Art for Art’s Sake
L’art pour l’art, a historically complex sentiment that can more understandably be translated as ‘art for art’s sake’, was not one I could easily come to terms with. Whether I was making it or experiencing someone else’s – art had always seemed to have a clear motivation; an end purpose that could have been to impress a thought or a feeling that could possibly have not been expressed otherwise. In my life, art of all kind has been deeply impactful and has had as much a hand in moulding my thoughts and the way I’ve grown to see and share in the world as my parents have. Art, to me, has never been a detached sentiment, or maybe that was just the type of art I chose to view and love. To me – any art that couldn’t be felt or understood personally always had the possibility of finding meaning and understanding elsewhere. So, what was it exactly about the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ that had legions of artists (mostly 19th century and French) leaning into the noise? What was so controversial about this seeking of moral detachment that later had the Black Nations, the Socialist Realists and even Nietzsche vehemently reject this idea as privileged, white and upper class while Tonalists and proponents of the Aesthetic Movement clamoured to uphold this as the epitome of all artistic motivation? And how absolutely surprising that a children’s book of all things began this line of introspection in me today!
The Boy Who Drew Cats by Anushka Ravishankar and illustrated by Christine Kastl is a retelling of a Japanese folktale about a boy, Akiro, who keeps trying to draw the perfect cat. Akiro feels motivated to do nothing but draw cats all day long but none of them looks quite perfect to him. He knows that he can do better and so he keeps drawing cats. His obsession leads to him being sent away from the monastery his parents had made him go to to become a priest. Akiro then falls into circumstances on his way back home that afford him the opportunity to draw the most perfect cats, fulfil an old priest’s prophecy and save his little village from a giant menace all in one fell swoop.
At first, I felt that Akiro wasn’t just making art for art’s sake at all. I felt that even his obsessive drawing of cats had clear motivations – that of satisfying his perfectionism, that of the exhilaration of doing something he did better than anyone else, or even that of gaining comfort from repeated patterns. But the more I thought about it, the freer Akiro seemed from anything more than just wanting to make art. Maybe that’s how Ravishankar adapted him to be, or maybe he was simply written that way. Akiro wasn’t drawing to please anyone or for the purpose of achieving any kind of fame and renown, nor was he trying to express himself or what he felt through his cats. Akiro’s art, as the book shows, existed in a vacuum unto itself. The purpose his cats served towards the end of saving his village was as much a consequence of his simple need to draw cats as were the assumptions of his laziness by his family and his incompetence in learning by the priest. And suddenly, things seemed simpler. I understood that a better experience of this book would avoid reading into motivations behind Akiro’s art that just, simply weren’t there. He wanted to draw the most perfect cats, he eventually does, and afterwards, carries on drawing more cats. “Is it so difficult to understand that he just wanted to draw some cats?!” I wanted to shout to myself at the end of all of this. But as it turned out – yes, yes it was.