility for the cultures that produced and/or nurtured them; witness the recent stories about the decline of Catholicism in the west and the decline of Buddhism in Japan and you can follow this inexorable process in real time.
And I also believe, like Newman, that this doesn’t mean that art which carries no political message on its surface has no political significance. Art is the ultimate symbol of personal freedom, and entrenched power has always recognized this. Historically, the most oppressive regimes have suppressed art the most energetically. Hitler’s “Degenerate Art Exhibition” contained many landscapes, portraits, and abstractions that could hardly be deemed subversive in terms of subject matter, but the freedom they espoused was intolerable. Likewise, Stalin saw fit to imprison Malevich, putatively as a spy, but in reality for painting geometric abstractions. At the height of their power, both Hitler and Stalin feared “art for art’s sake,” and this speaks directly to Newman’s point that showing people a new way of looking and seeing and perceiving form creates an opening and a possibility for seeing everything in their lives in a new way. And I don’t think this is a romantic overstatement, particularly in terms of the threat that it poses to the power of the state.
State power is often supported by the flimsiest of pretexts: “national security,” “national pride,” “family values,” and so on. The legitimacy of such pretexts will often collapse like a stage flat when exposed to the most modest amount of scrutiny – the ongoing implosion of the Bush administration is a good example of this process. Art has the unique ability to open eyes and minds; to heighten the sense of discovery and freedom and curiosity. When one’s mind is freed, even a little, it follows that a fatalistic attitude about the material condition of one’s life will also erode. Once this process is initiated, the very first target for reevaluation will almost certainly be state power, who’s self-perpetuating absurdity will usually be revealed with the most minimal inspection.