Sure, it can be tempting to believe you as an artist are a completely free agent, one able to produce art — sorry, true art — that is divorced from any didactic, moral, political, or utilitarian function. Yet, this idea of art for art’s sake is nonsense. And it is so for a series of reasons.
First of all, although since the dawn of time we’ve been inventing a horde of myths to make sense of the external world, while doing so we have also, and above all, tried to make sense of our shared inner psychological makeup.
At first blush, this seems a far fetched conclusion. After all, one could argue, to explain the apparent movement of the sun in the sky, as a species we’ve come up with a staggering number of extremely different stories.
However, while superficially such stories seem so different, if we look at their core components, they’re all extremely similar. And this is so because such core components originate from what psychiatrist Carl Jung named the collective unconscious, that part of the mind common to mankind as a whole, and originating in the inherited structure of the brain, where memories and impulses reside, and of which we as individuals aren’t aware.
This idea of the collective unconscious is a bit like the idea that we human are born with the basic cerebral circuitry to learn spoken languages. Or that, even if we humans invented thousands of different languages, they share many basic principles .
So much so that if you want to speak a language, any language, you’ll end up in any case following those basic structures and principles — or course, provided you want your message to at least hold the potential of being understood.
As an artist you can certainly claim you don’t give a shit about the didactic, moral, political, or utilitarian function of your art. However, while you might honestly believe what you’re saying, this doesn’t make it any truer.
Take sunsets for example. They are one of nature’s cheapest masterpieces. Besides, there’s no intention behind them — no creative drive. And yet we stop and admire them, and when we look at them we all tend to think about the same types of things.
As a result, if we as receivers react so strongly and, in general, so uniformly about sunsets, how on earth can anyone claim they create a work or art without any intention fueling it?
You can’t even say you did it just for your own pleasure. Or rather you can, but in such a case the reason why you find pleasure in what you do is in itself an extremely complicated issue, again one with roots reaching far into your psychological makeup.
As a result, even if you followed exclusively a pleasure-seeking principle in what you write or create in general, you would still come up with a sort of personal narrative, of meaning.
Given we humans can’t but to express ourselves in whatever we do, instead of resenting this fact, we might work hard to better understand why this is the case, and what we can do to make our creative process a bit more effective.
For example, writing the first draft of a book we might have included several different themes — so many indeed as to make it difficult for us to wrap the story with a satisfyingly ending.
However, using meta cognition (thinking about our own think processes) we could more easily spot these themes, understand where they’re coming from, and then proceed to a selective pruning, or reorganization of them.